Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Taken (The Taking) by Dean Koontz (CBR book #12)

Not to sound like a broken record from my last review, but this is another one that literally fell in my lap. At my last book club meeting...wait, time for a detour...

I have a *thing* about book clubs. I didn't really know they existed until, well, I started reading books. Then they came out of the woodwork. Suddenly I was learning that several people I knew were in a book club of some kind. Funny, I thought. They don't seem like pretentious bores. Hmmm...maybe this book club thing can work for me. So I gave it a go and can now say I am an actual member of a book club. And by book club I mean my mother, her co-worker, and I. And by meeting I mean we were sitting around talking about inappropriate things while occasionally mentioning a recently read book.

Sooooooo...even though we had only met a couple of times, I worked early on to exert my control over the reading list. So far, the book club had only read six books, and all six books were suggested by yours truly. So when the time came for a new suggestion, I had to take deep breaths to release control of my reading future. The name Dean Koontz came up. I shuddered. Honestly, I can't tell you why except that I knew Dean Koontz wrote fiction (not my favorite genre, I must admit) and his books reminded me of the pocket paperbacks that filled the revolving tower racks you found in libraries, you know, the ones that held the books with Fabio on the cover? Gasp! I agreed to the selection but never bothered to get the book. Which brings us back full circle. My mother happened to have ascertained two copies of the book and gave me one to read. So I pawned it off on my husband while I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

After reading Lacks, I decided to begin The Taken, motivated more by a compulsion to return something borrowed than to read the book. The first thing I will say about this book, is that it is creepy. The first couple of nights I read it, I had nightmares. I say "nightmares" for your benefit only. I regularly dream about ghosts, death, and well, just really strange things and don't personally find the dreams disturbing. But when I describe them to people, they become disturbed. So we'll call the dreams I had nightmares. And they were definitely inspired by Koontz.

The Taken is a story about Molly and her husband Neil. They live a quiet life in the San Bernadino mountains, a life that is (of course) soon turned upside down by strange phenomenon that slowly begins to take the form of a War of the Worlds drama. A strange rain falls on the land, a fog blacks out the sky, animals act strangely, the dead seem to reanimate, and the once networked and connected world goes dark. Driven by Molly's desire to rescue as many children from the unexplainable horrors occurring, Molly and Neil travel through their town looking for survivors.

The thing I like about this book is that Koontz throws in not just alien mythology, he adds supernatural touches, and a heavy dose of good 'ol fashioned horror as well. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, leaving you wanting to continue reading. And there are no dull moments anywhere. And while I must admit, I'm pretty bad anyway at predicting how things will end, I really didn't predict this one. And I was skeptical Koontz would be able to wrap things up to my satisfaction, but he definitely did. But what I liked most was that he was able to inject a bit of world vision in his novel and give it a thought-provoking message.

So, a surprising like for me. Hopefully you'll agree.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (CBR book #11)

This book has been on the New York Times Bestseller' list and has an intriguing title...but when I heard what it was actually about...I couldn't understand why it was so popular (what does the New York Times know anyway?). Sure, my interest in biology might surpass the normal person's, but how interesting can a book about a line of cells actually BE? I'll be honest, the only reason I ended up reading this book is because someone literally laid it on my desk to read.

So here's the rundown...Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in February of 1951 and died less than 8 months later. Although she died young, Henrietta left behind an incredible legacy that no one could ever have imagined. A legacy whose contribution was priceless to society but devastating to the family she left behind.

I suppose to a biologist or anyone familiar with cell cultures, HeLa cells are perhaps the rock stars of their world. HeLa cells are cancer cells that have continued to grow and divide in culture, where other cells eventually die. HeLa's tencity has allowed them to be used for medical research for the past 60 years. HeLa cells have been used to test the effects of steroids, chemotherapy drugs, hormones, and vitamins; they have been been used to study polio, tuberculosis, salmonella, and hermorrhagic fever; they have been exposed to viruses; they have received harmful doses of radiation to study the effect of a nuclear bomb on cells; they have been sent into space to determine the effects of zero gravity on cells; and the list goes on and on. It is not an overstatement to say that HeLa cells have radically advanced the fields of medicine and cellular biology, yet the woman from whom these cells were taken would never know her contribution to modern medicine. That woman was Henrietta Lacks. And it would be decades before her family would know or understand how her cells were taken and how they have helped millions of people.

In her carefully researched book, which took about ten years to write, Rebecca Skloot has written a beautiful account of Henrietta Lacks and her family. She intersperses chapters about Henrietta's personal life with more technical (but accessible) chapters about how Henrietta's cells were developed in vitro and used in medicine. Her narrative covers a wide range of subjects including the racial climate of the 1950's and how differently African-Americans were treated in hopsitals. Even as she reasearched the book and first contacted the Lacks' family, Skloot writes about the family's distrust of caucasians and how she carefully had to build their trust and eventually developed a deep friendship with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter. Skloot does a great job of sharing the amazing things HeLa cells have done for society while simultaneously revealing the pain and confusion the HeLa cells have brought the Lacks' family who can't even afford to see a doctor themselves.

So this is a definite recommend for me, but the reading can get a bit academic. If you're looking for a brainless novel, this isn't the book for you. But if you want to learn something about science as well as humanity, I'd give this one a go!

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (CBR book #17)

Olive Kitteridge is the 2009 fiction Pulitzer winner. If you've been reading my posts, you may know how I feel about major award winners...

This is another one I don't really get. The story is okay, there are some interesting bits, but I really wasn't enveloped by the book.

Basically, the book is about a woman from a town in Maine called Crosby. Each chapter is a short story about a character in the town and their relation to Olive or some part of her family. There's marriage stress, death, divorce, family drama, even a hostage situation. I guess this all sounds like it could be exciting, but I found the book to be almost mundane. A lot of the "drama" was more every day, every family kind of drama and I didn't understand why I would want to invest in Olive or her family. How was she different from anyone else? (But maybe that's why the book is so special?) And the really interesting parts stopped too short - they didn't last for more than a chapter.

But as I said, this was a big winner so maybe I should provide an alternate's the New York Times' take on Olive Kitteridge.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan (CBR book #10)

I loved the first book and liked the what is in store for this, the third installment of the Forest of Hands and Teeth series? Be warned, if you haven't read any of the books (1, 2, or 3) this review contains mild spoilers. I won't reveal anything major, but a lot of information about the character's relationships is discussed.

Let's start with the plusses (which, yes, means there are some minuses). First of all, I like book 3's narrator, Annah, whose voice is the strongest of Carrie Ryan's three protagonists. Annah is tough, fierce, determined, but also vulnerable. Her life - complex. She is the daughter of Mary (book 1's narrator), sister to Gabry (book 2's narrator), and friend to Elias, (who fell in love with Gabry in book 2). Unlike Mary and Gabry, Annah has learned to take care of herself and lives an isolated life. After she is reunited with Elias and Gabry, Annah struggles to deal with her feelings for them. Annah also meets Catcher, who, like Elias, seems impossible to get close to. And with Annah's mixed feelings for Gabry, Annah struggles to find her place in this strange group, living in a city that now seems to be the last hope for human-kind.

If this sounds too much like a soap opera, well, it kinda is. Which brings me to a minus. There is an element of teenage angst (a criticism I had for the second book), but it IS a young adult book so I guess that's understandable. Another criticism I have (and again I had with book 2) is that there is a lot of running away from the zombies. In books one and two it was through the path in the forest. In book three, it's through city tunnels.

Another big minus for this book, and the series as a whole, is that Ryan completely drops Mary from book three. There is maybe one sentence about how she went to another city and that's it. What about all the build up from book 2 about the pages that Gabry risked herself to save? What about the mystery surrounding the origin of The Return and Mary's little village? I was REALLY disappointed by this HUGE omission.

But, in the form of any good compliment sandwich, I will end on a good note. Ryan's concept of The Sanctuary is perplexing and disturbing. The zombies have breached The Dark City and Annah, Elias, Gabry, and Catcher have made passage to what now seems to be the last hope for humanity. But Annah quickly learns that life without zombies isn't necessarily a life worth living. And the brand of hope The Sanctuary provides isn't necessarily her idea of humanity at its best.

It's these contradictions that make this book good, but you have to dig through some fluff to get there.

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (CBR book #9)

After reading Wall's memoir, The Glass Castle, I couldn't wait to get my hands on Half Broke Horses, the prequel to The Glass Castle. Half Broke Horses is written about Wall's Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who was born in a dugout in 1901. (I read somewhere on the internet that if you were a fan of the "Little House" books, you might understand what a dugout actually is. I was never a big fan of prairie tales and covered wagons so I'll take the New York Times' word on that). But I AM a big fan of Jeannette Walls, whose storytelling really takes me to where she is; and whose family history is interesting enough that she doesn't need to look far for inspiration.

But back to the book...Lily Casey Smith grew up poor with her family on several ranches where she learned to break and train horses and well, run a ranch, among other things (her parents had their shortcomings in terms of responsibility). Her childhood was filled with tales of flash floods, tornadoes, wild animals and other adventures. At 15, Lily got a job as a teacher and rode her horse alone for several WEEKS to get to Arizona. WEEKS! Who rides a horse for several WEEKS? Clearly, that astonished me. Her classroom was a single room and she taught children of all ages with no curriculum or training. She just made it all up. Of all the crazy things in her life, it's actually kind of funny that I'm perplexed by THIS.

After many starts and stops getting out on her own, Lily eventually makes it to Chicago, where she meets her first "crum-bum" husband. Chicago eventually brings heartbreak after heartbreak and Lily leaves for more racing horses and playing poker. Not only is this time in her life a new phase for her, but things are changing in America as well. Horses are beginning to be replaced by cars, and prohibition moves across America. Lily meets her second husband and they run a garage and supplement their salary by selling hooch on the side. Who said baby carriages are for holding just children?

Lily's life comes full circle as she and Jim eventually end up running a ranch, where they raise their children. Of course one of whom is Rose, Wall's mother. Having read The Glass Castle, it's interesting to see how Rose and her husband Rex started their life together as idealistic, spontaneous, and free-spirited dreamers - these same things that turned toxic to the Walls family later in life. It's also enlightening to understand what events helped form the personalities and values of both Lily and Rose.

Just a quick disclaimer, and Walls makes this herself, Half Broke Horses is not a memoir or biography. This is because Walls' grandmother is not alive and so Walls doesn't have first hand information about her grandmother's life. Walls writes the book in Lily's voice, or how Walls images it would be, and she fills in areas of Lily's life where there may be holes or a lack of information.

Fact or fiction, this is a great book for many reasons. It's a multi-generational story (I'm a sucker for those) that spans a period of several decades and covers an exciting time in America's history. So while Lily's life is revealed, we also get glimpses of the wild west, World War I, Prohibition, and the Great Depression.

Definitely a recommend!