Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Juliet, Saskatchewan, is a blink-of-an-eye kind of town -- the welcome sign announces a population of 1,011 people -- and it’s easy to imagine that nothing happens on its hot and dusty streets. Situated on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills, Juliet and its inhabitants are caught in limbo between a century -- old promise of prosperity and whatever lies ahead.

But the heart of the town beats in the rich and overlapping stories of its people: the foundling who now owns the farm his adoptive family left him; the pregnant teenager and her mother, planning a fairytale wedding; a shy couple, well beyond middle age, struggling with the recognition of their feelings for one another; a camel named Antoinette; and the ubiquitous wind and sand that forever shift the landscape. Their stories bring the prairie desert and the town of Juliet to vivid and enduring life.

This wonderfully entertaining, witty and deeply felt novel brims with forgiveness as its flawed people stumble towards the future.

I feel bad. I was supposed to review this book as part of a blog tour MONTHS ago, but then things happened and here I am posting it late! The further behind I am, the harder it is for me to get started on things. That means that things just get worse and then I have an even larger problem to tackle. The good thing is that I wound up loving this book! I wasn't sure if I would because it doesn't seem like the type of book where a lot happens, but that's okay. What does happen made for compelling reading and I really felt like both the characters and the town itself came alive for me. I think this book stands a good chance of going up for some of Canada's awards this year, but I suppose we will have to see what happens.

The book is told from many different points of view. All of the characters are flawed in some way. This is not a book of perfection by any stretch. There are scenes where you want to cry for the characters, but there are also scenes where you can't help laughing. There are scenes that will stick with you long after you have turned the final page. I was also surprised by how some of the events turned out. Things happened that I did not see coming, and there were a couple times where I wondered just what the author was thinking and whether things really were going to work out to a satisfying conclusion.

There is one character who has inherited a farm from his adoptive parents. He is still rather young and not entirely sure how to make things run as smoothly as they did. A chance encounter, though, gives him a chance to stretch his legs and figure out just who he is. I found him to be a crush-worthy character. Then, there is the family that are seriously feeling the pressure of the recession. They have no idea how they are going to get by, but the wife can't seem to be the farm wife-type and the husband doesn't know what to do anymore. It all gets rather over-whelming for them after the book progresses. Their oldest son is taking things the worst and honestly doesn't know what to do anymore. He has to break-away for a while to get some perspective. Those are just some of the characters that make up this novel.

The thing that I really liked about this book is that it was so ordinary. It is about small town people their small town problems. Everything is entirely possible and able to be related to in some way. The stories are just told in such a way that even when they are plain, they still feel like they have a lot of life to them. I really enjoyed this book and hope that it receives lots of recognition in 2010 because it deserves it!

My thanks to Harper Collins Canada for sending me a copy of this book!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs Series, Book 7)

In the latest mystery in the New York Times bestselling series, Maisie Dobbs must unravel a case of wartime love and death—an investigation that leads her to a long-hidden affair between a young cartographer and a mysterious nurse.

August 1914. Michael Clifton is mapping the land he has just purchased in California's beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, certain that oil lies beneath its surface. But as the young cartographer prepares to return home to Boston, war is declared in Europe. Michael—the youngest son of an expatriate Englishman—puts duty first and sails for his father's native country to serve in the British army. Three years later, he is listed among those missing in action.

April 1932. London psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs is retained by Michael's parents, who have recently learned that their son's remains have been unearthed in France. They want Maisie to find the unnamed nurse whose love letters were among Michael's belongings—a quest that takes Maisie back to her own bittersweet wartime love. Her inquiries, and the stunning discovery that Michael Clifton was murdered in his trench, unleash a web of intrigue and violence that threatens to engulf the soldier's family and even Maisie herself. Over the course of her investigation, Maisie must cope with the approaching loss of her mentor, Maurice Blanche, and her growing awareness that she is once again falling in love.

Following the critically acclaimed bestseller Among the Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death delivers the most gripping and satisfying chapter yet in the life of Maisie Dobbs.
This is the seventh book in the Maisie Dobbs series. I read the first book in the series in 2008 and then read the next five in 2009. When I do something like that it usually means that I really like a series, so I was looking forward to this latest book in the series. I really enjoy books set during the early part of the 20th-century and Winspear has done an excellent job writing a series that captures the history of the time. I really enjoy the setting, historical notes, and Maisie as a character. When I finish a book in the series I am always left satisfied and looking forward to the next one. This was no exception.

The best part of this series is that while the author comes up with new cases for every book that are engaging; you also learn more about Maisie and the other characters that make up her world. Maisie grows as a character throughout the series. She was fragile following WWI, so she needed a little bit of aid to develop into the strong character she is in this series. This novel shows another progression in her character. She has moved on in the romance department; which is something she has been hesitating in for a long time. I will be interested to see how this develops in future novels. This book also brings a conclusion to a relationship she has maintained for many years. I found it really sad, so that must mean that I am engaging with the characters by reading the series. I won't say anymore because I consider it a spoiler.

Generally I am not a fan of mystery novels, but I think this book works so well for me because the cases solved are not entirely what I take away from the book. Sure they play a central role in the stories, but looking back it is always Maisie's story and that of the other characters in the series that stick with me. As long as the detectives have depth and there is more to the book than just the mystery, I am finding that I like mystery series more than I originally thought. Plus, Maisie has a really interesting 'detective' style that is different from many of the other books on the market. Then, there is the fact that this is the period between the wars and she is a woman, so for her to be a success at all was pretty amazing for the time. Whether or not she is something that was possible for this period is hard to say, but Winspear makes it seem like it could happen.

Overall, this is another great edition to the Maisie Dobbs world. I look forward to book 8!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Today I have a buddy review with Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. I am in white and she in green... I think! I never know what colors will work!

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

When Lisa See has a new historical fiction book out I am always really really excited! I have to admit that Chinese history is not an aspect of history I know a lot about, but I feel like I am learning just a bit more every time I read one of See's novels. Her novels are works of fiction, of course, but they are set against real events with characters that are compelling. This book was another strong book by her and I am happy to hear that there is going to be a sequel. How did you find that this book was compared to See's other books?

I remember being very excited when I saw this was out too, and yet it has taken me ages to actually getting around to reading it. I have borrowed it from the library quite a few times and returned it unread. It's one of those books that I wish I had read earlier!

I actually thought this book was very different from the other historical fiction novels I have read by her. There is the same emphasis on Chinese tradition, but the story is much more modern, and I thought a lot more confronting. This was mainly because of the fact that much of the story happened in relatively modern times, being 60 or 70 years ago rather than several hundred years, and yet I am sure that there are still people around who feel the repercussions of the segregation and fear that enveloped our main characters. I found it very interesting that whilst Pearl and May lived in Shanghai, they were very influenced by Western culture, and yet, once they made it to America, Pearl in particular felt very boxed in to becoming more and more Chinese.

Do you think that the two girls had any choice in this matter?

I think that the girls are products of their up-bringing combined with their personalities. I think if things had played out differently for Pearl than she would have turned out differently, but she really changed during the problems in Shanghai. May, though, had a very different life and still wanted men to look at her and see her as a 'Beautiful Girl'. What she did while in America was all related to this in many ways. Whether or not they could have avoided how they turned out, though, is hard to say really. It would depend on what changed in their lives.

I agree with you that this book was rather different than the other two books she wrote, but that turned out to be a good thing. I really enjoyed the way that she chose to look at this time period and felt that I learned a lot as a result. I really liked both Pearl and May, so enjoyed watching their story progress. It wasn't just their story, though. You watched many of the characters in the book develop so that they were 'real' characters. I really like when an author can pull that off.

What was your favourite scene in the book?

I am not sure that I can choose a favourite scene in the book in the usual way where you choose a heart warming moment, but the scenes that have remained with me are the graphic ones. Very early in the book Pearl and May are caught up in a bombing in Shanghai, and the sense of terror, and the terrible scenes witnessed are probably what will stay with me long after finishing this novel. Similarly, the scene in the room with their mother as they are trying to get out of China was quite graphic, without really showing you anything, if that makes sense, and the section of the book where the girls were held in Angel Island. Did you find this novel overly graphic? For me, it was not overly graphic, just a sort of implied graphicness but those scenes were all very powerful. And fair's fair, you need to share your favourite scenes too!

I had to really think about my favourite scenes. This book isn't really all that heart-warming. There are few happy scenes mixed in, but generally it is a book that is rather hard to swallow at times. Lisa See did not sugar-coat the experience for anyone! This meant that days after finishing the book I am still thinking about what these two young women went through and how different it is from my own experiences. People are sexist at times, and I am a girl, but generally we live in a world where I am treated relatively well because I am at least white. I'd love to say that I feel for people and I understand what they go through, but I really don't. Unless you actually go through it yourself you cannot really understand what it was like to be Chinese in America in the early parts of the 20th-century. I learned about it somewhat from this book, and think I have a bit of an understanding, but generally it is something that I cannot even imagine. Their suffering will stick with me for a while.

Does that mean you found this book to be a depressing read?

At times it was depressing. A lot of bad things happened to them, so it was hard to not find it sad. There were nice moments, though, that balanced things out. There were times where things really were going well for the sisters and they were happy, so the readers would be happy, too. I guess I didn't think the word depressing when I finished the book. Maybe more of an overwhelming experience. It's hard to imagine the terrible things that happen to people.

What do you think it is that makes books about the immigrant experience so fascinating?

I have never read a lot about Chinese immigration to North America, so I am not sure if I can speak on that subject. Most of my reading has been about immigrants arriving in Canada through Pier 21 and I enjoy that because it is 'my' history, so to speak. I think, though, that part of the reason it is so interesting is that every experience is different. I have read books where it is a group of individual stories and it is fascinating to see the diversity in what life was like when they reached 'the new world'. I think that is why I really liked this book. You see a bunch of different characters and through them get the chance to see how each reacted to life in America. I think when it comes to immigrants coming to Canada I like to think that they were happy here because I consider Canada a great place to live, but I know that is not always the case. What do you think on the subject?

Head over to Marg's Blog to read the second half of the review!

Thanks to Random House for my review copy of this book!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

When you hardly blog all year it becomes really hard to start back up again. There have been many days where I have stared at a blank screen trying to decide how to get started again. The thing is I have read a lot of great books and I really want to talk about them, so now I am determined to get back in the swing of things. I am a bit out of practice, so let's see what happens!

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

I was watching a television talk show sometime in the last couple months and whoever it was interviewed Rebecca Skloot. I was listening to her talk and thought that her book sounded really interesting because I had no idea what it was about. I haven't taken biology or chemistry since high school, but I knew that we never learned about Henrietta Lacks. I had never heard of her before and had no idea that she was such a major part of science. I thought the book would work for the Women Unbound reading challenge, so I decided to see if the library had a copy. It came in for me just a couple days ago and since it was a high-demand book, and I was really curious about it, I read it right away.

First up, I want to reiterate that I have not taken science in several years. It's not that I don't like science, but I went a different route in university. I was very happy to find that even though my cell knowledge was a bit rusty, I found that I was able to follow along with the book rather well. There were only a couple times where I read something and had to stop to try and picture it in my mind, so even if science is not your normal comfort zone this book should work really well for you. If you are big into science, I am not sure what you would expect. It is obvious that Skloot was trying to aim for a wider audience, so you might find the book a bit 'dumbed down'.

I actually found this book really fascinating. Sometimes non-fiction books don't have a happy medium between the wider scoop of the book and the human interest parts. I didn't really find that with this book. I was interested in learning more about the science and how so many people have benefited from a black woman that died in 1951, but I was also really interested in who Henrietta was as a person and what her family is like now. Skloot talks about both in an engaging manner. You can tell that this is a woman that loves the topic that she is researching. I am not sure if that was the case when she started out, but she got to know Henrietta's family and I think that changed things for her.

I included the entire synopsis from the book because I wanted to make sure that the point of this book was brought across. I am sure that many people will look at the title of this book and wonder 'Who is Henrietta Lacks". That's the point of the book, though, to bring recognition to a woman that died not even knowing she was going to live on in science. Her cells are scattered around the world and with the right treatment can easily live on forever. They have been used in cancer research, as that is what Henrietta had herself, but they have also been to space, blown up in a nuclear bomb, and used as a research tool for many life-threatening illnesses. They were the first cells to flourish in a lab and continue to increase at an over-whelming rate when allowed.

Then, the controversy comes in. Henrietta did not sign any sort of forms allowing her cells to be harvested and used for science. Her husband agreed to a partial autopsy, but did not know that it was really a way for the doctors to get more samples from his wife. They were limited in their education and the doctors took advantage of that to get what they wanted. This continued on with Henrietta's children. They were brought in to give blood samples, but were not made aware of what was going on. The sad thing is that doctors have made millions off Henrietta's cells, but her descendants in many cases cannot even afford health insurance. So, I am left not sure what to think about the circumstances. I think it is wonderful that HeLa has been used to save many lives, but that doesn't mean that I don't think it was handled badly. Was it good that the doctors just took without asking because she was just one woman and she has saved many? My first instinct is to say yes, but that doesn't mean that if asked and explained Henrietta wouldn't have agreed and her family could have at least been able to receive free health care. I think I need to think about it a bit more.

Overall this was a really interesting book! It wasn't perfect. Sometimes I found things a bit too detailed than necessary and sometimes I think the focus of the book was lost, but I still really enjoyed it and am glad that I now know who Henrietta Lacks is and what she has done for science.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

When the new John Green and David Levithan novel came out, I kept hearing how good it was. I am glad that I took the chance to buy it and read it soon after its release, though, because it lead to a buddy review with Nancy aka Bookfool. We each came up with 3 questions and answered all 6 of them. My answers to the questions are below, and you can go to Nancy's blog to read her answers.
One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical. Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won both them legions of faithful fans.

My answers to the questions that Nancy asked me:

1. What other books have you read by John Green and/or David Levithan and how do you think Will Grayson compares?
I have read everything that John Green currently has out, including short stories, so it made sense to read this one, too, so I could say that I have read everything by him. As for David Levithan, I plan to read several of his books eventually, but as of yet have only read one book by him last year. I think Will Grayson, Will Grayson is still a well-written book like the others I have read by both authors, but it was the sort of book that I needed to take a few days after finishing to think about. And, really, that's not so different from their other books. When you finish them there is still a lot to think about afterwards.

2. There was one thing about the book that really, really annoyed me but which I eventually became accustomed to. Did anything about the book get on your nerves?
It took me a bit to get used to the sections where the Will Grayson writing them didn't use capitalization, or really any sentence structure at all. That writing method always bothers me, but you get used to it eventually. The ending annoyed me. I thought it was really rushed. And, sometimes the characters in general annoyed me, but that was almost to be expected.

3. What did you consider the main theme of the book? Do you think the sheer quantity of gay characters diluted the theme or made it more powerful?
I think the theme of the book was about acceptance regardless of your interests. It was talked about in the broader sense of the book, but also mentioned by the use of Tiny's play. I don't think the amount of gay characters necessarily was too much, but I also don't think that it seemed realistic to me. I could see the themes of acceptance a lot from both characters, but since I got that the story was about more than just acceptance of sexuality, then it wasn't necessarily to throw it in your face that there were a lot of gay characters. It was almost over-whelming, and yes, it could have diluted the theme of the book more than was necessary. I appreciated how Will Grayson #1 discovered that he was accepting in the case of his best friend, Tiny. Both Will Grayson's, though, had to also become accepting of themselves. I think that was important for the story.

My answers to the questions I came up with:

4. How did you feel when you finished the book? Has your initial reaction stayed the same, or do you feel differently about the book?
I didn't know what to think when I finished the book. I love John Green, and the one book I read by David Levithan was pretty good, too, but this book I didn't know how to get my head around. I think I was overwhelmed by everything that was going on and I wasn't entirely sure that everything worked well for me. I kept thinking about how it didn't seem to be as good as John Green's other books to me. Then, a couple days went by while Nancy finished the book and I got a chance to think about it a bit. Then, even more days went by before I am answering these questions, and I think I actually really liked this book. It was one that I had to think about and I think it was a good idea that I waited to write the review.

5. Which character in the book was your favourite? Least favourite?
I think my favourite character was Jane. She plays the straight Will Grayson's love interest and there was something a bit fascinating about her. Likely because of how the story played out around her. I also enjoyed Tiny. He annoyed me at times, but he made the book entertaining and I appreciated him as a character. I think the scene where he drinks a bit too much, though, was really unnecessary in description! As for least favourite, I think part of my hang-ups with this book is I didn't really love either of the Will Grayson's. It's not that I strongly disliked them, but more that they just didn't grow on me. We had a love/hate relationship the entire book and I think that is why it took me so long to find love for the overall novel.

6. What did you think about the ending? (Without giving too much away.)
I didn't know what to make of the ending. I thought since the entire book had been basically making its way to that point that it was too rushed, though. It sort of disappointed me that it wasn't drawn out a bit more. I found the ending touching, but I am not entirely sure I found it believable. It is just one of the things that I can't entirely make up my mind about, I guess.