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Thursday, September 29, 2011

State of Wonder

State of Wonder

Ann Patchett
Harper, 2011

When a fellow researcher dies while checking on a field team doing research in the Amazon, Marina Singh is asked to learn about his death – and to investigate the research group stationed there. Although Marina is justifiably nervous about suffering the same fate as her colleague, she feels pressured into the trip by the president of the company, partly because she is having an affair with him and partly because the dead man’s wife begged her to find out what happened to her husband. Marina understands the urgency regarding the research team’s work: they have discovered a tribe of Amazonian Indians where the woman are fertile until their eighties, and a drug that could help women conceive and bear children would make millions of dollars. However, she is nervous about meeting the doctor in charge of the research, Annick Swenson, who was her mentor and instructor in medical school.

Marina undergoes quite a journey to find the research group and Dr. Swenson, who is alive and well and still developing the drug despite what she considers to be undue harassment from Vogel, the pharmaceutical company funding her research. Clearly bothered by Marina’s presence, she nonetheless brings her to the tribe’s location and there Marina learns how important – and dangerous – the research is. In fact, Marina now easily understands how easy it is to die in the jungle; there are enough deadly insects, reptiles, fish, and other creatures there to kill off a whole team of doctors, let alone one man. As she learns more about the amazing properties of the tree bark that seemingly enables elderly women to become pregnant, Marina finds herself becoming less interested in her former career and more drawn into the Lakashi way of life – so much so that she debates staying on to take over Dr. Swenson’s life work until an event occurs that wakes her from this romanticized, dream-like existence, and she is required to make the most difficult decision she has ever had to make.

Patchett has woven a hypnotic and magical story about a normal person who must gather every ounce of courage, strength and skill to tackle a task that most people would not be able to accomplish, let alone attempt. Marina is not so special – and in fact – she freely acknowledges that she is not the best person to travel to a remote village to check on her former professor, a person that she shared an unpleasant and unfortunate experience many years ago. Yet, she finds the inner resources to do what must be done, and in the process changes the lives of so many others. This story succeeds on many levels, but the best things about it are the unforgettable setting of the Amazon Valley, the fascinating portrayal of the Lakashi people, and the moving stories of two women who must make very difficult decisions and live with the consequences.


Other novels by this author:
The Patron Saint of Liars (1992)
The Magician’s Assistant (1997)
Bel Canto (2001)
Taft (2003)
Run (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

White Mary by Kira Salak (2008)
War reporter Marika Vecera learns that her long-time hero, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert Lewis, has committed suicide and sets out to write his biography, only to hear rumors that he may still be alive in Papua New Guinea.

An Obvious Enchantment by Tucker Malarkey (2000)
A woman heads to Africa in search of her professor, who mysteriously vanished while researching an ancient African legend about a mythical king, and uncovers romance, mystery, crime, and magic along the way.

The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment (2005)
Sara Ehrenreich, an acclaimed American painter who has spent the past thirty years living on a remote South Pacific island, returns to New York in the 1970s, in a novel that reveals the story of her life through flashbacks.

Monday, September 26, 2011



Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2011

“Without hope, without fear” is the motto that John Henry “Doc” Holliday and his lover Kate “Big Nose” Harony agree to live by in this historical fiction novel set in the early days before the infamous OK Corral gunfight set in Tombstone. Doc and Kate have come west to Dodge City, hoping that the warmer dry air will help his consumption. If they can make some money gambling at cards, so much the better. Wyatt Earp and his many brothers are also in Dodge working in various enterprises including the law and prostitution. When a young mixed breed dies in mysterious circumstances, Doc and the Wyatt brothers join forces to protect the town from the corrupt and bullying methods of the local leaders, which provides a unique background to their later battles.

Doc is portrayed as a sensitive and caring individual, who is more concerned about loyalty, friendship and ethics than his own personal situation. He and Kate have a tumultuous and volatile relationship, which concerns Doc’s friends in Dodge, but he shrugs off their concerns and sticks with Kate. She is needy, self-centered and argumentative but loves him fiercely and completely. Indeed, Wyatt is a little afraid of her and avoids her whenever possible. Wyatt and Doc become friends after Doc, a dentist, works on Wyatt’s teeth and improves his self-confidence with a new smile. Meanwhile, Morgan, one of the Earp Brothers, reads classic literature recommended to him by Doc, and the two form a deep friendship based on their intellectual discussions.

The infamous gunfighters are finding their way in this “prequel” to the famous battle. They are all young – in their twenties and thirties – and just learning what is important and worth fighting for in the isolated frontier town of Dodge. Wyatt Earp is nervous and broke and lacks self-confidence; Doc is sickly and worried and determined to live life to the fullest; and Kate is brash, self-indulgent and impulsive. Russell has created a fascinating world where legends have just begun the journey that will make them famous.


Other novels by this author:
The Sparrow (1996)
Children of God (1998)
Thread of Grace (2005)
Dreamers of the Day (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

An Ordinary Woman: the dramatized biography of Nancy Kelsey by Cecelia Holland (1999)
Nancy Kelsey, her husband, and a small group of Americans make the perilous overland trek to California, where she works at Sutter's Fort and rides in the Rebellion that wrests California from Mexico, in a novel based on the real-life exploits of one courageous American pioneer woman.

Anything for Billy by Larry McMurtry (1991)
The dime novelist Ben Sippy tells the story of Billy Bone whom he named Billy the Kid after meeting him in 1878.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011)
Set against the backdrop of the great California Gold Rush, this darkly comic novel follows the misadventures of the fabled Sisters brothers, two hired guns, who, under the order of the mysterious Commodore, try to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who gives them a run for their money. .

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine, 2011

Victoria was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a series of foster homes before finally landing in a group home for unmanageable and unwanted girls. Now that she is 18, she is being released from the state’s custody into a transitional home and told that she has 30 days to find employment or she will be evicted and on the street. Victoria chooses to disregard her caseworker’s advice, which is nothing new for her, and makes a series of bad decisions that force her to leave the group home and live in a city park. There Victoria decides to cultivate a secret garden among the vegetation there, tending it and sleeping among her plants.

Once when Victoria was much younger, she lived with a single woman named Elizabeth who owned a vineyard. Elizabeth and Victoria got off to a rocky start, but over time they became a family of sorts. Something happened, however, to stop the adoption that Elizabeth was planning, but we don’t know what it was. We can only assume that Victoria did something so bad, so hurtful, that Elizabeth came to the same conclusion that every other foster family that housed Victoria came to: Victoria was unlovable and unwanted. Through alternating chapters we watch Victoria and Elizabeth learn to trust and love each other, until finally, an event occurs that causes Victoria to end up alone again.

Victoria does not end up living in the park forever, but it takes a lot of time, patience and careful choices that finally enable her to get a job in a flower shop. She may not understand how to talk to humans, but she understands the language of flowers. A customer can explain what they need, and Victoria can find the flower or plant or herb that speaks the words that the customer can’t in order to help them accomplish what they want or need in life. What Victoria doesn’t expect is that she can use the language of flowers herself to connect with another human being, and perhaps find the love and acceptance she never thought she deserved herself.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Salvation by Lucia Nevai (2008)
Disadvantaged by poverty, abuse, and a physical deformity, budding scientist Crane Cavanaugh is assigned to a convent and subsequently adopted by a middle-class mother whose adoration is only partly successful in countering Crane's stunted and wryly comic emotional development.

Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah (2003)
With her wedding day approaching, Claire Cavenaugh prepares to confront her estranged older sister and self-absorbed mother after more than twenty years apart and find out how to transform themselves into a family.

The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin (2004)
Nearing the end of his life, financier Harry Wainwright journeys to a rustic fishing camp in Maine and leaves a profound legacy for a haunted young man, a Vietnam draft evader, and a spirited young woman who holds a key to the past.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Call

The Call

Yannick Murphy
Harper, 2011

David is a large animal vet living in rural New Hampshire. He has three active children and a harried wife who is not shy about expressing her emotions. David is a worrier. He worries about his patients and their owners; he worries about a spaceship that hovers over his house; he worries about his own health (but not as much as his wife and doctor do); and he worries about someone who keeps calling and hanging up without speaking. But most of all, he obsesses about the hunter who accidentally shot his son on his first hunting expedition, causing him to fall on his head and lapse into a coma. It appears that the hunter is avoiding taking responsibility for his actions, and David wonders if he is lurking behind the face of almost everyone he meets each day.

Told in spare journal entries, David gives a very brief outline of each “call” he receives each day, along with one or two sentences about the medical situation, the visit, and subsequent thoughts that occur to him – both relating to the call and otherwise -- listed in categories. We learn much about David, his family, his patients, and others in the community as he records his thoughts and opinions on their actions, but underlying each entry is the usually unspoken anxiety and worry about his son’s condition and the possibility that he will never learn who shot him. I especially enjoyed the entries about his wife’s reactions to his and the children’s behavior, which were often very funny and biting in their sarcastic wit.

While the writing style is admirable (how can each entry be so short yet say so much?), it does take some getting used to. The action is off-camera, so to speak, yet skillfully layered with so much emotion and tension that each word carried a great deal of weight. In spite of the skill and the tension and the interesting animal conditions that necessitated each “call,” I had trouble warming up to this book. Maybe the spare writing left me a bit cold, or maybe I wanted to know more about the other characters. I’m not sure, but I was left with a bit of a let-down feeling, a little disappointed that some things weren’t fleshed out a bit more. I especially would have liked to get to know the wife just a bit better. I have a feeling we would have gotten along really well.


Other novels by this author:
Here They Come (2006)
Signed, Mata Hari (2007)

Other novels you may enjoy:

Sight Hound by Pam Houston (2005)
In his endeavor to teach his human, Rae, about the power of love over fear, wolfhound Dante simultaneously impacts the lives of Rae's housekeeper, her therapist, two veterinarians, fellow dog Rose, and Stanley the cat.

A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins (2009)
After her longtime boyfriend abruptly leaves and she quits her job, Maryanne hopes to crawl out of a mid-life crisis as a veterinarian's assistant at an animal shelter when she discovers the ability to communicate with animals.

A Country Affair by Rebecca Shaw (2006)
The first in a series of novels set in a veterinary practice on the outskirts of a Yorkshire, England, town introduces Kate, the receptionist in a busy veterinary practice; Scott, the flirty Australian vet; her faithful boyfriend, Adam; and the entertaining animal patients.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Crow Lake

Crow Lake

Mary Lawson
Dial, 2002

When Kate was only seven years old, her parents were killed in a car accident in rural Ontario. Her oldest brother Luke had just graduated high school, and the family was planning on his attendance at a teacher’s college. Another brother Matt was just 17, and the baby of the family, Bo, was just 1 year old. Now Kate is an adult, albeit a wounded one, who teaches zoology at a Canadian University and mulls the choices that were made long ago, when she was just a child and didn’t understand the trials her older brothers were undertaking in order to keep the family together.

Matt’s son is celebrating his 18th birthday, and Kate has been invited to a party that will also serve as a family reunion of sorts. Daniel is her significant other, an only child who had a very different upbringing that Kate did. In fact, while Kate has met Daniel’s parents, she has shared very little of her past with Daniel, which has caused a rift between them. Feeling pressure when he learns about the party, she invites him to the family farm, and the subsequent worry and concern over his reaction to her family causes her to revisit the events of her parent’s deaths and the subsequent sacrifices her older brothers made on her behalf – something which has haunted her and caused her immeasurable guilt ever since.

This quiet and unassuming book packs quite an emotional wallop. Lawson’s descriptions can’t help but draw the reader into a world of a remote and barren landscape housing multiple characters with so much personality that they jump out from the pages. Quiet and thoughtful writing definitely does not mean boring in this situation, because the tension builds through each chapter as the reader is teased with some event that changes the course of brother’s Matt’s plans and, indeed, causes Kate to be burdened with the guilt she has struggled with ever since. I could hardly put this book down and enjoyed every minute of it.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Time In Between by David Bergen (2005)
30 years after serving during the Vietnam War, Charles Boatman disappears during his return to that country, followed by his daughter, Ada, for whom the trip brings increasingly complex revelations and awareness about her life.

The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Helget (2009)
In a rural Minnesota town during World War I, Liesel, the only girl in the Richter family, hides a secret that precludes all hope of living a normal life and turns to her closest friend, Lester, a gentle, "slow" boy who spends his days trapping turtles.

October Light by John Gardner (2005)
Living in her older brother's Vermont farmhouse, penniless widow Sally Abbot finds their clashing values escalating to the point that her brother banishes her to her room with a mainstream novel she has been reading, a book that becomes reflective of their turbulent family history.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Next to Love

Next to Love

Ellen Feldman
Spiegel & Grau, 2011

Babe, Grace, and Millie have been best friends since grade school. Now that they are adults, they are bound together by the war and the fact that one husband and two boyfriends have enlisted. Grace has a daughter and doesn’t understand why her husband would voluntarily put his life in danger. Babe is so much in love with her fiancĂ© that she travels to his base to marry him before he ships overseas. Millie does the same, and now all three are anxiously waiting for news of their husbands while negotiating the changing social upheavals that war brings to a small town.

When the war is over, only one of the husbands returns, a changed, haunted man. The women bond together to help each other cope with their grief amid a daily life that includes racism, sexism, and hidden pain and suffering. As each woman tries to get through the days the best they can, one woman can’t get past her grief and finds herself in a marriage without passion, while another struggles to maintain normalcy despite her husband suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The third woman, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the past and her son grows up not knowing his father, which greatly impacts his later life.

This thoughtful historical novel shows the significance and impact that World War II had on the women who stayed behind, waiting, working and wondering how their men were doing so far away from home. But even more importantly, this story shows the aftermath of war both on the men who survived and the families left behind. The friendship of the three women rings true and demonstrates the power of unconditional acceptance and full support that so many women can offer each other.


Other novels by this author:
Too Close for Comfort (1994)
Rearview Mirror (1996)
God Bless the Child (1998)
Lucy (2003)
The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (2005)
Scottsboro (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)
A story told from 5 different points of view, chronicles the experiences of Japanese Americans caught up in the nightmare of the World War II internment camps.

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2003)
In the aftermath of World War II, young men and women living in Europe and Asia reconstruct their lives, including a soldier who learns that material goods and success are not enough, and a woman in Japan who tends to her dying brother.

Echoes by Danielle Steel (2004)
On the shores of Lake Geneva in 1915, the Jewish beauty Beata Wittgenstein falls in love with a Catholic French officer and marries him despite the wishes of her family, but when Hitler's terror arrives, Beata has to undertake a harrowing journey of survival.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River

Bonnie Jo Campbell
Norton, 2011

Margo Crane is just a girl when her depressed mother abandons her, but she never really felt the absence since she had her father’s extended family living just across the Stark River. Margo’s father struggles to raise her the best he can, but he works long hours at the family factory and leaves Margo on her own much of the time. Margo’s beloved grandfather taught her to shoot and hunt and also bequeathed her his beautiful teak boat, so Maggie spends her days practicing her sharpshooting skills and hunting animals out of season. She loves spending time with her cousins and busy aunt, who nurtures Margo just like one of her own, but a tragic sequence of events ends that relationship and forces Margo to set out on the river alone in her boat, to try to find her mother after all these years.

Margo is an unforgettable character in her own way, but she often proves to be her own worst enemy. She understandably has trust issues with men, but then finds herself drawn to them and lets them control her life in order to have some stability and material comforts. The north Michigan setting is harsh one, especially in the wilderness areas that Margo travels in order to avoid people, but this also means that she is at risk herself. Sometimes I wasn’t sure of Margo’s motivations; her reasoning was flawed at times and made for bad choices. Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse for her, it does, which makes for some depressing reading. Things do look better for her at the end, however, but the conclusion may be too open-ended for those of us who like things to finish neatly wrapped up.


Other novels by this author:
Q Road (2002)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (2006)
Reaching her sixteenth year in the harsh Ozarks while caring for her poverty-stricken family, Ree Dolly learns that they will lose their house unless her bail-skipping father can be found and made to appear at an upcoming court date.

Tender as Hellfire by Joe Meno (1999)
A poignant and insightful portrait of life on America's social and economic fringe follows Dough and Pill, two brothers growing up in a seedy trailer park, who struggle to make some positive sense out of their difficult lives.

The Edge of Winter by Luanne Rice (2007)
Neve Halloran and her teenage daughter, Mickey, struggle to build a new life together amid the harsh beauty of a wildlife sanctuary in Rhode Island's South County.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Robert B. Parker
Putnam, 2005
#1 in the Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch Series

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are partners and have been for quite a while. They are lawmen who go wherever a quick gun is needed to protect the people. Virgil is a man of few words but the few he does utter are mighty powerful. Everett and Virgil have been together so long that Everett usually knows what Virgil is thinking before he even says it.

When they arrive in Appaloosa, they find a small, dusty town. The citizens there are being bullied and abused at the hands of renegade rancher Randall Bragg, a man who has so little regard for the law that he has taken supplies, horses, and women for his own and left the city marshal and one of his deputies for dead. Cole and Hitch have a reputation for cleaning up lawless towns so they have been hired by the aldermen to do whatever needs to be done. Unfortunately for Virgil, he falls in love with a local woman, which means that for the first time that Everett can remember his ability to uphold the law has been compromised. Before the two of them even gets Bragg behind bars, trouble comes in the form of hired guns, who threaten to undo everything that Cole and Hitch have accomplished – and maybe get them killed in the process.

Normally, I am not a western reader, but this was a quick and fun read. Short chapters and lots of action mean that the plot moves along at a breakneck speed, not unlike riding a horse on the open prairie. I have to admit I never thought I would enjoy a western, but I liked this one so much that I’m planning on reading the rest of the series. So, saddle up, pardner, and pack one of these in your saddlebag when you go on your summer adventure.

Robert B. Parker has numerous books to his credit. Check for other titles at!


Other western series you may enjoy:

Page Murdoch Novels by Loren D. Estlemen
(First book in series) In 1847, Deputy Page Murdock is sent into Montana's Bitterroot Mountains. He quickly finds himself diverted from his original assignment to hunt down Bear Anderson. Although Bear's one-man campaign of vengeance against the Flathead Indians has been silently applauded, President Grant now hopes to prevent a war which the Flatheads promise will come if Bear is not stopped.

Sidewinders by William W. Johnstone
(First book in series) Scratch Morton and Bo Creel, two pals, drifters, and veterans of cowboying, cattle drives, drunken brawls, and shoot-outs, find trouble in the Arizona Territory when they get caught up in a battle between two stagecoach lines while dallying with a beautiful widow.

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
(First book in series) The youth of a small town in mid-twentieth-century Texas search for ways to escape boredom and experience life and love.