Monday, May 30, 2011

State of Wonder

State of Wonder
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, Harper, June 2011

...this is a good yarn that I believe readers will embrace and enjoy

A Minnesota physician, Marina Singh working for a big pharmaceutical company is sent by the CEO Jim Fox to the Amazon jungles to follow-up after the death of a colleague. The company has supported the unorthodox work of an obsessed researcher, Annick Swenson who has worked with a remote jungle tribe where the women maintain fertility well into their 70s. Singh has ties to all of the principals – she is lover to Jim Fox, colleague and friend to the dead employee and former student of Swenson. After cooling her heels with a couple of ex pat Australians in the Brazilian city of Manaus she finally is taken to the jungle research station. Then the fun begins. I don’t want to give away plot details here but while not exactly entirely believable from the scientific viewpoint, the story is credible.

This story has all of the elements of a good read – wonderfully described exotic setting in the jungles of Brazil; a story that is complex and contains enough plot twists to hold the reader’s attention; excellent character development that onion like leaves the reader knowing more and more about the principals and lastly a denouement that is very well done. For me what keeps this latest Ann Patchett from the highest rating was the main character, Marina Singh. She is an unlikely adventure heroine with no end of unresolved issues. She had an absent father who continues to haunt her dreams (a bit too many nightmares in my opinion), professional insecurities, and a love affair to which she has only a half hearted commitment. She careens from long periods of inaction into wonder woman like live saving fetes (beheading a 15 ft. anaconda with a machete, performing C-sections with shoe horns, facing down cannibals). Patchett allows her to face her demons and develop into a plausible heroine but in the end her character has a certain flatness to it that I couldn’t get beyond. The author does leave some ambiguous hope for a brighter future for Singh in the ending though. Don’t take this minor criticism as a negative, this is a good yarn that I believe readers will embrace and enjoy. I expect to see it widely read on the beach this summer.

I read a copy of this book provided by the Amazon vine program.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Doc: A Novel
Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell, Random House, May 2011

... Doc is a unique character brought to life with all of his charms intact, you can't help but like him

In Doc, Mary Doria Russell has taken us to the Wild West, Dodge City 1878 to be specific. Dodge City functions for the express purpose of separating Texas cattle drivers from the money they bring to town using card games, alcohol and prostitutes. Into this wild place comes John Henry Holliday (Doc). He is a young man from Georgia doomed to an early death by the tuberculosis in his lungs. He lives life for all he is worth. A trained dentist he primarily earns his living playing poker. Along with his girlfriend, Kate a sometime aristocrat and now prostitute he settles into Dodge City's colorful lifestyle. Local characters include the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan, James and Virgil, and the county sheriff Bat Masterson. Wyatt is employed as the local law enforcement in Dodge. There is the mysterious death of Johnnie Sanders, a mixed race young man who was friend to Doc and Wyatt that provides the backdrop of this story.

Dodge City a wild place and Russell brings it vividly to life. Her characters are real and we come to know the people not the legends that Hollywood has given us. Even the minor characters China Joe, Bat Masterson, Eddie Foy (yes that Eddie Foy), a Jesuit priest, and the local merchants are richly drawn and memorable. This really though is the story of Doc and he is a unique character brought to life with all of his charms intact, you can't help but like him. The murder mystery is really a minor part of this wonderful character driven novel. In the notes Russell outlines the parts of her story that are based on fact and surprisingly quite a bit of it is. While this novel is not in the same class as Russell's psychological sci fi novel The Sparrow it is a good read.

I read a copy of this book provided by the Amazon Vine program

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff, read by Mitchell Zuckoff, April, 2011, Haper Audio 8hrs, 32 min.

If you like a good adventure tale this one is for you no two ways about it!

Just when you think you’ve heard every WWII story there is to hear a new one comes along. First there was Unbroken the inspirational life story of Louis Zamperini and now we have Lost in Shangri-la a story of survival in the remote jungles of Dutch New Guinea.

In spring of 1945, when the war in Europe was won and the invasion of Japan was looming a group of 24 Army personnel including 9 WACS were on a sightseeing over flight of an impenetrable valley in the highlands of New Guinea. The valley had a great allure to the Americans because it was thought to be populated with primitive people perhaps cannibals whose lives were untouched by modern society. The plane nicknamed the “Gremlin Special” crashes into the side of a mountain within the confines of the valley. Six people survive the crash although three die within the first 24 hours. A young lieutenant, John McCollom who was relatively unhurt and two badly burned survivors, sergeant Kenneth Decker and an Army stenographer Margaret Hastings. The survivors almost immediately come in contact with the native people and develop an uneasy relationship. The army locates the survivors quickly but does not have a clue how to extract them from these jungles. Enter the real heroes of the story – Captain Earl Walter and the Filipino members of the First Recon Battalion (special). Two members of this group – medics Doc Bulatao and Rammy Ramirez parachute into the jungle and begin to treat the burn victims whose wounds have worsened. Capt. Walter and other paratroopers establish a base camp miles away. The groups connect and so begins a long wait as the army ponders how to get them out. The interactions with the native population advance from hostility to a developing mutual respect. There is a lot of humor and misunderstanding in these encounters and an underlying tension that never quite leaves the narrative. I won’t reveal how the army rescued this group because I think the actions were so thrilling you’d swear they were fictional.

Mitchell Zuckoff has nailed this story. He was aided by army records, a diary kept by Margaret, WWII home front interviews with families of the lost and missing, interviews with the few surviving participants, interviews with relatives of deceased personnel, and lastly interviews 50+ years later with some of the New Guinea peoples who were there. The native interviews enhance this story greatly; hearing their interpretations of the events was fascinating. The story is enriched with all of this detail. I really enjoy the book; my father spent a goodly portion of the war in Dutch New Guinea so I was pleased to learn so much about the Army Air Corps experience there.

I listened to an audio of the story read by the author which was a real plus in this case (not always true!); I did miss seeing the pictures of the people involved but if you go to the Amazon website they are posted there. If you like a good adventure tale this one is for you no two ways about it!

I listened to an audio of this story provided by Harper Audio

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dreams of Joy

Dreams of Joy: A Novel
by Lisa See, Random House, May 2011

...lots of action, a genuine historical setting, characters that we have grown to know and like.

This story picks up where Shanghai Girls - a story about Pearl and May- two Shanghai sisters ended. The novel opens in the late 1950’s, with Joy, a Chinese–American girl raised as Pearl’s daughter but actually May’s daughter, leaving for China.  Joy is estranged from her mother and aunt and is returning to China to discover her true roots, participate in the building of the People’s Republic and find her real father (get the soap opera qualities of this story yet?).
Joy finds her father, Z.G., a famous communist artist. She accompanies him as he is sent to the Chinese countryside for “reeducation”. In the countryside Joy falls in love with Tao a young villager who aspires to be an artist like Z.G. Meanwhile Pearl has followed Joy to China to attempt to reconcile with her and have Joy return to the U.S.
The story is told in alternating first person narratives by Joy and Pearl, a technique that works well here.  Without giving you blow by blow of the story, suffice to say every horrible aspect of China’s struggles in the late 1950’s and early 60s are depicted in the lives of Joy, Pearl, Tao and Z.G. Scenes of public denunciation and punishment for all who are deemed not “red” enough are integral to the story. The disillusionment of the Chinese when communism is discovered to be the latest iteration  of failed government to inflicted misery on the poor people of this country is shown.  The starvation that killed millions in China when The Great Leap Forward failed is movingly portrayed in the story. Almost unimaginable things – cannibalism, and other barbaric practices were not unknown through this time period. Lastly the struggles of people to leave China and escape to Hong Kong and the west are also chronciled  here.

I know the review reads like soap and in some ways the story does also but it really is a good read - lots of action, a genuine historical setting, characters that we have grown to know and like. If you read and liked Shanghai Girls, you will enjoy this one. If you haven’t I’d read that one before reading Dreams of Joy. If you want to read Lisa See's best historical fiction read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a fabulous book

I read an advanced reader copy of this novel provided by the publisher. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
by Connie Willis, 1993, narrated by Jenny Sterlin, 26 hours, 30 minutes

...a total immersion experience
(spoilers ahead)
I think I am late to the party with the Doomsday Book! First published in 1993 this sci fi is anything but standard fare for the genre. The book won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it was first published. It uses time travel in an unusual way, not to go forward to a high tech future but to travel back in time to the Middle Ages. Set in 2048, Kivrin, an Oxford graduate history student travels to 14th century England. The book alternates between her situation in the 14th century and events in the 21st century. Her journey is supported by her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy and although he does not exert the control over her journey that he would like, he is strongly in her corner. Through human error she ends up right in the middle of an emerging bubonic plague epidemic. She is found by a village priest, Fr. Roche and is taken to stay with an upper class family. The medieval characters (called “contemps”) seemed very genuine and their actions are rooted in the reality of the time. They have no understanding of disease transmission, their language rings true, the religious practices are appropriate to the era; the whole setting is just perfect! I understand that Connie Willis, the author researched this material for five years and it really shows in this story.

Events in the 21st century in Oxford travel on a parallel course with Kirvin’s journey back in time. While the midcentury is mostly disease free, mutant viruses can challenge the population. Kirvin’s support system (Mr. Dunworthy, Badri the tech controlling her time travels, Mary her physician and many others) are infected with an unknown virus. The illness and resulting quarantine impede the ability of the characters to help and support Kivrin.

I am once again backing off from describing much of the plot because I really can’t do it justice in this space and with my meager writing skills. Suffice to say, that the plot elements are very good and in what I consider the highest praise at no time did I think wow this stuff is not believable. Almost hard to imagine for a sci fi, there was no need to suspend belief.

What I will rave about is the author’s ability to create three dimensional characters that you really care about. Her characters seem so human, they have flaws but also an immense decency. The story is full of humor, compassion, bravery and despair- many characters displaying each of these qualities. I loved the character of Father Roche, while the author portrays him as a simple, uneducated village priest, he represents what is good and wise in all men- a character I won’t soon forget.

While the story is long (600+ pages) it is a total immersion experience. I listened to the audio book, it was recommended as one of the top ten audio books and I agree.  Jenny Sterlin, the narrator did yeomans work conveying the emotion and drama of this story. I think it would read almost as good but am not sure, so try the audio book for this one.
I listened to an audio copy of this book that I bought from

Thursday, May 5, 2011

22 Britannia Road

22 Britannia Road: A Novel
by Amanda Hodgkinson, April, 2011, Pamela Dorman Books

Historical fiction at its best!

 Historical fiction at its best! This is the story of a Polish couple, Silvana and Janusz and their son Aurek. They met and married in 1937. As both the Russians and the Germans invaded Poland in 1940 the couple is separated. He joins the military and after a long journey, typical of Poles who chose to fight on after the defeat of their country, ends up in the RAF in England. She initially raped by a German soldier, flees with their son to a live in the forests of Poland. The story opens in 1946 as the couple is reunited after their six year separation. Building on the memories of a deeply loving relationship before the war the couple tries to reestablish their family life. Each has secrets that they do not share with the other. These secrets, the crux of the story, are slowly revealed in two separate threads. No more spoilers from me on the story!

This book is vividly written and has complexity to the plot that continues to draw you in right up until the last chapter. The long lasting effects of war on people are brilliantly portrayed in the story. In post war Britain, the couple has every advantage- an intact family, a house, a car, a good job - but the lingering effects of what happened to them during the war destroy their chances to go forward. The son has been deeply influenced by his time in the forests avoiding both Germans and Russians and living off the land. In one scene his father shows him how to collect and save birds eggs and the boy can only think of how he wants to eat the eggs contents as he did so often in the forests. He has a particularly difficult time socializing and entering into normal relationships. It was heartbreaking and at times almost too sad to bear. In the end though this story is a triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher