The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Despite the name, this is not some kind of vampire fiction book. It is entirely true. So how can someone be immortal and this book be true, I hear you ask? Well, Henrietta Lacks is gone in soul, but her cancer cells live on, having been responsible for many advances in science. Little was known previously about her life and her family (and conversely, her family knew little about her cells’ scientific life) but Skloot brings this together in a fantastically written book. She combines the heartache of Henrietta’s family with clear, simple explanations of the research involving Henrietta’s cells and how they were grown in the lab for the first time. 

The book brings to the fore many things that are not generally discussed – did an African-American woman and her family have a right to know that her cells were being used for research in the 1950s and beyond? Should they have been asked for consent? Why did scientists evade the truth when taking blood from relatives? Was there a racial element to not discussing further with Henrietta and her family? Do we automatically give up the rights of research and potential profit if surgeons remove noxious parts of our bodies? 

This is an exceptionally well written book and all the twists and turns in it are true. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a scientist, the author describes scientific processes (such as the cultivation of human cells) in such terms that you wish she was your high school science teacher. As someone who works in oncology, I found it fascinating to see the differences in treatments and the role Henrietta had to play in it – thank you. This was the kind of book that had me reading in traffic jams – a rare thing!

Read it if: you’re interested in how people and science can link together.

9.5 out of 10.

The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton

First of all, I want to tell you that this book was sent to me by the author for review (thank you Rosy). I was pleased to see when I opened the package that Penny Vincenzi, one of my favourite authors, had given her praise for Rosy’s books.

The cover of this book is so lovely and relaxing – the promise of an escape to the French countryside, something I’m sure that all of us have thought of doing at one time or the other (even those of us on the other side of the world). That’s what this book is – relaxing.

The premise is simple – Catherine, divorced mother of two adult children, sells up and leaves England for the mountainous French countryside. What will she do there? Well, she’ll start a little business (tapestry – see the title falling into place?) and enjoy the fruits of her small farm and the local village. It all sounds perfect…but of course it’s not! It rains a lot, French government bureaucracy is neverending (Catherine can’t start a business as she lives in a national park), back in ten minutes means a good couple of hours and her workaholic sister suddenly descends on her peace and quiet, interfering with her blossoming friendship with her neighbour Patrick…

It has all the ingredients of a manic chick lit, but it’s not. It’s a gentle, dignified look at this genre. Full of detailed description about the landscape (I could picture it even though I’ve never visited France) and the delicious food. The supporting characters are well-written, and I was upset when tragedy befell one of them. Catherine’s sister and daughter are both wittily written, particular her daughter’s various jobs!

If I had to pick a downfall of this book, it’s that my French was not good enough to pick up the French dialogue (Australian schools tend to offer more Asian languages these days). However, I’m sure that could easily be solved with Google Translate.

This book is subtle, wonderfully descriptive and relaxing. I’d suggest it while you are lazing in the French countryside.

8 out of 10.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

I was lucky enough to win this book in a competition run by Borders bookstore. I’m glad that I won it, because I’m not sure whether I would have liked this as much had I shelled out hard earned cash for it.

This is the sixth book in the Thursday Next series and like the others, is told in first person by Thursday herself. But in this book, it’s the second fictional Thursday telling the story, not the real Thursday Next, who has disappeared and not the first fictional Thursday Next, who was erased. This is the loving, gentle, hippy Thursday Next that failed Jurisfiction, unlike the real Thursday Next.

Too many Thursdays in the above paragraph? This is a book whose plot could be difficult to grasp without reading the previous books. Let me try to summarise: in an alternate universe where cheese is illicit, everyone loves reading and the world is nearly completely controlled by the Goliath Corporation resides Thursday Next. An ex-SpecOps agent, she lives with her husband Landen (who was erased by Goliath temporarily) and children (one who is never seen but anyone besides Thursday). Thursday is also a Jurisfiction agent, meaning she has the ability to ‘jump’ into books and solve crimes/issues in the BookWorld.

But Thursday is missing from this book and fictional Thursday, a resident in the BookWorld (who acts out the Thursday Next books as you read them) tells this story. The story mainly takes place in the BookWorld and while this world is interesting, we’ve heard about Netherfield Park and grammacytes in previous books. The ‘reworking’ of the BookWorld wasn’t really interesting and not particularly necessary. The overall plot is basic – that Thursday is looking for Thursday. In her travels, she meets the adorable Sprockett, her robot butler as well as interacts with many well-known fictional characters (e.g. The Lady of Shallott).

This books moves a lot more slowly than the previous Thursday Next books (not the fault of fictional Thursday, she doesn’t really have a detailed plot line to work with) and the conclusion is tied up oh-so-neatly.  It lacks the witticisms and fiction in-jokes of the previous books. I think I’ll wait for the reviews of Thursday Next #7 before I enter competitions to win it.

Read it if: You love Thursday Next with a passion, but aren’t easily disappointed.

7 out of 10.

The Ultimate Guide to Mad Men by Will Dean

This book offers excellent coverage of the first three series of Mad Men. It contains episode synopses, a review and critique by the author, followed by points to note (eg. pop culture, timelines) and comments from the ‘typing pool’. The typing pool are comments from the author’s blog (on the Guardian website) and are very well thought out with a lot of thought provoking points. The book also contains interviews with some of the actors (yes, Jon Hamm is there).

I really enjoyed this book – it reignited my love for the TV show as well as providing a sound reference for things I’d forgotten. I read the last few episode guides along with watching the show – these people are very perceptive, noting a lot of things that I’d missed! There is also a lot more fandom related to Mad Men  out there that I’d realised – this book introduces us to the Peggy Olsons on Twitter (good and bad), Sad Don Draper and What Would Don Draper Do? Worth a look if you’re a fan of the show.

A good reference for fans of the show, or those looking to get better acquainted with Sterling Cooper and associates. There are no pictures though, so you will need to find your fashion somewhere else.

Read it if: You need more Mad Men. Now.

8 out of 10.

Book Blogger Hop 22-25/4

Happy Easter everyone! As I’ve got a couple of days off, I thought I’d relax and join this week’s Hop. This week’s question comes from Christina who blogs at The Paperback Princesses.  
 “If you find a book you love, do you hunt down other books by the same author?”
Absolutely! I’ve read many great books this way – such as Michael Palin’s diaries. It makes my TBR lists even longer though! If I’ve enjoyed one book by an author and I find a second that looks interesting, I’ll read it.
Some of my favourite authors who I’ll buy sight unseen are: Penny Vincenzi, Michael Palin, Monica McInerney, Minette Walters, Ciara Geraghty and Richard Yates.
What about you?
Have a great weekend!

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room is one of those books where people ask you eagerly if you’ve read it. It’s a conversation starter, a breaking of the ice. Until recently, I wasn’t one of those people. It didn’t grab me when it was first released, but as more and more of my circle raved about this book, I thought I should give it a go.

Room is written in the first person, which is fine by me. The narrator, Jack, is also five years old. He’s also only lived in a garden shed for his entire life. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. Jack knows his entire world very intimately – there’s Rug, Bed, Table etc (which did get on my nerves a bit, making characters out of nearly every single inanimate object) and describes his routine with his ‘Ma’ methodically. Each day offers little variation. Jack watches the TV and marvels at the made up world ‘Outside’. At night Old Nick visits, but Jack is hidden away in Wardrobe. Now that he’s five, Ma has a plan. A plan that will turn Jack’s world upside down and inside out…

I got a little bit sick of Jack’s blow-by-blow activities in Room, so I was pleased when the focus shifted. It was interesting also to see Jack’s take on things that the average person takes for granted – sunlight, buying things at the store… I would have liked to have seen Ma’s perspective too, especially later on in the book when things weren’t going on as well. Especially why Jack continues to ‘have some’ for such a long time…I found that odd. Even though Jack is terribly bright for a five year old and recounts adult conversations very well, it would have been good to see how an adult coped being trapped all those years. I loved the idea of ‘Sundaytreat’ though!

A topical subject and a well-written book that leaves an eerie feeling long after. 

Read it if: you’re interested in the human side of the recent media human captive stories.

8.5 out of 10.

Mini Reviews: March 2010

Another month of my short reviews from before I started this blog. Hopefully they’ll be able to give you an idea of what I thought of the book!

So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading… by Sara Nelson

I actually started this book years ago but didn’t finish it. Looking for something not very demanding to read on public transport, I picked this up again. Then I remembered why I put it down.

1. The author and I don’t really have similar tastes in books.
2. If I’m reading about books, I don’t need to read and reread bits about family, friends, family, friends blah blah blah
3. If you need to justify something, don’t write a book about it.

The premise- read one book a week for a year is good (hey, I do it) and would probably make a good blog (this book was written before blogs became wildly popular) that you could dip in and out of. As a book though, it portrays the same feelings (I love reading a lot! I need to justfiy why I love reading!) over and over.

While this did pass the time on the train, it’s not much more. I didn’t get any book recommendations as the author describes the majority of books in scant detail. 4 out of 10.

Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans

I’m not really sure what it is about this book, but something just didn’t seem to work for me. Maybe it was that the blurb on the back makes it seem that it’s all about Catrin when really, she’s not the main character but just one along with Edith and Ambrose. Maybe it’s that you couldn’t see the characters linking up until halfway through. Perhaps it’s the lack of description and horror of bomb strewn London. I just know that I wanted to desperately like this (out of a sense of patriotism perhaps?) but it didn’t come together.
The idea of making a positive wartime English film as a plot is great but the characters seem to come off as cold, in particular Catrin. Perhaps it’s a stiff upper lip. Ambrose was probably the highlight of this book. It seems a little unfinished, rough around the edges. 6.5 out of 10.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books are kind of formulaic of late:
– controversial subject (tick)
– crime been committed (tick)
– struggling parent (tick)
– big trial (tick)
– surprising outcome (tick)
I found it a little strange that the last section is titled ‘My Brother’s Keeper’…um, is Ms Picoult deliberately making a joke or are we meant to see the similarities between House Rules, My Sister’s Keeper and Nineteen Minutes?

Despite all this, I enjoyed the book. No real surprises (even I guessed the twist early on). The characters are familar, the multiple first person view points the same. 8 out of 10.

Saving Grace by Ciara Geraghty

Not your standard chick lit. Saving Grace is in the league of Marian Keyes, with a more ‘thinking’ type of book- we cover relationships and grief with a wedding and drunken nights out. It’s fun, yet serious at times. The last 70 pages I read in a greedy sitting, the finale was spectacular. Ending was yes, kind of predictable, but you’re happy that all the characters got what they deserved. 8.5 out of 10.

Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

Although not long (178 pages), this book has kept me thinking about each of the characters and their future long since I finished reading. Yes, it has similar themes to Revolutionary Road, but there’s something about the way Mr Yates writes… he perfectly captures the annoying traits of your mother-in-law, awkward adolescence and the way you still can’t figure out where you’re going even when you’re an adult. Everything is beautifully and succinctly put. A fantastic read. 9.5 out of 10.

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal is a sequel of sorts to The Siege. You probably don’t need to have read it to understand the history and relationships of the characters, but it does help. The Betrayal takes place over ten years after The Siege under the last days of Stalin in Leningrad. 

Andrei is now a doctor and Anna now his wife. They have no children, but Anna’s brother Kolya is now a teenager living with them. The community lives in fear of being taken away by the secret police after false accusations from comrades. Anna and Andrei try to fly under the radar (except for Kolya’s piano playing disturbing the neighbours) but their quiet life is destroyed when a colleague asks for an opinion on a young child. This child is the only son of a man high up in the secret police. Unfortunately for Andrei, the child has cancer and it is he who tells the family and he who advises on treatment. When the cancer metastasises, Andrei and his colleagues are blamed and begin the descent to gaol and hell. Anna is left on the outside to pick up the pieces and hope for the unbelievable.

The Betrayal  was very successful at creating the intense fear that the characters felt – fear for being seen with someone, doing the wrong thing or even just under suspicion. The punishment was brutal, whether you were innocent or not. The last chapter, while summarising everything nicely, would have been a good plot of another book.

A great book, I’m going to look out for more Helen Dunmore. She can take one idea and turn it into a very moving book.

Read it if: Soviet Russia fascinates you.

8.5 out of 10.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

I came to read The Siege in rather a roundabout way. I bought the sequel, The Betrayal, at Singapore’s Changi airport with my last Singaporean dollars due to its interesting cover and its Stalinist Russia setting. Settling in to read this book at home the next day, my first thought was ‘Uh-oh! Sequel!’ Thanks to the wonders of ebooks and the interest, I was able to download The Siege from Kobo and start reading in under 10 minutes. A store can’t beat that!*

The Siege covers the Leningrad siege during World War II – the winter of 1941/42 to be precise. We start as the war becomes closer to Leningrad through the eyes of the Levin family – Anna, her father Mikhail and younger brother Kolya. Anna’s mother died in childbirth and Anna has had to miss university and take up a position as a nursery school assistant while looking after Kolya. She is the practical one; her father is a writer and dreamer, eternally watching and waiting to be taken away as he has fallen out of favour with the government. As things worsen, Anna is forced to search for food, ending up in strange and dangerous circumstances. Mikhail is injured and is looked after by his former flame, Marina. Fortunately for Anna, there is one bright spot in her life: Andrei, a medical student. But will they survive the siege?

While I didn’t find the portrayal of the siege as harrowing as that in The Bronze Horseman (probably because I knew what was going to happen) it was still powerfully written and it’s a testament to Helen Dunmore that I carried on straightaway with The Betrayal. It’s written in the present tense, so it’s like the plot is unfolding before you, like a play. This does make it seem a little detached at times, but the tone of starvation and fear still comes across very powerfully.

Read it if: you’re interested in the Russian people’s perspective during WWII.

* Absolutely nothing wrong with bookstores (this is a hot topic in Australia at present) and I do support my local bookstore well financially as well as investing in ebooks.

Mini Book Reviews: April 2010

These are (usually) shorter reviews I wrote on books before I decided to start my blog. Although short, I hope they provide a quick overview of the book!

After the Quake: Stories by Haruki Murakami

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but Murakami’s are brilliant. He paints such an intricate world in your mind in a few carefully chosen words. All the stories have a link (sometimes large, sometimes small) to the Kobe earthquake and how it has affected various individuals. I would love to see any of these stories in a longer format.

I dread the day I run out of Murakami’s works to read. 9 out of 10.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

This is a sequel that is truly worthy of the original- fast paced, exciting plot…a complete pageturner. Dealing with a new adventure (sex trafficking in Sweden), this follows Salander and Blomkvist again with even more twists and turns. I couldn’t put this down (lucky I wasn’t working this Easter). The translation is excellent. I think I’ll need to wait until another long weekend to read the next book…

What Kate did next by Lisa Heidke

First of all, I received this book as part of an early reviewers programme. In a similar vein to the main character, I’ll list what I liked and didn’t like about this book:
1. It was Australian. Reading an Aussie book is like slipping on a pair of favourite jeans. You know what David Jones is, you can easily picture places in the book.
2. Very easy read. Despite a death in the family while reading this, I could pick it up and actually remember when I was.
3. The characters of the children (Lexi and Angus) were cute. Not kids I’d like to have, but funny.

1. Lots of plotlines jumping around, none explored in explicit detail- mothers remarrying, infidelity, naughty teenagers, re-entering the workforce, losing you creative outlet…all touched on and revisited, but not battled out until the nth degree. Although if one had been focused on, we would have had a less funny book.
2. Couple of typos- one that sticks out during Kate’s fantasy is that a man licks her ‘naval’. How did that one get past?
3. The ending- felt a bit rushed and we missed out on the wedding.

All in all, a good, light read. If I saw the author’s other novel in an airport, I’d pick it up to take to read.  7.5 out of 10.

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism… by Thomas Kohnstamm

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll…that’s what you get when you agree to update Lonely Planet Brazil- and that’s just the first few chapters! Thomas Kohnstamm recounts his trip on little money, dodgy encounters, beautiful women and unique people. It’s a light, fun read that will make you think twice before blindly following the Lonely Planet on your next trip. Thomas writes well and had me laughing on a packed commuter train. It’s a little bit same-y in places (sex, drinking, repeat), but hey, that’s life! 6.5 out of 10.

Free Gift with Purchase: My Improbable Career in Magazines and Makeup… by Jean Godfrey-June

This is a light and fluffy skimming of the author’s life as a beauty editor at Elle and Lucky. However, don’t expect an indepth look at the world of a beauty editor. Personal memories, experiences, mentions of gift bags and freebies with some beauty advice make up this book. While I did enjoy it, I probably would have enjoyed a copy of Allure just as much. It’s a very easy read. 6 out of 10.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

If I had to summarise this book in a word, I’d say restrained. It’s not a very long book for startes, plus the feelings and thoughts of Eilis, the main character, seem a little distant.
However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not a great book. I’m still thinking about it, long after I’ve closed it. Did Eilis make the right choice? What options did she have?
The prose is great- explained in few words, but so eloquently that I feel I could find my way around Eilis’ neighbourhood and recognise all the characters. 8.5 out of 10.

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

Let me preface this by saying that I haven’t seen the movie. I tried on an aeroplane, but we hit turbulence and I couldn’t concentrate. I did like what I saw, so I decided to buy the buy when I couldn’t find a theatre showing the movie.

I really hope the movie is not as bad as this book. What a waste of George Clooney if it is.

Up in the Air starts off innocently enough. Ryan Bingham, businessman extraordinaire will hit the magic one million frequent flyer miles this week. After that, he plans to quit his job, convinced that another company is about to poach him. Throw in a bit of crazy family, even crazier clients, then some strange moments, paranoia, drug taking and an even weider conclusion. I was left wondering it is was all real, whether it was being written or edited under the influence because some parts just did not make sense. In short, it was weird. At least the movie has George Clooney eye candy. 3 out of 10.