09 August 2011

June and July Book Report

I'm glad you all enjoyed the story of my "work" with the BBC.  I've been having a good time with the story, and promise to tell you when/if the episode ever airs.  I feel pretty sure that if any of my segment is included, it will be the shot of my white-gloved hands turning the page.  Ah, Fame, you are so fleeting!

But while I wait to be discovered and become famous, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts about what I've read in the past couple of months.  If nothing else, it may give you some kind of idea of what you may or may not want to think about reading yourself.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.  So. I have heard so much about this book, and had thought I might want to read it. When my husband brought a copy home and finished reading it, I thought I'd give it a try. I've never read any of Ann Patchett's work before, though I know she is very well-regarded. For good reason, as the writing was pretty magnificent.

The story is told by Marina Singh, a doctor/scientist for Vogel Pharmaceuticals in Minnesota. As the story opens, she learns that her colleague Anders Eckman, who traveled to Brazil to check up on a doctor who is working on a new drug there, has died. No real explanation of what happened, just that he had a fever and was buried there. The letter is several weeks old by the time it arrives. Both Marina's boss (who is also her lover), and Eckman's wife Karen, want her to go and find out just what actually happened. This is primarily because the doctor doing the drug studies, Annick Swenson, was one of Marina's professors in medical school at Johns Hopkins.

What follows is a story of frustration, for Marina and for the reader. There are so many obstacles to be conquered before Marina can even *get* to where Dr. Swenson is, getting there becomes more of a focus than the why. She finally arrives, determined to get in and get out. However, as the story develops, she becomes more and more interested in what is going on, and the native people of the region. And Dr. Swenson eventually confesses that she has been wanting her to stay and carry on her work.

The entire story is leisurely, often in the most annoying way possible. When the end comes, it is rather sudden, and at least for me, somewhat surprising.

I will say again that the writing is what makes this book worthwhile. It's just that, for me, none of the characters really seemed that likable. Also, this book challenges beliefs and opinions, and to be honest, a lot of the time I just wasn't in the mood for it! I considered not finishing it, mainly because I found so little in the characters to keep going; in the end, I guess I am glad that I did finish it. Well-written, with
disturbing and thoughtful themes, but too rushed of an ending for me.

Murphy's Law, by Rhys Bowen.  This book is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Molly Murphy, an Irish immigrant in nineteenth century New York. In this installment, we meet Molly, and learn how and why she left Ireland and ended up in America. 

Molly is a young woman who has accidentally killed the son of the manor house where her family works and lives, when she resisted his advances, and pushed him back. He fell and hit his head on the stove, and was killed instantly. When the book opens, she is running away, hoping to go to London where she can hide out. Upon arrival in London, she fears that she is being followed by police, and is unexpectedly and fortunately taken in by Kathleen O'Connor, another Irish woman, staying in a boardinghouse with her two children prior to leaving for the United States to join her husband. Because Kathleen has been diagnosed with TB, she cannot leave Ireland, so she asks Molly to pose as her and get her children to their father.

While on the ocean crossing, Molly crosses paths with a rough guy named O'Malley, who is trying to make her admit that she is an impostor. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, she and the children have to stay for a few days before they can go through final processing. When they are finally released, she finds out that someone killed O'Malley, and they have arrested a young man who Molly befriended and knows is innocent.

Once arrived in New York, Molly delivers the children to their father, who has found work digging what will become the subway. She has no job and no family to turn to, and she is also determined to prove her young friend's innocence. She clashes with one of the detectives on the case, Daniel Sullivan, while also finding herself attracted to him.

The story continues as Molly tries to adjust to life in New York, find a job and place to live, and also track down a murderer. The descriptions of places are well-drawn, and evocative of the time and place, and though this is not an incredibly involved story, it is well-paced and Molly is an interesting heroine. I will definitely read more in this series, and think it is a perfect break from more serious types of stories. It is also entertaining for the time and place where it occurs, since New York at this time, and Tammany Hall politicians make for good stories.

Life's a Beach, by Claire Cook.  So, not the greatest book I've ever read. But it was a) free, and b) enjoyable enough to finish. The book's narrator is Ginger Walsh, a 40-something who lives in a room over the garage to her parents' house in Marshbury, Massachusetts, with her cat named Boyfriend. Ginger thinks of her situation as "temporary" even though her sister reminds her that it's been a couple of years. She has a boyfriend, Noah, who is a glassblower, and who calls or comes over when he feels like it. Which is fine with Ginger, but drives her sister, Geri, insane. Geri is a Type A, married with three kids, and agonizing over her upcoming 50th birthday.

Things are thrown into chaos when Ginger's parents tell her they are planning to sell the house and move to a condo. Which means she will have to find someplace else to live, and actually find a job. She has always been interested in jewelry-making, but like so many other things, has not put a huge amount of effort into it.

When she takes her nieces and nephew to audition as extras in a shark-attack horror movie being filmed nearby, and her nephew is chosen, she becomes responsible as his chaperone. Going to the set every day, dealing with the other kids' mothers, and becoming acquainted with members of the crew start to change her thoughts and her behaviors. As the book progresses and her parents make more and more preparations to move, various events make Ginger feel that it really is time for her to grow up.

Things end on a rather positive note, and it's OK in this book. Like I said, not a great work of literature, but a good read over a summer weekend. The characters are not always completely believable, but it is fiction, right?

A Fountain Filled with Blood, by Julia Spencer-Fleming.  When I saw in the plot summary that this story took place around the Fourth of July, I decided the weekend of the Fourth would be the perfect time to read it. I had enjoyed the previous book by Julia Spencer-Fleming, and was interested in reading more about Reverend Clare Fergusson and the goings-on in her congregation and in her town of Millers Kill, New York.

The book begins with the brutal attack on a gay man, the town's medical examiner, on his way home from a dinner party with friends. At the town Independence Day celebrations, everyone is talking not just about that, but about a new development being built that will be a luxury spa. However, the groundwater has been tested and shows high levels of PCBs. That is a problem or not, depending who you are in the community. Even the town's police chief, and Clare's friend Russ Van Alstyne, has to arrest his mother for rallying without a permit!

In the meantime, another gay man is attacked, and like the previous incident, it appears to be a hate crime. Whether or not to call it that becomes a bone of contention between Clare and the police chief. Then on an evening when Clare is walking friends' dogs, they come across the body of one of the people involved in the spa deal, with his throat cut. He was also gay, so at first it seems like part of a pattern.

As the story progresses, it becomes less and less clear whether it was a hate crime, or if the murder was committed by someone wanting to halt the development. Clare finds herself chasing clues and developing theories, none of which Russ really wants to hear.

I don't want to say much else, because I do think the book is worth reading to fill in the details and let you see what happens. The only thing I didn't like about the book is that after you read it, you realize that only one part of one of the crimes has been solved, and are left wondering about the others.

A good read, and I definitely want to keep going in this series.

Dog on It, by Spencer Quinn.   I really enjoyed this book! I don't remember who I know that had read this series and recommended it, but thanks to whoever it was!

The story is told from the standpoint of Chet, the canine partner in Little Detective Agency. His "partner" Bernie, is the human detective, and in this first installment of the series, they are trying to track down a missing young girl. In the process, they uncover links to real estate fraud and the Russian mob.

It is a fun and enjoyable story, and I always enjoy reading stories that take place from the viewpoint of animals. Chet is amusing as well as astute, and he and Bernie are fortunate to have each other.

I would recommend this to mystery lovers who are also animal lovers.
Pictures from an Expedition, by Diane Smith.  A few years back, I read Diane Smith's book Letters from Yellowstone, and loved it. A few months after, I saw this book at the bookstore, and picked it up, but never read it until now. I was not disappointed.
The story takes place in 1876, shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn, when Eleanor Peterson, a scientific illustrator in her late thirties, leaves her post in Philadelphia at "The Academy" (which turns out to be the Academy of Natural Sciences - I work there now!), to take part in an palaeontological expedition sponsored by Yale College, to Montana. The expedition is sponsored by "The Captain," but lead by Dr. Patrick Lear, a war veteran who is determined to find dinosaur fossils, and contribute to the study of American lands and creatures. Eleanor is accompanied by her mentor, Augustus Starwood, an older man who is a well-known portrait painter and quoter of Shakespeare. When they reach Montana, there are already several people in Lear's camp, assisting with the dig, as well as rival scientists hoping to find something first, and Indians who are unsettled due to their treatment by the American government and white people in general.

Eleanor tells the story later (in 1919), through a series of letters to John Wilson of the Smithsonian Institution. He has asked for her assistance in identifying a collection of of drawings, paintings, and artifacts of Augustus Starwood, that have been donated by his niece. Each letter represents one of the items or groups of items, and through them, we are able to get to know each character as well as "see" the land as it was in that time.

The thing about this book is not just the story it tells, but the way it presents a different place and time in a completely understandable fashion. Eleanor Peterson is of course, an important character, but she lets the others develop and shine, and you begin to feel a sense of community with all of them. I think people today seldom think about how difficult this type of thing was in 1876, or how alien the Montana Territories would seem to explorers from Connecticut or Pennsylvania. It gives me a further appreciation of the leaps of faith taken by many who wanted to find something/learn something, even thought they often had little or no idea what the undertaking would be.

Different books, with different themes, but definitely an interesting group of titles!


Carrie#K said...

Interesting mix! Pictures from an Expedition sounds fascinating.

SissySees said...

Always love your reviews. They inspire me to reconnect with a book, any book, waiting to be read at my house...

Kim said...

I've been going back and forth on "State of Wonder." When "Bel Canto" came out, EVERYbody was talking about it ---- I didn't like it at all. So I'm in no rush here.

Has the heat wave cracked up there?