Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Next time, keep the kid

Title: The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Author: Kim Edwards

In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Norah Henry goes into labor three weeks early and during a snowstorm. As a result, they are unable to make it to the hospital, and David Henry, an orthopedic surgeon, is left to do the delivery with the help of his nurse, Caroline.

At first surprised and then dismayed by the delivery of a second child, a girl with Down syndrome, David makes a rash decision he will regret the rest of his life. He hands the child off to the nurse with instructions to take her to a home, not an uncommon thing to have done in the 60s. Caroline, secretly in love with David, attempts to do so. However, she finds the home to be a horrible place and opts to raise the child herself. She quickly leaves town and creates a new life in Pittsburgh.

Instead of the truth, David tells Norah that she had a second, stillborn child. This lie wreaks havoc on their lives - creating a wall between them and complicating the relationship with their healthy firstborn son. Caroline sends pictures and letters to David as his daughter, Phoebe, grows but David cannot bring himself to tell his wife the truth and reunite their family.

A well-written novel, but one that I wouldn't necessarily recommend. I read to escape, and when a novel feels very real and the characters have dreary miserable lives - well, there just has to be something better out there to read.

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posted by Kate at 6:01 PM


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Heh? What just happened?

Title: The Fire
Author: Katherine Neville

This book got a starred review in Publisher's Weekly and sounded interesting, so I thought I'd check it out. Little did I know I was in for a laborious undertaking that would leave me beyond confused. The Washington Post's review is far more accurate.

At first, I thought I was a bit of an idiot who just couldn't understand the complex plot(s) of the novel. However, I prefer to think that the Washington Post reviewer was right when he wrote: "But the clues and connections in The Fire offer more convolution than complexity." There is just something irritating about too much convolution, clues that I can't seem to draw any sense from, and the overuse of cliches with the pathetic excuse that the good friend of the main character has a penchant for cliches. If that's the case, only said friend should be allowed to use them, not the main character with the constantly repeated preface of "As Key would say...." Here's a thought, how about coming up with an original way of saying something?

Hmm, I suppose I should address the plot. Well, there are two of them. And just when I was getting hooked on one, and I thought I finally had some semblance of an idea as to what the heck was going on, we switched to the other plot. Insanely frustrating.

So, Xie, short for Alexandra, is the daughter of Alexander and Cat Solarin, two people previously involved in the Game (which apparently you can read about in Neville's book The Eight published in 1988. Perhaps I should have started there). The Game is some sort of complicated fight for all the pieces of a very old chess set said to have some sort of knowledge hidden within it. There's a lot of references to the number eight, which is the number of squares in a row on a chessboard. And lots of random numbers adding up to eight. And just lots of fantastical eightliness. But I digress.

The Game, thought to have stopped with the end of the previous book, has apparently started up again. Eight people are involved, and Xie is always switching back and forth about which side she thinks they are on.

You know what? I give up. I really cannot make sense of this thing in a short review. That's only the main plot one-eighth explained (if that). I haven't even gotten to the subplot!

Bottom Line: Don't read it unless you want a headache. I think I'm getting one just from trying to write the review.

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posted by Kate at 7:19 PM


Good lord, no!! It's... adorable?

Title: Other Stories and... The Attack of the Giant Baby
Author: Kit Reed
Bookmark: Old train ticket that I found in my coat pocket

This is another treasure that ket dug up at her bookstore. Before anything about what goes on inside the cover, take a look at the cover itself:

Ket has told me that she often picks books based on amusing titles or cover art, and let's face it: by those criteria, this is a sure-fire winner. The title is fantastic, I love that the subtitle precedes the main title, and although the title story includes a "life-sized Steiff rhinoceros" from F.A.O. Schwartz, there's nothing about baby Leonard destroying the Empire State Building, which is grossly out of scale anyway. My cousin has three classic B-movie posters professionally mounted and hung on his wall; I want this book cover as a poster. The only thing it's missing is a busty, leggy blonde in torn clothing screaming at the camera, and it could beat every poster my cousin has--even Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

I laughed myself into a stupor when I saw this book, and woke up three days later eager to see what it offered. Reed filled it with short, strange stories that range from detailed but uninspired ("War Songs," in which the women form a militia to fight the men, who don't really take it seriously. Some of the women are disappointed to learn that their roles in the new regime are the same as the roles they left behind--cooking, cleaning--while others are hell bent on destroying men entirely, reminding me of nothing so much as an underground comic series.) to inventively bizarre (a more literal take on "Empty Nest" syndrome). It reminded me of that phase in high school when I found out that Ray Bradbury, in addition to Fahrenheit 451, had also written tons of short stories. I happily plowed through two or three collections of his stuff, and while it was always entertaining, it often left me with the feeling that I had taken drugs cooked up in someone's bathroom. Bradbury likes to take really strange ideas (What if a baby had an adult's intelligence and really hated his parents? What if you could buy a robot grandma?) and toy with them, and I think that for many writers, that's the whole point of a short story; getting to play with an idea that intrigues you, but isn't enough to carry a book on its own.

Kit Reed does the same thing. There's a lot of funny little ideas (What if you could order a genius baby? What if you hired a horrific monster to eat your in-laws?), and Reed toys with them, but it feels more like a sketchbook than a gallery opening. I finished a lot of stories wondering what the hell the point was. Granted, I tend to prefer a little closure, a little explanation; I like to get a good, solid look into the world of the story instead of just a brief glimpse. Some of the stories gave me what I wanted--I really liked Empty Nest, even though there's no good explanation of what's going on, because the part that Reed gave us was done so well. Then there are stories like Pilots of the Purple Twilight, which feels more like the prattlings of a senile grandparent: you pay attention because you're supposed to, but you get nothing out of it, and end up wondering whether there's anything good on tv. Still worth a read, and a great airplane book. You can't read my copy, though--I'm having it framed.

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posted by reyn at 1:09 PM


Monday, December 08, 2008

Starving authors' sale

Title: The Great Brain Robbery
Author: James P. Fisher
Bookmark: months-old train ticket

I'm going to let you folks in on a little secret. Sometimes ket goes to the used bookstore, slaps down a fiver, and walks out with three hundred high-quality paperbacks, and a biography of a NASCAR driver, which she sends to me with no return address. These selections are usually based on entertaining titles, or bizarre cover illustrations (my next post is a shining example of both qualities), and in many cases, her process turns up true gems.

Then there are cases that make it obvious how she can walk out with such a high stack of books for less than the cost of a Whopper. The best part of this book was the clever title. Wait. Scratch that. The title shares "Best Quality" honors with the malicious glee I felt while reading it, knowing that someday soon I'd get to review it. Books like this remind me of why we gave our little project such a vicious name, and why many of us read crap for the joy of tearing it apart later.

Spoilers be damned--I'm laying everything out for you.

Dennis is a college junior with a recurring nightmare he can't understand which is always accompanied by a sense of guilt over "the unpardonable sin" (turns out, it's not failure to rewind VHS rentals). He's growing bored with everything, despite his roommate's efforts to get him laid at a beach party. When a visiting professor runs a brain wave test on him in psych class, he sees the nightmare vision again, but it turns out the prof was a fake. After calling every shrink in the book trying to get an appointment, a college shrink asks him if he likes his penis, and Dennis goes home to discover the fake prof in his apartment with a teleportation device in a suitcase.

He takes Dennis to a room carved out of Antarctic ice and asks him to save his alien world with his unique brain waves by basically standing around.

Believe it or not, his claims are not legit. The alien (whose name, Cynnax, has an X in it so we know he's an alien) has collected 24 Earthlings in the hopes that two of them will hold the key to saving his world from a basement dimension, but plans to torture the necessary "force" from their brains to do so.

Then there's a two-page, full-color ad for cigarettes that probably cost as much to print on its glossy paper as the rest of the book. Go, 70's.

Dennis discovers there's a second world ALSO marooned in this micro-dimension, filled with people who look like dogs, and they're good guys, and although they have some trans-dimensional telportation capability, they have no devices for sealing plot holes. Dennis goes on commando raid with invisibility serum, gets captured, discovers that although the bad guys can teleport themselves across thousands of light years and dimensional barriers, their holding cells dissolve when exposed to tears. Really. Salt water apparently burns right through their space-age poly-crete.

Blah blah poor transitions, blah blah whiny protagonist, blah blah weak love subplot, blah blah painfully bad science (their polar base is subjected to temperatures "near absolute zero"), blah blah more plot holes, blah blah happy ending.

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posted by reyn at 1:39 PM


Saturday, December 06, 2008

If I'd only been born here...

A Change of Heart: How the People of Framingham, Massachusetts, Helped Unravel the Mysteries of Cardiovascular Disease
by Daniel Levy, M.D., and Susan Brink

Framingham is legendary in medical and anthropological circles. They started tracking the medial stories of 5000 locals in 1948, taking physicals every 2 years. This has allowed them to monitor the progression of all sorts of diseases including hypertension, atherosclerosis, cancer, strokes, etc., and to see the relationship between physical conditions and the resulting afflictions.

About 60 years ago, the worlds views on medicine were drastically different than they are today. Blood pressure was thought to be healthy when naturally rising with age. Diets were thought to be healthy when including MEAT MEAT FAT MEAT. Smoking was HEALTHY.

When FDR died, his blood pressure was something like 300/180. In today's world, that's absurd. It means his arteries were all so hardened that his heart was working ridiculously hard to create any sort of circulation. It killed him. A normal, healthy pressure is about 120/60.

Through Framingham, they recognized the relationship between high blood pressure and heart attacks, strokes, etc. They recognized the general existence of risk factors (and coined the phrase). They fought to educate physicians around the world to treat their patients, helped spur the development of statins, and changed overall perspectives on medicine.

As the original Framingham 5000 aged, a second group was added to the study - their descendents. They're now on to the third generation. People have moved away, but come back every two years for their 2 days of extensive tests, because they have recognized their responsibility to the study and all the good it's done.

The funding for the original study ran out in 1978, and it was almost ended. Thankfully, through university partnerships and a LOT of fighting for funding, it still survives. They publish probably hundreds of studies each year, generally either groundbreaking or confirming unproven theories, simply because they have access to so much data. The study started in the era of room-sized computers requiring punch cards. Even then the doctors and scientists managed to capture massive amounts of data from each patient that allowed trending. Now, they can capture even more, and the data crunching takes significantly less time.

The book is written by one of the directors of the study, providing an interesting insider's view. Having read tons of journal articles originating from them, it was great to see all the stories and people behind it.

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posted by ket at 12:39 PM


Or just plain careless.

Careless in Red
by Elizabeth George

This is one of the Inspector Lynley series novels. I've never read any of them, but have come across the related TV series on PBS, so I figured it was worth a try.

Sadly, though it was somewhat interesting, I guessed all the major plot twists way before they happened. And it's set in somewhere on the coast of GB where all the people have funny names (Santo, Jago, Benesek, Cadan, Dellen, etc.). There's a lot of supporting characters, and with the funny name thing it was hard to keep track of what was going on for the first half or so (which made the obvious twists all that more disappointing).

If the series is worthy of PBS/BBC, I'll give it another try - maybe earlier in the series before the author ran out of ideas.

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posted by ket at 12:33 PM



Carrot Cake Murder
by Joanne Fluke

What can I say, I was running low on reading material and there's no way I'm spending 5 days with the family without some escape.

There's a random murder in the book. They solve it. Doesn't matter. I spent the whole time being amazed at the stupidity of the main characters. And don't worry, if the author is anything like them, she'll never find this review and yell at me.

Hannah is supposedly a 30-something woman who owns a successful business. However, she doesn't know how to use her effing cell phone - there's repeated descriptions of how someone programs in a different ring tone (!!!), she's all shocked when someone knows she's the caller when they answer their cell phone, etc. She can barely use the internet (see, we're safe!), and just barely manages to log on, being partially motivated by her mother also managing to use the interwebs. The various supporting characters don't know what a knockoff purse is. And there was something else infuriatingly stupid that I've forgotten but refuse to browse through to find it. Most importantly, though the characters react to technology like it's 1992, the book was published in 2008. Oy.

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posted by ket at 12:26 PM


Dial M for "meh"

Dial M for Mischief
by Kasey Michaels

Jolie's father, a PI, is dead - an apparent suicide. She comes home from Hollywood to be with her sisters at the funeral, and they decide to investigate the cases he'd been looking at to see why someone killed him, because obviously he didn't do it himself.

Also back in the hometown is her former fiance Sam, whom she left to go break into the movies, because if she'd staying with him she'd never have been happy. He's rich, and still in love with her, so he forces his way into the investigation so he can keep an eye on her.

They stir up some trouble, rule out one of the former cases (though finally solving the case of the disappearance of a runaway bride), and fall in love again (awww.). However, we still don't know who offed Daddy because there's two more books - one for each sister - that we'll still need to get through.

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posted by ket at 12:22 PM



Illegal Action
by Stella Rimington

I was so excited to see this just sitting on the shelf when I went to the library in desperate search of books so that I could survive the long Thanksgiving weekend with my family. And it didn't disappoint.

We rejoin Liz shortly after the events of the previous story have taken place. There are definitely some personnel shifts and repercussions, though Liz is not supposed to think of her transfer from counter-terrorism to counter-intelligence as a demotion or punishment. However, the lifestyle there is vastly different - much more relaxed, with normal hours, since the imminent threat of the Soviets having a spy in Britain isn't that big a deal now. Or so they think...

A few government members get complementary tips regarding a Russian oil oligarch being targeted, so they eventually get over to MI-6 and Liz gets stuck playing an art enthusiast to an oligarch who's in the market for a priceless painting. Plus there's secret motivations and some in-fighting between agencies messing with the whole investigation.

Essentially, those sneaky Russians still know what they're doing. And you never betray Mother Russia. There's a few casualties, but everyone learns a valuable lesson.

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posted by ket at 12:11 PM