Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler

Title: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think
Authors: Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 78

Reading the newspaper or watching the Today show (especially watching the Today show), you might think that the world is going to hell. In five years there won't be any food left, there won't be clean water, there won't be oil, and it will be 100 degrees in January. But according to the authors of Abundance, life is only going to get better. They give many very convincing arguments for how the world is going to get better as technology improves. Africa will get clean drinking water and power. Cell phones have already given the average African tribesman as much information as the US president had 20 years ago.

The book reads like a TED talk, and I felt like my faith in human nature was restored by the end. Through innovation, technology, and a few well-placed prizes, we'll be able to solve the problems of global warming and renewable energy, and we'll all be driving around in computer-driven cars in 20 years. One thing I really didn't like is that the book is written by two authors, but someone kept referring to himself as "I" (when I was in medical school, when I established the X prize) but they never made it clear which "I" was speaking. That made the book a little bit annoying.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Title: The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 77

Hazel is sixteen, and she's was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Her lungs are crap, and she's not a transplant candidate, so she walks around with an oxygen canister. Her parents pulled her out of school when she got sick, and now they have a tendency to hover. Her one break each week is her support group for teenagers with cancer, which is where she meets Gus, a seventeen-year-old who's osteosarcoma is in remission and who came to support a friend who's going blind. Sounds like a pretty grim story, right?

I laughed harder reading The Fault in Our Stars than any other book I've read this summer. Hazel and Gus, who fall in love, don't feel sorry for themselves, and they don't want anyone else to feel sorry for them either. They hate all of the cancer platitudes and tropes, and realize that their lives are decidedly not normal, even without everyone skirting around their issues. Hazel also has a major thing for this book, written about a girl who has cancer. She's read it at least a dozen times, and she has Gus read it too. Gus decides to use his Make-A-Wish wish to fly Hazel to Amsterdam where they meet the author, and where they have to confront the beauty and sadness that comes with the lives they've been consigned to lead.

The book has been compared with 50/50, and I can see some similarities. Green has written several other books, all for a YA audience, but it wasn't until I'd finished this book and looked at the amazon page that I realized that this is also intended for a YA audience. I thought it was a perfect book for an adult to read about kids with cancer, but I'm a little torn about the YA audience. These are very realistic, flawed, imperfect teenagers, and they do dumb things and things which find them out of their league. And while they would hate it if others accused them of playing the cancer card, they occasionally do things that they might not do if they didn't have to focus on their mortality every day.

The Fault in Our Stars is not a happy book, but it's an entertaining, enjoyable book. And a horrifying book, because as a reader I fell a little bit in love with Hazel and Gus.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Book Review: Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Title: Secret Daughter
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 76

The year is 1984, and Somer, a young physician living in San Francisco, is devastated to learn at at 31, she's going through menopause. After a period of grieving, she and her husband, Kris, decide to adopt from India, where Kris was born and raised.

Halfway around the world, Kavita gives birth to Usha, the daughter she knows her husband will kill, just like he killed the one she bore last year. So when the baby is only a few hours old, she walks for a whole day to an orphanage and tearfully leaves her daughter there. Usha becomes Asha, and soon Asha is adopted by Somer and Kris and brought to the US.

For the next 21 years, the book follows the lives of Somer and Kavita, as well as both of their husbands and the daughter they share. It's an interesting story, especially as it concerns some of the issues that Somer has with wanting her daughter to be "American" and not to embrace her Indian roots too much, along with Kavita's persistent sense of loss. The book also presented great insights into how an internationally adopted child might feel growing up in the United States. However, there were so many voices and so much time passing that I felt like I was just scraping the surface of this story rather than getting a full, rounded picture.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book Review: Twitterpated by Melanie Jacobson

Title: Twitterpated
Author: Melanie Jacobson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 75

Once again, I spent money on a romance novel, and I blame Melanie Jacobson for it. Her Whitney finalist novels, The List and Not My Type, were so enjoyable to read and so insightful about Mormon culture that I decided I would buy her next book too.

Twitterpated takes place in Seattle, where Jessie Taylor doesn't do much but work. She certainly doesn't date-- she's not into the guys in her singles ward and, besides, she's scared off after the missionary she waited for dumped her for a sister missionary from his mission. Her roommate recognizes that Jessie is going to work herself to death without having any fun, so she secretly puts up Jessie's profile on an LDS dating website. Jessie is furious, at least until Ben's profile shows up. Ben seems to be a perfect match for Jessie-- he's handsome and gentlemanly and successful, but he quickly starts to feel jealous of Jessie's single-minded devotion to being a CPA.

I don't think there's any question that Ben and Jessie will end up together. I like this about the novel, because it's a lot like real life. These are two people who are crazy about each other, but they have to take some time to figure out how to open their lives to make room for the other person. They also both have some issues from past relationships that make them skittish about entering new relationships. Jessie is a workaholic because she hates to fail. She feels that she desperately failed when she got dumped by the missionary she'd waited for, and so she's reluctant to put herself out there and fail again. Ben was once engaged to a girl who used working as an excuse for not really being all that into him. I think these are important issues, and issues that can be interesting to read about in fiction, but I wonder if the romance genre really allows for deep exploration, because the whole thing seems wrapped up pretty quickly. Similarly, there's a really interesting side story where Jessie's roommate, who is not active in the church, goes on a self-improvement binge. After one morning going to church with Jessie's family, she seems headed back down the path toward activity. I wanted more from that side story-- it seemed too compelling to gloss it over. Finally, because the story starts with the scene where Jessie discovers her dating profile and we haven't had much of a chance to see her neuroses in action, it takes some time for a reader to adapt and see that these are big hangups for her. I felt like Ben recognized that Jessie had issues even before I as a reader did (I thought he was being kind of a whiny baby), and that would have been avoided if I'd had a better sense of her as a character before I saw her with Ben. All in all, a fun read, but this book had the potential to be a lot more than a fun read too.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Title: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 74

I don't plan to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter when it hits theaters in a few weeks. The previews look way too gory, and it seems to be shot in that gray-on-black way that always puts me immediately to sleep. But I'd heard a lot of buzz around the movie, and I hate to be left in the dark, so I decided to read the book so I would at least be conversant in this pop culture moment (by the way, I'm really struggling with my choice not to read Fifty Shades of Grey, for mostly the same reasons).

Anyway, the premise of ALVH is that shortly after Lincoln's beloved mother dies, when he's barely more than a boy, Lincoln discovers that she was not killed by milk fever (as history suggests) but by a vampire who was owed money by Lincoln's father. Fueled by rage, Lincoln decides to avenge his mother's death and rid the world of vampires. After that, pretty much every significant moment in Lincoln's life (the death of his first love, his choice to pursue politics, his election to the presidency) can be traced directly to his relationship with Henry, a "good" vampire who wants to eradicate the "bad" vampires who came to America because they could buy themselves a steady stream of fresh blood through the slave trade. So the Civil War is really just a cover for the war between the good and bad vampires.

There are some things I loved about ALVH. I love how Grahame-Smith took real historical elements and gave them a vampiric twist. It's evident that lots of research went into the novel, and that made it feel believable (in its own twisted way) to me. But ultimately, the book was a lot more icky and gory than I enjoy.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: Defending Jacob by William Landay

Title: Defending Jacob
Author: William Landay
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Hardback copy
Books I've read this year: 73

When Andy Barber goes to work on a morning in April 2007, it's a day like any other. He said goodbye to his wife, Laurie, and teenage son, Jacob, and when he arrived at the DA's office in Cambridge, Mass, he was summoned to the scene of a murder of a fourteen-year-old boy, a classmate of Jacob's, who was killed in a local park while walking to school. Barber takes on the case and targets a sex offender living near the park, but pretty soon someone else is arrested. Jacob.

The book is set up as a series of flashbacks from April 2008, when Barber has to testify in front of a grand jury. A close read shows that something strange is afoot, something more than just the murder trial, which took place in the fall of 2007. But the reader doesn't know what that something is, and why Barber is testifying, until the end of the book. That's something that bugged me for most of the book. But early on, Landay drops us a clue that kept me reading on. I can't find the page now, but Barber talks about movies like The Sixth Sense and how you think you're working in one kind of worldview until the very end, when the whole story changes and all of the pieces fall into place. Because of that line, I kept reading until the end, wondering if it was a red herring or if there was a twist. It's not a red herring. I'm not sure if it's ultimately satisfying enough to make the book a great read, but it was definitely an interesting one. For me, the most interesting part was watching Barber interact with Jacob. Until Jacob gets arrested, Barber seems fairly convinced that he's raising a normal fourteen-year-old boy. But during the trial phase, Jacob seems to be living a profoundly dysfunctional life. Did his dad ignore the facts for most of Jacob's life? Did he just not know his kid very well? Does he really believe his son is innocent?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Trips and Milestones

When Bryce was a baby, my parents lived four hours north of us. The first time we visited them, I spent two days packing and the night before we got in the car I couldn't sleep because I was so nervous about how the trip would go. He cried. A lot. Over the next half decade, I got used to the fact that whenever we drove for more than 30 minutes, the baby in the back seat would scream, whine, wail, barf, etc... Car trips were something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Because I have a sadistic streak a mile wide, I decided that I'd reward us all for a great end to the school year by taking a trip from Salt Lake City to Vancouver, British Columbia, with a bunch of stops in between. We drove more than 3,000 miles through five states (and Canada!) stopping in six hotels along the way. I knew that if we brought enough books, crayons, DVDs, and devices beginning with the letter "i," the older kids would pretty much leave us alone in the front of the van. They'd pop on their wireless headphones (the best purchase ever!) and watch The Muppets all the way to Canada. But Rose might hate the car. And if she did, we'd all be miserable.

Once again, Wonderbaby came through. With a sister on either side, Rose loved the van. They talked to her and played games with her, and she endured even our fourteen hour deathmarch home with little more than the occasional whimper. The only time she really lost it and screamed was when we sat in rush hour traffic at the border crossing on the way back from Vancouver, and honestly, I felt like crying and screaming then too (not because of her, just because it had been a REALLY long day).

Here's a quick photo recap of our visit:

Friday- Salt Lake to Winnemucca

Pretty sky
 Saturday- Winnemucca to Monterey to San Francisco

Notice Maren is wearing her PJs for the Ghirardelli outing
Too tired to share!

Sunday- San Francisco to Ukiah
Annie and I ate here for breakfast and lunch
Breaking free from the Rock
Isaac loved the Sea Lions

I REALLY wanted to run across the bridge, but settled for riding shotgun
Monday- Ukiah to Eugene along the California Coast (the day it rained ALL day)
Picking her nose and covering herself with cookie crumbs proved very entertaining
Some fancy mansion in Eureka that is now a "gentlemen's club." Don't be fooled by the blue sky.
Rain in the Redwoods
Rain along the coast
Rain at the border (my 49th state!)

Tuesday- Eugene to Portland

We took the kids for "nasty" donuts. Too rainy to get pictures in the many gardens we trudged them through before they got their sugar.
Wednesday- Portland to Seattle along the Oregon Coast

Thursday- Seattle to Vancouver, BC and back (sigh)
Not sure where we are here.

Bryce said coming to Canada was "the only" reason why he consented to join us on the trip
Still sorta smiling, but not exactly happy.
Friday- Seattle (no driving!)
Top of the Space Needle for lunch and this dessert (Maren seems a little scared of it!)
Bryce's future employer
 Saturday- Seattle to Salt Lake (we'd planned to stop in Boise, but decided to soldier on through and get home)
We stopped in Weiser, ID to check on Grandma and Grandpa's graves

And in other news, we've now had Rose for three months. She's made so much progress. Last week, despite spending hours every day in a car, she started scooting (mostly backwards) and once we got home, we moved her to her crib, where she discovered that she can pull herself up to standing. She looks like she'll start crawling any day now. I'm not fooling myself-- at fourteen months, she still has a long way to go to be completely caught up with her peers (there was a thirteen-month old Chinese girl at one of our hotels who ran into the breakfast room screaming for "Baba"), but she does seem to be catching up. Our PT said this morning that she can really see the difference in the weeks that pass between her visits. I hadn't spent too much time looking at our pictures from China since we got home, but as I was putting this post together I ran across some of the original pictures on the photostream and was shocked at how different she looks.

Exactly three months ago.
Baking cookies with me this morning
And eating as much dough as she can sink her fists into.

Book Review: Royal Flush by Rhys Bowen

Title: Royal Flush (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries #3)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 83

I was scrolling through old posts on my blog, trying to keep the number of books I've read this year straight (I'm down from last year, I'm afraid-- the driving to and from Provo really helped my numbers), and I found the post for this book buried way down the page. It's been months since I finished it. Like the other Royal Spyness Mysteries, Georgie finds herself on a mission for the queen that puts her in the path of a killer. This time she returns to Castle Rannoch, and it appears that someone has it out for anyone of royal blood. People turn up dead, Georgie ends up in the hands of the killer, and a good time is had by all. It was a fun read, and my blood was pumping in the final pages (was it just because I was running uphill?) as she confronted the killer.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: Drop Dead Healthy by AJ Jacobs

Title: Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Quest for Bodily Perfection
Author: AJ Jacobs
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 72

I think this might be the last AJ Jacobs book I read for a while. I find him entertaining as a writer, but this is the fourth book I've read where he hasn't varied from the "I'm neurotic but willing to try anything for at least a month" persona. Frankly, it's getting a little old. Even his adorable wife Julie, who calls him on every weird whim, doesn't do it for me any more. He might be writing about growing a beard (like in The Year of Living Biblically) or he might be training for a triathlon, like in Drop Dead Healthy, but the books aren't all that different. He tries something out, he makes some jokes about it, he researches it, he adopts some things and drops others, he annoys his wife, he makes a general pest of himself. Endearing for a book or two, and a little bit annoying after four. This book has helped me realize that an audiobook can really enhance a good book, but it can make a sort of meh book seem really, really long. Or maybe I just really, really don't want to eat my veggies.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Author: Katherine Boo
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 71

The most remarkable thing about Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not that it's a heartbreaking story where too many young people die and too many people suffer injustice from people who should be protecting them (like parents and police), although that is true, the most remarkable thing is that it's a true story. I don't mean that it's based on a true story-- I mean that Katherine Boo actually worked her way into the fabric of Annawadi slum near the Mumbai airport and was able to report on what happened there over a period of years. And the people actually talked to her. When I think about Behind the Beautiful Forevers as a piece of reporting, it almost strains my credulity-- it's a book that reads like fiction, with plots that seem to come out of an Indian Charles Dickens. There are young boys accused of murders they did not commit. Young girls who kill themselves rather than marry men they don't love. Men and women who will do anything for enough grease in the palm. Although Boo briefly describes her process in the Afterword, I would love to see a more in-depth look at exactly how she picked this slum, these people, and gained their trust, because she's writing from both sides of some longstanding slum turf wars, and that's impressive.

That said, I found that there were times when I didn't want to read this book. It wasn't one that I picked up and zipped through. Some afternoons I read The New Yorker or perused every article on rather than reading the book. While I think it's an important book and a remarkable book, I'm not always sure it was an accessible, easy book. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but maybe I'm sometimes sort of a bad reader.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

Title: The Leopard
Author: Jo Nesbo
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 70

I'm not sure how many books into the Harry Hole series we are now, but it's at least half a dozen. At the beginning of The Leopard, Harry has left Norway and is living in Hong Kong, where he has traded alcohol addiction for opium addiction, and he's doing his best to let the drug help him forget Rakel and Oleg, with whom he narrowly escaped from the Snowman's murderous clutches and who now need some space.

As the book opens, Kaja Solness, a detective with the Oslo Police Force, arrives in Hong Kong to bring Harry home. At least two women have turned up dead, and the police force thinks it has another serial killer on its hands. Hole reluctantly returns and steps into the middle of a turf war between the local force and a crime squad, so he has to tread carefully. The murders are gruesome, and there are so many people who could have committed the crime.

I really admire Nesbo's use of symbolism and analogy-- he's another author who always does a great job of presenting an image, and then reintroducing it in a way that's essential to the plot several hundred pages later. He's a rewarding author to read because he makes a reader feel smart. Many of the Amazon reviews mentioned that the Hole books seem more and more sensational all the time, and this definitely feels like the hardest, most violent of the Hole novels. I wonder if, in some ways, it's because Harry himself is becoming harder and harder as the weight of his job threatens to pull him under.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

Title: Edenbrooke
Author: Julianne Donaldson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Softbound copy
Books I've read this year: 69

A few weeks ago I was walking through the Deseret Book at the Gateway with my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law. My sister-in-law was visiting from Miami and said she needed something light and fun to read, and asked if I had any recommendations. While I was singing the praises of Maisie Dobbs, she pointed at a book on a shelf near us and asked, "Do you think this one is any good?"

My mother-in-law said that she'd heard quite a bit of buzz about Edenbrooke, and I figured that I might as well get started reading it, since it was fairly likely to end up as a Whitney Finalist. So I bought it. Now you have to recognize that this is a significant moment in my life. It might just be the first time that I bought a romance novel when I wasn't compelled to do so for a review or a school project or the Whitney contest (okay, I take that back, I did freely buy Moriah Jovan's books last year, but this is the first romance novel I bought without a prurient interest in what I'd find between the jackets).

Anyway, Edenbrooke is a nice, sweet, well-written, inoffensive Regency romance. The protagonist, Marianne, has spent the last year in Bath with her cranky grandmother, while her more beautiful, more interesting twin sister, Cecily, wowed the London social scene. When Marianne, who like most good romantic heroines, hates needlepoint and loves to twirl, is summoned to Edenbrooke, the home of her dead mother's best friend, she falls hard for Phillip, the heir. But is Phillip playing games with her? Doesn't she need to give Cecily the first shot at him? Can she please her grandmother enough to retain her promised inheritance and still be true to herself?

Donaldson does a great job showing Marianne's inner struggles. She has a real gift for expressing the tension and longing Marianne feels as she falls in love with Phillip. I remember feeling much the same way at the same age. But the book was also somewhat problematic for me as a feminist reader. First of all, Marianne's grandmother announces early in the novel that she plans to change her will so Marianne can inherit the family fortune instead of a ne'er do well male cousin. I think this would have been a fairly revolutionary move in the Regency period, but Donaldson doesn't seem to remark much on it, which is interesting since Marianne and Cecily and the other girls in the novel recognize how little power they have-- they need to look pretty and talk sweetly to get men interested in them, and once they do that they will be taken care of. I think Donaldson could have explored these tensions more fully.

And then there's the book jacket-- which seems to underscore these same gender issues. The back jacket has three quotes-- all from the wives of authors. For some reason, this really, really bugged me. Is Brandon Mull's wife qualified to make a jacket quote because she's married to an author? Does she have her own qualifications? It felt a little ironic that these women are quoted not for their own accomplishments, but for those of their husbands. Does Marianne stand a chance to be seen for her own merits, or will she always be viewed through the lens of being Sir Phillip's wife?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Review: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

Title: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
Author: Anna Quindlen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Hardback copy
Books I've read this year: 68

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Eddie gave me this book for Mother's Day. He had a cake theme going (no actual cake included), and he gave me this book and a book written by the guy who does the Cake Boss show on TLC. However, I don't think he actually looked at the book jacket, since a quick glance reveals that this is a memoir dedicated to growing older. Quindlen, long known for her writings about books, her children, and liberal causes (maybe that's why I've always liked her so much), no longer has children living at home. In a couple of years, she'll be sixty, so in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, she writes about becoming a mature woman-- about chasing her dreams and growing into becoming someone she's proud of.

The book is pretty interesting, even for someone who is a couple of decades younger than Quindlen. The second to last chapter (the one on grief) is probably the most beautiful thing she's ever written. And there's a quote from one of the chapters on parenting adult children that is phenomenal. She says, "Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us." Knowing Quindlen as I now do from reading this book, I'm pretty sure that if she came across this quote in a book she liked, she'd needlepoint it on a pillow. Maybe I should do the same.