Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport


The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes
by Randi Davenport
2010
*****
5 stars - outstanding!



Probably not the best choice on the eve of the birth of my first grandchild, a boy, but it popped to the top of the queue, so there you go.

The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes chronicles the struggles of single mother, Randi Davenport, with her son, Chase. Chase was an odd child, diagnosed first with autism, then with ADD, then with who knows what. At the onset of puberty, he developed a seizure disorder that resulted in a fall that required three surgeries to correct the damage incurred to his spine. 

Things went from bad to worse after that and after a few years, he suffered a psychotic break which required immediate hospitalization.

And thus begins the journey of Chase, his mother, and his younger sister, Haley. 

From the start, Chase presented a vexing problem to the medical community. His combination of symptoms did not fall into any single category and his mind was unresponsive to a battalion of different medications.

The story progresses with chapters alternating between past and present as Ms. Davenport describes the years leading up to Chase's hospitalization and her struggles to find a placement for him. Were she not a determined and resourceful woman, I shudder to think of what would have become of him.

But Ms. Davenport is, indeed, resourceful and determined. She spends months and then years trying to get her son the care he needs, all the while battling a system that is woefully unprepared to manage corner cases such as his. While in the intensive treatment facility, it is only a mother's love that keeps her coming and keeps her battling. Chase doesn't recognize her and is frequently violent towards her. Ms. Davenport is also working to help her daughter recover and grow after the trauma of living in a household with a brother whose behavior is unpredictable and whose symptoms demand constant attention. 

Kudos to Ms. Davenport for her writing style. I frequently find non-fiction rough going, but she pens her tale in a fashion that quickly draws the reader in. Heartbreaking, while somewhat trite, it the word that comes to mind. 

When faced with such devastating facts, one tries to figure out what could have been done differently to bring on better outcomes. Sadly, I could not find a single thread of hope and in fact I doubt I would have had the fortitude to persist as well as the author did. 

This is certainly a thought provoking book and an important one to read. I highly recommend it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy


The State of the Onion
by Julie Hyzy
2008
***
3 stars - fun stuff



Light, easy going, perfect way to spend an afternoon when you don't want to be challenged. Time for some fun.

This is the first in a series about White House head chef, Olivia Paras. In the opening scene, Olivia is in the wrong place at the wrong time and single handedly takes out a White House intruder by knocking him on the head with a frying pan. 

As with all mysteries of this genre, no gross or scary stuff, plenty of delightful characters, and a reasonably complex mystery. I loved all the details about running the White House kitchen and the side story regarding the competition for first chef position between Olivia and her nemesis, the narcissistic TV personality, Laurel Anne, was well played and amusing.

I liked the author even before I started the book proper. In her acknowledgements, she has the usual thanks to the folks who told her about how things work at the White House, along with this:

And I'd like to thank the Department of Homeland Security for not breaking down my door after my many Internet searches of "Camp David," "terrorist," "assassin," "White House floor plan," and the like.

Indeed.

Loyal readers know that one thing I require in a book is that the side characters are as well fleshed out as the main characters. Ms. Hyzy satisfied. Great descriptions of the people circling around the primary story.

Peter Everett Sargeant III reminded me of a grouchy squirrel. With his hands positioned as though he were cradling a precious nut, he canted his head three different ways in the space of two seconds. Alert, wary, eager.

For anybody who likes to cook (not me) there are several actual White House recipes included in the back of the book. If you do try them, they all sound yummy, so save me some, OK? 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Bone Bed by Patricia Cornwell


The Bone Bed
by Patricia Cornwell
2012
*****
5 stars - can't get enough of the Kay Scarpetta series



I have to give this 5 stars because this is the 20th Kay Scarpetta book and I have read every one. This, despite the fact that I actually have mixed feelings about the books.

Here's the thing. I don't like any of the characters. Not at all. While they are all very real and believable, they just aren't people I would ever want to meet. The main character, Kay Scarpetta, is a forensic scientist who is now Chief Medical Examiner in Boston (or maybe Cambridge since her office is apparently at MIT - huh?). She's selfish, cold, obsessed with her work, and frequently shows questionable judgement when it comes to her personal relationships.

Every new book by Ms. Cornwell is the same for me. First hundred pages or so, I am thinking that I won't finish because I just don't like the characters. Then she grabs me and I can't stop until I get to the end (which usually involves a relatively slow build up to a frenetic conclusion).

What keeps me coming back? The mysteries themselves. Ms. Cornwell started her professional life as a forensic scientist (but I am assuming that now she is a full time author) and so she knows of what she speaks. The mysteries all involve lots of really cool, nerdy details about how forensic investigations are carried out. How bodies decay in different circumstances, how fibers are used as trace evidence, how autopsies are conducted, the works. Come on, it is just too cool for school! 

Plus not every adventure in forensic medicine is directly involved with the main mystery, but it's up to the reader to suss out what is important and what isn't.

This particular novel starts out with Dr. Scarpetta receiving a blurry video and photograph of a human ear (no longer attached to the skull) via email. What the heck? Almost simultaneously, a body is discovered in a fishing net attached to a giant sea tortoise. But the body appears to have been frozen for some time before being submerged and is it somehow connected the to the missing person, presumed dead, whose husband is now on trial for hiring a hit man to kill her. Got it? Wow! 

In between, some personal intrigue between the regular players in the lab as well as the odd assortment of FBI agents. 

If I were just reading this book on its own, I would have given it four stars, but since I appear to be a hard core devotee of the series, it gets five. Haven't read any of these books? Start at the beginning with Postmortem (1990).

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck


The Good Earth
by Pearl S. Buck
1931
1932 Pulitzer Prize
****
4 stars - excellent



Poor Wang Lung. Sheesh. What doesn't happen to him? Family troubles, feast, famine, death, life, you name it. 

Certainly a curious choice for the Pulitzer Prize because even though the author is American, she spent most of her life in China and the novel is about life in the Chinese countryside. That's OK. People are people, right?

So here comes Wang Lung and the book opens on his wedding day. He's just a poor farmer so the best he can hope for in a wife is to have a marriage arranged with a slave from the local estate of a rich land baron. His wife, O-lan, turns out to be quite a catch. She takes care of Wang Lung and his aging father and toils in the fields side by side with her husband right up to the moment of the birth of her first child. Then she just excuses herself from the fields, drops the baby, and is right back to work. No maternity leave for her.

The setup is extreme poverty next to extreme wealth and nobody cares much for the rich folk. But Wang Lung is shrewd and he buys up whatever land he can and does well until the famine strikes and he and his family are forced south to live however they can until the bounty of the land returns and they are back to farming.

I learned a lot about Chinese culture from the book. Let me tell you, you so don't want to have been a woman in China during the early twentieth century. For real. Unless you were born rich, you would more often than not wind up being sold as a slave. The eldest daughters usually had their feet bound to make them desirable mates for some lucky chap. Foot binding. Ugh. Look it up. The bones in the feet were actually broken and usually it was done by a third party as mothers were considered too soft and they would not bind the feet of their toddlers tightly enough to deform them into the proper shape. Ew.

I found the second half of the book very satisfying in that it reinforced a notion that I have had for some time. That being that most poor people would be just as greedy and narcissistic as the rich people they despise if you give them a big bag of cash. And so it happens for Wang Lung who prospers to the point where he can afford a second wife and to move into the palace where he bought his first wife. 

Sure, he had problems when he was poor, but he really has problems when he is rich and they just pile on top of each other and compound and he realizes too late, in some instances, what is important. 

Stylistically, the book echos the nature of the characters. They are up front, no nonsense folk with strong family values who do whatever is in front of them without too much complaint. Life is what it is and better to deal with it than to cry about it. 

It's hard to imagine not liking the book. Heck, it was on Oprah Winfrey's reading list. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mystery Double Header


Both of the books featured today were recommended by loyal readers (see, I really do get through my queue... eventually).

Blacklands
by Belinda Bauer
2010
*****
5 stars - will read more of her books



Super creepy and extraordinarily well written.

Steven wants to make things right. Twelve years old, he lives with his little brother, mother, and grandmother in a household haunted by the trauma of the past. 

Steven's uncle was abducted and murdered as a child. Abducted by a serial killer of children who was eventually caught and put in prison. But the body of little Billy was never found and Steven is determined to find it. He feels that if he finds the body that his grandmother will finally have peace, that his mother will become kinder. And so every day, he goes out to the moors, shovel in hand to dig. Surely his uncle must be somewhere out there as several of the other boys killed were unearthed there.

Then Steven decides on a strategy to move things forward. He writes to Avery, the perpetrator in jail. A cryptic letter, one that will get past the prison guards, but convey his request; "where is Billy?"

Avery writes back and so it begins and all goes as well as it can until Avery discovers that his pen pal is a boy. A boy the very thought of whom rekindles Avery's desire to hunt and kill. 

I can reveal no more. The beauty of this book is in the writing. Ms. Bauer provides depth to her characters which is compelling. Even incidental characters have a history so that there is no moment in the book where an event transpires without cause, without reason. 

The subject is horrific, the characters tragic, and yet so human, so real, that one cannot help but be drawn into the drama as it unfolds, to feel sympathy, empathy, and repugnance as each twist in the plot is revealed.






Trace Evidence
by Elizabeth Becka
2005
***
3 stars - very satisfying



This is a formulaic mystery, but don't let that put you off. Save it for an afternoon when you don't want to be challenged, but want to have some fun. 

The main character, Evelyn James, is a forensic trace evidence expert in Cleveland Ohio. Since the author is a forensic specialist working in Florida (formerly in Cleveland) one expects that much of the drama is based on actual experience.

There's a serial killer on the loose in Cleveland. One who delights in kidnapping young women, putting their legs in a bucket of cement, and throwing them off any convenient bridge. Oh nasty.

But Ms. Becka keeps the horror just far enough away to allow the reader to enjoy the mystery without getting too weirded out. 

When I characterize this as formulaic, I mean that the pacing and plot twists are, while not always totally predictable, certainly familiar in the way they are meted out. That's OK. It's still fun. And she does a great job of punching up the action towards the end of the book. Once things really get rolling, they roll out fast and furious. The last fifty pages or so will pull you along at a breakneck speed.

I'm not giving anything away to say that Evelyn comes out OK in the end. After all, this is the first in a series. But even knowing that, I was still very much caught up in how things would resolve themselves.

Not a lot of time is spent on character development (as contrasted to the previous book). Fine by me. The action is what this book is about and it delivers.