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Mini Book Review: State of Wonder

State of WonderState of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always forget that Ann Patchett is among my favorite authors until a read another novel and remember. Her work doesn’t stake an emphatic claim on your mind or heart from the moment you turn the first page, but rather wins you over slowly and for weeks and months after you’ve finished. At least, that’s how it happens with me. Bel Canto is my favorite of her works, and though I read it years ago, I still sometimes find myself thinking about characters and moments in the story as if I put down the book yesterday.

State of Wonder feels like that same kind of slow-burn story, full of purposeful prose, starring a large, intriguing cast of characters and providing as many questions as answers from beginning to end. (The “State of Wonder” may refer to the state Patchett leaves us in at the novel’s conclusion about what may be next.) Like Bel Canto, this novel takes us to South America, this time the Brazilian Amazon, where a pharmaceutical researcher, Marina Singh is sent to find out what happened to a colleague who is reported dead after being sent to find out the status of a long-awaited miracle fertility drug another doctor was sent to extract from the mysteries of the jungle.

The seeming simplicity of this premise belies the complicated web of relationships that get more so the deeper Marina ventures into the jungle. Patchett doesn’t necessarily untangle them all, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Marina is an interesting protagonist in so far as there are open questions about where her life is and where it is going, but she’s too pragmatic a person (she’s a scientist, after all) to dwell on the uncertainties of her own life and of life in general even in light of the discoveries, literal and figurative, that she makes along the way.

Her journey unfolds deliberately, sometimes ploddingly, but there’s comfort in her steady nature amid the unknowable recesses of the jungle, nature and science. It’s a slow read, but one with the potential to stay with you.

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Mini Book Review: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book felt like wrapping myself up in a warm fleece blanker. From the moment Eleanor steps on the bus for the first time, everything about it felt familiar and just as I’d lived it, even though Eleanor and Park’s experiences turned out to be very different from mine.

At a time when fiction about young people is mired in the dystopian and fantastical (some to great effect, some less so), it was wonderful to read a story about the sometimes painful, sometimes humiliating, sometimes even joyful normality of adolescence. No time is wasted describing a world we don’t recognize (however alien the 80s may seem to today’s youth), setting up the overly convoluted plot or explaining the thing from which the protagonist is going to save us. Instead, Rainbow Rowell spends her time living inside of each of the two main characters and letting us into their disparate worlds and hearts in a way that feels fair and compassionate, not indulgent or overly intrusive. I came to love both Eleanor and Park as individuals and as a pair and, being many years removed from my teen years, felt eager to protect them from everything they go through in the book and everything that I know comes after.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved by a work of fiction with so few moving parts. Nice to know that a setting we know so well and that has been explored so thoroughly (high school) can still surprise us.

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Mini Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the RainThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hadn’t heard much about this book beyond the dog-as-narrator trope before I read it, though I was familiar with how popular it was, including among most of the friends of mine who had read it. So when I didn’t love it, I thought for a long time as to why. Certainly, there is much about it to enjoy. It’s easy, uncomplicated writing, and the narrator, though not usually a reliable one, spins a good yarn in convincing us that his people are good and flawed in all the best ways humans can be. Enzo, himself, is every pet owner’s dream—which I think is why most people like him, not because we love the book, but because we love our pets and we project that love onto this wise old soul of a retriever, a rather generic choice as far as dogs are concerned. The moments that really grabbed me emotionally where those Enzo shared, not with Denny, but with Eve and Zoe, for whom there was less hero-worship and instead a relationship and feelings based on shared experiences. If this book had been just about Eve, in fact, I’m fairly certain I would have loved it.

Read on, but beware spoilers!

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Five things in no particular order, e-book edition

First, let me set the scene . . .

When I finished Divergent earlier this month, I was a bit underwhelmed by it, but not so underwhelmed that I wasn’t interested in starting the second book in the Veronica Roth series, Insurgent, immediately after, which put me into something of a conundrum.

1) I wanted to start reading it soon, a factor that eliminated trying to find time to get to a book store.

2) I  didn’t want to pay a lot for it, as is no more than $8 or $9 (which also eliminated a book store purchase).

3) My usual avenue for getting free books (paperbackswap.com) didn’t have this book available.

4) On Amazon, used copies, with tax and shipping, would still come out to more than $10.

Basically, I wanted the book now and cheap.

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Mini Book Review: Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t decide if I would have liked this book better if I hadn’t read The Hunger Games first. Suzanne Collins, I think, has a much better sense of pacing, and her more sparse prose makes for better reading. Still, she had the benefit of getting to me first. Tris isn’t cut out of exactly the same cloth as Katniss, but there are only so many ways you can write a surly teenage girl who must confront political corruption at the hands of morally bankrupt grownups in a distant dystopian future. Also, I wish it hadn’t taken 350 or so pages for it to start getting interesting, and (as with many YA books that are written with the intention of becoming a series), I wish it had ended rather than just stopped.

Still, all that said, I did enjoy reading this for the most part. It was quick and fun. I’m intrigued by the premise and consider this dystopian future slightly more believable and likely than Panem. I look forward to the rest of the series and hope they only get better from here.

This is book one of my 2014 25 book challenge!

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Mini Book Review: Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to TerabithiaBridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book when I first read it as a 5th grader. It’s language was by turns strong and vivid, and soft and comforting. Given my penchant for the fantastical back then (think Narnia and the Shire), this was probably the most “real” book I read as a child. Reading it to the little one, it was all of those things once more and something else: haunting.

Knowing that [SPOILER ALERT] Leslie’s death was coming, I almost dreaded reading about the wonderful times she and Jesse have together even as I enjoyed their friendship with them. Back in 5th grade, Leslie’s fate was heartbreaking because she felt like a friend. This time around, she felt like a daughter. Part of me wanted to reach into the book and save her–or hug the grieving Jesse. Either way, I love this book as much as ever.

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Mini Book Review: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full of references to Latino life (including one to a Brazilian novela that I have actually watched that made me laugh out loud) and J.R.R. Tolkien and other heroes of fantasy and science fiction, I imagine the audience that gets both the Spanish and the geek is miniscule. It so happens, I fall into that bizarro group, but the insider knowledge wasn’t especially illuminating. Yes, I found this hilarious at times and heartbreaking at others, but I was also kind of underwhelmed. I’m Colombian, and I’ve read numerous versions of the Latino immigrant story and lived my own—maybe that’s the reason I don’t embrace many books in this genre wholeheartedly. After a while they all start to blur into each other and feel the same.

That doesn’t mean some aren’t imaginative or well written or even memorable. This was some of those things, but not enough of any of them to make it a true classic or even just a personal favorite, and given the hardware backing this one up, that surprised me. I’m guessing at least some of the insider humor got through to the Pulitzer committee and that plus the postmodern structure secured the award. Either way, I do think there are better out there, but there are also a lot worse, and a lot less funny.

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Mini Book Review: Charlotte’s Web, revisited

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this aloud, as I did to the little one recently, truly makes you a appreciate White’s wonderful writing. Few stories of friendship are this simple and this powerful all at once, and only this one features one of the best closings ever written: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

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