Thursday, April 30, 2015
Paperback 400 pages
I was lucky enough to visit Patchett's bookstore Parnassus in Nashville, Tennessee while in town to see two comedians perform at the Ryman. The added bonus to visiting this beautiful store was that all of her in-stock novels were signed. The Olive Hill editions are compact and similar in size to a mass market paperback, but have the nice page quality of a standard trade paperback. These special editions are published by Harper Perennial as part of their 50th anniversary. There are your nerdy publishing details- onto the content!
Marina Singh studies lipid levels and statin medications (all relating to cholesterol) at the drug company Vogel in Minnesota. At the start of the story, the CEO of the company walks into the lab with a letter penned by Dr. Swenson from the Amazonian Rain Forest in Brazil regretfully informing them that Marina's lab partner Anders has died of an apparent fever. There is little information and Marina is devastated. She has worked for years in close proximity to Anders, with over 50 hour work weeks. Dr. Swenson has been funded by this company to do research on a drug that will hopefully be tested in the markets soon. However, she has mostly gone off the grid and little is known of her research and status. Marina is inevitably asked to travel to the rainforest by the company. She agrees for three reasons- mostly to provide information to Ander's grieving family, to find out what the actual development stage is of the drug in question, and also because she always does what is asked by her superiors. Thus starts a wild, compelling narrative as Marina travels to South America and attempts to locate the rogue Doctor.
Patchett is very down to earth and personal in her writing. I was happy that I read her non-fiction collection of essays (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage) last year. She is an honest writer. This particular reader feels like she would be a great person to share coffee and donuts with while chatting about life in your kitchen. She is extremely relatable. There is a great literary quality to her work as well and I enjoy how she crafts a sentence.
PLOT: I have the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandemeer on my TBR (about scientist's who go on an expedition to Area X and attempt to investigate it's hostile mysteries for the government). I enjoy these adventure stories about trips to the unknown and appreciated Patchett's plot. I imagine researching these stories would be quite the bear and commend these brave authors!
PACING: Satisfactory. There was a sense of foreboding the entire time as the Jungle is full of harmful insects, snakes, and who-knows-what lurking in the river. However, a lot of the time a scientist obviously spends in a lab so the pace reflected that.
CHARACTERS: Patchett excels due to aforementioned writing skills. While Marina was obviously heavily fictionalized, there were shreds of Patchett's personal life present as well. A professional woman who is married to an older man, has decided not have children, and had a brief failed marriage when very young. There was a depth to this character that was reflected from this personalization.
Sometimes it feels like a big character study. Patchett just gets people. Whether describing a researcher in the jungle, a hostess at a restaurant, or a front desk clerk, within a couple paragraphs you feel you understand them as more than a one-dimensional character.
FINAL RATING: 4 STARS
This was a highly atmospheric book based on the extreme climate descriptions- the harsh cold of Minnesota or the sweltering heat and thick humidity of the rain forest. There was good commentary on indigenous people and our innate desire to "Americanize" everything. The book also addresses the relationship between students and mentors and the skewed perspective that often occurs due to hero worship. All of this combined with great storytelling and characters made this a great read.
I did have some problems with the end. There were weird elements to the conclusion and a scene I felt was more than a little surprising and strange- departing from how I thought the characters would behave after all they'd been through. I also thought it was a bit abrupt. However, I still recommend to any literary fiction lover as an entertaining and thoughtful story about an unfamiliar place, the wonders of nature, and the moral complexities of drug research.
Monday, April 27, 2015
REVIEW: DESCENT BY TIM JOHNSTON
Published January 6, 2015 by Algonquin Books. 376 pages
What great luck! My first blog post is also my favorite book of 2015 so far!
*I listened to this on Audiobook from Audible and the experience was amazing. There is a female and male narrator, but the male narrator (R.C Bray) stole the show. His deep, rich voice was perfect for reflecting hope and despair, and scary in it's power to demonstrate barely veiled rage*
Do not be fooled by the description on the back. This is not your average "Girl Goes Missing" story. This was a chilling, whip-smart family psychological drama that was filled with suspense.
The Courtlands are on family vacation in the Rockies with their 15 year old son Shawn ("Dudley") and their 18 year old daughter Caitlin- who will be attending college on a track scholarship in the fall. One morning shortly after arrival, Caitlin hits the mountain trails for a long morning run, while her brother bikes along behind her. The book then switches to the parents (Angela and Grant) back in the hotel room. A phone call is received from the sheriff stating that they need to come to the Emergency Room because Shawn has been badly hurt in an accident. When the inevitable question arises about the girl, the response is "What girl?" Thus begins a broken family's search in the vast mountains, and the unraveling of their lives as they are forced to continue living with no closure.
Johnston is a descriptive writer, taking the reader on a journey of the landscapes of Colorado, Wisconsin, and New Mexico. The emotional toll on the family is told in great detail. There are scenes in this book that reminded me of the TV show Justified starring Timothy Olyphant. Not in terms of dialogue- the show has such clever banter that is fun to watch, but not realistic in how most people have conversations. The tone of the show matched this novel- the brooding characters in a darkly lit, harsh bar environment, and mannerisms of the lawmen. The dialogue and writing fit each and every scenario.
While this plot is not new to the mystery/suspense genre, Johnston chose a unique perspective. Most of the point of view was of the male family members, thus highlighting the father/son relationship. The mom is devastated in her powerful sections, but she is not one of the main focal points.
CHARACTERS: Exceptional. They were well-developed and a couple surprised me in shocking ways. There was irony and growth in almost all of them, and I have vivid pictures in my mind of what each would look like. Each person served a vital role in the story, and no one was a simple page filler.
PACING: At times it seemed slow, especially toward the end when I was so gripped that I felt I couldn't wait one second longer to figure out the conclusion. However, I can't knock the author for this as each chapter was a puzzle piece that required proper placement to bring it to a powerful conclusion.
I was heavily invested in this book and give it a wholehearted 5 stars. The story was exceptional from beginning to end and I want to push it into many reader's hands. The story is a difficult one, so save it for a time when you can be mentally engrossed in it. If you have experienced recent loss or a similar traumatic situation, this might not be for you. Otherwise, this is storytelling at it's best. Descent is not to be missed!