The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (CBR4 #27)

I have a perverse sense of what constitutes good beach reading. I tend to stay away from the quick easy reads while sitting under my umbrella. The past two vacations I have spent on the beach I have opted for The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. This review is about Ms. Skloot’s book inspired by HeLa cells and the woman who they came from.


Rebecca Skloot became familiar with HeLa cells, the first immortal cells ever reproduced in a lab during her college days. Finding herself mesmerized Skloot set out to discover the person behind cells. However, she discovers more than she anticipated over the course of several years of research. She discovered the story of Henrietta Lacks, born in the rural south to poor tobacco farmers and the family she created for herself in Turners Station, Maryland.


Skloot attacks the layers of the story by flipping back and forth through time and topics. This non-linear story could at times be confusing if not for Skloot’s perseverance in editing and the use of a timeline at the beginning of each chapter. This book is at once the story of Henrietta’s life, the science and discoveries enabled by the discovery of HeLa cells, and the changes in patient rights over the past 60 years.


This is a heavy, engaging read. Well worth your time.

The Next Always (CBR4 #25)

I thought that I had read enough Nora Roberts for awhile and could move on to other things. Like laundry, doing my actual job, and a foray into capital ‘L’ literature. I was wrong, but I’m not sorry.

Nora Robert’s The Next Always is book one in the Inn Boonsboro Trilogy (really, who can avoid a trilogy?) and chronicles both the romantic life of Beckett Montgomery. Beckett is one of three brothers who together are Montgomery Family Contractors. They, along with their mom, have undertaken the rehab of the town’s historic hotel and we start with Beckett, because he’s the architect. The story chronicles the finishing of the remodel of what sounds to be a pretty fantastic B&B as well as Beckett’s burgeoning relationship with Clare.

Clare is a young widow who has moved back home with her three sons. She is the independent sort, has her own home and her own business, a Bookstore, just down the road from the Montgomery’s Inn.  Clare married her high school sweetheart and lived the life of a military wife, but Beckett has been holding a candle for her since he was 16.

The courtship outlined in this book is by no means easy. There are Clare’s three kids, crazy schedules, the remodel, everyone’s families, a stalker, hiring an innkeeper, grief and a ghost. But it’s a fun and quick summer read. I’ll be tackling The Last Boyfriend later this summer and will be waiting patiently (ha!) for The Perfect Hope to round out the trilogy in November.


Savor the Moment (CBR4 #16)

There’s something about the Bride Quartet books (of which this is the third) that both irritates and entertains. I admittedly gave several hours of my time to reading each book, quite enjoyed them as I sped through them but the moment I closed them after reading the happy ending I was just a little ‘bleh’. I think part of the problem is the titles. The four titles are: Vision in White, Bed of Roses, Savor the Moment, and Happy Ever After. Yep, those are definitely a part of my disappointment.

On face value these books do have an interesting setting. The quartet of friends, Mackensie, Emmaline, Laurel, and Parker, has known each other from childhood. There was a terrible car crash and Parker lost her parents and inherited their massive estate. She convinced her friends to pursue their individual dreams jointly and create a full service wedding venue on said family estate. They do, and the three remaining members of the quartet, one photographer, one florist, and one pastry chef move onto the estate and pursue this new shared dream.

Savor the Moment is about the pastry chef, Laurel. Laurel is perhaps the closest to Parker both emotionally and physically. They each live in a separate wing of the Brown estate’s main house. They have been friends since their youngest years and in many cases Parker’s parents and Mrs. Grady, the housekeeper and resident mother hen, served the function of parent for Laurel when her own parents did not do the job. All of this works to make Laurel’s relationship with Parker’s brother Delaney very complicated.

Delaney has always viewed Laurel, as well as Emma and Mac, as his sisters. The problem is that no matter how hard Laurel tries to keep herself in the sister box, she is in love with Del. In the first two books there are hints of this, but now in book three we are receiving the story from Laurel’s point of view and it is very clear, very early on, that she can no longer live under the pretense and proceeds to change the status quo for herself and Del.

Perhaps I struggle with enjoying this one because I too chose to date someone whose relationship to my family was similar to the one Laurel and the Browns have and in my case it turned out to be a giant failure. But, in this one it isn’t (I refuse to think of that as a spoiler, it’s a romance novel for goodness sake). Perhaps my favorite scene in this book was when the quartet and appropriate male counterparts spend a rainy day at Parker and Del’s new beach house having a games tournament. (Pinball!) I’d say it’s worth a read, but my favorite books in this series are two and four.

The Fault in Our Stars (CBR4 #15)

This book. This freakin’ book. I tweeted it as my Friday Read a couple weeks back and the lovely MsWas told me to get the tissues. While I didn’t out and out cry I did want to curl up with a blanket and hug something or someone when I got to the conclusion. But I was warned about that (h/t narfna).

This book has been reviewed a few times for cannonball, but it’s my first experience with John Green, and although this is YA, and to a certain extent reads that way, it was good times. Green kept me on my toes even when I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. It should be known that this book’s main characters are all cancer patients at various stages. You definitely need to know this before you sign on to read it, because as I said before – you might need tissues or a blanket to get through the end.

Our narrator through the journey is Hazel, she is sixteen and cancer has gone ahead and settled in her lungs. There is a miracle drug (just in the book) that has stopped the growth and for the time being she’s holding steady but required to bring her own oxygen wherever she goes. However, her mother has decided that she’s depressed and with her doctor’s direction, Hazel is forced to attend a support group. Hazel doesn’t want to go, stating that depression is merely a side effect of dying and not to be worried about. But, as it is in the world of fiction, it turns out to have been for the best that she attends.

At support group we meet Augustus and Isaac. Isaac is a known quantity to Hazel. Augustus on the other hand is something new altogether. I appreciate that Green wasn’t afraid to write the meet cute in a cancer support group. Life doesn’t stop just because you have cancer.  Hazel shares with Augustus her favorite book and they begin their relationship from there.

I won’t devolve into a plot summary. But the relationships these characters share read and ring true. You get it all with these characters: hope, love, sorrow, tragedy, triumph, humor. The whole deal. 

Green is careful to point out in his Author’s Note that this book is not about anyone, and is strictly speaking a work of fiction. I respect that. I will however point out The Fault in Our Stars was dedicated to Esther Earl, who’s picture reminds me of what I thought Hazel looks like. Her family has set up a foundation in her honor to support cancer families, This Star Won’t Go Out and is worth a visit, particularly if you have some dollars you can afford to donate.


Vision in White (CBR4 #12)

I may manage to keep on track with this Cannonball Read thing yet. If I manage to post a review a week for the rest of the year I will make the 52 book, full cannonball mark and a donation will be made to the college fund of Lil’A. If not, but if I manage to get another fourteen done (that means finishing and reviewing Ready Player One and thirteen others) I will have made my personal goal. Its looking do-able. Here’s review #12:

Here’s the problem that I’m running into. I’m reading a couple of big books at the moment with a lot of information to unpack (I just finished The Illuminator, working on  Theodore Rex and Ready Player One (FANTASTIC!)) so I keep turning to quick, fluffy reads in-between. But the problem becomes what to say about them? Specifically what is there to say about Nora Roberts’ Vision in White?

Remember before when I said Roberts has a formula – a highly enjoyable, reasonably well written formula – that allows the reader to telegraph the upcoming events of her stories with out too much effort? This book is perhaps the best exemplar of that yet. I really like the set up of the story in this first in a quartet book. There are four friends since childhood (which reminds me of the post on pajiba about friends) who used to play Wedding Day in which they would plan out and enact weddings between themselves, siblings, animals, etc. As adults the four, Parker, Laurel, Emmaline, and Mackensie, have each fallen into their own particular niches to create a high quality wedding and event planning company Vows based out of Parker’s family estate. Keeping up? However, this story is about Mackensie, resident photographer.

Mackensie, or Mac, is the resident photographer. And I do mean resident. Her photography studio is on the Brown estate in the former guest house. Early in the story the romantic lead shows up in the form of one Mr. Carter Maguire. Carter is everything that Mac is not. Shy, well-educated, rooted in family, and a teacher. They however do share a spark a – voila – a tense dating relationship begins where Mac is likely to run off in fear at any moment. In a benefit of Roberts’ style we get inside Carter’s brain as well and he’s just as perplexed by Mac, even though he’s been harboring a crush for over a decade, as she is by him.

I know this is more a recap than a review, but I feel as though you should be warned before diving in. Are you looking for a quick read (although topping 300 pages) that is the first in a four book series focused around the world of wedding planning with four friends who literally live in each other’s backyard? Can you handle being able to telegraph the story for yourself? Then happy reading. It was a pleasant read that left no lingering effects for this reader, making it not the best Roberts’ has to offer.

The Illuminator (CBR4 #11)

I received The Illuminator from my trusty friend with the reading materials and she told me nothing of the plot except that I would love it, be ridiculously angry with it, and that it was set in the 14th century. This is not a lot to go on, but I knew that illuminators were the lovely lads who painted all the detail work into those beautiful manuscripts the monks were busy copying. So, I jumped right in.

She was correct on all three counts. I did love it. I loved it enough to keep reading it although I felt my ear drum was going to explode on a flight. I loved it enough to keep reading it when I was sure it was going to do nothing more but piss me off. I love it enough to tell you to read it, but only if you are like my friend and me and enjoy a good emotional thrashing. And yelling about characters that have disappointed you (thus the ridiculous anger).

The Illuminator is Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s first novel. Previously she was an English teacher and a librarian. Vantrease uses her knowledge of the time and, in time honored historical fiction strategy, takes what is known of a few big names (Bishop Henry Dispenser, John Wycliffe, Julian of Norwich, and John Ball) and create a plausible story in which they appear. The novel roughly covers the years 1379-1381 and leads up to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and the various ecclesiastical shenanigans that are going on at the time. Our main characters are the widowed Lady Kathryn of Blackingham, her family and servants on the manor, and Finn the illuminator. Each character has a story arc of their own which work well to bring to light the reality of life in the time as well as tell a good story.

Partly Cloudy Patriot (CBR4 #8)


It’s quite shocking what a difference a few years can make when you go about rereading books. I picked up Partly Cloudy Patriot from my bookshelf last week mostly because although I knew I had read it, I couldn’t remember the particulars. Also, I was waiting for a book to come down the friend tree.

I really like Sarah Vowell’s writing, and I identify with her as a similarly minded person. Her opinions and habits ring true to me, even if she tends to take those opinions, behaviors, and habits to the extreme. Like David Sedaris, Vowell approaches her work as a series of vignettes, many of which formerly saw life in magazines or radio spots as she is a regular contributor to This American Life. Vowell is, for me, an exemplar of proficient writing. The language is rich, but does not leave one with a stomach ache.

What really struck me with this read was the content. Partly Cloudy Patriot was put together in 2002 and many of the stories included in the anthology reflect what life was like in the months following President George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and less than a year later the September 11th attack. These events have become the watershed moments for a generation, but we tend to only think about them in the long-term or the ‘where were you when’ contexts. It’s interesting to me to see where we were as it was happening, and before the rewriting of memory takes hold.

It should be noted that not all of the entries in Partly Cloudy Patriot reflect on these two events, but it is certainly akin to reading a time capsule sent forward a decade. I also realized that there are several of Vowell’s books I haven’t read, so that’s good news for me as well based on this impulse read.

In Defense of Food (CBR4 #6)

“The problem starts with the nutrient. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, a seemingly unavoidable appraoch that even nutrtionsist who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.” (p. 62).

I’m taking a small break from the Parasol Protectorate (no worries if you’re following along – bless you – I’ll be back with Heartless sometime next week). 

My reading habits are odd. Well, at least to me they seem odd in contrast to the other readers I know. I basically have two speeds: things that are light and fluffy and fun for the imagination and things that are about information. (I lump biographies, which I love, into the second category.) It’s probably the same reason I really enjoy watching Master Class and Visionaries on the OWN network, but I diverge. This is a review of the second kind of book, but first some background on where I am, as an eater, reading this book.

I grew up a pudgy kid in a fat family. Only my little sister was skinny, and unfortunately for her, that didn’t really survive puberty. When I was young my mom did what she could to keep me, her eldest daughter, physically active. There were gymnastics lessons (which I flunked out of), ice skating, and girl scouts. But the most important thing for me by far was swimming. I swam on two different competitive teams until I was nine years old. And then we moved. No more teams, no more intense physical activity for a kid who had terrible eating habits and a propensity to be on the plump side. This plus puberty’s arrival at age 11 and, violá, we have a weight issue.

I was also one of those picky eaters that parents have nightmares about. I’m not kidding. There was a time where I would only eat chicken nuggets, macaroni & cheese, applesauce, plain fast food cheeseburgers, and French fries. Oh, and bagels. Otherwise I would eat whatever the minimum number of bites required was and go to bed hungry. I just didn’t like the taste of most foods. My mom, bless her, would ‘hide’ vegetable in things and eventually got me eating what looked like a regular diet by the time I was in middle elementary school, but it was always a challenge. It also involved invoking the ‘you will eat everything on your plate’ rule which has absolutely ruined my ability to tell when I’m full. I didn’t want to be a bad kid, I wasn’t doing it to be obstinate; I just didn’t like many foods.

As I got older I gained weight, and then more weight, took some off, gained back even more. This is an unfortunate cycle for many people, and not just the fruit and vegetable phobic such as me. (Yes, I don’t really like fruits either.) A few years ago I hit my all time high weight for a second time, this time without the excuse of grieving the death of a parent and the depression meds that went along with the initial gain and decided I could not do this anymore. Since then I have taken steps to correct my relationship with food on both an emotional and consumption level. I’m certainly not where I want to be, but I’m moving in the right direction.

This brings me to the book at hand.

As someone with a negative relationship with food I simply love and was in desperate need of the straightforward nature of Michael Pollan’s writing. This is also a book with no guilt for the eater. The general feel of the first few chapters is of course you don’t know what to eat, society has stripped  us of the cultural norms of eating and filled everyone’s head with nutrient based eating and the convenience foods of the Western Diet. The Western Diet isn’t good for anyone, so let’s break down what you should be eating, you hungry little omnivore. But more masculine.

The eater’s manifesto is simply this: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Pollan drops this information on the cover, and again in the very first line of the book. It is that important. He then proceeds to spend the next 200 pages explaining why this would be so hard for someone to come to on their own.  He tracks the history of the way we think of food, the climate of nutritionism (a term for viewing food only through the lens of its component chemicals), and how the things we think we know- such as fat is bad for you and leads to heart disease- may not be true. Or that they may not be completely accurate. There is a lot about food that we just don’t know, but the evidence is piling up that the things we think we know just aren’t so.

Pollan comes to writing from a journalistic background and therefore is not hesitant to give the readers the studies he read in the footnotes. Even better, there is a Source List at the back of the book which is broken down by section as well as an Index for easy hunting of information. Ideas are unpacked, clarified, and explained. While I do not call this a book that I read for fun, and sometimes I certainly caught myself wanting to skim, it is a well written work.

 It is also a well organized book. Pollan has divided An Eater’s Manifesto into three parts. The first “The Age of Nutritionism”, works to explain how the Nutritional Industrial Complex (the food industry and their lobbyists, nutrition science, and journalists) have upended the way we interact with food. And how what we eat barely meets the definition of food, and how we consume it isn’t really eating in the historical sense. The second part of the book, “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization”, works to chronicle how dramatically the way we eat has changed since the arrival of agriculture and what the western diet is doing to us. There is also a lot of time spent discussing the roles of chronic disease in our day to day life. The third and final section, “Getting Over Nutritionism” lays out and firmly unpacks the manifesto. Food, real and proper food, is defined, guidelines for what to shop for and what to eat are laid out, as well as suggestions for how to go about eating.

These guidelines aren’t rules, but suggestions from a friend who cares and has done the research. You may be thinking why do I need to read this book, but if you’ve ever wondered why people are practically begging you to go to a farmer’s market or what the problem is with the boxed foods in your pantry really are and why people harp on the benefits of leafy vegetables and are looking for someone to answer those questions but not force radical change on you (I have a fear of being told to go vegan) than this is a book for you to consider reading.

Even if you only read to find out why I will try to never eat margarine again.

Blameless (CBR4 #5)

Everyone who I spoke to about the Parasol Protectorate series was absolutely right, book three of the series – Blameless – is better than book two.

But is that the best thing I can say about it? No, I can say better things.

The series is, quite rightly, set up around Lady Alexia Maccon the sometimes La Diva Tarrabotti. Alexia is a fun character to follow around, but by the third book (and over 900 pages together) she has begun to wear on this reader. So, it a turn of events which completely answers my previous whining on the subject, we get more of everyone else this go around. Carriger has finally fleshed out the characterization of her supporting cast of characters in this novel. We met wonderful caricatures of these characters in the first and second book, but it certainly took until the third for characters like Ivy, Professor Lyall, Madam Lefoux, and Floote to really come into their own.

Plot wise we have a new big bad, a new problem for Alexia to deal with (why does EVERYONE want this poor girl dead?), and new terrain to explore (hello Italy!), and a seeming impossibility to wrangle with.  I appreciate how much Carriger works to explain the world in which Alexia lives. In Soulless we learn that England is a highly integrated society both for the supernatural set and the scientific community, and that the United States does not work in the same way, being a highly conservative place.  In Blameless we also get a small glimpse into France (science seems  all the fashion) and a larger look at Italy. Italy in the Parasol Protectorate universe in a highly religious, anti-supernatural place teeming with Templars on the hunt, and not necessarily the safest place for Alexia. But, with the disappearance of her would-be hero Lord Akeldama, she is a girl on a mission.

While I can find the descriptive language Carriger uses,  at times, repetitive (how many times does Alexia really need to tell us that the Templars’ outfits look like nightgowns?) I do think this is a good book, particularly if you are looking for a quick fun read. And can make it past book two, which I suggest you do.

Soulless (CBR4 #3)

Soulless by Gail Carriger sparked my interest when I saw a review of it over on io9.  I thought “hey that sounds like a fantasy/steampunk book I could get behind”. And that was great because we were working on Steampunk at work (I have a weird job) and I thought it would be a great place to jump in. Then I forgot all about it until several months later when a friend of a friend said she read it and enjoyed it. I subsequently begged to borrow said book and because she is a very nice person it was lent to me forthwith.

We meet Alexia Tarabotti right away, and I must say this character begins the story as she means to continue – with a healthy appetite and an ability to fight for herself, and I like that about her. The world Alexia inhabits is a re-imagined Victorian Era, if vampires and werewolves had been living openly in society for centuries. The author, Gail Carriger, does a great job of providing the ways in which this altered reality would affect the history of her new world (the pilgrims were leaving England for more than just religious reasons in this version of history).

Alexia is an odd creature even in this world. She introduces herself as an ugly spinster, on the shelf due to her ‘bad’ habits and Italian heritage. In fact, she harps on it so much you know the author is going to bring in someone who is of an opposing view (and she does). We also learn quite quickly that while vampires and werewolves are made from people with an excess of soul, Alexia is herself soulless.

This state makes her interactions with vampires and werewolves very different from regular humans. Skin to skin contact returns the supernatural to their human state. This also reasons to keep her identity a secret, since the soulless historically were supernatural hunters. But, needless to say, Alexia finds a way to be right in the middle of the supernatural set. And hi-jinks and mystery solving ensue.  I know I am leaving out the entire plot, and while the beginning of this novel is certainly an info dump, I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for anyone looking to read it, or its sequels for themselves (Soulless is the first in the Parasol Protectorate series, reviews for the rest of the books in the series will be following). There is a lot of great characterization here, characters who get stuck in your head and you wonder about, and I promise to talk about all of that more in my review of the next book, Changeless.