Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Predictable and sappy though it may be, I still found this book more enjoyable than most of that ilk. I love the name Pettigrew in this book, because it sounds so much like "pedigree." The main character, a retired major, is haughty and decorous, while at the same time striving to prove that being a member of polite society does not necessarily imply bigotry. If only the same could be said for the other members of his club, including the vicar and his wife. Major Pettigrew is such a winsome man, even though he bristles when some plebe addresses him as "Mr.," that I felt his book needed a sequel. He and Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper, have both lost their spouses and find that they share an appreciation for Kipling. As their bond deepens, their respective family issues complicate their lives and their relationship. Pettigrew's grown son Roger begins to doubt that his father has full command of his faculties. Roger has his father's sense of propriety but not his warmth, practicality, and tolerance. Mrs. Ali's nephew, whom Mrs. Ali is grooming to take over her shop, has fathered a son, but he is conflicted about how to remedy the situation in conjunction with his Islamic faith. The community, however, is even more of a problem, seeing in the budding relationship a sign of the times that needs to be held off as long as possible. Major Pettigrew delivers some snappy retorts and surprises himself, I believe, with his capacity to withstand disapproval. He shows courage in the face of danger, both the life-threatening kind and the life-stifling kind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins harvested some of her cancerous cells so that they could perhaps be grown and studied in a culture medium. They not only survived outside of her body, they thrived and eventually seeped into thousands of cultures worldwide, contaminating decades of research. Still, they performed an invaluable service to medicine and were subjected to a vast range of studies, helping to develop a wide array of cures and vaccines. This book covers not only the many medical advances made possible by Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells but also the lives of her descendants, who did not know about their mother's unwitting contribution to science until twenty-something years after her death. Then their emotions ran the gamut from indignation to perplexity to astonishment. Their lack of education with regard to cellular biology led to all sorts of misunderstandings as to whether their mother was in some way still alive or could perhaps be cloned. Skloot interweaves the family story with the science story, and I would expect that most readers would have a clear preference for one over the other. Being the geek that I am, I preferred the science story, with all its misconceptions about the effects of lead and radium, as well as its victories with polio and hepatitis B. Others will prefer the more personal story, with its own set of misconceptions and victories, including the author's persistence in finally gaining the trust of Henrietta's children. In some ways they are lost souls, battling poverty, racism, poor healthcare, and, worst of all, the loss of their mother at too young an age.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Henry Lee's parents insisted that he speak only English but also required that he wear a button bearing the words "I am Chinese." At first Henry (and I) found this puzzling, but in the days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, being mistaken for Japanese could have dire consequences. Henry was bullied and mocked at his all-Caucasian school in Seattle but eventually found solace in the company of a girl named Keiko from Japantown. Separated after Keiko's family was sent to an internment camp, Henry and Keiko endeavored to stay in touch, despite the fact that Henry's father was livid over this relationship. Japan was as much China's enemy as it was the U.S.'s during WWII. Now it's the 1980s. Henry's wife Ethel has succumbed to cancer, and, observing parallels between his relationship with his own father, Henry is trying to mend his relationship with his son. The narrative swings back and forth between the 1940s and the 1980s, and the 1940s sections are teeming with jazz music that provides a melancholy backdrop for the abandoned streets of Japantown. However, the prose is not special, and, if it weren't for the slices of history embedded in the story, it would be just another sappy novel with a predictable plot and ending.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Carnegie Wong doesn't speak Chinese, his mother having raised him to be as American as possible. He and his wife Janie, dubbed Blondie by her Chinese mother-in-law, have three children. Lizzy, a foundling of unknown Asian descent ("soup du jour") is a rebellious teenager. Wendy is 9 and was adopted from China. Bailey is Blondie and Carnegie's infant biological son who is miraculously as blond as his mother. When Carnegie's mother dies, her unofficial will requires that a female relative, Lan, be brought over from China to live with the family. Her presence upsets the blended balance that has heretofore existed in the Wong household. I had two big problems with the book. One is that I did not like Lan, who hits the pet goat with a pail and almost scalds Bailey with too hot soup and bath water. I fully understand that my dislike of her is cultural. Freedom is a foreign concept to her. What she really appreciates is status, and her perception of her role in the family is skewed, partly by her separate living space, intended to provide privacy, and partly by her duties as nanny. Secondly, the book showcases every member of the family, except Bailey, as a first-person narrator, in snippets of varying length. This device annoyed me, requiring me to constantly double-back to double-check who is talking. Plus, each narrator often quotes other family members, adding another layer of confusion. I felt as though I were reading a transcript of a panel discussion or an unnatural dinner conversation.

Friday, October 7, 2011

HEAT WAVE by Penelope Lively

The author may be "Lively," but the book is very subdued. One theme that runs through this novel is that history repeats itself. In this case, it's like mother, like daughter. Pauline's affable husband Harry had a wandering eye and felt that his affairs were inevitable. The same is true of daughter Teresa, whose husband Maurice has become involved with his editor's girlfriend. Since Pauline and Teresa are next-door neighbors in an English country estate, Pauline is aware of Maurice's infidelity before Teresa is. Jealousy can eat you alive, and Pauline knows this firsthand. However, she still holds a grudge against the woman who first voiced the opinion that Harry was cheating on her. To tell Teresa or not to tell her, that is the question. As Maurice's lies and excuses become less and less plausible, even to Teresa, the tension among the 3 main characters becomes palpable. Another interesting subplot is that Pauline is copyediting a fanciful novel that involves a cheating lothario and finds herself captivated by a story that's unlikely to sell well. She doesn't pull any punches about the book's chances, as she becomes the author's sounding board for his own marital woes. In fact, she dishes out no-nonsense advice to him with aplomb but is stifled in her attempt to warn her own daughter not to waste a chunk of her life in misery. Unfortunately, just as Pauline was devastated to have to give up and give up on Harry, Teresa is so besotted with Maurice that we know she's willing to pay almost any price for his company.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Several women told me that they were disappointed in this book, and I have to agree. Nicholas Sparks readers should enjoy it, because it's a predictable tearjerker. I have to say, though, that the characters—all women except James (Georgia's ex-boyfriend and father of her daughter Dakota)—are the backbone of this story, not the sappy plot. It's especially interesting how the women pair off—not in a sexual way, of course. Georgia reunites with her back-stabbing high school friend Cathy, now calling herself Cat, and married to a wealthy, neglectful husband. Darwin (a woman) and Lucie make an unlikely pair as Lucie prepares to give birth. There also seem to be a lot of estranged male partners, some of whom eventually reconcile with their long-suffering women. The glue to the story, though, is knitting, which seems to be a metaphor for a lot of things—patience, patching up mistakes, putting pieces together, yada, yada, yada. I don't knit, and this book didn't particularly inspire me to start.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A BAD DAY'S WORK by Nora McFarland

Lilly Hawkins is a shooter—a videographer for a Bakersfield TV station—who has apparently committed a rash of unfortunate errors recently. Her latest is the worst. Her boss threatens to fire her if she can't get some footage from a murder scene, and she jeopardizes the integrity of the crime scene in order to get the shots. The precious tape, however, turns out to be blank. Certainly, her rival, David, could have it in for her and is sabotaging her work somehow. Or perhaps Rod, the smooth anchorman is duplicitous. When a couple of corrupt cops rough her up in order to get her to give them the tape, which she doesn't believe exists, she doesn't know whom to trust and turns to Uncle Bud. He's a kick—resourceful and definitely in Lilly's corner but not exactly reliable. All in all, Lilly is as transparent as glass, but she's surrounded by people who aren't always what they seem. Well, OK, gang members are usually not a good thing. The author is a friend of a friend's daughter, and my expectations were low. However, I found this book to be funny and suspenseful, with a protagonist worth rooting for. Beach season may be over for this year, but there's no reason not to enjoy this one, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fireplace.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

MINE ARE SPECTACULAR! by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger

Perhaps I was overly influenced by the fact that this book is a collaboration. It has some very clever dialog, but somehow the humor seemed forced to me, as though the two authors spent too much time trying out various witticisms on each other. I enjoy some chick lit, but some just seems superficial and over-the-top. This book falls into the latter category. The boyfriends are all rich and handsome, and the women are smart, successful, and beautiful. It's all just a little too Sex in the City for my tastes. Sara is a teacher engaged to Bradford, who doesn't seem to have any particularly redeeming qualities, but Sara loves him, and at least he's not already married. Then Sara's errant ex-husband James returns from Patagonia (!), and things get complicated. Actually, I was rooting for Kirk, who plays a doctor on a daytime soap and coincidentally provides charm and banter as Sara's cohost on a TV cooking show. (There's of course the tired joke about playing a doctor on TV when Sara's friend Berni goes into labor.) Sara's BFF Kate is a dermatologist who gives the medical profession a bad name, if you ask me. She certainly doesn't exude intelligence or a sense of responsibility, or common sense, for that matter. Kirk at least gets points for a soothing bedside manner.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A IS FOR ALIBI by Sue Grafton

I've heard so much about Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series that I decided to give A Is for Alibi a try. I thought that this series might be a bit like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, but "a bit" is about the extent of similarity between the two. Both have female protagonists, and both Kinsey and Stephanie are trying to solve mysteries. However, Kinsey is a well-respected, serious sleuth, and Stephanie is a hilarious bumbler. Stephanie has no qualms about mixing sex with work, but at least in this first volume, Kinsey recognizes the difficulty of trying to be objective when her paramour is a suspect. Nikki Fife has paid her debt to society with 8 years behind bars for the murder of her husband and has hired Kinsey to find out who really did it. (Is anyone serving time for murder paroled after 8 years?) Both series are of the light fiction variety, and both are enjoyable in a mindless way. I still prefer Stephanie, but I know her better. Kinsey may grow on me.