CBR-V Review #3: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Why I Read It: I read Bel Canto a few years ago and was completely blown away. For some reason, though, Ann Patchett hasn’t made her way to the top of my book list since then. I remember this book sounding interesting when it came out, but the wait list at the library was so long. I saw it on a shelf when I was browsing a few weeks ago, and remembered that I wanted to read it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

My Review:  Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher, sets off into the Amazon to retrieve the belongings of her recently deceased colleague, Anders, and, more importantly, to uncover the truth behind his somewhat mysterious death. To do this, she must find Dr. Anneck Swanson, who Anders was sent to find. This enigmatic doctor–Marina’s former mentor–has been studying a tribe whose women can bear children well into their seventies, and is being paid by Marina’s company to discover the key to this genetic wonder.

This description was difficult to write, because the summary makes it sound like a simplistic adventure story. It’s so much more than that. It is about survival, in a sense–Patchett brings the darkness and horror and uncertainty of the untamed jungle to life. But it’s also about confronting the past, and overcoming fear, and discovering who one truly is. Marina is a complex and beautifully drawn narrator, a woman filled with self-doubt and regret who slowly loses herself in the seductive wild of the Amazon.  Dr. Swenson is a modern-day Kurtz, a Westerner gone rogue, worshiped by the native people she lives with–she’s by turns terrifying and sympathetic, a three-dimensional and completely intriguing narrator.

There’s an almost supernatural side of this story–it’s eerie and weird and Patchett’s descriptions of the jungle get under your skin. The whole book feels otherworldly, almost, and although there are elements of the plot that are strange and somewhat unbelievable, Patchett handles them well, balancing the bizareness with realism. The title is appropriate, I think–I was in a state of wonder myself as I found myself completely absorbed into the narrative.

Should You Read It? This was a great read–one that I got completely caught up in, and was sad to see end. Highly recommended.

 

CBR-V Review #2: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Genre: Fiction/comedy

Why I Read It: I’ll admit it–I didn’t know anything about this book, but I wanted to read it because I thought the cover was so cute. My expectations were extremely low, because I had no idea what it was about, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

My Rating: 4.5/5

My Review: Bee is the daughter of the titular Bernadette. She’s a smart, fairly normal pre-teen with a heart condition and dreams of attending boarding school on the East Coast. Her mother can only be described as wacky–she’s essentially agoraphobic, she’s a drama queen, she hates Seattle (where they live) with a passion, and her favorite past-time is antagonizing the other mothers at Bee’s school. All we know, at the beginning of the book, is that Bernadette has disappeared. The novel is Bee’s recreation of events, via emails, letters, and other carefully gathered documents, in an attempt to discover what happened to her beloved mother.

This book was just plain fun. It’s not deep or intense–it’s just light and witty and funny. I plowed through it and enjoyed every second of it. Semple is a great writer, with a wicked sense of humor and a great ability to craft quirky yet realistic characters. According to her bio, she’s written for shows like Arrested Development, which makes a ton of sense as this book was very tonally similar to the show. If you liked AD, you’ll definitely like this! She satirizes upper-class yuppie culture–the organic-eating, Prius-driving, helicopter-parenting population that continues to grow in liberal cities like Seattle–so brilliantly. It’s never mean-spirited, though–just fun. Bee is a sweet and smart narrator, playing the straight-man role well. She is the perfect representation of the audience, simply observing the madness unfold around her with objective eyes.

Should You Read It? Definitely. This book was great. It’s funny and completely enjoyable and doesn’t require a ton of mental energy–this would be a great summer beach read (or a vacation read in general).  

CBR-V Review #1: In the Woods by Tana French

And here we go again! This time, I’m going to try to complete the full CBR (52 books)…37 wasn’t a bad showing, but I want to do the whole thing! It feels appropriate that I’m kicking off my Cannonball Read V off with the last of the Tana French novels (actually the first, but oh well).

Why I Read It: French was one of my favorite literary discoveries last year, and I’ve been obsessed with her for a few months now.

My Rating: 4/5

My Review: In the Woods is #1 in the Dublin Murder Squad series although, like I’ve said in my other reviews, it’s not totally necessary to read them all in order. Having read this one now, I would recommend reading #1 and #2 in order, because there’s a lot of narrative connection between the two, but #3 and #4 stand on their own much better.

Anyway, In the Woods opens in the mid-80’s, when three young children disappear into the woods outside a small Irish town. One of the three is found hours later, bloody and visibly shaken, with no memory of what occurred. The other two were never found. Twenty-some-odd years later, that boy–Adam Ryan, now going by the name of Rob–is a detective in Dublin’s homicide unit. He’s established a new life and a new identity, and rarely thinks of what happened to him as a child. This is all jeopardized, however, when he and his partner, Cassie, are called to a crime scene in the very woods where his friends disappeared years earlier. Ryan must solve the murder of 12-year-old Katie while simultaneously dealing with his memories of his past trauma.

This book is great, and definitely one of the strongest in the series (although they’re all fantastic–this one and Broken Harbor are probably my favorites). As usual, French’s character work is unbelievably strong. Ryan is a flawed (and, like her other protagonists, an ultimately unreliable) narrator, but he’s real and relatable in a way that’s truly hard to accomplish. French excels at getting you into her characters’ heads, which is ultimately very unsettling, especially since all of her work deals with trauma and sanity and obsession. Ryan’s relationship with Cassie (who is an AWESOME character) was one of the best parts of this book.

The mystery itself is very strong and definitely kept me guessing (I had my suspicions about the perp, but French is a master at the misdirect and the hidden motive). This was probably the scariest of the four books, and has the same kind of semi-supernatural slant that appears in Broken Harbor. 

My biggest problem with this book is the ending. I found it pretty unsatisfying and really frustrating. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t discuss it in-depth, but French left us with a lot of lose ends that don’t get resolved, and I felt kind of cheated when I finished the last page. I still loved the book overall, though, and wouldn’t tell someone not to read it just because of the ending.

Should You Read It? If you like complex, well-written mysteries, YES (just be prepared to not want to do anything but read until you’ve finished the series). However, if you’re someone who likes their endings to be neat and tidy and clear, you are going to be disappointed. Just keep it in mind!