Altar of Eden

I'm not sure if it's the need to have art imitate life, or just enjoying the brainy side of a good story, but I really like reading science fiction type thrillers that deal with biology and genetics.  It's such a fascinating subject to me, likely because in books it becomes a million times more exciting than real life.  Last week, I read my first novel by author James Rollins and as impressive as his storytelling is, I'm even more enamored with his handling of science.

Veterinarian Lorna Polk is more than a little surprised when Jack Menard, a man from her past, shows up at her research facility in a border patrol helicopter asking for her help.  Whisked off to examine the strange animals aboard an abandoned trawler, Lorna knows something odd is going on.  The conjoined twin monkeys, featherless parrot, and cub of a saber-toothed cat all display heightened intelligence and evidence of genetic alterations. 

From this intriguing start, the novel takes off at a whirlwind pace.  First, the adult saber-toothed cat is loose in the Louisiana bayou.  Then, it's up to Lorna and Jack to track down the people responsible for transporting the animals and discover the truth behind the strange subjects.  Meanwhile, the minds - and hired guns - behind the genetically altered creatures will stop at nothing to recapture the animals and dispose of those who know their secrets.

As a reader, I'm a sucker for a great fast-paced action story; as a scientist, I love a genetic thriller done right.  James Rollins' Altar of Eden had it all.  I was really impressed at how accurate the concepts of biology were as they entwined into fiction in the story.  High-tech science was explained in an every day manner while not coming across as being dumbed-down.  Also, Dr. Lorna Polk - a veterinarian like Rollins himself - was a strong and intelligent heroine.  She displayed realistic fear and emotion but was also action-oriented and determined at all the right moments.  Overall, Altar of Eden was a smart thrill ride from beginning to end.

It's such public knowledge that it's hardly worth the confession, but I'm a huge science nerd.  I'm curious though if non-sciencey people like these types of books.  For the lab-coat geeks, do you like reading stories that play with scientific themes?  For those that left chemistry back in the high school lab, do you ever read nerdy thrillers? 

Coming Soon: BBAW!

I added a new badge to my sidebars and in case you didn't notice, it's an ad for Book Blogger Appreciation Week!  I wanted to put a plug out for it as something I'll be participating in with the hopes that other book bloggers will join in the fun as well!  Blog Award Nominations have already closed, but it's not too late to register to have your blog included in BBAW's directory and you can also sign up to interview a fellow book blogger!  Hope others will join me in what looks to be a fun week celebrating the joy of bookish blogs!

A Hoe Lot of Trouble

Besides the strange disappearance of some of her gardening tools, Nina Quinn has a thriving landscaping business with Taken By Surprise (think Extreme Home Makeover: Yard Edition) but the rest of her life is quickly falling apart. She's thrown her cheating husband out of the house; her teenage stepson seems to be involved with some questionable friends; and to top it all off, her best friend's father - the man who taught Nina all about gardening - has died of not-so-natural causes.

Driven to help her friends, while keeping her police detective soon-to-be-ex-husband out of things, Nina shoulders the investigation - and the ongoing search for the missing gardening equipment -  but soon finds herself entangled in more than weeds and thorns. When threats start piling up, Nina finds herself in the crossfire and knows she'd better dig up the truth fast.

Heather Webber does a great job with this fun, cozy mystery. Nina's emotional anguish as a scorned woman and her determination as a businesswoman and amateur sleuth are perfectly balanced with her lively spirit and clever wit. As the title indicates, A Hoe Lot of Trouble is a mystery that will make you laugh even as you sit on the edge of your seat, eager to know what happens next. The ending was a bit of a surprise (and perhaps a tad unlikely) but overall Webber sets the stage for a charming series and readers will be looking for a hoe lot more of Nina Quinn's adventures.

The Phantom of the Opera

Like many, I had my first introduction to Gaston Leroux's classic work The Phantom of the Opera through the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name.  I've lost count how many times I've listened to the score over the years, and most of it I know by heart (and sing along to).  I love the story of how Christine DaaĆ© appears on the opera stage with an amazing vocal talent and attributes her new abilities to guidance from her strange Angel of Music.  Meanwhile, the handsome young viscount Raoul recognizes Christine as his childhood friend and falls in love with her, not knowing that the rival for his affections is to be the so-called Opera Ghost - a malicious stranger wreaking havoc throughout the opera house and making odd demands of the managers.

Upon reading the novel, I did not expect to recognize the story from what I knew of the stage production and was pleasantly surprised to find that much of the text had been preserved in the adaptation.  From the major characters to the minor ones, even Madame Giry and her daughter Meg (whose singing parts I love since I can pull off a decent mezzo and can't get anywhere near Christine's high notes) appear in both book and score.  There were also plenty of details, such as the lasso the "ghost" uses to strangle his targets and the lake beneath the opera house, that the adaptation did right.  The difference that most surprised me though was how human the character of "The Phantom" is in the original novel.  In the musical, he seems much less mortal - more the mysterious Angel of Music than a real man.  Yet, in the book when he was given both a name, Erik, and a backstory, I found him less likable than on stage.  Perhaps clouding his humanity in a ghostly mystique made his atrocious acts more acceptable, but I found his character in the book violent, frightening, and much less sympathetic.  I realized that Leroux intended for Erik's voice to be his main redeeming factor - the aspect that draws Christine to him -  and this obviously came through much better in the musical than in the book. 

Another thing that I found really interesting in the book is the description of the organ.  The title song in the musical is most recognizable by powerful and dynamic chords of organ music (DAAA-da-da-da-da-DAAA....).  And though Erik is described at multiple points as playing a piano, this passage struck me as almost funny, in light of the music that ran through my head as I read:

"Contrary to what one might think, especially in connection with an opera-house, the 'organ' is not a musical instrument.  At that time, electricity was employed only for a very few scenic effects and for the bells.  The immense building and the stage itself were still lit by gas; hydrogen was used to regulate and modify the lighting of a scene; and this was done by means of a special apparatus which, because of the multiplicity of its pipes, was known as the 'organ'"
~Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera p.223

So although the musical got many things right, I'm not sure that the inclusion of organ music was as accurate as intended.  I think this quote is also demonstrative of Leroux's almost documentary style of storytelling.  At first I found it a little off-putting, but once the story began to unfold, I appreciated his commentary-type notes as both informative and educational throughout the text. Overall, I'm really glad to have read this book.  As much as I love the musical, I think familiarity with the original source material gives me an even deeper appreciation of the art created in the adaptation.

"End of a long day"

"Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting one
at the end of a long day makes the day happier."

~ Kathleen Norris

Arcadia Falls

Facing financial hardship after her husband's death, artist turned teacher Meg Rosenthal packs up her life and her daughter to move to the titular town of Arcadia Falls and accept a teaching position at a boarding school. With an interest in folklore and fairy tales, Meg is drawn to dig deeper into the lives and legends surrounding the school's founders: artistic authors Vera Beecher and Lily Eberheart. Journals and letters provide a story within Meg's story and the mystery surrounding Lily's death is paralleled with the death of a student in present day.

I enjoyed how this book balanced multiple story lines. Along with Meg's and Lily's lives, a fairytale about a changeling girl - written by Vera and Lily, studied by Meg, and read to Meg's daughter Sally - is woven throughout the different plots. The symbolism in the tale is cleverly tied to multiple characters and events throughout the book.

An intricate blend of mystery, art, family, love and fantasy Arcadia Falls is an interesting and complex book. The ending resolved a little too quickly but brought satisfying conclusions to multiple mysteries and lingering questions. Carol Goodman knows how to weave an intriguing tale and Arcadia Falls will enchant readers of many genres.


I know it's not Earth Day or Arbor Day, but environmental awareness really shouldn't be limited to those holidays so I thought I'd share an eco-friendly book that I recently read and really enjoyed.

Carl Hiaasen returns to writing for young readers in Flush, a follow-up to 2003's Newberry winning Hoot. Flush is similar in scope, also set in rural Florida, but with a fresh story that appeals to kids and adults.

Twelve-year-old Noah Underwood and his sister Abbey are both embarrassed and dismayed when their father is sent to jail for purposely sinking a casino boat. The aptly named Paine Underwood tells his children that the vandalism was an act of civil disobedience and insists that the boat's owner has been dumping sewage into the water, making their beaches unsafe for humans and local wildlife. Noah and Abbey take it upon themselves to believe their father's claim and catch the polluters in the act, exonerating their dad and helping the environment too.

Hiaasen tells a great story in Flush. He mixes a sweet family novel with action and adventure and adds in subtle but effective messages about family ties, bullying, and his signature theme of environmental activism. Young readers will likely relate to Noah and Abbey and even adult readers will appreciate the clever resolutions Hiaasen uses to wrap up the book. Overall, this was an enjoyable and interesting book that will make everyone think a little bit more about preventing pollution and helping the environment.
This book was a  timely read in light of this year's tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  I think Flush would be a great way to engage younger readers in dialog about efforts to help wildlife and small steps that each of us can take to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  I'm nowhere near as green as I'd like to be in my lifestyle, but I do try to take small steps towards being earth-friendly in my day-to-day life.  I'm pretty proud of the fact that I take public transportation for 90% of my travels and I keep reusable shopping bags in my purse and car trunk to taking avoid plastic bags from stores when possible.  I recycle regularly but I know that there are still many more ways I can improve in helping the environment.  Do you have a favorite book about environmental issues?  What's your favorite tip for living a greener life?

(And I know at least one fellow blogger will have plenty of tips to share on this subject! Check out my friend Ellen's blog posts labeled "a wee bit o' greening")

The Scarlet Pimpernel & The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

"We seek him here, We seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel!"

So goes the rhyme written about the secretive Englishman who stealthily smuggles French royals into his country to escape their fates at the guillotine.  A master of wit and clever disguise, none know the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel who takes his name from the flower with which he signs his letters.  Filled with love and adventure, this story is a charming tale and a delightful read for all ages and it is no wonder that Baroness Emmuska Orczy's tale has not only stood the test of time but has gained popularity with it's multiple adaptations for stage and film. 

I've only read the first few books in the Scarlet Pimpernel series, but the first one remains my favorite. I still plan to continue reading them more or less in order as a nice way to bring more "classic" literature into my reading repertoire.  And of course, as soon as I started reading The Scarlet Pimpernel books, a related modern series by Lauren Willig was recommended to me by multiple people.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation begins in present time with a graduate student named Eloise Kelly who is researching the (in this case true) history of The Scarlet Pimpernel and two other flower-named spies: The Purple Gentian and The Pink Carnation.  When Eloise discovers a collection of letters regarding The Purple Gentian, she is on the brink of uncovering the long hidden identity of The Pink Carnation.

At this point the narrative shifts into the past and the reader is introduced to young Amy Balcourt whose father was killed by the guillotine leaving his daughter with dreams of joining up with The Purple Gentian and saving the English monarchy.  I found the historical side of this novel much more engaging than the present-day plot and I almost felt as though Eloise's tale was an intrusion on the story she was uncovering.  Feisty, spirited Amy and her clever friend Jane were much more well-developed characters than Eloise, who came across as a rather typical self-doubting Chick Lit heroine. 

I really enjoyed the adventure side of the novel and would have preferred even less of the romantic story and more of the espionage.  Overall though, this was a strong enough novel to make me want to read the next book in Willig's series and discover more about these delightful characters.

I really like how Willig took Orczy's work and adapted it into the historical portion of her novel.  The blurring of history and literature was a nice twist.  Since this post turned out way longer than I intended, I'll leave you all with a question to discuss.  In Willig's books, Orczy's fiction becomes fact.  If you could pick a historical fiction work to be truth, what would you choose?  What historical character(s) do you wish were real people? Are there fictional events from the past that you wish had really happened?

Sweet Mandarin

Sweet Mandarin is a great biography/autobiography of three generations of Chinese women and their stories of working as restaurateurs in England.  Subtitled The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West, the book does tell an inspiring story of courage as each woman grows, adapts, and changes with the world around her.   Helen Tse is a great writer and the family memories she shares are interesting, poignant, and quite captivating.

With her vivid descriptions, sights and sounds jump off the pages and the book is equally filled with smells and tastes that leave readers as hungry for Tse's recipes as for her prose. I would highly recommend this book to fans of Amy Tan's novels (The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, etc.), as the multi-generational story is similar to much of her work, but I enjoyed Sweet Mandarin all the more because it is nonfiction. I felt a deeper connection to the characters knowing that they were actual members of Helen Tse's family rather than just her creations.

"Children's Literature"

"Good children's literature appeals not only to
the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child."
~ Anonymous 

I read a lot of books aimed at younger readers.   Sometimes it's a desire for a simpler story.  Sometimes it's wanting to revisit an author or work that I enjoyed as a kid.  Sometimes it's tired eyes longing for a bigger font.  Sometimes it's the fact that there's a great deal of depth to be uncovered in works written for younger audiences.  I like this quote because I know that I occasionally read books written for youngsters as a way to connect with younger people and to feel like a kid again. But I also like the duality that points out how great stories can bring out maturity in children as well.  As a child, were there any books that helped you grow up?  As an adult, do you read books aimed at younger readers?


Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was a book that hovered around the edges of my To Be Read list for several years. Many friends of mine had read it - and the following books in the series - and with their recommendations and other positive press, the title had a certain amount of buzz about it so that I became interested enough to finally pick up a copy and read it.

I went into the book not knowing too much about the plot besides that it was a historical epic set in Scotland. That was enough to whet my interest, but the subject that really piqued my curiosity was time travel. The story begins with nurse Claire Randall reunited with her husband after World War II. Though this setting would have made for enough of an adventuresome plot, the fantasy element of the story is brought in when Claire is inexplicably transported back in time to the Scottish highlands in the 1700's. Claire's husband's ancestor is the villain of the time and the out of place heroine finds refuge with a Scottish clan - and a young man named Jamie who soon wins her heart. Claire is torn between the exciting adventure of the times she finds herself in and the desire to find her way back home and as the book progresses, the reader is drawn fully into her dilemma.

With vivid scenery and plenty of characters to love and hate, there are numerous reasons to be enamored with this book. My favorite aspect, though, is that it is a novel that defies genre classifications. It is historical fiction, action, fantasy, romance, and adventure seamlessly wrapped up into an epic story. I didn't know what to expect when I first began Outlander but I find myself eager to discover where Gabaldon will take this intriguing series in future books!
One thing that I found especially interesting about Outlander, is that in the UK, the book is called Cross Stitch.   I'm not certain which version was marketed first or why the change in title for audiences across the Atlantic.  For those that have read the book, which title did you encounter first?  Which title do you prefer?

The Actor and the Housewife

Becky Jack - Utah housewife, Mormon, mother of three, seven months pregnant with her fourth child - is a little out of place in Hollywood when she sells her first screenplay, but even more surprising is meeting and befriending a movie star along the way. Dapper, British heartthrob Felix Callahan is Becky's polar opposite, and yet through their chance meeting the two are instant friends, laughing and joking together, enjoying each other's company immensely. Both are happily married - to other people - and the question is raised as to whether or not a man and woman can ever truly be just friends.

Shannon Hale composes an intricate and interesting story in this book. Just when I thought the plot was turning cliche, she managed to add twists and turns to keep things unpredictable. The humor and witty repartee between Becky and Felix kept the story lively and fun while the sweet romance between Becky and loyal husband Mike brought a sentimental and emotional depth to the book.

There were some plot points towards the end of the novel that I would have liked to change, but I still enjoyed Hale's storytelling. The characters were overall likable and Hale's incorporation of faith and spirituality into Becky's life was realistic and natural. I liked that that aspect was molded smoothly into the novel without coming across as preachy or judgmental. As far as romantic comedies go, I preferred Shannon Hale's Austenland, but The Actor and The Housewife was still a well written and interesting book.

A copy of this book was provided through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.
This review represents my honest and unbiased opinions.

The Versatile Blogger Award

One of the very best things about book blogging these past three months (would you believe I've only been at this officially for three months??) has been interacting with other readers across the world on the blogosphere.  I've always loved to share my passion for reading with other people and it's fun and exciting to read what others have to say about books I've enjoyed and to find new authors and titles based on the reviews of other readers and bloggers.  I got into all this never really expecting any recognition for what I do. Truthfully, comments are the best praise I can ask for, that someone would read my thoughts and care to take the time to converse with me is hugely gratifying.  And yet, one of my fellow bloggers has graced me with an award: The Versatile Blogger Award!
Zee's Worldly Obsessions bestowed this badge upon the much less worldly Her Book Self and I can't think of a better way to say thank you than to encourage you all to check out Zee's wonderful blog.  A wonderful review writer, Zee is one of many bloggers to blame for my grotesquely long TBR list as almost every time I stop by, I find another must read book to add to my list!  And as with every blog award of this nature, this one comes with a few stipulations.  The first is to share seven random things about yourself and then choose fifteen other blogs to pass the award to.  So here goes seven random things about me:

1. R.A. Salvatore is my favorite author.  I think that counts as a random fact because I've yet to blog about one of his books. 

2. I am a research scientist in the field of pediatric oncology.  I don't know why I picked such a challenging and frustrating career, but I really hope one day I can look back at the progress we've made and say that it was all worth it.

3. I'm the opposite of a picky eater.  I'll try anything once, and with the exception of super spicy foods and onions (which don't agree with me) there's very little that I don't eat.

4. If time and money were no object, I would take some serious vacations.  Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Italy, Ireland, England, Scotland, and Peru are all countries I'd love to visit.  (I'd also love to travel more across the US and really want to visit more National Parks - especially Yosemite, Yellowstone, Denali, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon.)

5. I come from a pretty big family and my siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents are some of my very favorite people to hang out with.  They're all really fun, interesting, and entertaining and our gatherings - big or small - are almost always marked by boisterous laughter.

6. I'm a collector and along with massive amounts of books, I collect stamps, spoons, Cubs bobbleheads, and stuffed monkeys (the plush kind, not the taxidermy kind - creepy!).

7. I'm planning a new blog feature for next month: Series in September, where I plan to make progress on all the series that I'm in the middle of.  I haven't announced it before now, so if you're reading this, you heard it here first! And if you're a blogger that wants to join me in the venture, let me know and we can team up and enjoy our progress together!

And now for the new recipients of The Versatile Blogger Award!  (Officially the award says pick fifteen, but I'd rather make this a little more special by picking fewer winners.  And don't feel that you have to pass it on, you're more than welcome just to sit back and know that someone out there thinks your blog is pretty darn cool!)

Paperback Pirate is the first blog I want to recognize.  Not only do I love the blog name (am I the only one that mentally sings "Paperback Pirate" to the tune of The Beatles' "Paperback Writer" in my head?) but blogger Captain Nick Sparrow shows great versatility by mixing book reviews with fun pictures, scrapbooking, and other pop culture news as well.

beyondthecurtain is my next choice with my apologies that the award, with its cute little flower, is a bit girly.  Greg is a talented blogger who shares his writing pursuits on beyondthecurtain and also writes a great sports blog called My Baseball Fantasy

And while I'm recognizing male bloggers, I'd also like to pass this award to M. Clifford Author.  For those that enjoyed, my interview with M. Clifford earlier this year, the blog has updates, related articles, and interesting tidbits about his work.

Another blog that I've recently discovered and want to recognize is The Window Seat Reader.   Blogger Bailey has a beautiful layout and writes really great reviews with a cute method of rating books too - instead of star ratings look for how many seashells are awarded each new read.  

(Side note: I have another pick here, but the blog seems to be having technical difficulties so think of this as a placeholder until that blog is back online.)

The Reading Journey is my next selection.  Great reviews mark lots of blogs around here, but something that really makes The Reading Journey stand out to me is the visuals and specifically the photography that's often featured there.

I also want to pass this award to Nouns and Violets.  This is another blog that first caught my eye by title alone (so much so that I had to inquire about the title's origin - it's from a T.S. Eliot poem), and blogger Melissa's posts are full of wit and interesting anecdotes about life and pop culture - definitely versatile blogging.

Last but not least, I want to award the Versatile Blogger Award to The Broke and The Bookish.  Subtitled "...will read for food" the blog is a compilation of reviews and fun "Top Ten Lists" by an engaging and talented group of college readers.  The multiple writers bring new perspectives and a great variety of reading tastes to create a highly enjoyable blog!

Congratulations to all of you and thanks again to Zee's Worldly Obsessions!  You all make the world of blogging an immensely enjoyable experience!

(Quick update: Between composing and posting this entry, I was informed that Bailey over at The Window Seat Reader won this award from another blogger and generously chose me as a recipient!  All the more reason for everyone to hop over and check out Bailey's lovely blog!)

The Last Bridge

I used to hate reading sad books.  Anything that dealt with unpleasant subject matters, I avoided like the plague.  (I especially would have avoided books about the plague.)  But as I grew up, I found that I can enjoy reading as a cathartic experience, as well as a joyful one.  Taking a journey of redemption with a character can sometimes be even more fulfilling than joining a protagonist on a fun and frills adventure.  Life is not all smiles and sunshine.  One can either embrace reading as an escape and feel that if life is unpleasant, reading doesn't have to be; or take the option that if there is ugliness in life, than the world of literature should occasionally reflect that too.  For those that are willing to walk a difficult road with a fictional character, Teri Coyne's The Last Bridge is a great one to check out. 

After ten years of running from her past, Alex "Cat" Rucker returns to her Ohio hometown to deal with the aftermath of her mother's suicide. In a cryptic suicide note, Cat's mother writes only "He isn't who you think he is..." leading Cat on a tumultuous path to wonder who her mother was referring to. Is it Cat's abusive father? Jared, the brother from whom Cat's grown distant? Andrew, the overly friendly county coroner? Or perhaps Addison, Cat's first love? With questions and suspicions driving Cat towards her usual solace at the bottom of a bottle, the story unfolds in present and in the memories of Cat's childhood creating a captivating work.

I'm always a bit hesitant to read stories that deal with themes of alcoholism, broken homes or child abuse, but Teri Coyne weaves a powerful and engrossing story in The Last Bridge. The subject matter was difficult to face but the story is not without a ray of light. Coyne shows that choices are ultimately the definition of character and Cat's journey is one that will stay with the reader even after the book is read.
Occasionally, I find if I read too many books on depressing subjects in a row it really dampens my mood, but I also appreciate a variety of reading topics and like to mix in some more intense subjects with lighter fare.  So of course, this leads to the question, do you read sad books? Do you enjoy catharsis as a part of reading or do you tend to stick with pleasant subjects?