BONUS BOOK: HD66 – Search for a cure or a killer? by Babs Carryer

“Pittsburghers don’t leave here,” he once divulged to me. “The City doesn’t let you go.”

Genre: Mystery, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis:HD66: search for a cure or a killer is a startup mystery novel. Blending entrepreneurship with murder, the plot weaves together the discovery of a drug for an incurable disease with an unexpected invention that does the opposite – kills upon contact. Filled with evil venture capitalists, egotistical c-level executives, and eccentric scientists, HD66 lets the reader experience the roller coaster world of a startup.”

Review: I received HD66 for Christmas from my basically aunt and uncle (everyone’s got those people who are relatives in every possible way except blood). As some backstory, I actually know the author (as do the basically aunt and uncle), because our families grew up on two neighboring streets for much of my young adolescence. I’ve shared several holidays with Babs and her family, but had no idea that she was writing a novel until I unwrapped HD66 and saw the listed author. This is her first novel, and ties together several passions of hers, including startup culture and entrepreneurship. I really loved the many Pittsburgh references, having lived in the city for over twenty years of my life. For example, when Errol hears the lions roar from his Highland Park home, I was immediately hit with young memories of being able to hear the lions from my old house. From places to people to accents, there was much to love in HD66 as a Pittsburgh native. I didn’t fully understand the emphasis on how the characters were involved in a startup; it seemed unnecessary repetition to me at times, but I think that largely stems from my own inexperience when it comes to startup culture. I also found it difficult to be fully on board with the fact that Detective Hendrik fully accepts Brie as his partner; he relays information to her that would certainly be classified in a real murder case. But given that this book is a work of fiction, I fully accept that Babs can take as much artistic license as she likes. Overall, the mystery was compelling and I found myself debating throughout the novel who Errol’s killer was. While I decided on the correct character about halfway through the book, I still didn’t understand the murder motives or objective until the very end. Overall, I think this is a great first novel and will certainly appeal to people interested in murder mysteries, biomedical science, Pittsburgh, and startup culture.

Rating: In the past week I have read two books that I have not wanted to rate, albeit for very different reasons. As someone who grew up with the author of HD66, I don’t trust myself to be an unbiased rater. I believe the pros and cons I covered in my review will be enough to encourage or discourage potential readers, rendering a rating unnecessary. My reasons for not wanting to rate the second book will be explained in a future review, but given that I encountered two books in the same week that left me unwilling to rate, I’ve decided to create an “unrated” category for certain tricky books.



Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “The Dursleys were so mean and hideous that summer that all Harry Potter wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he’s packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike. And strike it does. For in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, fresh torment and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockhart; a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girls’ bathroom; and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny. But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble begins, and someone – or something – starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one that everyone at Hogwarts most suspects, Harry Potter himself!”

Review: First banned book review in far too long! In fact, it was little over a year ago today that I posted my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Once again, I held off on my annual rereading of the Harry Potter books in anticipation of the release of the fully illustrated Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I was once again amazed by Jim Kay’s illustrations, which do an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the story. On a slightly negative note, I did feel like this illustrated version had fewer images than its illustrated predecessor. I hope that as the novels get longer, the page-to-illustration ratio so masterfully executed in Sorcerer’s Stone doesn’t suffer. Illustrations aside, I will never be able to give any Harry Potter book less than five stars, but I will at least admit where Chamber of Secrets falls in my ranking of the series and why. For me, the Harry Potter series goes as follows:

  1. Order of the Phoenix
  2. Deathly Hallows
  3. Sorcerer’s Stone
  4. Prisoner of Azkaban
  5. Half-Blood Prince
  6. Goblet of Fire
  7. Chamber of Secrets

I’m aware that my ranking is a bit unorthodox. For example, few would agree with my top placement of Order of the Phoenix and low ranking for Goblet of Fire. I do have my reasons, which will likely come to light in future reviews of the series, but for now I want to explain why Chamber of Secrets is my “least” favorite book. There are many, many things I love about Chamber of Secrets: Dobby, Fawkes, Dumbledore, the Burrow, the chamber itself. But I think the other novels surpass it in my mind and heart due to a reduced level of character development. In Chamber of Secrets, we’re still primarily focused on the Harry/Ron/Hermione trio. But if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the three main characters don’t actually evolve much between books one and two. In contrast, later novels not only benefit from the main characters evolving, but also introduce new, fantastic characters who (at least partly) steal the show (I’m looking at you, Luna and Lupin).

Reason for Ban/Challenge: As I noted in my review of Sorcerer’s Stone, the Harry Potter series has largely faced opposition from religious groups that believe the novels glorify witchcraft. Arguments that the series is too dark overall and that the novels set bad examples for children have been made as well. These arguments are rarely successful, however, as many governing organizations that control the books found in school libraries appreciate the creativity and imagination promoted by the Harry Potter series.



BONUS BOOK: Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

“A million things you can’t have will fit in a human hand.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “When six-year-old Turtle Greer witnesses a freak accident at the Hoover Dam, her insistence on what she has seen and her mother’s belief in her lead to a man’s dramatic rescue. But Turtle’s moment of celebrity draws her into a conflict of historic proportions. The crisis quickly envelopes not only Turtle and her mother, Taylor, but everyone else who touches their lives in a complex web connecting their future with their past. A deeply felt novel of love despite the risks, of tearing apart and coming together, Pigs in Heaven travels the roads from rural Kentucky and the urban Southwest to Heaven, Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation. As this spellbinding novel unfolds, it draws the reader into a world of heartbreak and redeeming love, testing the boundaries of family and the many separate truths about the ties that bind. With Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver has given us her wisest, most compelling work to date.”

Review: Once again, the strength and heart of Kingsolver’s writing is blindingly apparent in the characters and settings she creates. Everything feels authentic, from her descriptions of the passing scenery to the complicated emotions experienced by the many characters of this story. I love that Kingsolver is always able to tap into real, concrete issues with her writing (such as the many travesties committed against Native Americans, including the forcible removal of children from their communities). While I felt like The Bean Trees (the prequel) had some minor issues with plot weighting, Pigs in Heaven did an excellent job of providing just enough action to keep the reader invested, while still focusing a majority of the novel on the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the main characters. I really have to commend Kingsolver on her success in carrying the reader with her throughout this novel. For example, when Anawake Fourkiller shows up at Taylor’s house and brings up the questionable circumstances surrounding Turtle’s adoption, I feel the exact same emotions as Taylor: anger, fear, protectiveness, panic. I applauded Taylor for jumping town with Turtle and rooted for her along the first legs of their road-trip. But as the novel progressed and I learned more about Anawake’s past and beliefs, the idea that Turtle should, in some way, be allowed to know her tribe started to feel more and more right. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say that I really didn’t know how Kingsolver would resolve this book and am very happy with the ultimate direction she took.



BONUS BOOK: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

“Tiny but determined, I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing that it’s more than people want to see.”

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Acclaimed scientists Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life – but it is also so much more. Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands;” and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home. Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.”

Review: Lab Girl was gifted to me by my research-mentor-turned-life-advisor about a year ago. While I really love nonfiction (particularly scientific and environmental nonfiction), I don’t have much experience with memoirs, which led me to put off reading Lab Girl far longer than I should have. My primary fear of being bored was quickly dispelled, as Jahren has an amazing voice that easily keeps readers enthralled.

“It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”

Given that my own research focuses on ocean-dwelling animals, and that Jahren opens her memoir with an explanation of why she studies plants instead of the ocean (a question she is often asked, as she currently lives in Hawaii), I didn’t know what to expect as far as relatability was concerned. After finishing Lab Girl, however, I strongly believe that any woman working on building a career in a STEM discipline should read this book.

“I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.”

Jahren’s battles with issues such as funding, sexism, and mental health felt very familiar and authentic, and her clear triumph over the many obstacles between her and success was refreshing.

“In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

Using plants as a metaphor for her own growth and evolution, Jahren does an amazing job of making tricky science understandable (for the most part) to a wide audience. While I had expected strong scientific writing and interesting research from Lab Girl, what I didn’t expect was the actual heartbeat of this memoir: the remarkable friendship between Jahren and her platonic soulmate, Bill. Reading Lab Girl made me wish that I could somehow worm my way into this remarkable duo. Jahren and Bill clearly understand each other on a molecular level, and their witty banter coupled with strong affection for each other was fundamental to the success of this book.

“Well, you do swear too much,” I countered, unwilling to completely concede his point. Bill agreed that this was probably fucking true.

If the sheer number of quotes in this post hasn’t already been enough of a giveaway, I really loved Jahren’s writing style and will certainly read any future books from her. I also learned some important lessons about hard work and the true meaning of perseverance when it comes to the many trials and tribulations of scientific research. With my second semester of graduate school beginning tomorrow, I hope to apply some of Jahren’s principles and advice to my own research and academic life.

“There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.”

While memoirs still aren’t really my thing, and there were certain chapters that were clearly inferior to others, Lab Girl is a remarkable tale about life, science, and love.



BONUS BOOK: Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

“Of all our infinite possibilities, these are but two.”

Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed. The saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the space station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of BeiTech’s assault. Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter, Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while they are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion. When an elite BeiTech team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the crew one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum may be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival. The fate of everyone on the Hypatia – and possibly in the known universe – is in their hands.”

Review: While I loved the unique formatting of Illuminae, I found it difficult to engage in the story for a majority of the almost 600 pages. My feelings towards the book gradually began to improve as the relationship between Kady Grant and the shipboard artificial intelligence system, AIDAN, progressed. But given how long it took me to find some redeemable quality in the plot, I didn’t have the highest hopes for Gemina. However, I was looking forward to reading a book in the same unique style (i.e., told via briefing transcripts, classified files, emails, infographics, and more) as Illuminae. Unfortunately, Gemina felt like a simple retelling of Illuminae. Sure, the characters and the setting were marginally different, but the overall plot felt extremely repetitive. That being said, I did find that it was easier and more enjoyable to get through Gemina than it was to get through Illuminae. While I still felt like I was missing some crucial world-building (a complaint I had while reading Illuminae), I had an overall better understanding of the galaxy that these stories take place in. The best character by far was neither of the star-crossed protagonists, but Nik’s cousing Ella: a feisty, sickly, hilarious computer whiz. She brought some much needed humor and humanity to an otherwise very YA story. There’s one more book in the series, set for an October 2017 release date, and I’m sure I’ll read that one too because I am a fan of the storytelling method (such a fan that I’ll still give Gemina a three star rating). But as far as literary excellence is concerned, the Illuminae series mostly falls short.



BONUS BOOK: Euphoria by Lily King

“I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God, or gods, or the crocodile.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is a captivating story of three young, gifted anthropologists of the 1930s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and ultimately their lives.”

Review: Let me tell you about the best dollar I spent in 2016. I LOVE my local library for many reasons, one of which is that they have a year-round used book sale. Sure, there’s a lot of really dated books, and you have to chuckle at the sheer quantity of Fifty Shades of Grey seen on the carts. But every once in awhile, I find a true gem; this year, that $1 gem was Euphoria. I remembered the distinctive cover from my bookstore job, but had never even read the brief plot synopsis to know that this book is loosely based on the fascinating life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. Euphoria follows the evolving and dangerous relationship between three ambitious anthropologists in New Guinea. The characters and plot are incredibly well-balanced, and I loved the anthropological lens applied to the whole story. I particularly liked the character Nell, whose widely successful ethnography on the sexual lives of the children of Kirakira (modeled after Margaret Mead’s own book, Coming of Age in Samoa) has made her volatile and jealous husband, Fen, increasingly unpredictable.

“Sometimes you just find a culture that breaks your heart.”

I definitely don’t want to spoil anything about the plot, but suffice to say that Euphoria is impossible to put down. My single complaint is that I wanted more, which is really a testament to King’s writing prowess; she’s a masterful storyteller.

“Nell and Fen had traced away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desire, a great tide of feeling of which I could make little sense, an ache that seemed to have no name but want. I want. Intransitive. No object. It was the opposite of wanting to die. But it was scarcely more bearable.”

Euphoria will stick with you long after you’ve read the final pages which, for me, is a hallmark of an excellent novel.



New Year, New Reading Goals

new years eve 2017

Happy new year! Looking back on 2016, I have to say the Banned Book Brigade had a pretty pretty great year; I read 102 books (reviews forthcoming)! Through the many hassles associated with moving to a new country and starting graduate school, I still managed to make reading a priority and that’s something I’m proud of. One of the main reasons I started this blog was because I wanted to get back into reading, but had no idea where to start. I am happy to say that not knowing what to read next is no longer a problem of mine. A combination of reading so much over the past year as well as my job at a bookstore has given me an ever-growing list of books to read. However, I think I also lost track of some of the other goals I wanted to accomplish through this blog. I fell down a genre rabbit hole and have just recently started to claw my way out. With that in mind, my goal for the coming year is to continue reading and enjoying books of all genres, but to more evenly spread my efforts. I plan on cycling through banned books, adult fiction, young adult fiction, and nonfiction (although I can’t promise I’ll stick to this formula if I stumble upon a really great series…). In this way, 2017 will be the year of “using my power for good” and approaching reading as a way to expand my worldview and better understand experiences that are not my own. Thanks to all the loyal BBB followers for hanging in there, and I hope you each have a fruitful, literary 2017!