Pages turned in 2013

My reading year was composed of an interesting mix of sequels, new releases, and classic reads. Some moved me to tears while others got me smiling for quite a while. I fell in love with many characters and I also wanted to strangle some of them. Haha! I didn’t reach my reading target for last year but I read 3 more books compared to 2012. Here are my 2013 reading escapades:

THE SEQUELS:

Mark of Athena and House of Hades by Rick Riordan

I intentionally held off reading “Mark of Athena” so that when “House of Hades” was released I wouldn’t have to wait so long. More than getting a refresher on Greek and Roman mythology, what I love about Rick Riordan’s novels are his characters: Leo and his awkward humor, Athena and her quick wit, Piper and her amazing charmspeak, and the heroics of Percy and Jason. And then there’s the array of quirky but lovable creatures like Coach Hedge, Tyson, Calypso, and Bob. 🙂

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

I can’t believe it ended that way. I was too shocked to be sad. But I like that this dystopian novel is closer to home, meaning the cities are real and existing. There were parts that were a bit confusing so I had to slow down my reading but it all made sense in the end. I look forward to watching “Divergent” this year!

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Angelopolis by Danielle Trussoni

Another cliff hanger though not as good as the first one. I expected more from Evangeline in terms of character development. I hope Trussoni redeems herself on the third book. I mean it’s still entertaining but not that engaging.

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

I was pleasantly surprised that this book is a good one! I didn’t get to watch the movie but curiosity really pushed me to reading the first instalment of the Mortal Instruments series. I definitely look forward to finishing the next two! That plot twist in the end caught me by surprise. I like the fact that it’s unpredictable to the very end.

THE BESTSELLERS:

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaleed Hosseini and Inferno by Dan Brown

These two were so good that I made a thorough review on them. 🙂 You can read them here and here. 🙂

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This creepy but crazy good novel gave the mystery genre the overdue spotlight it needs. You can read my review here. 🙂

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Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weiserberg

It’s not as vengeful as the title implies. It’s your typical chic lit though it fails to come through as a worthy sequel to the “Devil Wears Prada” and its blockbuster movie. Ten years of waiting should’ve been 15 if the result will be a better sequel. Picture Meryl Streep getting a few minutes of screen time and it’s all Anne Hathaway throughout the movie. It’s that unbalanced.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is the queen of tension and gray areas. She is so good at putting readers in a position where they will question their morals, loyalty, and beliefs. This novel does exactly the same thing. It’s the story of Jacob, an 18-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome being accused of murder. Picoult will keep you guessing that by the time you’re done with the novel you’ll still find yourself mulling over a handful of questions.

Bloodline by James Rollins and Judas Strain by James Rollins

James Rollins is my go-to guy for page-turning thrillers. He is my comfort author, so to speak. That is not to say that his books are an easy read. Despite the many details in his novels, he keeps you engaged and glued in. Bloodline by far is his best novel I’ve read to date. Judas Strain is good, too! I like that he researches a lot and takes his time to explain fact from fiction.

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THE LITERARY:

Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

After reading this, all I could think of was “What happened to Lettie Hempstock???” I’ve fallen in love with her character. She’s a brave young girl who would do anything to save a friend. I think everybody needs a friend like her. See? I’m still attached!

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Highly recommended by a good friend, I now understand why he was raving about this book. I have yet to write a full review about it because it’s just too good not to dissect. Haha! It’s more than just a magician’s tale. It’s a historical fantasy infused with suspense and mystery.  Marco and Celia are pitted against each other by two powerful magicians. It gets more dangerous when they discover that they are drawn together by some strong force which can destroy one of them. It’s probably the best debut novel I’ve read to date.

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Every day by David Leviathan

This novel gives a new twist to fantasy by making it as real as it gets. A is the protagonist who wakes up in different bodies every single day. He can’t control it. Sometimes he wakes up to a male body and other times he ends up being in a female body. Things get complicated when he fell in love and tried to explain his unpredictable situation. A is one of the characters I admire deeply. He made sacrifices despite his transient state. It’s the novel that truly captures the statement “carpe diem.”

THE RANDOM GEMS:

Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo

This true story is about the journey of 4-year-old Colton to heaven and back. Narrated by his father Todd, this book details the honest, straight forward account of Colton’s experience in heaven. Colton revealed specific information that he could not have possibly known. It’s a book that gives hope to people who are wondering if there’s more to life here on earth. Set to be shown on the big screen, I’m excited to see who will play the adorable Colton! I still plan on doing a more thorough review of this one. 🙂

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Hacked Off (author to follow) and Miracle Child by James Wilcox

I do book reviews for Reader’s Favorite. I get the privilege of reading newly released titles and soon-to-be published ones. As reviewers, we are also allowed to send a message directly to the author! Two good books I reviewed are “Hacked Off” (I forgot the author’s name!!!!) and “Miracle Child” by James Wilcox. One of my comments on “Hacked Off” was an improvement on the title because it was a dead giveaway on what the book is all about. It already has a few reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble when I picked it up. I can’t find it now when I was trying to look for the author. I’m assuming they probably changed the title. “Hacked Off” is the story of a girl hacker along the lines of “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.” It’s a page-turner with smooth plot development. I am actually looking forward to a sequel! Meanwhile, “Miracle Child” hits close to home because my son also went through a lot from his premature birth to hernia operation and everything else in between. Wilcox’s son faced a lot health challenges from the time he was born. Some of which were life-threatening. It’s a great story of how trials brought families and communities together to save the life of a brave little child.

Now What? By Gary Chapman

This short book is about how married couple can adjust to life after the baby. Although I read it when my son was around 26 months already, it still helped me get my priorities straight. Marriage usually takes a back seat when the baby comes. This book is a great reminder on how this can be avoided and how you can prioritize your spouse despite the demanding toddler in the background. 🙂

THE CLASSICS:

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Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son by Lois Lowry

“The Giver” is one of my favorite books of all time. Last year I finally had the chance to finish the rest of the quartet! 🙂 Lois Lowry created a dystopian world with touches of fantasy and mystery. He masterfully created characters that grew in the story as the series developed.

In “The Giver” you’ll meet Jonas who meets the Giver and was passed on memories that moved him to leave the utopian community he grew up in. In “Gathering Blue” you’ll meet the lovely Kira who not only weaves beautiful tapestry but also foresees the future through it. Despite the beautiful colors she’s able to make, she doesn’t have blue. Her friend Matty helped her gather blue from a valley. Matty returns with somebody that alters Kira’s life for good. Matty becomes the lead character in “Messenger.” From being an out of control little boy in the previous book, Matty becomes a responsible young man who breathes new life to the Village he moved into.

The quartet comes full circle with “Son.” Claire is the mother of Gabriel, the baby that Jonas brought with him when he left their community. The book is divided into three parts: Before (The Giver timeline), Between (Claire’s life), and Beyond (Claire’s travel to the Village where she sees Gabe all grown up.) The conclusion to the quartet is about redemption and new beginnings. Lowry masterfully created a world where love and courage cannot be undermined. His characters and their story lines were seamlessly weaved together. Their connections are strengthened over time. It’s the most beautiful and poignant series I’ve ever read.

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There you have it—my 2013 in books. 🙂 I look forward to reaching my 100-book target this year. It seems impossible but we’ll see! Cheers to more pages turned this 2014! 🙂

Keeping THE VOW

Vows are more than just lip service. These are commitments you made to your spouse that you should live out every single day. Kim and Krickitt Carpenter made the same vow—for better or for worse, till death do us part—not knowing that keeping it will be extremely difficult. I’ve read a lot of love stories but nothing came close to the unwavering commitment that this couple had for each other. This memoir is the story that inspired the movie “The Vow” starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum.

The Love Story

A simple phone inquiry about baseball jackets was Kim’s first encounter with Krickitt. She was the bubbly telephone sales personnel of Jammin Sportswear. Kim, who was a baseball coach for Highland Cowboys, found himself fascinated by Krickitt’s refreshing friendliness. He felt that she was the most helpful person that customers could talk to every day. The usual business chit chats led to longer conversations, to exchanging of phone numbers at home, and to finally meeting each other.

In their getting-to-know process, Kim found out that Krickitt was a Christian. He wasn’t like her, though. Krickitt lived the Christian life—you could see it in her countenance and the way she related to people. They both knew Christ around the same time during their teen years but went off different paths along the way. Krickitt remained strong in her faith while Kim fully committed his life to Christ later on in his adult life. It’s amazing how she prayed for their relationship early on. One of her journal entry reads:

“Lord, I really need your wisdom and Spirit to guide me with Kimmer. Part of me wants to meet him—I think it would be fun. Part of me doesn’t because I don’t want to begin to have feelings for him if this is not of you. If it is, I pray you would show me that. I want to be led by you. I see so many ways on which we relate, but you must be the center.” (Krickitt wrote this before she decided to meet Kim in person.)

That first meeting led to more dates up until May of 1993 when Kim proposed marriage to Krickitt. They got married on September 18, 1993 and exchanged their vows before God, their family, and their friends. They went to Maui for their honeymoon and settled in Las Vegas, New Mexico when they returned. It was a fairy tale story, indeed.

The Accident

The newlyweds decided to celebrate their first Thanksgiving weekend at Krickitt’s parents in Phoenix. It was a long ride but an easy one, passing different interstate highways. During the long drive, Kim noticed that he was coming down with a cold. Krickitt then offered to drive so he could rest. He didn’t even argue because he really was not feeling well.  Around 6:30pm, their car was hit by a pick-up truck on the driver’s side, leaving a wreck that no one could possibly survive. Kim didn’t expect that his two-month marriage would end just like that.

Kim suffered terrible injuries—broken ribs, a broken nose, and lacerations that were too many to count. Krickitt fought a worse battle. She was comatose for almost four months and suffered severe head trauma. The trauma was so debilitating that she had to relearn basic movements such as brushing her teeth, dressing up, and even walking. This also resulted in short-term memory loss that meant all her memories two years prior to the accident were completely erased, including the time she met Kim up to their marriage. Krickitt had no idea who Kim was and when she was asked who her husband was she stated matter-of-factly that she was not married.

The Recovery and Restoration

Krickitt underwent therapy for a long time. Kim acted as her coach, pushing her during rehab sessions. He knew that Krickitt could do better because she was athletic by nature and a gymnast. This pushed her away because she hated how he was being so pushy about her improvement. For Kim, he was just doing his job as a coach, motivating his wife to full recovery. Conflicts intensified with Krickitt’s change in personality and inability to recognize Kim as her husband. Kim, on the other hand, felt broken to pieces each day with his wife’s wild mood swings and hurtful words.

These challenges didn’t stop them from working out their marriage. Krickitt knew that her faith in God was crucial to her recovery and so one day she started to journal again. In one of her entries she wrote:

“Dear Lord…I really want to be back with Kimmer and get our new life going again. I am relying on you to restore all of my feelings for our relationship…Thank you for sparing our lives in the accident, and I ask you would use us for your glory. Please strengthen our marriage and make it even stronger than it was in the beginning. Help us to grow closer together. We give you our trust and thanks…May I become the girl I was and the one you want me to be.”

Both of them went through counselling and sought guidance from their families. Kim fully surrendered to God his control over Krickitt and their marriage. He started to court Krickitt again and built new memories with her. They beat the odds and weathered the storm together. They refused to be part of the statistic that says the odds of divorce for a married person with debilitating head injury are 80-90%. Three years after the accident, Kim and Krickitt decided to get married for the second time. During the ceremony, Kim repeated the same vows he made to her in their first wedding. They went to Maui again for their honeymoon. Eleven years after the accident, they decided to have children.  And after 20 years of marriage, their relationship is stronger than ever. They may have made a lot of mistakes but they did one thing right—they kept their vows.

My Thoughts

Kim and Krickitt’s story just blew me away. Reading their painful and traumatizing journey in detail was heart wrenching. I learned so many things from them. As a married woman, I know that it’s not every day that you stare dreamily into your husband’s eyes. It’s not every day that you feel blissful in your marriage. And it’s okay. After all, loving someone is a decision. It’s a choice not based on my moods or feelings. I love what Krickitt said in the book,

“When I lost my memory, I lost my feelings for Kim. I had to re-discover what it was about Kim I had fallen in love with before. I can’t remember what it was like the first time, but I’m guessing that this time my love has grown in a different way—not that ‘fluffy’ romantic love, but more of a conscious choice. The fact was, I was married to this man. The feelings came later, and by God’s grace I’ve grown to love him again.”

I also appreciated the effort that Kim put into their marriage. When he stopped looking for the old Krickitt or expecting her to return that’s when things started to change for them. He decided to pursue and love the new Krickitt and build new memories with her. It’s tough to have your spouse and lose her at the same time. It’s one of the cruelest ironies I’ve heard of. This didn’t faze Kim Carpenter. He remained by her side regardless if she wanted him there or not. Krickitt stayed with him even if she didn’t know him nor felt any connection to him. With God being the center of their marriage, Kim and Krickitt held on to their vows more than life itself. As they continue inspiring people all over the world, I realized that stories like these should be a great reminder to all of us that marriage is worth fighting for and it always deserves a second chance. 🙂

 

One Woman’s Immortal Legacy

When I first saw “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in the New York Times’ bestsellers list, two things came to mind. First, the title was too long and second, it’s very intriguing. What’s more interesting was that the book was categorized under the non-fiction list. So it’s actually talking about some “immortal” contribution this woman made to society. I never heard of Henrietta Lacks in any of my history classes nor had I ever Googled her name. So with much curiosity and a bit of scepticism combined, I decided to read Henrietta Lacks’ immortal life.

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Who is Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks lived during the 1950’s in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a loving wife and a doting mother to five children. Apart from her family duties, she worked tirelessly as a tobacco farmer. She had walnut eyes and a pleasant face with a lovely smile. She loved music and she always painted her nails deep red. Her family and relatives described her as someone who took care of everyone. Aside from watching over her own children, she would also look after her cousins’ kids. She was fondly remembered as the aunt who always gave. She grew up with a Baptist background and was esteemed by the people in that community.

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At the age of 30, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At a time when medicine was at its early stages, the only treatment for cancer was radiation. Henrietta was treated at Johns Hopkins—the only hospital in Baltimore that treated black people. She underwent multiple radiation treatments that made her colored skin even blacker. Her cancer was very aggressive and spread rapidly which inevitably caused her death. When her body was opened for autopsy it was like someone filled her with huge pearls—big tumors literally covered all her organs. Her cousin Sadie said that despite her sickness Henrietta’s looks didn’t change. She still looked beautiful though her eyes showed that life was slowly being drawn out of her. The Lacks family grieved when she died but the world of science rejoiced in what she left behind.

The immortal cells

Before Henrietta died doctors took a sample of her cancer cells without her permission. Her cells were given to Dr. George Gey who was trying to grow cells in culture. All the cells previously cultured died until they got Henrietta’s. Not only did her cells live it also grew continuously. In fact, it still multiplies up to now! It was probably the first modern miracle that scientists ever witnessed. In fact, I think it should be called the first “living” miracle. This discovery was one of the major breakthroughs in the field of medicine. Gey called this the HeLa cells, combining the first two letter of Henrietta’s full name. Since it couldn’t die, scientists were able to monitor the different stages of cell development and administer tests on each stage. The HeLa cells were instrumental in the development of the Polio vaccine. It was even sent outer space to see how her cells would react in zero gravity. HeLa cells also contributed to the advancement of gene mapping, cloning, and vitro fertilization. Below is a photo of HeLa cells’ remarkable contribution to the field of science.

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What went wrong?

Henrietta’s family had no clue that a part of her was taken and being used by scientists all over the world. Consent forms were unheard of at that time. The HeLa cells were the first human biological specimen that were sold and bought. While the field of medicine was making leaps and bounds in their discoveries through the HeLa cell line, the Lacks family remained where they were—poor and unable to get a health insurance. They couldn’t even determine the exact location of Henrietta’s grave which remained unmarked for the longest time. Twenty-five years after Henrietta’s cells were taken from her, a pervasive contamination in cultured cells spread like wildfire. Apparently, HeLa cells can be transferred through hands and other airborne particles. For example, just when they thought they’ve grown prostate cells scientists discovered that they were taken over by HeLa cells. This prodded them to track Henrietta’s family to get their DNA so they can map her cells and distinguish it among the other cultured cells.

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This was the first time that Henrietta’s family learned about her immortal cells. The family agreed to be tested, thinking that they were being checked for cancer. They didn’t understand quite well all the complex DNA mapping that was being explained to them. Eventually, they discovered that HeLa cells were being bought and this infuriated Henrietta’s sons. They tried to get what was due them but failed in the process. Their efforts consumed the family in a debilitating way. This even caused her youngest daughter Deborah to breakdown, knowing that a part of her mom was alive somewhere and was being experimented on. Deborah was still an infant when Henrietta died. She was born four months before her mother was diagnosed with cancer. With the family placed in the middle of research hoopla, inquiries knocked on the Lacks’ doorstep which consequently traumatized the family.

More than just the cells

Author Rebecca Skloot first heard of HeLa cells in her biology class. However, the only information her teacher gave aside from Henrietta’s name was that she’s black. This roused the curiosity of Rebecca who later on took the road less travelled of finding the Lacks family to learn more about the woman behind the immortal cells. The Lacks family already had the notion that doctors and reporters were out to take advantage of them when Rebecca entered the picture. It took her a decade to win the trust of the Lacks family. She had to convince them of her sincere and pure intentions to tell the story of Henrietta as a woman, wife, and mother. It was about her brave albeit brief life. Rebecca wanted to give a face to the cells that ushered one scientific breakthrough after another. Her perseverance and integrity finally broke the walls that the Lacks family had built over the years.

Partnering with Deborah, Rebecca started her research on the remarkable woman that is Henrietta. Together they discovered who she was and for Deborah it made up for the many years of wondering what her mother was like. One doctor even gave a framed picture of Henrietta’s cells to Deborah and her family. It was dyed with different colors to show the different parts of her cell. This was a pivotal moment in the lives of Deborah and her brother Zakariyya who both yearned for their mother for the longest time.

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The author

As I was reading this book, my admiration for Rebecca Skloot grew more and more. Pursuing a story out of some random remark from your teacher took a lot of courage and tenacity. In the decade-long process of writing the book, Rebecca faced many hurdles. Gaining the trust of the Lacks’ family was one thing, keeping it was another. Her work with Deborah was like walking on a tight rope. She would sometimes bail out on her then call her again after so many days. She got married while writing the book and got divorced while still writing the book. None of these things stopped Rebecca from finishing what she started. She knew that this story was worth telling. She wrote with clarity and power. Her engaging narrative resulted in a powerful biography filled with poignant moments, ethical controversies, and disturbing revelations in the field of medicine.

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Aside from immortalizing the life of Henrietta, Rebecca also donates a portion of her book’s earnings to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation—a non-profit organization she also started. The foundation provides education and medical support to the immediate family of Henrietta. It also gives grants to families who have relatives that contributed to the field of science but didn’t receive any recognition. This book redeemed the life of Henrietta and her family. It gave them a new beginning. Memorial markers were placed in honor of Henrietta and the future of her grandchildren and great grandchildren was secured.

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Before Henrietta died Dr. Gey told her, “Your cells will make you immortal.” He added that it will save the lives of people. Henrietta smiled and told him that she was glad that her pain would be of good use to someone. Knowing that a part of her will live on forever for the benefit of others probably comforted Henrietta. This book took me through a roller coaster of emotions. It also stirred something in my heart—a sense of gratitude toward Henrietta and awe to the God who used her life to bring about immortal cells.

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You are not Normal and so am I

Reading non-fiction like John Ortberg’s “Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them” is like getting a jolt back to reality. There’s one thing you usually get when you read a non-fiction book—application. I got loads of that when I read this.

John Ortberg is one of my favorite Christian inspirational authors. Some of the books he wrote are “If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got To Get Out Of The Boat” and “Life You’ve Always Wanted”, both of which are part of my shelf staples. 🙂

In this book, Ortberg focuses on the importance of relationships and community in general. He provides ways by which we can build and strengthen our relationships with other people. He starts off with the premise that nobody’s normal. Everybody comes with a flaw or a certain kind of weirdness. Just when you think a person is normal, he will show his flaws once you get to know him. With our “abnormalities” comes the need to be accepted in a community. He said,

“To experience community is to know the joy of belonging, the delight at being known and loved, the opportunity for giving and growing, the safety of finding a true home.”

Whether it be with my family, my peers, or my colleagues I know that I have that desire to be accepted in a community. There’s something about connecting with another individual that makes me feel at home. Ortberg adds that we were created for community. However, we cannot build one overnight. It takes time and effort to be in a community. I love what he said in the chapter on Friendship,

“If you think you can fit deep into community into the cracks of an overloaded schedule—think again. Wise people do not try to microwave friendship, parenting, or marriage.”

Throughout the book, Ortberg uses biblical examples to illustrate the value of community and relationships. He retells some Bible stories in a modern way, making them relevant to our time. He spent a great deal on the building blocks of relationships such as authenticity, acceptance, empathy, conflict, forgiveness, confrontation (the gift nobody wants as he aptly puts it), and gratitude.

Very insightful and practical, this book gave me nuggets of wisdom to apply in dealing with other people and strengthening my relationships with them. You don’t have to be socially challenged to read this book. Anyone who interacts with people will find this useful in a society where flawed people are normal and acceptance is vital. 🙂