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13th-Feb-2017 05:01 pm(no subject)
soul of a rose
The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick. William Morrow, 2017

Sorrel is one of the Sparrow sisters, a trio (once a quartet) of preternaturally gifted women who have a connection with plants. Their nursery in New England overflows with gorgeous plants that grow and bloom fast- that’s Sorrel’s realm. Another sister works with herbs and healing; the third can make any food related plant bear lushly. For this reason, Sorrel has come to the attention of a wealthy British manor owner. Kirkwood Hall has been renovated and made open to the public part time. All is lovely- except for one spot. The old Shakespeare garden lies in ruins, as it has for a couple of centuries. Within its walls, nothing grows. Sir Graham Kirkwood asks Sorrel to come over and make it right.

Once she gets there, Sorrel finds a happy extended family. There is only one grim spot- Lady Kirkwood’s brother, Andrew. An Anglican priest on sabbatical, he’s recovering- poorly- from a broken heart. He provides the romance in this combination romance/mystery, as Sorrel and the Kirkwood’s try to not just make the Shakespeare garden beautiful again, but to find out *why* it’s lain fallow for so many decades. Then there is the legend that any Kirkwood entering the garden will fall ill and die…

This is a pleasant enough story, with the extended family (that includes the head gardener, the inn keeper, and Lady Kirkwood’s brother) searching for clues while Sorrel designs and plants the garden. Basing it both on other Shakespeare gardens and glimpses of it in the tapestries, she creates a formal arrangement of parterres and knots that bursts into growth and bloom the minute she puts the plants in the ground. But things don’t work out easily; the garden’s curse is still alive.

As a gardener and a foodie, I couldn’t help but love the descriptions in this story. Herrick brings to life the look, feel, and scent of the plants. The meals the family eats are described just as lushly as the plants; I was hungry most of the time reading this! The mystery was interesting, although it largely came down to people deliberately hiding information. But the book is not without its faults; this is the second book of I assume a series, and as such referred constantly to events of the first book. Those references took up far too much of the narrative, and it’s far too repetitious. Also, for a mystery, it’s not a very tense story- it dwells on the relationships too much to make us worry much. It’s like the book couldn’t decide if it was a mystery or a cozy woman’s story. Still, I’m going to find the first book and read it. Because plants.
11th-Feb-2017 05:44 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2016

Steven Johnson has a broad definition of ‘play’; he speaks not of just toys and sports but of anything that seems frivolous or unnecessary that brings happiness to people. He puts forth a pretty good argument that pleasant things were the driving force behind many of the world’s advances; we all know of how the lust for spices drove exploration, trade, and, sadly, slavery and colonialism, but there have been many similar events. When those same traders brought cotton fabrics back from India, women found them amazing and very desirable. Not only were the much cooler and more comfortable to wear, but they could be woven in lovely patterns. This led to cotton being planted in the New World- and of course led to the slave trade in America. The urge to automate weaving patterns in silk led Jacquard to developing punch cards to control the loom; those cards reappeared in the late 1950s and were a staple in all 60s and 70s computer labs. As soon as computers appeared, people wanted to use them to play games, which led to building bigger and better computers. It seems that people will go to great lengths for things that no one actually *needs*, but which add grace notes and interest to life. I love social history, and this was an interesting read. Some reviewers have complained that he doesn’t back up with sources, but there are fairly extensive notes and a bibliography.
11th-Feb-2017 02:47 pm(no subject)
The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love, by Michael D. Lemonick. Doubleday, 2016

Lonni Sue Johnson was a person of huge abilities. She was a gifted artist who, among other things, created many ‘New Yorker’ covers. She was a skilled and passionate violist. She got her private pilot’s license and had her own plane and airfield. She wrote a newspaper column. She, with a partner, started an organic dairy. When she was interested in something, she flung herself headlong into it and mastered it. She never met a challenge she couldn’t best.

Then she got sick. She ran a high fever with encephalitis. For a while it looked like she wouldn’t live, or, if she did, that she would have severe brain damage, and possibly never wake up. The fever burned out the temporal lobes of her brain- the hippocampus- which is where our memories are made and stored. While she remembered her family, she remembered little else of her past. And she couldn’t lay down new memories- everything that happened to her was forgotten in ten or fifteen minutes. Anyone other than her sister and mother were greeted with “Hello. My name is Lonni Sue; what’s yours?” even if the person has just returned to the room after an absence of mere minutes.

Her abilities, on the other hand, remain intact, although they took time and work to regain. She can play the viola, but her music is deemed emotionless. She can draw and paint, and her passion right now is creating word search puzzles that are embellished with drawings. But… the four page puzzles are never finished. Not a single one. Something makes her give them up before that final page is created.

She has been endlessly tested by neurologists, and has contributed to the knowledge base about the working brain. She charms everyone she meets; scientists and techs love her as a subject and a person.

The book is a combination of personal history and neurology, including information on another famous case of hippocampus destruction, H.M., although in his case, the hippocampus was removed surgically in hopes of stopping uncontrolled seizures. While the book is interesting, it’s not in the same league as other neurology/neuropsychology books like those written by the late Oliver Sacks or V. Ramachandran. There are a large number of pages devoted to Johnson’s family (who dedicated their lives to keeping Lonni Sue as normalized as possible), and to her past that, while they make us closer to her, don’t really advance the story of her brain. It’s an okay book, but not a really gripping one.
10th-Feb-2017 02:04 pm(no subject)
Hecate animated
The Poison Diaries, by Jane, Duchess of Northumberland Illustrated by Colin Stimpson. Abrams, 2007

‘The Poison Diaries’ is a book for children- and adults. The story is short- an abusive apothecary takes on a young boy named Weed as an assistant and puts him in charge of the poison garden- but it works as a fairy tale, has a moral, and is an emotional story. It’s the illustrations that are so marvelous, along with information on the poisonous plants that’s included. As Weed tends the poison garden, the plants take turns speaking to him, telling him their tales and their medicinal and toxic uses- and their hatred of the apothecary. It’s a dark tale, and the illustrations are dark, too- even the brightest pages have a pale gray wash on them.

Some reviewers have said that they didn’t think this would be a good book for children, but I know I would have loved this book when I was in elementary school, and I know a lot of others who would feel that way. It’s in the same vein as many of the tales in the various books of fairy tales; they get pretty bloody and grim and kids love them.
7th-Feb-2017 03:31 pm(no subject)
lisa books
Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton. Random House Children’s Books, 2017

Sixteen year old Adam is starting at a new school. That means making new friends, and then there is a girl who seems interesting. His mother is pregnant by his fairly-new stepfather. Those things would be hard enough for any teen; to make things worse for Adam, he hallucinates. He has paranoid schizophrenia.

He’s on an experimental drug, and it, unlike all the others that were tried on him, is working. Oh, he still sees and hears people who aren’t really there, but this drug has enabled him to know they aren’t real, and so can go about life ignoring them. The mute woman who always seems to be with him, the naked but polite dude, the mobsters- they no longer bother him, even when they try their best.

Part of the deal with the experimental drug is that he has to attend therapy once a week. He refuses to speak to his therapist, so he writes out how his life is going. This is how the book is narrated: his letters to the doctor.

Other than the hallucinations wandering around, the first part of the book is just a normal teen going through life. But as the story goes on, Adam’s worst nightmare starts to come true: his new friends may find out he is mentally ill, broken. Is he strong enough to keep that from happening by sheer force of will?

Adam is quick witted, honest, and funny. I very much enjoyed the narrative. It’s a coming of age story, but one with much higher stakes than usual. I really liked Adam as a character, and I liked his girlfriend and best friend, too. His mother & stepfather love him and try hard, although they had no idea how to help Adam. It’s a fast read but one that made my heart ache.
5th-Feb-2017 03:54 pm(no subject)
moon phases
Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, by Paul A. Offit, M.D.. National Geographic, 2017

This is the story about unintended consequences, and unleashing discoveries on the world without enough testing beforehand. The frontal lobotomy, trans fats, eugenics, the synthesis of ammonium nitrate, megavitamins, opioids, and the banning of DDT are the seven that Offit has selected as big mistakes. Some, like lobotomies and trans fats, were a horrible idea from the start. Others, like ammonium nitrate and opioids, have been used indiscriminately and created problems.

Offit gives a good history of each of these problems, from the discovery of the thing to today’s results. He gives a bibliography to back up his thesis, and the last chapter is a warning: how to learn from the past, and how to identify bad science. The book is well researched and well written, and is interesting from beginning to end.

Do I agree with everything he says? Well, no. While I agree that deaths from overdoses of opioids are a bad thing, I certainly don’t want them not used any more. Too many people with chronic pain rely on them to get up and do a day’s work; for acute pain, as in post-surgery use, there is nothing else like them. A way needs to be found to keep them from being *over* used, rather than banning them. Yes, banning DDT meant that a number of mosquito borne diseases, which had become scarce in some area, came back with a vengeance, but I don’t agree with him that no damage was ever done with DDT. We need to find a better way, such as vaccines, to deal with those diseases, not bring back a substance that is still in every single person in the world. I do love his lessons on identifying bad science; if something seems to be the answer to all kinds of questions, it’s probably bogus. Nothing cures everything. Nothing cures without the possibility of side effects. As Heinlein said, there ain’t no such thing as free lunch.
29th-Jan-2017 02:10 pm(no subject)
The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff. MIRA Books, 2017

There are multiple orphans in this story. Astrid, a Jewish woman whose Nazi husband has been ordered to divorce her, returns to her circus family home to find everyone gone and presumed dead. Noa, a Dutch girl impregnated by a German soldier, is cast out by her family; her baby was taken from her by the Germans and she lives by being a custodian at a country railroad station. When she sees a boxcar filled with babies, with no one caring for them and exposed to the cold, she steals one of these parentless children and runs off through the snow. These orphans converge on Herr Neuhoff’s circus. Astrid knows him from her childhood; her family lived next door to the Neuhoff’s home base and she grew up with him. Noa and the baby, who she claims is her brother, Theo, lands with them by accident. To Astrid falls the chore of training Noa to be an aerialist like herself; to avoid questions, everyone in the circus must have a job. Plus, Neuhoff needs another aerialist to work with Astrid on the trapeze. Never mind that Noa has never done any such thing, and is afraid of heights.

After working together for a while, Astrid and Noa grow to respect and even like each other. Astrid has a lover; a Russian clown who does dangerous political satire. Noa also meets someone and falls in love instantly; the son of a small French town mayor who is a collaborator.

They are always in peril; even when safe for a few hours, they are on high alert. They hope to escape Nazi areas, but it’s not to be. False papers protect Astrid and Noa as long as they are not closely examined. But multiple tragedies befall the circus, and hard decisions must be made.

While the plot line of hiding from the Nazis could make this a thriller, it’s really a book about relationships: lovers, parents, friends. These relationships interweave like the net that stretches below the aerialists in the big top, which should catch a falling person but you never know when it will fail.

Astrid and Noa are really the only characters who are fleshed out decently. The others seem rather flat; they fill the space nicely but have no existence outside of the story. I would have liked to have seen more of Peter the goose-stepping clown, and the story would have seemed realer had Noa and Luc spent more time together before falling head over heels in love. But it’s a good, tense story, showing WW 2 from a perspective I’ve not encountered before.
28th-Jan-2017 02:12 pm(no subject)
Things We Have in Common, by Tasha Kavanagh. Mira, 2017

When Yasmin Laksaris’s father died five years previous to the story, her life spiraled out of control. We are given no clue as to what her life was like previous to this, other than that she and her father were close. Since then, food has become her only source of comfort. Her mother is not close to her and has remarried, to a man who seems to barely tolerate Yasmin. Now she’s obese, and the students, teachers, and principle of her school all treat her like a total outcast. She takes endless taunting. When her not very subtle stalkerish behavior towards the most popular girl in school becomes obvious, the taunting gets even more vicious. But it doesn’t stop her from endlessly watching pretty, blonde, Alice.

Then one day she discovers that she’s not the only one watching Alice. Sitting outside during lunch, she notices that a man walking a dog is watching Alice intently. She intuits somehow that this man means harm to Alice. But rather than reporting the man to the school, she decides to figure out who he is. Because she doesn’t want to stop him from abducting Alice; she wants to be the one who rescues Alice once she’s abducted, figuring that Alice will then return her love. So Yasmin plays junior detective, and, amazingly, finds the man. She manages to work her way into his life- which he responds to rather oddly- and when Alice really does go missing, Yasmin turns her stalking to him.

The author has captured the feelings of a teen outcast pretty well. She’s so desperate for affection that even the slightest imagined (and she imagines a LOT- she is, in fact, delusional) favor shown by the man changes her life. The book is written as if Yasmin is telling the story to the man, and it gives us a deep look into her mind. Yasmin is, quite frankly, not a very sympathetic character. In some ways, she is- anyone bullied as much as she is would be- but she has a very warped mind. The story is built such that you could see it going in several directions. I couldn’t put the book down, dying to see which way it would go. The end is positively Hitchcockian.
17th-Jan-2017 12:31 pm(no subject)
Kwan Yin
Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang. William Morrow, 2017

Seven year old Jialing is not worried at first when her mother leaves her alone in their home, telling her she’ll be back in three days. It’s far from the first time her mother has left her alone for a few days, when she goes to spend time with Noble Uncle. Jialing is pretty safe; a resident Fox spirit looks after her when her mother is gone. But this time her mother doesn’t come back. When new people move into the main house, Fox tells her to step out of hiding and speak to the new girl who is out in the yard. She finds herself taken in by Grandmother Yang as a bond servant, a person who can purchase their freedom. By luck, she gets to go to school and learn English. But still not much is hoped for her. She is zazhong- half white. She will be welcomed by neither whites nor Chinese.

The tale starts in 1908 and goes to 1920. In that short time, Jialing goes through many changes, as does China. She tries for jobs, she searches for her long missing mother, she learns the true social cost of being biracial in that time and place, she comes to the attention of gangsters. Her path is not an easy one, and she has to make hard choices. Jialing is a great character; she’s smart and strong, but also flawed.

Told in first person by Jialing, it’s a beautiful book, even though many of the things that happen are far from pretty. The phrasing, the descriptions, and the characters- they are nearly luminous. There is magical realism used throughout the book- not just Fox (my favorite character), but a now and then gate to the immortals. I recommend this book.
11th-Jan-2017 01:18 pm(no subject)
Kwan Yin
Bitter Winds: Book 3 in the Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, by Kay Bratt. Lake Union Publishing, 2014

I wasn’t aware that “Bitter Winds” was the third in a series when I ordered it; it works as a standalone novel but I think would have made more sense if it had been read in order. The cast of characters is large, and I spent a good bit of time thinking “Now, who is this person again?!?” But the story concentrates mainly on four characters: Lily & Ivy, twin teenagers, Lily being a blind violinist and Ivy her guide through life; Li Jin, who runs the shelter they all live in and acts as chef; and Sami, Li Jin’s friend from a previous book, who has led a thoroughly horrible life up to this point.

Lily wants to make some money by playing her violin in public (which is classed as begging by the Chinese government). When the police make a sweep to remove all the beggars from a festival, Lily gets separated from her sister Ivy. By happenstance she is found holding a leaflet for the forbidden Falun Gong sect, which means imprisonment in a mental hospital and possibly a stay in a ‘reeducation camp’, which carry a huge fine, instead of immediate release with a small fine. Meanwhile, Sami gives birth. She’s far from a natural mother, and wants nothing to do with the child. She also does nothing to help around the shelter, which is a communal situation. Li Jin is overworked, spending a lot of time trying to come up with the money to get Lily released. It’s a tense time for them all, with Lily and Ivy in some very scary situations. The ending is a surprise; we are led to think one thing will happen and it’s the opposite. It’s a bit of a deus ex machina, and I wished the details had been spelled out, but it works.

Li Jin is almost too good to be real, although without having read the first two books I could be missing a lot. Sami actually turns out to be the most interesting person in the end. Lily and Ivy are fairly well fleshed out, but no one is really developed all that well. Once again, I could be missing a lot because of this being the first of the books I’ve read. I’m not totally sure if I’ll seek out the others; it was a nice read but not really gripping.
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