This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005, * * * *

From the acclaimed author of "The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, a moving new novel that subtly reimagines our world and time in a haunting story of friendship and love. As a child, Kathy, now thirty-one years old, lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbe, even comforted-by their isolation, but also describes scenes  of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham's nurturing facade.   A tale of deceptive simplicity, Never Let Me Go slowly reveals an extraordinary emotional depth and resonance and takes its place among Kazuo Ishiguro's finest work. Whether you consider this a love story, mystery, or science fiction, this poignant novel will hit you where you live. Ishiguro once again shows himself to be the master of the emotional epic. His spare but evocative prose draws you in, word by word, sentence by sentence,  and by the time the ending is revealed, it's like losing hold of a beloved balloon and watching it float away. We can naively believe that once out of sight, it will continue on its journey, but the grimness of reality tells us otherwise.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens, 2010, * * *

In psychiatric sessions, Annie O'Sullivan, a 32-year-old realtor with a nice boyfriend and a demanding mother, describes her year-long ordeal as the captive of a rapist. Annie was about to close up an open house for a property when an affable guy who introduced himself as David showed up. In short order, David kidnapped her and held her hostage in a remote mountain cabin. There, he raped her daily, regulated every moment, and forced her to 'play house.' The intense plot alternates between Annie's creepy confinement, her escape, and her attempts to readjust to real life. Still, Annie knows that a large part of her soul is 'still missing.'   Every day since her escape she feels closer to the edge, completely ready to snap from the fear, grief, guilt, and horror that she lives with.  .Chevy Stevens weaves a story of utter horror as we follow Annie through her year of captivity, and through the days that follow her escape as she tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.  Annie makes a good protagonist as most people will be able to  identify with her,  having seen enough episodes of "CSI" and "Law and Order SVU".  Annie intellectually knows all the things an abducted woman "should" do, and yet faced with the impossibility of her situation, she finds that all she really *can* do is just hold on and survive. The story is set on Vancouver Island and pulsates with suspense that gets a power boost from the jaw-dropping but credible closing twist.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, 2010, * * *

When I read the description for The Cookbook Collector, I was interested in reading about two sisters and their relationship with each other.  Part of what made these two sisters interesting was how different they were - Jess is the free-spirited, tree loving, vegan sister, the perpetual student who flits aimlessly through life with a generous heart and a luminescent beauty that attracts people to her. Emily, the older sister, is the total opposite who at 26 is the CEO of Veritech, a  promising  When the Publishers Weekly folks start tossing Jane Austen's name around, I expect a well-written, gentle comedy/satire. When a cover looks like an oil painting, I expect depth and quality. When the title includes the word COOKBOOK, I expect a soothing read. This is not that book.  Ultimately, this is a book about a bunch of yuppie techies working 24/7 during the dot com bubble from 1999 through 2002.   Given the present economy, I simply don't think readers are going to relate to that period today. The novel weaves back and forth between the various story arcs Emily and her business; her boyfriend Jonathan and his high-tech company; their relationship with each other; Jess and her environmental activism;  Jess and her job at Yorick's, a bookstore run by a wealthy older man named George who is sort of commitment-phobic. In addition,  there are numerous other  threads which touch on themes such as Jewish mysticism, family secrets, cooking, and house restsoration.   Overall, the quality of writing is above average but the multiple story arcs are uneven and insufficiently explored.  It is an easy read, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Good Son by Michael Gruber, 2010, * * *

Bestseller Gruber (Forgery of Venus) explores America's political involvement in South Asia and the bloody religious and ethnic fanaticism associated with the region in his seventh novel. Sonia Laghari, a Pakistani-American writer and psychologist, sets up a conference on peace in Kashmir, 'the most terrorist-infested place on earth,' only to have her and her small group of pacifists abducted and held captive by terrorists, who may or may not be manufacturing nuclear weapons. All but doomed to a public beheading, Sonia uses her familiarity with Islamic doctrine as well as her knowledge of Jungian psychology to get into the heads of the captors. An additional story thread deals with her son, Theo, who is planning to rescue his mother. Once a member of the Afghan forces that fought the Russians, he is now doing black ops for the United. States Army. Although very competent in what he does, Theo seems less realistic than other characters in the story.  The story is well told, but still lacks sympathetic characters. In fact, the overall story at times appear convoluted, almost as if Gruber isn't sure what should come next and the bombshells at the end strain credulity. However, the characters and labyrinthine plot line, not to mention the absorbing history of modern jihadism and the U.S. war on terrorism, make for an interesting thriller.

Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah, 1999. * * * * *

Born in 1937 in a port city a thousand miles north of Shanghai, Adeline Yen Mah was the youngest child of an affluent Chinese family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval. But wealth and position could not shield Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of a cruel and manipulative Eurasian stepmother who makes Snow White's stepmother looks like a pussycat. Chinese proverbs scattered throughout the text pithily convey the traditional world view that prompted Adeline's subservience.  Determined to survive through her enduring faith in family unity, Adeline struggled for independence as she moved from Hong Kong to England and eventually to the United States. A compelling, painful, and ultimately triumphant story of a girl's journey into adulthood, Adeline's story is a testament to the most basic of human needs: acceptance, love, and understanding. With a powerful voice that speaks of the harsh realities of growing up female in a family and society that kept girls in emotional chains, Falling Leaves is a work of heartfelt intimacy and a rare authentic portrait of twentieth-century China.  Had she not escaped to America, where she experienced a fulfilling medical career and a happy marriage, her story would be unbearable – like an Asian version of Mommy Dearest.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman, 2006, * * * *

Sandy Glass, a charismatic publicity-seeking oncologist, and Marion Mendelssohn, a pure, exacting scientist, are codirectors of a lab at the Philpott Institute dedicated to cancer research and desperately in need of a grant. Both mentors and supervisors of their young postdoctoral protégés, Glass and Mendelssohn demand dedication and obedience in a competitive environment where funding is scarce and results elusive. When the experiments of Cliff Bannaker, a young postdoc in a rut, begin to work, the entire lab becomes giddy with newfound expectations. But Cliff’s rigorous colleague — and girlfriend — Robin Decker suspects the unthinkable: that his findings are fraudulent. As Robin makes her private doubts public and Cliff maintains his innocence, a life-changing controversy engulfs the lab and everyone in it.   With extraordinary insight, Allegra Goodman brilliantly explores the intricate mixture of workplace intrigue, scientific ardor, and the moral consequences of a rush to judgment. She has written an unforgettable novel.  If you’ve read about Intuition in the media, don’t be fooled. Yes, there are parallels between its plot and high-profile scientific scandals, but at heart it’s not about fraud. It’s about blurred lines: What is scientific genius, and what is leaping far beyond the data into the universe of imagination? Which mini-deviations from protocol are troubling and which are not? How can we tell if someone has crossed the line from embracing intuition for scientific good or departed the world of science altogether?  A novel that sparks questions like these would make good fare for students in Ph.D.-granting science programs but Intuition is for everyone.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, 2007, * * *

Two murders committed 400 years apart form the core of British author Mills's second novel (after Amagansett, which won a CWA Dagger Award). In 1958, Cambridge undergraduate Adam Strickland, who's studying a curious Tuscan Renaissance garden for his art history thesis, is equally intrigued by both the garden of the Villa Docci estate and its elderly owner, Signora Francesca Docci. Built by the villa's first owner, Federico Docci, in 1577, the garden was intended as a memorial to his wife, Flora, who died when she was only 25. In the course of his research, Adam begins to sense that events, both past and present, are not as clear-cut as they appear. In particular, he discovers that there are several versions of the death of Signora Docci's oldest son, Emilio, who was shot by the villa's German occupiers at the end of WWII. In Mills' hands this becomes a grandly written literary thriller that I found alternately fascinating and frustrating. It was frustrating because the opening sections move much too slowly and although each description of a statue or a landscape or a painting is lovely, there are far too many of them. My other objection is that much of Mills' plot is simply far-fetched where too many connections in The Savage Garden, like those in Sherlock Holmes stories, are more clever than plausible.