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These Dreams of You

Cleaning Nabokov’s House: A Novel by Leslie Daniels (Touchstone; $24.00; 336 pages)

Debut author and literary agent Leslie Daniels sets the reader up for a tough and jarring ride before she detours us onto a softer road.   This begins as the story of a woman, Barb Barnett, who has no domestic skills and little self-esteem.   She leaves her husband John and her two children before they discover that she doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher in their home.   It may be the beginning of a period of freedom and growth for her – instead, she finds that she’s powerless, a helpless and hopeless person who’s utterly lost in the world.

Barb finds a weathered rental home in her husband’s (“the experson”) Upstate New York community of Onkwedo, home of Waindell University; a not too thinly disguised version of Ithaca, home to Cornell.   This turns out to have once been the temporary home of the famed writer Vladimir Nabokov; it may have been the home in which he wrote the classic Lolita over a two-year period.   The very lonely Barb finds that she’s not free of her ex-husband’s demands since she must do what he says in order to see her young children – a  purse-collecting girl and a very serious boy.   Even when John Barnett takes his kids and new girlfriend and moves a two-hour drive away from Onkwedo, Barb is expected to act as his servant, even taking care of John’s new dog for periods of up to six days at a time.

Barb’s powerlessness may have come to an end when she happens to find a manuscript in the rental home, a not fully completed novel about Babe Ruth that may or may not have been written by Nabokov.   Ah, the reader sees, this is going to be her ticket out…  Well, maybe.   At the urging of a literary agent, Barb takes it upon herself to complete the novel and takes it with her to New York City for authentication by literary experts.   (No doubt it’s going to be a genuine Nabokov and she’ll be rich.)

“My mother didn’t like bad things to happen to anyone, particularly herself.   To be fair, she didn’t like bad things to happen to me either, so she pretended they didn’t.   Her warding off of bad things involved revisions of reality.   When I was a child, she told me two years in a row that ‘Grandma is in Florida and can’t come for Christmas.’   The third year, I pinned her down and discovered that Grandma was dead.”

Forty-five percent of the way through this tale, the reader is certain of what’s going to happen.   Everything seems to be all sewn up in a neat little bundle for resolution.   And then everything changes.

While in Manhattan, Barb discovers a successful brothel that’s visited by men.   It dawns on her that her path to power and riches may lie in establishing a brothel in sleepy Onkwedo, although one that will meet the needs of the women in the village rather than the men.   One of the university’s heralded sports teams has just the young bloods she needs for her own unique team of athletes.   This is exactly where the fun and the sense of personal empowerment comes into play, for Barb realizes that if she can make enough money for herself she can stand up and take on John Barnett in a fair custody fight.

“John used to be right all the time.   It was a cornerstone belief of our former relationship: we both knew that John was always right.   Only that was no longer true.”

The once weak and timid Barb is assisted in her efforts by finding a strong and understanding man, who seems (and this is part of the charm of the story) to have suddenly appeared from the pages of a romance novel.   He’s a working man who knows better than to come on too strong with her, so she’s the one who makes the moves, even when it comes to their first kiss.

And so the serious becomes the sublime, with a heavy trace of satire and comedy, in a very unique offering from Daniels.   What makes it all work – and work so well, from start to finish – is that the reader is always in Barb Barnett’s corner even through all the script, set and background changes.   It’s a dizzying and sometimes puzzling read; all in all, a fun and tremendously engaging read.

Leslie Daniels pulls out all of the stops in this well recommended debut.   Bravo!  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Cleaning Nabokov’s House was released on March 1, 2011.

“An odd mix of silly, ridiculous, and inspiring…  a pleasure to read.”   Publishers Weekly.

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She Is Still a Mystery

The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (Avon; $11.99; 176 pages)

This novella is another flawlessly written story by award-winning author Laura Lippman that you will not be able to put down and in the end will leave you wanting more.

Tess Monaghan is  private investigator confined to her home on bed rest in the third trimester of her first pregnancy.   While longingly watching the world go by outside her window, Tess becomes intrigued by a lovely girl wearing a green raincoat who takes long walks with her dog at exactly the same time each day.   Then one day Tess witnesses the dog running outside her window, leash attached, the owner nowhere to be seen.

Tess’s investigator instincts heighten full force into the possibilities of what could have happened to the owner and is determined to get to the bottom of the story.   Ignoring the advice of her cautious boyfriend Crow, she plunges into an investigation that leads to a string of crimes and deceit.   Her obsession with this girl in the green raincoat and her unruly dog creates a delightful storyline including murder, mystery and more.   Her vibrant characters, descriptive dialogue and an unpredictable ending make it a story you can’t pass up!

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Baker Street

The Brothers of Baker Street: A Mystery by Michael Robinson (Minotaur Books; $24.95; 274 pages)

“Everyone is entitled to the best defense available.   That doesn’t mean everyone is entitled to me.”

Snappy dialogue and well-described characters make this a charming riff on the legendary Sherlock Holmes detective mysteries.   Of course, the opening of the story is set in a privileged, upper class English home where a servant is tending to the needs and desires of an unidentified central figure.   The reader is not provided with any clues regarding the gender or age of the homeowner, nor the reason for their interest in the Daily News, a tabloid of sorts.

There is a direct tie to the 19th century literary character Sherlock Holmes that the reader discovers when the main character of this mystery novel, Reggie Heath, drives his Jaguar into the neighborhood where he works.   The office is located at 221 B Baker Street, London.   Reggie is a barrister, someone in the legal profession who represents lawyers in court.   This seems convoluted and layered, and it is distinctly British.   The office lease for this historic address comes with special terms and conditions.   Writers of letters to Sherlock Holmes, and there are many, must receive a timely written reply.   Reggie’s brother Nigel, who lives in the United States, is responsible for the replies; however, Nigel must return to London in order to play a part in the action in this story.

In the first book of this series, The Baker Street Letters, a letter for Sherlock Holmes drew Reggie to California.   Moreover, the chaos that ensued depleted his bank account and nearly ruined his reputation.   As is frequently the case with British mysteries, the mundane details are glossed over in favor of creating an illusion of surreptitious and clandestine meetings, great chases and general gallivanting about the countryside.   Happily, there are enough wonderful examples of these features to satisfy the reader’s need for a Holmes-like experience.   As always, a London taxi, actually a legendary Black Cab, features prominently in the action.

Author Robertson sets up duels of wits between Reggie and several other characters.   One of these characters is a modern day version of Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty.   This reviewer refuses to divulge any more about the plot as it is engaging and deserves not to be spoiled.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Brothers of Baker Street will be released on March 1, 2011.

“An extremely clever evil scheme will delight readers.”   Publishers Weekly

 

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You Belong to Me

Matched by Ally Condie (Dutton Books, November 2010)

Matched, by Ally Condie, presents a world in which Society prescribes a life for each member and Officials stand in for God, evaluating strengths and weaknesses with scientific precision to enable optimal career paths and “matches.”   Although Condie never states it directly in this young adult novel, a match is a precursor to a breeding, which, presumably, will result in future generations of ever more perfect human products.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future and opens on the eve of two milestone events in the life of the heroine: Cassia’s match on her seventeenth birthday and her beloved grandfather’s death on his eightieth.   Both events are planned and orchestrated by Officials to maximize the efficiency of their respective lives.   But grandfather is a bit of a rebel, and he either sees or hopes he sees a kindred spirit in Cassia.  His last gifts to her are an illicit poem that did not survive Society’s literature purge and the advice, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

The premise is wonderful.   The setting is satisfyingly dystopian – humans wear plainclothes in colors designating their work status; the Officials manage people as though they were livestock; and prescribed recreation sometimes takes the form of walking in the woods, a pasttime as obsolete as typing on a manual typewriter or looking up a word in a hardbound dictionary.

Condie keeps us at arm’s length from the characters, however – Cassia cries, but we don’t cry with her.   That may be an intentional reflection of the sanitized Society in which they live.   Or it may be due to the fact that Matched is the first book in a trilogy and the author is growing the characters slowly.   Regardless, the cliffhanger on which Matched ends is more than enough reason to seek out the sequel in November of this year.   (Dutton will publish the third book in the series in November of 2012.)

Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Mother and Child Reunion

LEFT neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster)

In an interview with Jennifer Northcutt, a buyer for Borders bookstores, neurologist Lisa Genova says an anecdote about left-side neglect in a book she read years ago by neurology and psychiatry professor Oliver Sacks piqued her curiosity.   She knew the clinical manifestations of a right-hemisphere brain injury, but wondered how one could possibly cope with such a condition.

The result of that curiosity is Sarah Nickerson, 37, protagonist of LEFT neglected.   Sarah is the hard-charging, Harvard MBA-toting vice president of a Boston consulting firm who can’t recall the last time she had sex with her husband, Bob, but does keep track of her wins when they play Rocks, Paper, Scissors to see who gets stuck taking their three kids to school/daycare before work on Fridays.   Sarah’s hyper-drive lifestyle downshifts abruptly when an auto accident (she’s looking for a number on her cell phone) leaves her with a traumatic brain injury.

Left-side neglect is an intriguing condition.   Asked to draw a clock, a patient will only draw the noon-through-six side.   Food on the left side of her plate will go unseen.   She knows that she has a left leg, but her brain is unable to find it or control it, making walking impossible.

Genova tells Sarah’s story in the first person, which lets the reader in on her unvarnished thought process as she comes to grip with maddening limitations.   Sarah retains her intellect and her competitiveness, which she and Bob assume will drive her to regain everything she’s lost.   She is blunt and funny, and her pity parties are few and brief.   Oddly enough, however, it is Sarah’s relationship with her long-absent mother that truly humanizes her.   When mother shows up at Sarah’s hospital bedside, Sarah openly hates her.   The reason, which resurfaces slowly, rescues Sarah from superwoman flatness and makes her a compelling and sympathetic character.   The evolution of the mother-daughter relationship colors the novel with poignancy and grace.

Genova’s writing is inventive.   She shows the stress of Sarah’s pre-accident life in the clack-clack-clack cadence of Sarah’s four-inch, Christian Louboutin heels and deftly contrasts it post-accident in Sarah’s cane-step-drag-breathe pattern of learning to walk again.

As a neurologist, Genova is well acquainted with the pathology of brain afflictions.   Her first novel, Still Alice, is about Alzheimer’s.   It was a New York Times bestseller, and odds are good that LEFT neglected will be, too.   Highly recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   This is a “second look” review.   LEFT neglected was released on January 4, 2011.

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Room: A Novel

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (Little,Brown; $24.99; 336 pages)

The Soul selects her own Society – Then – shuts the door.

Jack could be assumed to be a typical 5-year-old boy being homeschooled by his mother and engaging in similar activities as his peers (watching TV, reading, art).   However, Jack’s entire existence revolves around the life created by his abducted mother in an 11 X 11 room created for the sole purpose of keeping their existence a secret.

Told from Jack’s point of view, the story unfolds portraying realistic outcomes that create the illusion of a non-fiction novel.   You will root for Jack and his ‘Ma’ to escape the confines of their prison-like life with despicable “Old Nick” and enter the real world (outer space) for a chance to live a “normal” life.

Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.   When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.

You will be enchanted by the endearing dedication provided by Jack’s mother as she recalls the details of her own childhood in order to create an atmosphere where Jack can survive and strive within the limits of Room.   This is a wonderful life-affirming portrayal of the strength of a mother’s love for her son.   It is a force which can survive under even the worst of circumstances.

Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.   Room, the seventh novel from Donoghue, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2010.

“Potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory.”   Michael Cunningham

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Yesterday’s Gone

Left Neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books; $25.00; 336 pages)

“I think some small part of me knew that I was living an unsustainable life.   Every now and then it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down.   You don’t need all of this.   You can’t continue like this.”

Once upon a time, a 37-year-old woman named Sarah Nickerson was a successful and driven executive working in New York City.   Not a moment was ever wasted, even while driving her automobile.   Work, work, work was going to result in Sarah’s having a perfect life…

“Ever since business school, I’ve had my head down, barreling a thousand miles an hour, wearing the flesh of each day down to the bone, pointed down one road toward a single goal.   A successful life.”

Except that one day Sarah was rushing down a freeway when she turned her attention away from the road for a couple of seconds too long.   Her car went over a guard rail, turned over and over, and she barely escaped with her life.   Just like that, she had brain damage, resulting in a condition that would not permit her to see things with her left eye.   This accident also left her with basic paralysis on the left side of her body.   In theory, her left eye still worked perfectly fine but her brain had lost the ability to process its signals and, therefore, the left side of her life disappeared.   This condition is known by many names but is often referred to – ironically – as “left neglected.”

Lisa Genova, a former neuroscientist and nurse, applies her medical knowledge just as tactfully and effectively as she did in her earlier self-published New York Times Bestseller, Still Alice (about an Alzheimer’s patient).   Genova writes with such precise focus and detail that the reader believes he or she has become Sarah Nickerson, and battles her physical and mental conditions right along with her.   Sarah is nothing if not a fighter, a very stubborn one.   She plans to beat this thing, and quickly:

“Thank God I’m a competitive, Type A perfectionist.   I’m going to be the best traumatic brain injury patient Baldwin has ever seen…  they won’t be seeing me for long because I…  plan to recover faster than anyone would predict.   I wonder what the record is?”

Like the journalist Nan Robertson in the recovery memoir Getting Better, Sarah decides she’s going to scam the medical establishment if it kills her, and it almost does.   She won’t give in and she certainly won’t back down.   However, she soon becomes exhausted trying to get a broken-down mind and body to work again and even begins to lose track of the days of the week:  “It’s the beginning of March, and I’ve been out of work for four months now.”

Eventually she views herself as fully recovering and re-entering the workforce for, after all, she’s Sarah Nickerson… But what if she can’t beat this thing?

“I have no interest in accepting or accommodating.   I have a brain injury that has not healed and no promise that it ever will.   I used to have a full and successful life.   Now what do I have?”

Well, Sarah has a son with his own medical issues who seems to need her, and a husband who would love to support her, but also loves the idea of her someday bringing in a paycheck again.   Just when they need the “old Sarah” back, she begins to realize the value of taking a time-out from the whirl of Manhattan life and living:  “I didn’t dream of having a brain injury in order to have the chance to sit and think…  That’s kind of a hard price to pay for a little R&R…”   But since she’s paid the price, she just might decide to take advantage of it.

The joyful part of this read is seeing how Sarah finds a new way of living that makes her whole, at least in terms of her spirit and soul.   She gets to see that life can be experienced without Gantt charts and due dates; without people needing her every second of the night and day.   It may have taken a brain injury, but our protagonist Sarah becomes a person who learns to live and love life without hesitation.

Who would have thought it?   Sarah Nickerson, a woman bathed in Gratitude.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Remember how you couldn’t put down Still Alice?   Well, clear your schedule – because you’re going to feel the same way.”   Jodi Picoult

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Coming Up Next…

A preview-review of The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok, which will be released by Free Press on January 11, 2011.

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False Profits

Too Good to Be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff by Erin Arvedlund (Penguin Group; $16.00; 336 pages)

In this book, financial journalist and first-time author Erin Arvedlund systematically maps out the intricate network of relationships within the Bernard Madoff investment fiasco.   Arvedlund expended a considerable amount of time and energy in developing this book.   She realized that Madoff was full of double talk and could not be delivering the consistent returns to his investors that they thought they were earning when she interviewed him for Barron’s magazine in 2001.   The interview resulted in an article entitled, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”   In response to Arvedlund’s questions, Madoff was typically evasive; he was off-putting when she asked him how his system for investing worked.

The fact that an immense Ponzi scheme was carried out by Madoff through his near-secret advisory activities escaped all but a few of the most Wall Street-savvy auditors.   This secrecy was coupled with the attitudes of his elitist-minded millionaires – there were enough greedy and willing people to feed the pyramid and maintain its immense demand for money over several years – and how many is anyone’s guess.

This reader sends kudos to Arvedlund for her calm, balanced and well-written narrative.   It delivers facts, figures and helpful insight.   Well recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Note:  This trade paperback version contains a new chapter that updates events since the date of the original hardcover release.

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