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Searching in Vain

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok (William Morrow, $26,99, 336 pages)

Jean Kwok’s third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, felt like a missed opportunity to me. Why? Because the story involves an extended family – some of whose members immigrated to the United States from China, and others who wound up in the Netherlands (Holland). It seemed like a great opportunity for Kwok to take the reader into the specifics – and differences among, all three cultures – Chinese, American, and Dutch. Instead the multicultural surface is barely scratched.

At one point we learn that in Holland someone having a birthday is expected to invite individuals to her party and to pay for everyone who attends; the very opposite of what would happen in the U.S. And this is close to the total of what we learn about cultural differences in the novel. (To be fair, we are also informed that people in Holland like to keep their window shades open at almost all times.)

There are three basic characters and narrators. There’s “Ma,” the mother of Sylvie Lee and Amy Lee, who migrated to New York City with her husband from China. Because Ma is said to have limited English speaking skills, her voice is extremely limited. I imagine that some editors would have advised deleting the character; her role could have been detailed in a few basic paragraphs.

There’s Sylvie, the older daughter who has lived a virtually perfect life – perhaps based on the Harvard-educated author’s life – academically and professionally if not always personally, until it all too suddenly falls apart. Sylvia goes from riches to rags and defeat so quickly that it strains credulity. When Sylvie travels from NYC to Holland to be with her deathly ill grandmother, she unexpectedly vanishes.

Well, at least the reader is supposed to view this as an unexpected development. Based on the book’s title and the not too obtuse set-up, the reader can pretty much sense or guess the final outcome before arriving at the halfway point.

And then there’s Amy, the independent younger sister who worshiped her older sister and jets off to Holland on a mission to locate Sylvie. But, of course, Amy – who views herself as unattractive and less intelligent and worldly than Sylvie, seeks to make herself a hero by locating her sister in an area of the world she’s never previously visited. (Amy knows this is a highly unlikely outcome.)

One of the key issues I had with Searching is that while certain parts of the plot and storyline initially appear to be sensical, the mind revisits the logic of the telling at times when the book is put down. That’s when one considers portions of the story to be nonsensical. Let me give an example without the use of any spoilers. There’s a person that Sylvie is tied to emotionally until she breaks away from him – getting away from him being another likely reason she travels to Holland. However, he suddenly shows up in Holland upon her arrival, and departs after she goes missing. No, his presence is not a red herring – he had nothing to do with her disappearance, and Amy herself wonders why this man would show up in Holland and then depart. Its another instance in which an editor might have advised deleting an illogical aspect of the story.

Kwok writes in a calm, detailed and deliberate manner that engages the reader early on. But the energy of the story and of its multiple characters has pretty much dissipated by page 200. By this point, I had lost interest in continuing until the end – although I proceeded to do so, to learn whether my view of the ending would be prescient or not. (It was.)

Finally, like all too many family novels these days, the book is built around a supposedly dramatic “family secret.” The secret is not mind-blowing – some readers will no doubt have guessed it before the denouement, and it fails to justify the time invested in a story that goes on for too many pages. And so, this is a missed opportunity; a missed opportunity for both the writer and her readers.

Joseph Arellano

Searching for Sylvie Lee was published on June 4, 2019. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Death in Special Collections

Murder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

murder manuscript room

As she dug through the possessions Leila left behind, she was aware that what she searched through was not so different than what she might find in any of the boxes in the manuscripts and archives collection.

Author Con Lehane follows his first novel in this series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, with an equally engaging tale.  Raymond Amber, newly-discovered grandfather of Johnny, jumps into another quirky situation in his role as the curator of the crime fiction collection at the New York City landmark/institution.

The cast of characters includes several carry-overs, the most prominent among them are: Raymond’s almost-love-interest librarian Adele Morgan, New York police detective Mike Cosgrove, and beloved Library Tavern bartender McNulty.  Despite the obvious enormity of New York City, Lehane deftly conveys a small town vibe by further developing the strong relationships among the characters introduced in the first book.  They interact within a fairly tight radius around the library and their respective neighborhoods.

Of course there is the promised murder and ensuing investigation into the who and why of the event.  New member of the library staff and murder victim, Leila Stone, gave off strange vibes and did not fit in with the normal flow of work.  Mike and Raymond form a tension-filled team to solve the crime.  In the past, Raymond has proved his skill at detective work which puts him in friendly competition with his buddy the detective.

Adele is the one library staff member who was able to forge a relationship with Leila and she takes up the thankless task of delving into Leila’s past in the hope of finding a motive for the otherwise pointless murder.  Adele ventures away from New York City all the way to Texas.  There are murky figures lurking wherever she travels which adds a menacing note to the tale.

Numerous plot threads connect the characters within the murder investigation, while at the same time daily life goes on.  Raymond’s continuing custody tug-of-war with Johnny’s wealthy grandmother allows the reader to experience his evolving emotional development from a neat and tidy librarian’s life to the messiness of a life infused with deep feelings.

The satisfying second novel in the 42nd Street Library series from Con Lehane is a  product of his adept skill at writing dialogue, describing scenery and portraying emotions.  The added bonus blended into the mystery is another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the workings of a priceless institution.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Don’t Look Back

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Moss (Dey St., $28.99, 480 pages)

An initially interesting work about missing the places from the past that have disappeared – something we can all relate to – devolves into a screed.

It was hard to see in 1993, but 42nd Street, aka the Deuce, was already in the midst of “renewal.”  I had, again, arrived too late.

vanishing new york

Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss (not the writer’s real name) is an initially engaging but ultimately frustrating look at the effects of hyper-gentrification on New York City.  The first hundred pages or so are fascinating,  like a good magazine article about places that once existed at a tourist destination.  But once the reader has passed the 400-page mark, the charm of the work is completely absent.

I broke into tears, trying to hold back my grief for that place [Cafe Edison] and its people, but also for all of Times Square, and for the whole lost city.  As I wept over blueberry blintzes, I asked myself, as I often did, What is left to love about New York?

“Moss” – who acknowledges in the book’s opening that he may soon disappear “like the New York I love” – is an individual who would have been praised in graduate school for his issue spotting skills.  If he had devoted 50 to 60 percent of the book to identifying the problems with gentrification, and 40 to 50 percent to proposed legislative or social solutions the work might have been uplifting.  Instead, it’s 95+ percent devoted to kvetching about what’s been lost.  This gets boring quickly.  Very quickly.

And, make no mistake, Moss – or whoever he is, goes quite overboard in his language about the Big Apple:  “I stay because I need New York.  I can’t live anywhere else.”  Of course, he could live somewhere else but he elects to stay and complain rather aimlessly about the changing and evolving face of a major city.

Everything changes, Moss.  Get over it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Gin and Panic

Gin and Panic

Gin and Panic: A Mystery by Maia Chance (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 278 pages)

Spunky Lady Detectives Redux.

We meet again – Lola Woodby, widow and self-made detective, and Berta Lundgren, former cook for Ms. Woodby, are running low on funds because even odd retrieval jobs such as finding lost laundry carts and missing pooches won’t finance their pared down lifestyle.  Gin and Panic is the third novel in the Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries series featuring Lola and Berta.  Happily, this installment is as charming, humorous, and fast-paced as author Chance’s prior work, Teetotaled.

The time is the 1920s and the action takes place in New York City and Connecticut.  An English country house weekend set in rural Connecticut provides the perfect excuse for witty pitch perfect quips and charming asides to the reader by Lola who is the narrator.  Snappy dialogue among the cast of weekend guests advances the plot while revealing their intentions and proclivities.

The owner of the estate, Rudy Montgomery, has a rhinoceros head trophy that Lord Eustace Sudley believes is rightly his.  Lord Sudley engages Lola and Berta to spirit away the trophy while pretending to be his friends along for the weekend.  As the plot thickens, code for somebody dies under mysterious circumstances, the scene shifts back and forth between New York and Connecticut at a rather breakneck pace.

Ms. Chance is mindful of the reader’s need for more than just plot twists and red herrings.  There are scenes full of cinematic details of the long ago U.S. Prohibition era.  Lastly, she has crafted character development that bodes well for future installments of the adventures of Lola and Berta.  Well done!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This book will be released on October 24, 2017.

A review copy was received from the publisher.  

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Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

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One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

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I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

i-liked-my-life-back

Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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Fakin’ It

paul-simon-hb

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt, $32.00, 415 pages)

An ambitious attempt that fails because in the end we don’t know who Paul Simon is.

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s. EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s.
EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

I apply a key test to biographies of public figures. Does the book help the reader to understand who the subject is… What he thinks, what he values, what he seeks to accomplish through his work or art? Does the bio make you feel as if you’ve spent time with the subject? In this sense, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon fails. Writer Peter Ames Carlin presents two quite different – often contradictory, portraits of Simon.

One Paul Simon is brilliantly creative, generous (he pays studio musicians two or three times their usual fees), open to helping others, and quite proud of his craft. The other Paul Simon must borrow from the music of others – what some might term stealing, is spiteful and/or vindictive, is a loner know-it-all, and is the son who failed to meet the role assigned to him by his father. (Louis Simon wanted his son to be a teacher rather than a musician.)

Unfortunately, Carlin does not take the initiative to tell us which Simon is the most real to him. Instead, he relies on a “fair and balanced” approach that tells us almost everything about the musician in 415 pages while revealing virtually nothing. It’s akin to reading a murder-mystery in which the author concludes the work without solving the crime. Thus, this is a frustrating work.

Carlin was hampered by the fact that Simon would not cooperate with this book, which is an unauthorized biography. Near its conclusion, Carlin presents a scene in which Simon – on stage to give a lecture, glares at him. Yes, Simon knows who Carlin is and clearly dislikes what he’s attempting to do.

This being said, the biographer of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson offers some fine insights. We learn about the influence that Simon’s working musician father had on him, and there are parallels with the relationship between Paul McCartney and his father. It’s through Louis Simon that Paul was exposed to the Latin rhythms that he has often used in his music:

Paul could hear the echoes of the Latin dance bands he’d seen sharing the stage with (his father’s orchestra) at the Roseland Ballroom and the Latin rhythms and voices coming from the fringes of his radio dial, the sound of his youth, the essence of the New York that had created him and then, like his youth, slipped away.

As with his prior bios, Carlin examines in detail various recording sessions, songs and the inspiration for particular albums. But there are flaws. Carlin refers to Simon and Garfunkel’s performance in New York City’s Central Park as “a long day of rock ‘n roll communion.” Rock and roll? Paul Simon has produced a great amount of memorable music, but it’s a stretch to call it rock.

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There’s far too much included about the decades-long feuds and arguments between Art Garfunkel and Simon; so much so that it’s overblown and intensely boring. (Simon himself seems to wonder why on earth people care at this point.) And the case for Simon’s theft of music is pretty much non-existent. Let’s see, he borrowed a cassette tape with African music on it from a young woman who wanted Simon to assist her in recording similar music. She sought to borrow from – or embellish – the sounds of African musicians and was incensed when Simon did so himself. That’s not much of a scandal.

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A number of readers will undoubtedly find interesting the details that Carlin provides on Simon’s relationship with the late Carrie Fisher:

The divorce from Carrie hadn’t taken. They spent a few months apart, then started talking again, then seeing each other. Then they were back living together… There had always been something perfect about them when they were getting along: the way they huddled together, the way he grounded her, the way she could make him laugh so easily. And he loved her, with a desperation that sometimes frightened him… Carrie had taken herself to rehab to shed her drug habits, but drugs were only symptomatic of the manic-depression she’d suffered her entire adult life… Her depths were unimaginably deep, and Paul’s were nothing to sneeze at, either, so they clung to each other with a passion that could both soothe and abrade.

Beautiful words, but without Simon’s cooperation in telling his story, we have no way to judge their accuracy. One certainly has to wonder how this biography would have turned out if it had been authorized, and written with Simon’s assistance. Sadly, we will never know.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Homeward Bound was released on October 11, 2016.

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