Monday, February 13, 2017

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. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the LIbrary Thing Early REviewers program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Saturday, February 11, 2017

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. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

This did not influence my review in any way.  

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. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.