Some Maintenance Required by Marie-Renee Lavoie (Audio Book — Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Audio reader: 3/5
A sweet novel about a young woman kind of wandering through her own life: school ends and she contemplates university, she gets a job and experiences the drama of group dynamics, and she watches over (and becomes quite attached to) a badly neglected 2nd grader. And then … circumstances beyond her control slam her in the face. It’s a story about bringing love (and continual ongoing maintenance) to our relationships — with family, friends, and even possessions like a favorite car.
The writing is very good with many memorable phrases (unfortunately I listened to this in the car and therefore couldn’t capture any of them) and depictions of places and situations — both real and imagined, internal and external. I enjoyed the characters — the guys who worked at the garage with her father, her best friend, and a veterinarian-in-training who likes her, but whose social class makes her uncomfortable. And her mother — the best character of all. I also love the role that books play in the world that she and her mother have created.
Listening to this audio version of this particular book did highlight something for me that I hadn’t really noticed before. The reader did a good job with voices, pacing, etc. but she also imparted a distinct personality to each person through vocal pitch, pace, and tone over and above that which you would perceive simply from reading the words. Specifically, I found the main character to have a hint of whininess (that I didn’t like) which may or may not have been intended by the author. Overall I enjoyed listening but did take note of that point.

Thank you to Dreamscape Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 5th, 2022.

To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King (Mystery)

The second in King’s Kate Martinelli series. Same good writing and characters but I didn’t like this one as much. The historical context for this one is the whole concept of “the Fool” as in the King’s Fool — the one person who could be honest with the King and who adopted a jester’s style of witlessness while speaking deep truths. It’s a concept that I find very interesting, but (IMHO) too much of the book was devoted to academic discussions about the Fool in history and whether or not a man of interest in a strange homicide was truly a Fool or just playing one.

Aside from that, the story was interesting — an impromptu cremation of a body in Golden Gate Park by a group of homeless people, sparks (pun intended) a Homicide investigation and all fingers point to a monkish “Brother Erasmus” as a person of interest. But Erasmus can’t or won’t speak in coherent sentences and instead speaks only in quotations (mostly biblical and Shakespearean). Makes for interesting interrogation.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters:2/5

Not sure why this book is so popular — the writing was abrupt and cliched, the plot predictable, and the greatest insight any character came up with was “family is so much more important than wealth and fame.” Well, duh.

OK, that’s a lie. I do know why it’s popular. It’s easy to read, there is plenty of money and glamour and, of course, the real story behind all those husbands! If you like reading People magazine you’re going to love this! There is also a big LGBQT theme serving as a good reminder of what life was like when there were few professions where being “out” wouldn’t result in that profession being yanked away regardless of your talent / merit / success. We still have problems today, but nothing like what people in that community faced before.

For me it was just kind of trash literature without the requisite (IMHO) happy ending and feel good vibes. The big reveal at the end didn’t work for me — too pat, too unbelievable in many ways, and simultaneously too predictable.

I don’t write many negative reviews — maybe 3 in the past 5 years? If I don’t like a book, I simply stop reading it. And this isn’t a fully bad review. The writing is readable, the characters obviously weren’t meant to be deep, and the plot does keep you reading. It’s just disappointing in face of its popularity and not the kind of book I would normally waste my time reading…

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (Audio Book — Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

Ky Tran comes back to the violent, drug ridden, largely Vietnamese / Chinese Sydney suburb of Cabramatta when her relatively nerdy, honor student, brother is brutally murdered at a post graduation party. The witnesses won’t talk, the police don’t care, and her parents haven’t the language skills or the will to pursue the matter. Ky tackles the witnesses — most of whom she knows — unable to let the matter rest. The novel structure fills in background, the story each witness reluctantly lets out, and the real story each remembers about while curating what comes out of their mouth. The path of disclosure winds towards a confrontation with Minnie — the best friend Ky hasn’t spoken to in years.

The writing is good and the main reader for the audio book is excellent (I did not love the two minor readers but they only appear once each for a relatively short time). I appreciated the in-depth descriptions of different approaches taken by members of a refugee community trying to make a life in a new country that doesn’t necessarily want them. Insightful commentary on loyalty, friendship, family, justice, and the concept of “being good.”

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 13th, 2022.

A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

This was an odd book, though I did enjoy it. Monterey, CA in the 1850s. Eliza Ripple’s short and unhappy marriage is brought to an abrupt halt when her husband is shot in a bar brawl. Eliza takes up the oldest profession in the world, servicing 2-3 clients per evening at a nice brothel and finds her life more enjoyable than the one she had within the marriage her parents had arranged for her. She makes an interesting friend — a woman in a similar profession but aimed at ladies (was this a thing back then or a figment of the author’s imagination? I have no idea!). When the bodies of women — mostly prostitutes like themselves — turn up, they find local law enforcement (such as it is) uninterested, so they feel compelled to figure it out themselves.

This is more of a novel than a mystery, though obviously there is a mystery to be solved and our heroines are trying to solve it, both as a means of self-preservation and out of a sense of justice! Smiley does an excellent job of having Eliza describe her own life and feelings as she discovers them. Eliza is an unsophisticated person, having experienced very little in her life. She learns about geography and other places and foods from sailor clients; she reads the very few books she has access to, and her model of the world expands to encompass what she reads; she becomes observant of people — men in particular — learning what makes them tick and how to take care with assumptions. It’s quite difficult to create a character that has so little education in the ways of the world — removing everything you know in your own brain is so much more difficult than learning something new — and Smiley pulled this off well.

I have no idea how realistic the portrayal of a small town brothel is, but I liked the straightforward and utterly non-judgmental depiction. I’ve never understood why prostitution — which services a basic biological need — is so vilified even today in our society. I think we would all be much happier if prostitution were both legal and free of stigma for both the providers and the clients!

A little slow paced and with more (albeit well done) descriptions (of nature, weather, the state of the streets, facial characteristics, clothing, etc.) for my taste, I nevertheless found myself continuing to think about the life that was presented — an effective vehicle for putting myself in another person’s very different shoes.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 6th, 2022.

A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King (Literary Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

The first in the Kate Martinelli mystery series (for which she won an Edgar), and I’m completely hooked! Completely bizarre, twisted plot, fully developed characters and tight writing. Writing quality is right up there with Louise Penny (which I don’t say a lot) — feels more like literary fiction embedding an intriguing mystery rather than a (boring) cozy or a mystery that is all plot/action filled with stock characters.

A serial killer has begun murdering young girls, depositing them all on a road in the midst of an odd colony outside of San Francisco. A seasoned cop and a newly promoted Detective (Kate) have been assigned the case with no real leads — and then they find out that one of the colony residents was associated with a similar crime many years before …

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

Renaissance Italy brought to life with stunningly sensual (as in all of the senses) language. 15-year old Lucrezia do Cosimo de Medici of Florence is given in marriage to the older (but handsome and charming) new Duke of Ferrara as a replacement for her recently deceased elder sister. An unusual and high spirited girl, we experience her removal to a new land where she must learn to navigate an unfamiliar court and language and meet the expectations of a changeable husband intent on begetting an heir. Lucrezia is a surprisingly talented artist with an artist’s way of viewing the world, and this — coupled with her youth — gives an unusual perspective to her first person descriptions of what she experiences. This individualized viewpoint was my favorite part of the book.

The writing is lush and almost too persuasive and richly drawn, as I found I didn’t want to experience her life quite that vividly. This was not a time period favorable to women, particularly women serving as pawns in the power machinations of Renaissance Italy.

The story is loosely based on a real person — the wikipedia entry is interesting, but don’t read it until after you’ve finished the book!

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 6th, 2022.

The Catch by Alison Fairbrother (Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

A humorous, well-written, millennial coming-of-age story (to be clear, the coming of age to “real” adulthood in your twenties, rather than the rocky road through puberty). Ellie is 24 when her father dies suddenly. As the eldest of his four children from three different wives, she has always felt she was his favorite, but when she is left an insulting object in his will while the “lucky baseball” she craved went to a complete stranger, she began trying to track down the truth about her father. In the meantime, she is a budding journalist trying to write something meaningful while employed at a D.C. media start-up focused solely on clickbait measures and is seeing a deeply nerdy (and deeply married) man who is (surprise) not always available when she needs him. Somehow this all comes together with a story on the local Osprey cam as a leading indicator of ecological disaster in a way that is both comical and deeply insightful. Very good writing.

I really did love the writing — so many good quotes!

“Exclamation points had become little signposts announcing, I mean well! and had become so normalized that in their absence I felt a deep sense of foreboding. But every now and then you found yourself up against someone who refused to give in to exclamation points, who typed what they meant with zero reassurances, making the rest of us look like overzealous clowns.” (My favorite quote as I am one of those clowns!)

“D.C. was like that. You were always one step away from a cockroach.”

“It was like my mother always said: ‘If you’d just lose some weight, you could enjoy your young body.’”

“It was true that I was proud of the life I’d started to make, getting on my bicycle in the morning, dismounting lightly at a glowing little start-up, then returning home to my ad hoc salon of housemates, whose drive and purpose and hopefulness about the world, I hoped, might spur me on too.”

“The earth had been diagnosed with end-stage cancer, and every morning I learned that diagnosis anew.”

“That was another thing I was learning — I had to read how much people could handle; I had to tuck in my sadness when too much of it showed. I picked the orange peel from my glass and sucked the bitter alcohol from its flesh.”

“If only Katherine hadn’t seen us on the stoop at that exact moment, with her kale body and her hornet’s nest judgement.”

“Talking to him was like getting tapped repeatedly on the shoulder by an octopus with one wet tentacle.”

“Stories could have such unsatisfying and unlikely outcomes. More and more, I felt we willingly built entire worlds on very little information. Like sandcastles, if you poked them anywhere, the whole structure would revert to its components. It was our nature to do that, to fill in the details and become convinced they were true and not our own fantasies and imaginations bumping up against someone else’s reality.”

“At points all over the earth, people were advancing toward each other and away from each other, and this was just one instance in the vast history of these of these moments. I thought that the collection of all such trajectories must make up the most complex atlas in existence.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 21st, 2022.

In the Time of our History by Susanne Pari (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5/5

I loved this character and culture driven drama about an extended Iranian American family post the 1979 Islamic revolution. The characters have depth and nuance that take them far beyond the obvious stereotypes that could describe each of them: the family patriarch, the obedient wife, the rebellious daughter, the faithful family retainer. The depictions are honest — no clear heroes or victims, no melodramatic righteous rage — just people finding their way while blending an inherited traditional culture with the modern practices of their new home.

The language is powerful but never manipulative, and the stories feel real. Moral dilemmas — with no clearly correct solutions — abound, and the frank and straightforward discussions of some of them — perceived racism, roles for women, infidelity, etc. — are captivating. I loved the way immigrants were depicted as individuals, each with their own backstory, set of initial circumstances, and eventual integration paths — none following the same script. Also — one of the best first lines I’ve read in a long while.

Set in the late 1990s and taking place in New Jersey and San Francisco. Great for fans of “Of a Place For Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Highly recommended!

Quotes:

“Espresso and anxiety — well behaved on their own, rambunctious as urchins together.”

“Mitra, on the other hand, had once told a flirtatious union official that if he didn’t smell like a sewer in non ninety-degreee weather, she might consider thanking him for staring blatantly at her breasts. Another time, Mitra told the mayor’s secretary — a consistently rude person — to call after her PMS was over.”

“Anahita had innately understood that it was a traditional woman’s responsibility to refract unwanted male attention, a concept Mitra once denounced as a direct offshoot of the idea of hejab, invented and perpetuated by men who didn’t want to take responsibility for their own lust.”

“I also had a difficult father. Some people cannot abandon their misery. Mitra studied him. His face was drawn, his mouth pulled down either end. ‘Is that how you justify their behaviour?’ ‘No, it is how I keep from hating them. Hate takes too much energy.’ ”

“This was the dynamic, false though it was on its face. Mitra tried to see Akram the way Julian did. ‘She’s just confused, Mitra. Wouldn’t you be? She’s never known anything different. We have to teach her.’ Mitra hates those lines; they sounded like something from a Kipling story about the civilized enlightening the natives. As if the Western world was devoid of poor, uneducated, and bitter people.”

“Surely someone had reminded her of this fact: that few people escaped the tragedy of senseless death, that suffering had no purpose, no meaning, no justification. But she hadn’t heard, hadn’t listened. Until now. Why now? She didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She got it.”

“This is what I’m explaining, Shireen. You came to America, and while you were here, Iran moved forward. After the Kennedys invited the Shah and Farah to visit America, the rush to reform was on. Not only did the landscape change — the buildings and roads and modern conveniences — but also the people, the culture. Even the traditional families couldn’t ignore the excitement of it — the opportunities for prosperity, technology, for resistance against Soviet influence.”

“Mitra squinted at the tube of the jetway and spotted her mother between the hulking arms of two businessmen, their suit bags hanging off their shoulders like slaughtered game.”

“Perhaps she’d seen too many TV talk shows where women displayed their mistakes and misfortunes as if they were wares on a blanket at the bazaar. Or perhaps she knew now that so few outcomes in life could be controlled.”

“The mere fact of their abandonment was a stigma, a curse almost, that prevented them from being wanted by anyone. They came from bad stock, from people in such dire straits or lacking such humanity and sense of goodness that they could abandon their own offspring.”

“Those were the days when she didn’t want to have much to do with her parent’s culture, which prized opaque symbolism excessively. The harder a person had to work to discover hidden meanings, the higher its value.”

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 3rd, 2023.

V for Victory by Lissa Evans (Fiction)

Completely heartwarming novel about London in the latter stages of WWII (taking over where Crooked Heart left off). Noel Bostock (15) and his “pretend” Aunt (Vee) are living in the large house Noel inherited from his “pretend” godmother, the famous suffragette Mattie Simpkin. It has become a boarding house where boarders pay rent in both cash and tutoring for Noel. When a room becomes vacant, they search for a boarder with specific knowledge to impart. Noel is the most wonderful character — smart, capable, kind, and curious about absolutely everything. Mr. Reddish teaches him math while quoting his own rather bad poetry; Dr. Parry-Jones teaches science (giving him a dissectible rat for his birthday); the one-eared Mr. Jepson teaches him Latin; and Miss Appleby mixes her French lessons with more personal lessons about the heart (her heart to be precise).

In the odd way different lives seem to come together haphazardly, an American GI drives a lorry on the wrong side of the road, the more fashionable (and obnoxious) twin of an air-raid warden writes a surprising novel about her sister, and Noel’s origin story comes out of hiding.

I really like her writing — some nice quotes below:

“He didn’t have a family tree, he had a Venn diagram, in which none of the circles overlapped.”

“Impossible to explain Vee’s myriad antipathies, her constantly updated list of prejudices and judgements.”

“She had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.”

“Since the end, just a year ago, of his own, terrible marriage he found himself studying other couples, like someone conning an aircraft recognition chart — spotting those tics and phrases that signaled contempt or boredom or fear, and when he saw those, he wanted to take one or other of the pair aside, and say, ‘Finish it now.’

“Jepson was present but unlit, so that in the dining room he was more furniture than inhabitant, talked around and over, but never to. But in lessons there were glimmers — he had seized Noel’s first essay and pushed the words around the page like backgammon counters, showing him how to introduce a subject, how to make a neat and satisfying ending, how to prune, and rearrange the content.”

“It was so easy, she thought, as he led her towards the music; he was so easy — a printed postcard, when every other man she’d ever known was a sealed letter filled with blank pages or mystifying codes”