The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White (Fiction / Mystery)

The seventh (and possibly last) book in White’s immensely popular Tradd Street series sees family, romance and historic house restorations Charleston-style (read: expensive and persnickety) come together in this exciting story of betrayal, old and new. And did I mention Ghosts? No? They populate every corner — friendly ghosts, malevolent ghosts, and immensely sad ghosts still seeking justice after many, many, years. For those new to the series, Melanie Trenholm — star realtor, new mother, and label gun enthusiast — can see and often speak to the dead.

A nice combination of women’s fiction (relationship issues, shopping, extravagant theme parties), mystery (cold cases as presented by sad, justice-seeking ghosts), and historical fiction (plenty of interesting research into Charleston’s history as it bears on the cold case du jour). A fun mix of humor and over-the-top lifestyles with complicated plot twists, an overly dramatic research librarian, and intricate treasure hunts. You could certainly read this book on its own, but given the five months to publication, I recommend starting at the beginning with The House on Tradd Street. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the series.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov. 2nd, 2021.

Little Souls by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5

Little Souls takes place in Denver, 1918. The Influenza has hit the population badly, and the men are still away at war. At 19, Lutie Hite is a carefree artist working in advertising for the local department store; her older, more careworn, sister Helen is a nurse. Through an interesting set of events they become responsible for Dorothy, the ten-year old daughter of their now deceased tenant. From these beginnings follows a fairly wild, often heartbreaking, but ultimately heartwarming ride.

I’m a big Sandra Dallas fan. Dallas writes Western historical fiction about strong women making it through adversity with fortitude, intelligence, and the help of their community. She always brings in the small details of life in that particular time and place to make everything ring true.

Her stories tend to the dramatic, but never go over the top and feel quite realistic for their time. She is even-handed about how people thought and behaved at the time — different characters have different opinions on everything from mask-wearing (ha!) to personal morality, and no opinion is presented as obviously better than the others. Religious feeling and participation was a big part of life in that place and time, and I liked how she treated it. While this in no way dominates the book, there were some beautiful passages about how individual characters felt about God that moved me, despite my not being religious myself.

This is a real page-turner — I’m afraid I annoyed my husband by reading on into the night…

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 26th, 2022.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (Fiction / Romance)

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

Anna Sun — musical prodigy and dutiful daughter. Her carefully constructed facade starts to crack as the pressure gives her complete musician block and her long-term boyfriend suggests they see other people for fun. Then she gets an even bigger surprise — her (secret) therapist tells her she may be on the autism spectrum. And suddenly, everything begins to make sense. Quan Diep has fully recovered from cancer but can’t quite come to terms with the scars it left behind. When Anna and Quan meet on a hookup site they intend to have a one night stand only — but that one night keeps going wrong so they have to have another. And another. Until maybe “one night stand” isn’t the right word for what they are doing.

This is a deeply reflective novel that masquerades (well!) as a steamy romance. What I like about Hoang’s books (this is the third and the first two are also great) is that her characters spend as much time learning about themselves and how to fit into the world as they do about seeking a relationship. Also — no shopping and the relationships that develop are supportive and loving as well as physically intense. I love the process Anna goes through to understand her diagnosis, how it explains aspects of her personality that she hadn’t understood before and — most importantly — how she can move forward in the face of disbelief and unintended but deeply felt censure from her family.

There has been a spate of popular novels about people on the spectrum (eg Eleanor Oliphant, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) but I find those entertaining rather than enlightening. These book help me understand from the inside. For me (not a professional!) what we currently label high functioning autism is more about a different brain organization than a disability and one that I often find makes more sense than the “normal”. In the current world of social manipulation and personal branding, I find the direct, literal and honest engagement depicted quite refreshing. [As an aside, I loved this description of “neurotypicals” (the “normals” I referred to) from a spectrum group: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity… Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one…NT is believed to be genetic in origin. Autopsies have shown the brain of the neurotypical is typically smaller than that of an autistic individual and may have overdeveloped areas related to social behaviour.” Makes you think!

If you’re looking for a romance, a positive story about relationships, or are interested in the personal development of an unusual woman who is learning about herself, you will enjoy this book.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 31st, 2021.

A Necessary Evil by Abir Muhkerjee (Historical Mystery)

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

Book two in the Captain Sam Wyndham series. Sam is a white Scotland Yard Calcutta police import with a pesky Opium habit. In this book he investigates the murder of the forward thinking heir of Sambalpore — one of the Indian “native states” not formally part of British India. Accompanied by his trusty (and well-educated and far more sympathetic character) sidekick Surrender-not, they unravel the knots of displeasure that might have led to this murder (and a few others as well).

These books always include a lot of interesting history and culture focussed on lesser known parts of what after all is a huge and populous country. It’s always just enough to get me to look up additional detail. Most interesting to me in this one — the whole concept of the “native states” and the Council of Princes the Viceroy was trying to put together; Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu; and the use of elephants as a means of execution. There are also many references to the spoken and unspoken rules regarding the roles and interactions between different castes, ethnicities, and colors.

The writing is good — very crisp and clear — and I like the characters. My only complaint might be that I honestly don’t see the point of his even having an opium addiction. It doesn’t really play into the stories at all, and he doesn’t (thankfully) make stupid mistakes because of it. I believe it is to make him more human but really the story would be exactly the same without it.

The Ghost Dancers by Adrian C Louis (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

A posthumous publication by the author of Skins, this is a raw story of Indian life in late 80s / early 90s. Bean Wilson is an educated Indian — a well known poet and journalist. Born and raised a Paiute in Nevada, he now lives and works with Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The events in the book follow Bean, his son Quanah, and his girlfriend’s son Toby. Wilson’s interior and verbalized rants permeate the pages on topics ranging from Indians (and himself in particular) being their own worst enemies to harangues on White oppression. While he tries to honor the old ways, he grapples with alcoholism and his womanizing tendencies. The writing depicts his internal struggles and the male culture in which those are common and even respected traits. This is extremely well done. It’s often crude, but feels real and does an excellent job of fleshing out each of the primary male characters — their experiences, their interactions with friends, family, and those who are “other” and the impact on their personal development. Oddly enough, while plenty of bad things happen, I didn’t find it depressing the way I do most Louise Erdrich books (for example). The tone is not as emotional, or maybe it is just more angry and less hopeless. Perhaps this is because the real focus is on men? The women characters have depth, but the real magnifying glass is on the men.

I have no insight into why this was not published when it was written — probably in the late 80s or early 90s according to the Forward. That was the only frustrating bit — the world was so well-depicted and I have no clue how things may or may not have changed since then.

The writing is powerful, insightful, and supports the complexity required of any real story. Some quotes below demonstrate both the writing and some of the rants. I loved the first line (which is also the first quote) — somehow it just completely grabbed me.

“The Cancerous burrito of Los Angeles summer seemed to have no effect upon the rambunctious innocence of yelling Chicano kids.”

“Bean looked from the two warriors in the painting to the two Pine Ridgers and repressed an urge toward epiphany.”

“America was a cannibalistic society. There was no true freedom in America. The White man thought he was free. The Black man thought he had been freed. The Indian knew he had been corn-holed.”

“…that garish monument to White greed, carved out of the mother earth, gouged out of the sacred Black Hills, and stolen from the Indians despite the treaties promising no intrusion.” (About Mount Rushmore)

“He despised the rhetoric of contrition that AA and its kindred organizations espoused. He despised the self-righteous reformed drunks who made their various programs for alcoholics a large industry on the Pine Ridge reservation.”

“It’s depressing to the max around here. I hate to say it, but you Sioux live like Black people in ghettos. No pride. No hope. Just booze, drugs, and violence. Pregnant teenagers and commodity cheese.”

“And as educated Indians, we know who our worst enemies are. Some of the worst are our own people. They must be re-educated, those that are the rip-offs. And the other bad enemy is the White liberal who lives on the reservation and purports to help our people. They are bloodsuckers. But that is a different matter.”

Thank you to University of Nevada Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

Book two of the Scholomance series (which I previously labeled “Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind”). Galadriel (“El”) is finally a senior at the Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted that operates without staff of any sort and typically graduates (i.e. allows to survive) only a quarter of the class. But this year, even the school itself is looking for a change, and if El and the invincible fighter Orion Lake have their way, this may be the last graduating class ever…

Very similar to book one — good writing, fun to read, likable characters — perhaps a little more detail on innovative monsters than I needed but it made for some very impressive “magical” world building. Strong messaging about the benefits of working together to ensure everyone does well, rather than desperation leading to selfish and ultimately self-destructive strategies.

I still have a preference for her earlier works — Spinning Silver and Uprooted but I always enjoy reading anything she writes. Is this the last book in the series? Hard to say — once again there was no real cliffhanger but … I do feel a little more needs to be explained! This could be read without reading book one but if you plan to do that, go online and get a quick plot summary for book one just to gain familiarity with the characters.

Thank you to Ballantine Del Rey and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

On the one hand, a wild adventure story. It is 1954 and 18-year old Emmet Watson is driven back to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile detention facility where he has served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left years ago, and his father just died; the bank is preparing to foreclose on the farm and all their belongings. He is now the guardian of his 8-year old brother, Billy. While they plan to drive to California to start a new life, two stowaways (Duchess and Woolly) from the facility have a different idea. And so it goes…

The writing is — of course — excellent. The narration alternates between Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly, with occasional chapters from a few others. Each character has a distinctive voice as they describe both events and their inner thought processes during the ten days covered. Billy is my favorite character — never a narrator he somehow becomes a focal point for all of the stories. He is earnest, innocent, smart as a whip, and somewhat beatific. Billy doesn’t go anywhere without his large red book — Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. This book — which mixes mythical with real-life heroes (all male by the way) in its A to Z collection — serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the action as Billy pores over the pages offering its inspiration to those he meets.

There are many layers to this book, and I don’t claim to understand them all. Well articulated moral themes as interpreted and internalized by our different players. I loved Sister Agnes’ Chains of Wrong doing lecture (which I include in the quotes below) — this book will keep book club discussions going forever. Interesting note: I loved Rules of Civility and yet tried twice to read A Gentleman of Moscow and could not get past about page 50. Lincoln Highway was impossible to put down. One more interesting note: I did find this book a little stressful which says more about me than about the book. It reminded me of the nightmares I sometimes have where I need to get to the airport but things keep happening and then while trying to address those things, other things keep happening, etc. There is an element of that in the pages that stressed me while I tried (in my head) to get our protagonists back on track. My advice for reading — just let it go and enjoy the ride.

A few good quotes:

“Rather, the comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

“Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.”

“One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the Chains of Wrongdoing. Boys, she would begin in her motherly way, in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that other have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.

“Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.

The Peculiarities by David Liss (Speculative Fiction)

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

In the Age of Peculiarities, women give birth to rabbits, well-dressed ghouls roam the streets of London, individuals start sprouting leaves, and terrible luck to those who break contracts — though these oddities mostly impact the very poorest, so who cares? It’s 1899 and Thomas Thresher — the younger, largely ignored, son of the Thresher banking family — turns to the occult to find out why the bank seems so very involved in the pervasive disasters. He seeks to save the bank and return it to its original charter — to serve those with nowhere else to go.

Portals to astral realms, a magical society, and Aleister Crowley himself are at the center of this wild-ride style adventure. Plenty of surprises, wry asides, and a strong sense of duty — but what I really love is that the ability to see and manipulate the patterns within mathematics is the powerful magic that is able to do what the best stylings of the Crowley gang cannot.

A real page-turner — well-written, humorous, exciting, and with a wide array of interesting, non-stereotypical, characters.

Good for fans of Alix E. Harrow and Susannah Clark.

Thank you to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 7th, 2021.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

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 October 19th, 2021.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

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

A new mystery series for me! Post WWI, Scotland Yard’s Captain Sam Wyndham finds himself in Calcutta, heading up a new post in the police force. A senior British official has been found dead in an unsavory part of town, and he is immediately plunged into the nexus of politics, policing, and racial tensions that are near the breaking point.

In this first person narrative, Sam is a remarkably self aware Englishman who is constantly noting the inequities that constitute the British Empire in India. He works to tease apart the agendas, morals, and corruption of those around him with the aid of the bitter Digby — ten years in the Imperial Police Force and passed over for promotion — and the Indian sergeant Surindher Bannerjee known as “Surrender-not” by the English speaking officers who can’t manage his name.

Lots of interesting history, wry humor, and individual philosophy. I was particularly interested in the depiction of the different cultures within India — most specifically the Bengali personality within Calcutta. Very engaging.