Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis (Sci Fi)

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

Wonderful piece of sci-fi history that I somehow missed completely. First published in 1938 by C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame), this is a beautifully written novel of early space exploration with a deeply philosophical bent. Ransom, a Cambridge professor of philology (language), is kidnapped and taken to another planet in a mistaken desire to offer him as a sacrifice to the alien beings in residence. Instead, Ransom escapes on the planet and explores the landscape, the language, and the multiple rational species who manage to coexist peacefully. The book explores our place in the universe — with wildly competing views. His kidnapper — Weston — represents those who believe that Mankind holds a destiny as the Master Race in the Universe — destined to destroy anything in its way. Ransom, and those he meets on the planet, hold a starkly different view — one that is more theologically based (a common theme in Lewis books).

The writing is excellent — the world building includes descriptions of the physical world as well as ways of life for the various beings encountered. I was quite taken with Ransom’s evolution of perception and cognition as he continues his efforts to understand a completely different world. The consistent observation of his internal mental and emotional state made it much more interesting to me — initial fears based on childhood stories of “other,” timid approaches to strange beings, and his awareness that he represented all of Mankind and had to give beings with superior power an honest assessment of the faults of the race.

It was also fun to see the influences — he and Tolkien were friends, and you can see similarities; he references HG Wells and also borrows from an old favorite of mine, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. I even found small bits that were later borrowed by Madeleine L’Engle in my very favorite children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time.

This is the first of a trilogy — I plan to read the other two. I also learned a new word: consistory — a court presided over by a bishop, for the administration of ecclesiastical law in a diocese. Who knew?

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

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

Number 16 in the Maisie Dobbs series starts in October, 1941. As Britain is well immersed in WWII, Maisie is working with the War Office to psychologically vet potential recruits for undercover work in Nazi Germany — young, determined men and women who face low survival rates. Simultaneously, Maisie gets involved in a murder witnessed by a young (and disbelieved) boy that ties into high-level espionage with high-level allies.

I like the Maisie Dobbs series because each book moves us forward in time. Starting in the post WWI era, each installment features challenging situations that are set in the specific events of that period of history — it reminds me of one of my favorite British mystery series: Foyle’s War. Maisie is an interesting and ever-evolving character, leading an unusual investigation practice that blends psychology, forensic science, philosophy, and compassion in approaching tangled, often avoided or ignored problem knots. An appealing cast of expanding supporting characters helps set the mood and context.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 23rd, 2021.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction / Women’s Fiction)

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

Warm-hearted, home-front WWII story about the way people (in this case mostly women) pull together in times of hardship. Based on the real life “Kitchen Front” radio cookery program which was designed to help its listeners make the most of wartime food rations — this is the tale of a competition to find a new, female, co-presenter for the BBC show. Four women in sleepy Fenley Village take up the challenge: Audrey, widowed mother of three trying to eke by with a home baking business; her estranged sister Gwendoline, married to the Lord of Fenley Hall and possessor of Audrey’s crippling mortgage; Nell, undercook at Fenley Hall and terrified of the outside world; and Zelda, a London chef bombed out of her kitchen and sent to the Fenley Pie refectory to work bringing a surprise with her. Alternating between their four voices we get the backstories, recipes, and current challenges (plenty of drama there!) while we follow their inspiring journey from fierce competitors to best friends using will, determination, and compassion to overcoming terrible adversity.

Definitely an upbeat story along with impressive food and food preparation descriptions (though I am only interested in eating food so I kind of skimmed those bits). This is one of those books where human initiative solves problems with the help of some luck and overly-easy good results, but it’s a nice, buoyant glimpse into a world with some obvious parallels to approaches to the problems of today.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 23rd, 2021.

The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

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

Carol Goodman writes the most intriguing, convoluted, surprising novels. She is a master of setting the mood (in this case — creepy, mysterious, righteous, and fearful). The Stranger Behind You is a woman-centric, Gothic-style, mystery-thriller whose plot lines and main characters keep twisting together in unexpected ways. It all comes together beautifully but with constant surprises and a real sense of not ever feeling like you know the characters all the way. The theme might be — you never know who you can trust. Parallel stories weave together police corruption, mobsters from the past, and #metoo style manipulation of women. I’m not generally a reader of books that induce anxiety or stress, and I did have to limit myself to daytime reading for the first third of the book — but it was not the kind of thriller that induces too much anxiety (for me). I’m not a fan of heavy-handed books where all the men are horrible and the women manage to thrive regardless, so let me hasten to say that this is not one of those books. There are some pretty nasty men, and a few nasty women — but there are also plenty good men and women and possibly even a delightfully drawn and mysterious guiding spirit. Enjoy trying to figure out which is which in advance!

Great writing, great storytelling.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 6th, 2021.

Yoga Pant Nation by Laurie Gelman (Humor)

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

Always hysterical, this is the third in Gelman’s “Class Mom” series. Jennifer Dixon is the ever-wry, always-irreverent class mom for her 5th grade son in Overland Park, Kansas. This year she gets coerced into leading the biggest fundraiser ever (she calls her team the “We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team” or WeFUKCT); gets startlingly accurate messages from her friend’s crazy mother-in-law (or rather her two ever-present spirit guides); fights off a surprising custody battle; and deals with what appears to be the simultaneous rapid decline of both parents who see “little people” in the basement. This is a comedy, so OF COURSE everything works out just fine and with plenty of laughs on the way.

This is number three in the series — it can certainly be read on its own but why not start with number one (Class Mom) and/or number two (You’ve Been Volunteered) while you’re waiting for Yoga Pant’s July release?

Just a few fun lines — I should have highlighted more but I was too busy laughing:
“Yes, I’m hilarious. In fact, these past two years have been a yuck a minute as I have endeavored to understand Viv’s unique parenting style that can best be described as a cross between Mary Poppins and the surgeon general.”

“Ah yes, “that baby” — also known as the light of my life and the bane of my existence, all rolled into one perfect almost-two-year-old package.”

“In my mind I wonder just how far this PC thing is going to go before we all just give up talking.”

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray (Literary Fiction)

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

Beautifully written story about five members of a strict Mormon family as they struggle with the death of the four-year old daughter, Issy. Extending far beyond your typical grief story, each family member wrestles with competing urges and goals — what it means to be a good person, the boundary between faith and thinking for themselves, and their relationships with each other, the community, and the church.

Ian is a bishop within the church. While I personally found him too sanctimonious for my taste, he (like most humans on this planet) is a complicated man trying to do his best — based on a firm belief in the foundations and practices of the church. Claire is a willing convert to Mormonism but is angry at God and is simply unable to keep going. Zippy (16) struggles with her attraction to a boy in light of the very strict teachings on the role for women; Alma (14) grapples with his belief and guilt over an (as yet to be detected) infraction; Jacob (7) just misses Issy and is working on using the Church’s teachings to resurrect her — confused between what is possible in religious stories and what is possible in everyday life.

For me it was not an attractive view of Mormonism, but then I am not very religious and am unhappy about people telling me what to do based on my gender :-). The characters are presented realistically, some offering comfort based on faith and others offering censure, and while I would bristle on the constraints on women, many of the characters appeared perfectly happy in their lives. Like one of my favorite books — A Place For Us — this book offers an inside view of another culture.

Some good quotes:
“I know something about being good. If you’re good and you get lost, someone you love comes and finds you.”

“It feels as if her hopes are leaking from a small perforation between her lungs, and although each escaping wish is small and ordinary — for Dad to think before he speaks, for Mum to get out of bed in the mornings, for Adam to serve a mission — the hurt as they trickle away is considerable.”

“Dad stops and she thinks she’s done enough, but he’s too wound up so intent on being right, that he’s forgetting to be kind.”

“Girls need to be careful — you like him; you love him; you let him; you lose him — that’s what happens.”

“He keeps talking but Claire can’t keep up with his words, she can’t catch them, they’re flying past her ears like tiny birds, fluttering to the open door and out into the hospital corridor. He has made Issy’s recovery contingent on her faith and she doesn’t know how she will ever forgive him.”

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (YA / Mystery / Thriller / Romance)

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

I loved this book! Daunis Fontaine is 18 years old, 6 feet tall, an ice hockey ace, and a science whiz. While she grows up in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan with her white mother and grandparents she is also deeply ingrained in the local Ojibwa community of her father. What starts off looking like an upbeat teen romance takes a sharp left turn and becomes mystery, intrigue, and thriller (romance takes a back seat — pun intended). The plot keeps swerving — surprise after surprise after surprise — with Daunis giving us an intelligent and fiercely community oriented view of the ride. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll give you a hint — Daunis ends up being a Confidential Informer (she calls it being a Secret Squirrel) for law enforcement.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way the many characters in the Ojibwa community are portrayed. While references to past injustices are present and individual incidents of prejudice occur (Daunis and her friend like to play Bigotry Bingo — see quote below), they are not front and center. This is a novel of today — various members of the community are successful (by personal definitions of the word) while others are not; some are greedy and conniving while others are supportive and helpful; some have drug and alcohol problems while others have steered clear. In other words, no group stereotypes and no group victimhood. An array of well-drawn individual characters.

Daunis is a great character — I love her scientific approach to life, her fearless and unconcerned approach to typically male endeavors, and her deep involvement with the tribal culture and people. Great themes, great unfolding of the many mysteries past and present, and an absorbing view into a culture unlike my own. Ojibwa is a matriarchal society, and the story includes many strong women characters of all ages. I enjoyed the embedded language and cultural practice tutorials.

A couple of quotes:
“When Lily and I were on Tribal Youth Council, we all played a game called Bigotry Bingo. When we heard a comment that fed into stereotypes, we’d call it out. Dream catchers were the free space. Too easy. There are so many others though. ‘You don’t look Native.’ ‘Must be nice to get free college.’ ‘Can you give me an Indian name for my dog?’ ”

“My mother’s superpower is turning my ordinary worries into monsters so huge and pervasive that her distress and heartache become almost debilitating.”

“When you love someone, but don’t like parts of them, it complicates your memories of them when they’re gone.”

Thank you to Henry Hold & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 2nd, 2021.

Unexpected Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson (Non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5

A compendium of the major advances in life expectancy throughout human history. With an engaging, story-mixed-with-research style, Johnson devotes a chapter to each of the major contributions: Vaccines; Data and Epidemiology; Pasteurization and Chlorination; Regulations and Testing; Antibiotics; Safety Technology and Regulations; and Anti-Famine Interventions. While some of the stories were familiar to me, many of them were brand new. Even those I was familiar with were actually new to me: I hadn’t been aware of quite how devastating the problems were or all the tangled issues that snaked their way through solution adoption on a widespread scale.

The introduction states that the book is “a study in how meaningful change happens in society.” The ongoing theme is that it is the network of people and not just the genius that makes these massive changes possible — the journalists, activists, reformers, and amplifiers. He hammers this point frequently, accusing society of “… condensing a complex network of agents into a single heroic scientist.” And it is interesting in every case — how long it took and how hard people worked to get a solution to a horrific problem actually adopted.

The last chapter focuses on the future — AI drug design; a cure for malaria; syndromic surveillance; animal surveillance to stop virus jumping; and immunotherapies for cancers. There is some discussion of the negative impact on the planet of all these extra bodies but not much. I would have liked at least a little discussion on the need for additional birth control giving the teeming state of the world’s population.

The book makes for easy and engrossing reading. The numbers involved are astonishing, and the stories from discovery to scale to distribution eye opening. More intriguing than most fiction!

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

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

A heartwarming piece of historically accurate fiction. Grace Bennet — 23 — heads to London just in time for Britain to enter the war and the Blitz to begin. Without any kind of reference, she is lucky to get a job at Primrose Hill Books, complete with the requisite curmudgeonly owner, Mr. Evans.

This is the story of Grace’s growth into a stellar human being and unassuming pillar of the community. We share her experiences as a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, her discovery of books and reading, and her ability to find ways to bring some light into people’s lives.

While similar stories have been told before, Martin’s depictions of the British spirit and the way the community comes together in the face of terrible adversity were completely inspiring. I was also, of course, enraptured by her transformation into a bonafide Reader of Books.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 20th, 2021.

The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield (Literary Fiction)

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

A raucous novel about redemption, forgiveness, and tolerance (or lack thereof). Rachel Flood returns to Quinn, Montana (population 956) to make amends (AA — step 9) to the entire town — all of whom (especially her mother) hate her (and with good reason). She befriends the flamboyant 12-year old boy next door, is forced to join the local softball team (The Flood Girls) who are … not the best, and is coerced into tending her mother’s bar — The Dirty Shame.

The novel is full of outlandish characters — the large, scary, and violent Red Mabel who is also a most loyal friend, Black Mabel the local drug dealer, a bar full of lesbian silver miners, an array of religious characters with varying degrees of religiosity and forbearance, the local AA group (composed of older men from Rachel’s past), and the wildly diverse softball team. It’s also full of casual violence, stupidity, and intolerance as well as perseverance, kindness, and endurance. The style reminds me of John Irving’s books, with a little of Tom Wolfe’s “equal opportunity sneering” style mixed in. It is a detailed, engrossing, full picture of a (fictional) town, though definitely painted by an outsider looking in (and possibly reinforcing negative stereotypes of rural areas).

Despite the fact that the characters are probably not people I would befriend in real life, I loved them on the page. Now that the book is over, I miss them.