Lost Hours by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

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

The best part of Shelton’s Alaska mystery series is the set of characters that populate the small town of Benedict. Beth Rivers is the crime novelist who came to Benedict a year ago to hide from her still-on-the-loose kidnapper (he was finally found and incarcerated in the last book); Viola, the tough-as-nails manager of the halfway house; Orin, the peace-sign flashing librarian and computer genius; and Gril, the grizzled police chief relocated from Chicago.

In this, the fifth installment, Beth gets involved with a woman claiming to have escaped her own kidnapper who was killed by a bear. But the woman is not exactly what she seems, and a whole pile of complicated connections must be unearthed before the solution can be found.
A little more filler in this one, but still an entertaining read.

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 5th, 2023

They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine (Audio Book – Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Story: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

I love Schine’s books. She is better able to get into the head of wildly different people than almost anyone I can think of. This book is a story about aging and the multiple familial pressures and experiences that are inextricably linked to the process. Joy is the octagenarian matriarch of a New York Jewish family whose husband is ever more rapidly sinking into dementia. When he dies about half way through the book, her children are anxious to solve her loneliness and despair but she is equally anxious to mourn in the way she chooses and to maintain her own life, rather than be absorbed into one of theirs (or, God forbid, be stuffed into an assisted living facility).

I loved so much about this book which was brought to life magnificently by the narrator who has the NY Jewish grandma voice down cold. The ongoing reflection about her own aging; her deep mourning for her far-less-than-perfect husband who she had nevertheless loved completely; her equally deep love for her children coupled with an outrageously growing irritation at their increasing need to boss her around and intrude on her own life plans; the search for belonging when a long term spouse dies — it’s all there and wrapped beautifully in the every day experiences of herself, her children, and her grandchildren. Joy has a wicked sense of humor, a realistic handle on what is happening, and an old flame perking up the picture, so this is by no means a depressing book. Just completely insightful. While the other characters — her two children, her daughter’s wife, all three grandchildren — were fleshed out fully, it was clearly Joy that I resonated with (despite her annoying lack of organizational skills and the fact that I am almost 30 years younger!)

I listened to this on audio so I don’t have captured quotes, but here are some of the concepts I just loved reading about: Joy thinks of her own mother and how she (Joy) could not understand her (the mother) the way she had needed to be understood when she (the mother) was aging. Joy begins to feel there is another person in the apartment and it was she. She had to constantly watch “it” to make sure it took its pills and didn’t fall etc. She doesn’t want to be a burden, but if she is one, she wishes others could carry her with more grace.

One more note — the title comes from the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse.” It’s quite apt.

Bessie by Linda Kass (Fictionalized History)

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

This is the fictionalized story of Bess Myerson — the first Jewish Miss America, winning the prize in 1945. The author chose to focus the book on her early life — her upbringing, experiences in the Bronx (where the family had moved from the Lower East side for the trees, parks, and fresh air!), and her moral development. The book follows her story in a primarily linear fashion, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall at the end of her year as Miss America. The epilogue goes on to summarize the rest of her professional life on TV and in public government and her personal life (I’ll let you read that in the epilogue so I don’t spoil the story).

What I loved in the book was the description of the Jewish community life in the Sholom Aleichem Housing complex (open to Jews when most were not). Her entire extended family lived in the 200 apartments across 15 buildings. The community was full of musicians and artists and though her family was by no means well-off, she was given piano lessons from an early age and as pushed to excel. That is the Jewish culture in which I was raised — not one of religion but of art, music, and study! — and I love reading biographies and stories that percolated out of Jewish New York City in that time period (check out any Marx Brother biography for an even wilder, but somewhat similar, ride).

What I didn’t love about the book was the level of fictionalization. I’m not a fan of fictionalizing real people when dialog and thoughts are created when none actually occur. The author does a good job of summarizing what she made up vs what was real at the end of the book, but for my taste she made up too much — she added in scenes that she felt could have happened based on her deep understanding of the character and that is her prerogative, but I really like to keep my fact and fiction separated. I can honestly say that I doubt this will bother anybody else — I seem to be the only person who likes to keep the line between fact and fiction solid and thick!

Thank you to She Writes Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 12th, 2023

The Lady from Burma by Allison Montclair (Historical Mystery)

This is book five of the historical mystery series starring Iris Sparks (with a possible dangerous past) and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (an aristocratic war widow with a young son who is fighting for her rights in Lunacy Court!). Together they run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau in post WWII London, but they simultaneously seem to be in just the right place to solve murders, much to the chagrin (and eventual admiration) of the local police.

While this is book five in the series, it’s book one for me. I was able to keep up just fine but I do feel a lot must have happened in the previous books. I can’t tell how much progress was made in the personal situations for both women before this story — may be better to start at book one!

In this book, they get an unusual client. A woman dying of cancer comes in to line up a wife for her husband after her passing. Unfortunately, that passing happens more quickly than expected. Simultaneously, the very conservator who has been holding Mrs. Bainbridge hostage during her fight with the Lunacy Court has also turned up dead. The body count steadily increasing only seems to stimulate the interest of the two women.

The plot kept my interest, and I enjoyed learning about various procedures / processes in that (still rather unfriendly to women) time period. The writing was a little stilted for my taste, but overall I enjoyed it.

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 25th, 2023

Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan (Women’s Fiction)

Another light and uplifting story from Jenny Colgan. Women’s Fiction with humor and wit taking up more space than the actual romance (the romance honestly felt kind of secondary here which was fine with me ). A sequel to The Christmas Bookshop: bookstore manager Carmen Hogan deals with an obnoxious millionaire anxious to turn the lovely street into a tacky Souvenir Row, getting booted out of her sister’s lovely home to make room for a charming, one-armed manny, and her own pining for the love of her life whom she somehow scared off to the wilds of the Brazilian jungle.
Great banter, ridiculous and yet utterly believable plot twists, and characters that are interesting and yet normal at the same time because people actually are interesting if you go just the tiniest bit below the stereotype. Lots of fun to read.

Thank you to Avon Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 10th, 2023

Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty (Science Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
Mallory Viridian appears to be cursed. Murders tend to occur whenever she is around. She solves them — quickly and well (much to the irritation of the local police) — but it would be much better if they didn’t happen in the first place! After the latest murder, wanting to be as far from perishable humans as she can get, she makes her way onto Eternity — a sentient space station — where bizarre coincidences tend to happen even more often.

The story is a great mix of action, cultural exploration, and personal growth with an impressive cast of characters (human and not, multi colored, of various sexual proclivities — checks all the right boxes but does not beat the point to death). One step further in the diversity collection — experiments with symbiotic pairings between beings becomes somewhat central to the plot(s). These include sentient hardware, hive minds, giant vegetarian rock people and the “moist races” like humans. Honestly the disgust felt by some of the aliens at the thought of all the “liquid” in humans just cracked me up. The plot often veers at crazy angles with multiple surprises, inducing a pleasurable ADD experience in me (I’m normally more of a linear planner type). Lots of banter and a very cool ending where countless loose end were tied up in highly satisfying ways.

I absolutely loved this book and can’t imagine how I missed it when it first came out. It’s my kind of science fiction — full of aliens, but with fully fleshed out (and imaginative) cultures and individual personalities (alienalities?). No all-hands-on-deck to kill the bug-eyed monsters thread!

Perfect for fans of Ann Leckie or early Becky Chambers (the Monk & Robot series do nothing for me). The best news — book two is coming out shortly (November 7th), and if I’m lucky I’ll get an early copy!

Starling House by Alix E Harrow (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5
A haunted house in a dying town (the inaptly named “Eden”). Somehow bound up with snarly Beasts, the house attracts a new Warden to defend itself (and the town?) through the dreamworld whenever the current Warden dies or disappears. And yet somehow Opal — struggling to keep herself and younger brother going long enough to get out of Eden — finds herself attracted to the house and the strange, gaunt, and equally haunted Warden against her better judgement.
I’ve read and loved (5 star reviews) every Harrow book to date, but I admit to being a bit disappointed in this one. Wonderful writing, as always, and characters that I cared about, but the characters were all stereotypes — nicely drawn stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. And the “bad guys” didn’t even have the depth of a decent stereotype. Additionally, the pace was quite slow and I felt like I had to read a lot of words before the story inched forward. I’m sure the extra prose added deeply depicted ambiance, but I grew impatient. It’s got all the feeling of a nice creepy horror story with a good ending, some recovery-style positive self-discovery, and an odd, but compelling, love story along the way.

Just a couple of quotes:
“It’s just that I had to work eight Entire hours with Lacey Matthews, the human equivalent of unsalted butter.“

“Mr. Cole is a nice man, but he doesn’t know what to do with people raised on the underside of the rules, where the world turns dark and lawless, where only the canny and cruel survive.”

“Even if it’s only a foolish old house with ambitions of sentience.”

Thank you to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 31st, 2023

Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health by Anupam B. Jena; Christopher Worsham

Random Acts of Medicine is a Malcolm Gladwell style book applied to health care systems. The authors — both physicians and public health researchers at Harvard Medical School — propose to explore the “hidden, but predictable ways in which chance affects our health and our healthcare system” through the use of “Natural Experiments,” that is observational studies that make use of naturally occurring differences in the world and measuring the impact. The two (along with colleagues) have used the approach to explore and answer a number of questions such as: does stress really age you? How does the month of a child’s birth impact their health and life success? What happens when all the cardiologists leave town? How does a marathon impact our health? Does your doctor’s politics affect the care they give? For each question (and there are many, many, more than the ones I have listed), the authors carefully explain the natural experiment, the sources of data, results, and what use can be made of the results (possible policy changes, or greater awareness of our own biases at work).

I found the book got better (more interesting to me) as it went on. The authors are careful not to assume that the reader knows anything about natural experiments, statistics, counterfactuals, etc. and they explain the (possibly new) concepts carefully, but not tediously. Still, if you are already familiar with the concepts it can get a little dull and I enjoyed all the actual experiments (many with surprising results) more than the introduction.

An easy read full of fun “I never thought about that” insights. Plenty of notes and references for those who want to investigate further. I always appreciate the kind of “popularized” topic books when they actually show their work, clearly separating them from the whopping pile of self help books that make claims without an iota of scientific support.

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 11th, 2023

Playing it Safe by Ashley Weaver (Historical Mystery)

A light, historical, cozy with likable characters, this is just what I needed to cleanse the palate from all the dystopic SciFi I’m in the middle of.

Book two in the Electra McDonnell series taking place in England (London and Sunderland in this episode) in late 1940. Electra (Ellie) is the (young, pretty) safe cracker / thief who has turned her skill to serve King and country, working with the tough-as-nails (but also handsome with undertones of patrician) Major Ramsey. A possible Nazi counterfeiting ring, a few unnatural deaths, and a focus on bird watching pepper this episode.

Intelligent, stubborn, and delightfully non-conformist, Ellie is fun to accompany on this adventure. Major Ramsey is a bit of a stereotype, but a very enjoyable one: heroic and competent with “an aristocratic heritage underneath the military bearing.” Weaver includes just the right amount of romancy bits between the two (how could you not?) but doesn’t overdo it (need to leave something for future installments!)

My favorite part: Ellie goes to the movies in chapter one and sees “Bachelor Mother” with Ginger Rogers — one of my favorite movies and not very well-known. I got a real kick out of that. If you’ve never seen it, stream it!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was just published on May 9th, 2023

August Blue by Deborah Levy (Literary Fiction – Audio Book)

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

A beautiful book about self-discovery, identity (in the classic sense), and a search for “home” amidst the angst and displacement of Covid. The music and musical themes that lay at the absolute center of the story had wonderful depth and were enlightening, inspiring, and real. I listened to this as an audio book. It was narrated by Alix Dunmore who was so good that I’m seeking out her other narrations because she put a voice to the prose so very well.

Elsa M. Anderson — a former child prodigy — was at the height of her career as a pianist when she walked off the stage in Vienna in the middle of a performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Now there is a pandemic on, her teacher (who adopted her at age six) is dying far away in Sardinia, and Elsa is roaming Europe, teaching a few lessons, playing very little, and allowing herself to go wherever currents take her. She sees a woman in Athens who she feels is her double, and sees her repeatedly throughout the story, serving as a kind of foil that both drives Elsa and causes her to reflect.

The writing is beautiful — poetic, but not to the point of losing content. I would have many quotes if I weren’t listening to it without an opportunity to write them down. I loved the other characters and the interactions that allowed Elsa to learn more about herself with every engagement. I loved the role of music and how it informed the very way she thought. I loved the way she taught music sensitivity to a young and brilliant student with an overbearing parent. I love the interplay between music, life, and emotions that comprises the mind of a true musician. I loved the fact that the ending didn’t really tell you what would happen in the future, but I was left with a sense of where she was going simply from “living her life” with her. In case you can’t tell, I loved this book!

Lastly, while I don’t have an exact quote, I very much liked Elsa’s answer when her friend mocked her (Elsa’s) interest in Isadora Duncan, who he said was “ridiculous.” Elsa retorted that she (Isadora) had to be ridiculous because she was making something new. That made me think.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023