Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (Literary Fiction)

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

Vinegar Girl is ostensibly a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic Taming of the Shrew, but really it is a recasting of the story — and one which makes you wonder if it isn’t what Shakespeare meant in the first place (couched in terms of the culture of the times).

29-year old Kate Battista is a blunt preschool teacher assistant with little interest in the social niceties. She’s been caring for her father (a man devoted to his research in autoimmunity and supposedly on the verge of a breakthrough) and her younger sister Bunny (the epitome of the eyelash batting, pouting, childish demeanor that’s apparently quite “alluring to adolescent boys”) since her mother’s death fifteen years earlier. When her father hatches a plan to marry her off to his assistant — a brilliant Russian whose visa is about to expire — she is appalled. And yet, at times she is almost drawn to his equally blunt and direct manner and his alien perception of American culture and conventions.

Great dialog, hysterical at times, fascinating social commentary, and impossible to put down (at only 237 pages I gobbled it up in an afternoon). The speech at the end, where Kate defends her husband against her sister’s accusations is worthy of the bard himself. The writing quality is not surprising — Tyler has been nominated for the Pulitzer three times and won once.

Loved this book and really did not expect to (I’m not a fan of rewrites in general).

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub (Literary Fiction)

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

On Alice’s 40th birthday, she finds herself working in the admissions office of the private Upper West Side school she attended as a child, single, and facing the death of her only parent — an unconventional single dad who earned his keep with a best selling science fiction novel about time travel. But here is where things take a sharp 90 degree turn: after a drunken blow out of a birthday, she falls asleep in the shed outside her father’s house and wakes up … as her teenage self on her 16th birthday.

This was an impressive book in that we have all the character depth, insight, and good writing of a literary novel with the fantastic philosophical considerations made possible by the opportunity to potentially impact the future with some targeted behavior shifts on this one, important night. I loved her wry tone and engaging reflections, and I greatly enjoyed her descriptions of New York City from the perspective of a native. As a diehard SF fan, I was also pretty impressed with the breadth of time travel stories Alice ponders as she tries to come to terms with her situation. Some impressive thoughts about the nature of grief as well. I both enjoyed reading this book and feel like I gained some understanding from it as well.

Some fun quotes:

“In the real world, and in her own life, Alice had no power, but in the kingdom of Belvedere, she was a Sith Lord, or a Jedi, depending on whether one’s child got in or not.”

“Her pants were so long that they dragged on the ground, creating a seismograph of filth along the raw bottom edge.”

“It was like there were two of her, the teenage Alice and the grown-up Alice, sharing the same tiny patch of human real estate.”

“Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early, even kids that she’d never really looked at too closely, like Kenji Morris, who was taking the SAT class a whole year early, like he was Doogie Howser or something.”

“Her vision was clear, but it was coming from two different feeds. Alice was herself, only herself, but she was both herself then and herself now. She was forty and she was sixteen.”

“Like many transplants from small towns around the world, Matt seemed to look at New York City as a set to walk through, not thinking too much about what had come before.”

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on May 17th, 2022.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (literary fiction)

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

An extremely well-written novel based on the life of Laura Bush. Alice Lindgren (the names have been changed to emphasize the fictional nature of the story) has been an inveterate reader since childhood (my kind of girl!). The story takes us from a relatively normal childhood to working as a librarian to meeting Charlie Blackwell (George W Bush) to becoming the First Lady and enduring the ensuing celebrity.

Each of the four sections in the book is based on a real life event in Laura’s life (accidentally killing a classmate in a terrible car accident; George drinking heavily and then becoming religious, etc.) but everything else is purely fictional. Sittenfeld’s aim is to explore what it is like to “lead a life in opposition to itself” based on the liberal tendencies of Laura Bush as compared with her ultra conservative leader-of-the-free-world husband. As far as I can tell, this liberality is deduced from Laura’s (non-elaborated) support for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion) along with a smattering of donations to liberal style causes (soup kitchens, etc). (Spoiler alert) Sittenfeld went a step further (too far IMHO) by giving the fictional Alice a gay grandmother and an abortion. I guess the author felt Alice needed personal reasons to support those more liberal policy decisions — which is a shame as I like to feel that people can have political opinions that aren’t necessarily based on their own needs and experiences.

I found the story gripping — I had a paperback with small print (difficult for me to read) and I still couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night. Alice is a delightfully introspective character and her internal commentary and ponderings brought her life into full perspective for the readers. At the same time, I really dislike fictionalized history — regardless of the careful name changing and outright statements of FICTION FICTION FICTION, it is hard (impossible) to leave this book without a strong idea of what these people were like, despite the fact that the characterizations were a complete fabrication on the part of the author. While “Alice” comes off as a sympathetic and engaging character, “Charlie” comes off as a complete buffoon. I’m no George Bush fan, but this doesn’t really seem like a full and complete portrayal of a man!

Some sample quotes:
“This is our implicit agreement, that we can suggest or recommend but that we never force, never make ultimatums. It’s why we don’t resent each other.”

“I’ve thought often since Charlie became governor that it isn’t a surprise so many famous people seem mentally unstable. As their celebrity grows and they’re increasingly deferred to and accommodated, they can believe one of two things: either that they’re deserving, in which case they will become unreasonable and insufferable; or that they’re not deserving, in which case they will be wracked with doubt, plagued by a sense of themselves as imposters.”

“I had the fleeting thought then that we are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate”

“He had told me I had a strong sense of myself, but I wondered then if the opposite was true — if what he took for strength was really a bending sort of accomadation to his ways, if what he saw when he looked at me was the reflection of his own will and personality.”

The Disinvited Guest by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Don’t read this book before bedtime!

Reed and Lucy Harper — along with Reed’s sister Liz and her lover Niko, and Lucy’s best friend Ada and husband Crosby, and Mac, the caretaker — all head to a remote island off the coast of Maine in the year 2030 to wait out what appears to be an even more deadly pandemic. The island, now owned by Reed and his sister, was once a quarantine hospital for (mostly Irish) immigrants with Typhus back in the mid 1800s. It is a creepy place, with three generations of deathly illness — the Harper parents died there of Covid in the previous pandemic, and numerous Typhoid patients met their end there the century before.

From the tense start until the surprising finish, the plot twists and turns in a Lord of the Flies meets locked-room Agatha Christie meets part Hitchcock’s Rebecca unfurling. When bad things start happening and the brutality of the island’s history starts bleeding through to the present, Lucy feels her sense of reality slipping.

This is a mystery / thriller with a huge amount of character development. The interpersonal dynamics are nuanced and ever evolving with the threats of unknown origin inserting suspicion and fear where there was once cameraderie and friendship. Very difficult to put down or to get out of your head.

The last thing I wanted to read was a dystopian books about pandemics, so let me reassure you that pandemics really didn’t feature except as an impetus to get them on the island in a quarantine state.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 12th, 2022.

Murder on Madison Square by Victoria Thompson (Mystery)

A nice, light cozy — number 25 (!) in the Gaslight mystery series (New York City around 1900). Frank Malloy (former NYPD policeman, now gentleman private detective) and his wife Sarah (former midwife, but always a Lady having been born into a prominent family) work together (with some other interesting characters) to solve mysteries. This mystery: a man is found dead, having been run over by one of the very cars he was selling.

In truth, there is a lot of filler, a relatively simple plot, and a lot of repetition as everyone keeps talking about the possibilities from all sides. Some things become obvious to the reader long before the characters wake up to the truth (but perhaps this is a nod to expectations of the times?). However, what I do always like about Thompson’s mysteries are the new and interesting pieces of history she brings in to motivate and support the plot. In this book, we learn about the history of electric cars which were apparently very popular at the time — especially for women because they were so much easier (and safer) to drive. Who knew? Also an interesting note about New York divorces where adultery was the only valid grounds for divorce. These two items (and others) have a bearing on the plot.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 26th, 2022.

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner (Historical Fiction)

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

I loved this book — a great story that manages to combine a fascinating bit of history and early feminism with a literary mystery, historically accurate relationships, insightful writing, in-depth characters, and some great historical characters tossed in (Peggy Guggenheim, Daphne DuMaurier, Samuel Beckett to name a few)!

The story: three women are working at Bloomsbury Books in 1950. Vivien Lowry is a budding novelist with skill, drive, and determination who bristles at the male dominated store where nothing (including any promotion for women) has changed in years; Grace Perkins is married with two sons and grateful to have a job at all as her husband is an unemployed malcontent — “a difficult man, needing the whole of daily life joylessly cut into pieces to fit his unpredictable moods;” Evie Stone (my favorite) has one of the first Cambridge degrees bestowed on a woman but is denied an academic position in favor of a less-skilled man who will nonetheless manage to capitalize on her work. She has a wonderful plan in mind, though, and her position at the bookstore is not an accident!

What I loved about this book is that it depicts an accurate, not overly dramatized, portrayal of life for intelligent woman who sought to live outside the restrictive norms of the day. The three primary female characters each have their own talents, motivations, and personalities — and through them we can understand the experiences and frustrations of different women in this time period — because after all, not all women are the same, then or now. I absolutely loved Evie’s passion for literary history and bringing neglected (not obscure!) 18th century women writers back into print. The author (who once ran an independent bookstore herself) knows her stuff and it comes out with delightful depth in every aspect of the story. I also appreciated the fact that, while a few of the men were simply two-dimensional jerks, many of the others were more ignorant than mean, and the author included some nice analyses of the motivations different men had for behaving the way they did and adhering to what were, after all, the norms of the time. Tossed into the mix were a gay male couple and a high-caste Indian gentleman in charge of the science section of the bookshop — all facing their own issues resulting from not fitting into the expectations of the time.

This is what I call a new breed of women’s fiction — there is some romance (though the developing relationships are formed based on compatibility and mutual trust and admiration rather than looks and money) but romance is but one component of a happy life, not the only ultimate goal. The book did have the requisite happy ending and while it may not have been completely realistic, surely it’s nice to enjoy the possibility.

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 was published on May 17th, 2022.

Bryant & May: London Bridge is Falling Down by Christopher Fowler (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
Another beyond convoluted, arcana rich, episode of Bryant & May. In this installment, the two old (or rapidly decaying in one instance) colleagues and their merry band of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are once again battling to keep their unit alive. Given that the building has been gutted, their equipment retracted, and they’ve been told they are out of jobs, it isn’t going well. However, leveraging a loophole requiring all open cases to be closed before the unit can be officially shut down, Bryant gloms onto the case of a 91-year old lady found starved to death in her apartment. Blamed on a communication breakdown in social services, it turns out to be anything but. The merry chase that ensues involves the CIA, a Latvian national, a set of secret files, MI6, agents left over from Bletchley and of course, Bryant’s motley crew of “experts” ranging from psychics to anarchists to reformed academic sewage engineers to OCD ridden book restorers. It’s a fun and often confusing ride with rich veins of British history pumped throughout. Some fun pokes at Millenials too.

A nice quote about (mis)information spreading like disease: “There’s a nice traditional feel to the way diseases circle the earth. Information has the same spread pattern. It expands parts from a central starting point, burning through the crowded hot spots, bypassing those in isolation, guarded by super-spreaders.”

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on December 7th, 2021.

Pay Dirt Road by Samantha Jayne Allen (Mystery)

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

Annie McIntyre returns home to small town Garnett, Texas with her tail between her legs, waitressing at the local cafe and wondering how she ended up back here. She slides into the family business (private investigating) with her grandfather when another waitress goes missing and is eventually found dead.

For me this was more a novel than mystery. The mystery did have a number of satisfying twists and turns with a healthy hodge-podge of possible suspects, motives, and witnesses — land grabs for oil pipelines, a nasty mother-in-law, illegals who aren’t able to testify for fear of discovery, etc. However, more of the book focussed on small town life (lots of drinking and continued high schoolish behavior by people no longer in high school) and self-discovery as Annie finds out why she wants to stay in Garnet after all and what she wants to do with her life.

Decent, entertaining, read. I did not discover an interest in visiting or living in Garnett.

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 was published on April 19th, 2022.

The Wind in his Heart by Charles DeLint (Urban Fantasy)

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

A troubled 16 year old, a rock star whose death 40 years before was greatly exaggerated, a young man who can see into the spirit world, but just wants to leave the rez and see the world, and a cast of ma’inawo — the “cousins” who cross freely between the spirit world and that of the five fingered beings — these are some of the characters that populate DeLint’s delightful urban fantasy.

I love DeLint’s work — he’s written over 70 adult and young adult novels, and I’ve probably read about 40. These are NOTHING like your traditional fantasy works. They take place in the here and now (no kings, knights, or medieval settings; no long battles) and are about community, relationships, and healing. There is very little violence, and what there is is always presented in a nuanced way that seeks to understand the source and the path to healing of the person perpetrating the violence. He describes a world and community where individuals still care about trying to be good people and learning what that means for them.

DeLint has always had wonderfully balanced genders and plenty of characters who are outside any sense of a “norm” and yet are fully accepted. There is no agenda of oppression, anger, or conflict — the goal is to seek understanding, promote justice, and find a place in the world. It’s kind of the best of two of my favorite reading worlds — escape and a chance to learn more about being human.

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow (Fiction / Multi-cultural interest)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

The story covers 70 years in the lives of a family in Memphis ranging from 1937 through 2001. Sisters August and Miriam, their mother Hazel, and Miriam’s daughter Joan are the voices that tell the story with date labeled chapters that jump back and forth across time (which can be confusing — I had to take careful notes). The book is written in a highly emotional style, guaranteed to make you angry at the injustice and hardships these women must suffer through.

I believe this is intended to be a positive novel about the tight knit Black community of women who pull together and give each other strength when needed — and I loved these women characters and would have loved to be a part of the community. But the other side of the coin is that the book is strongly anti-man and pretty anti-white as well. The big sign in August’s hair shop is “NO CHILDREN, NO MEN, & WE EAT WHITE FOLK HERE.” It’s not really a joke.

Through the generations, everything bad possible happens to this family including a child rape, multiple instances of domestic abuse, and lynching. It reinforces negative stereotypes of current Black culture — single mothers and abusive, violent men. The one decent man in the history was lynched, with the strong implication being that he was lynched by his white colleagues (he had made homicide detective — the first Black man in the area to do so). The author took every opportunity to blame whites or men for everything that went wrong, without considering any errors of judgement made by the women. And while she gave each of the violent black men a backstory that might explain their violence, she gave them no path to rehabilitation and completely exonerated the women who may have contributed to their “badness,” whether intentionally or not.

In summary, the story was gripping but I found the writing overly dramatic, manipulative, and full of good messages (be strong, be independent) based on the wrong (IMHO) reasoning. I’m all in favor of women being independent because everyone should be able to take care of themselves — this is not a safe or uniformly just world — but they shouldn’t need to be independent because men are uniformly violent, bad, and untrustworthy.

I know a lot of people love these emotionally heavy-handed books. For me, however, it is too easy to absorb strong, negative, messages without a more nuanced treatment. No, there is no amount of nuance that makes lynching or domestic violence OK, but there are a lot of good men (black and white) out there and lots of good white people, too. Do we really need to fan the flames of racism and sexism (in reverse) by ascribing horrible behavior to every person who appears to be male and / or white? I found the book disturbing — not just for the content (which was disturbing enough!) but for the incendiary way that Black men and all white people (except one nice Jewish store owner!) were painted as irreedemably and unquestionably bad.

Thank you to Random House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on March 1st, 2022.