The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser (Women’s Fiction)

What better way to get over a humiliating divorce than to inherit a house in a remote part of Scotland that is replete with antiquarian books? While Thea Mottram bemoans her all-too-cliched fate (husband fell in love with her good friend), she does a nice job swimming to the surface when she checks out the inheritance from a great-uncle she had only met four times previously (he liked her because she preferred reading to talking — our kind of girl!). While intending to stay just long enough to decide what to do with the house, she ends up working at the local bookstore owned by the curmudgeonly (but naturally also quite hunky) man of aristocratic origins, Edward Maltravers.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. While the bones are pure “women’s fiction,” the frills include Scotland, a bookstore selling both new and antiquarian books, and a few twists on the standard chick-lit plot. Good, humorous, writing and a strong, though self-deprecating, heroine that I would be happy to call a friend. My only complaint is that there wasn’t really enough discussion about the cool books! Her contributions to the book talk were denigrations of various classics with toss-off comments about how she doesn’t really care for it for some (to me stupid) reason.

A happy book and I learned a new (to me) phrase: Fourth Wave Feminism — a phase of feminism that began around 2012 and is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women and the use of internet tools, and is centered on intersectionality. Who knew?

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 May 4th, 2021.

Cold Wind by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Writing: 3/5

I enjoyed this book — the first Paige Shelton book for me (although it looks like she has written a ton of mysteries across multiple series). I’m a sucker for interesting settings, and I love reading stories that take place in the more remote parts of Alaska. The writing was decent, the characters interesting enough for me to care, and I found the plot intricate and not terribly predictable. I was particularly happy that the book didn’t have a lot of filler which is something I find in a lot of genre fiction — especially when the authors are on their umpteenth episode and appear to have run out of fresh ideas. This was fun, I read it quickly, and I was able to read it at night (not an edge-of-your-seat thriller which is absolutely fine with me!)

This was number two in her Alaska series — I haven’t read number one and was able to figure everything out just fine (but may go back and read the first!)

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 December 1st, 2020.

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood (Literary Fiction)

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

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5
An utterly engaging novel combining a coming-of-age story, a love story, and a story about the relationship one American Muslim has with his religion and community.

Anvar Faris is a sharp, wise-cracking, Pakistani immigrant who uses humor as a shield to protect his vulnerabilities and confusions. He questions his religion — his belief in God, the rigorous requirements of being a “good” Muslim, and most definitely the wrath of his mother who prefers moral to rational arguments. At heart, despite his apparent irreverence, he struggles to do the right thing in the messy human situations that pervade life.

I love the characters in this book — Anvar, the morality-wielding mother, the brother who always colors insides the lines, the fairy-godfather-like Hafeez who reserves his dilapidated apartments for “good Muslims” and has his own means of judging what is good, and Zuha — the woman Anvar has been in love with since childhood who struggles to get Anvar to see that she is living her own coming-of-age story that isn’t completely linked to his.

A separate thread follows Azza — a young woman growing up in war-torn Iraq who eventually makes her way to the U.S. and serves as a kind of catalyst for Anvar’s growth in self-knowledge. Azza is more of an exemplar of a situation than a nuanced individual but the moral choices she makes and the way she questions God about her fate as compared to the Americans she sees are pointed in addition to the part she plays in Anvar’s story.

Spanning 9/11 and the Trump election, the narrative explores multiple aspects of Islam on the global stage — from the radicalizing of the religion in response to “Allah’s punishment” for moral failures to the US execution (without trial) of an American citizen of Yemeni descent suspected of being a terrorist in Syria and beyond. I enjoyed the writing and have included several quotes below. Great character depth and another window into the lives of a community I know little about. As always, I appreciated the focus on individuals rather than stereotypes.

Quotes:
“As usual, Karachi was screaming at its inhabitants and they were screaming right back.”

“My mother preferred morality to rationality because it put God on her side.

“Aamir Faris, in short, uses dull crayons but he is relentlessly fastidious about coloring inside the lines.”

“Checkers is the game of life. Idiots will tell you that chess is, but it isn’t. That’s a game of war, Real life is like checkers. You try to make your way to where you need to go and to do it you’ve got to jump over people while they’re trying to jump over you and everyone is in each other’s way.”

“Muslims — our generation, in the West — are like the Frankenstein monster. We’re stapled and glued together, part West, part East. A little bit of Muslim here, a little bit of skeptic there. We put ourselves together as best we can and that makes us, not pretty, of course, but unique. Then we spend the rest of our lives looking for a mate. Someone who is like us. Except there is no one like us and we did that to ourselves.”

“My husband says that I’m the YouTube of tears. Always streaming, you know.”

“The moment that I took God out of the equation, the world became too large, too cruel and too indifferent for me to live in. I decided then that there was a God. There had to be. I needed Him.”

“Aamir’s chunky laptop hissed, shrieked and beeper its mechanical anxiety as the dial-up connection attempts to link it to the internet. The panicked sound a computer made in the early days of the internet, before cable and before wi-fi, was the swan song of solitude.”

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 19th, 2021.

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5
A very readable book about Maddy — a 20-year old homeless girl in San Francisco who unwittingly witnesses the tail end of the murder of a homeless boy and gets tangled up with the victim’s parents and general ineffectiveness of the judicial system.

The writing is good and it does thoroughly depict at least one homeless person’s life in San Francisco — the utter tedium of hanging around doing little but scamming for money or getting high all day, sleeping in the park but waking at 4:00 am to avoid the cops, heading to the shelter for showers and food — rinse, repeat. While the book was clearly supposed to trigger a feeling of empathy, pity, and a desire for more social programs to “help,” it really did the opposite for me. Maddy and her friends were given so many opportunities to live a different life: in addition to all the free food, showers, medical care, etc. they got from the shelter and free clinics, they were constantly offered entrance into all kinds of programs to help by a slew of well-meaning social workers. Instead, they spend their days hanging around doing nothing, begging for money to get high, and sitting in the park gathering program pamphlets from do-gooders. Which they didn’t want. Eventually, after watching the young boy bleed out, engaging with the boy’s heartbroken parents, seeing one of her friends almost OD, and having a social worker make the effort to find her in the park every day offering encouragement, more programs, and a round trip bus ticket to find her estranged mother, Maddy begins a journey we hope will be more productive. I was honestly left feeling like maybe all of the money behind these programs could have been better spent elsewhere. I’m completely behind offering people opportunities to get out of a hole — whether of their own making or not — but I’m not enthused about chasing them down repeatedly until they deign to give it a try.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 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.

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

Crime novelists keep turning up dead in this second Harbinder Kaur novel by Elly Griffiths. The first to go is Peggy Smith — resident of Seaview Court in Shoreham and murder consultant to the literary stars. While our 35-year old lesbian, Sikh, still-living-at-home detective grumbles her way through the case, she is aided (against her will) by a beautiful Ukranian carer with a history of cybercrime, an ancient BBC producer, and an ex-monk turned coffee shop owner, shyly looking for a woman with quirks.

Griffiths’ books always grow on me — they can start off kind of klunky, but I always get involved and want to finish. I like the characters, and although these are definitely cozies with a capital C, there are enough surprises to keep me going.

I do prefer the Ruth Galloway series — this book felt like it was written a little more quickly, had more filler, and was slower paced than some of her previous books. On the other hand, I’ve had many Galloway books which see the characters fully develop, and I am personally more interested in the details of forensic archeology than I am with literary murder writers. There are a lot of fun crime fiction references (both book and film) that I enjoyed.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Mystery / Literary Fiction)

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

Loved this 5th installment of JK Rowling’s (written as Robert Galbraith) Cormoran Strike books. 925 pages would have been off-putting from any other writer but the pages just flew by. Part mystery / part novel, the books are character driven and — most important to me — the characters are people I am happy to spend 925 pages with!

In this book, Strike and (his now partner) Robin have to one year to solve a cold case — the 40-year old disappearance of a female doctor with a young child at home. The investigative threads have to consider the (temporary, but severe) mental illness of the original investigator, the now incarcerated psychopath whose killing spree overlapped with the disappearance, and the hosts of secrets and red herrings presented by original witnesses who have had forty years to shift their memories and priorities. In the meantime, the agency is handling other bizarre cases and Strike and Robin each have their own issues to face and wade through.

Lots of great dialog reifying individual perspectives on a number of current issues such as Scottish (and Cornish) independence, race relations, social identity theory, gender stereotypes, and dealing with fame (I wonder what informed Rowling’s ideas on that!). Plot delightfully twisted and engaging. Read it in three days and was never tempted to skim.

House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly (Historical Fiction / Mystery)

Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.

In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.

Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.

Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.

No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.

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

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

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 February 2nd, 2021.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Soloman (Speculative Fiction)

World building: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Writing: 4/5

This is a decently written speculative fiction novel that “explores structural racism and generation ships.” Aster is a brilliant neuro-divergent female living on the lower decks of the spaceship Matilda — three centuries into a voyage away from a dying planet. The ship is run by a ruthless sovereign and populated with cruel guards who keep the lower levels of the deck system (a mirror of racial lines) in order. While suffering constant persecution, Aster manages to untangle the secrets of her dead mother’s coded journals to discover a massive secret that impacts the lives of everyone on board.

The story was engaging but overall unsatisfying. The tropes of oppression and persecution are well expressed but quite two-dimensional. There was a lot of action, but very few surprises, and the end lacked clarity. I did find the main characters to be an interesting collection of stereotypes: Aster — the brilliant scientist who insistently pursues her goals despite beatings and directed torment; Giselle — the angry black woman who finds herself so enraged she is destructive towards everyone, including those she loves most; Melusine — the caretaker figure who favors stability and caution over outright rebellion; and Theo — the privileged and talented mixed race man who is driven by guilt and a strong desire to do the right thing and yet cannot bring himself to the violence necessitated by the situation.

The story and characters are a real mishmash of “unheard voices.” Plenty of gender noncomformity, intense class and race clashes, and religion-based oppression. Lots of things didn’t quite make sense — a generation ship capable of traveling for centuries would have a large population and yet the same people seem to consistently run into each other, and the sovereign has a particular hatred for a low-born slave. The scientific explanations for plot points were also weak and understated.

Overall, a decent adventure story but an unsatisfying exploration of her themes of oppression because everything was so heavy-handed.

The Survivors by Jane Harper (Mystery)

A small town on the Tasmanian coast. An intense storm 12 years ago that led to two deaths and a disappearance. And now — the inexplicable murder of a young, well-liked, visiting artist that is somehow connected to events of the past. With Harper’s expert pacing and character development, we witness small town life through two lenses: one where everyone seems an irreproachable member of a tight-knit community and the other where each feels like a reasonable suspect. Through a maelstrom of online community postings, we see how the anonymous amplification of suspicions and accusations can bring a community to its knees. As with all Harper’s books, it is just about impossible to put down.

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