The Rising Tide by Ann Cleeves — A Vera Stanhope Novel (Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5
A group of friends have been meeting for reunions on Holy Island for fifty years. One — a particularly obnoxious media star who just lost his job due to a #metoo style accusation — is surprisingly upbeat with a new plan he is hatching. At least until he is found hanging in his room the next morning. Suicide? He didn’t seem the type but … Vera has to untangle a pile of messy relationships and a forty year old tragedy before she gets to the bottom of it. I didn’t figure out whodunnit until very near the end.

I’m a long time fan of the ITV Vera series, but this is the first book (number 10) that I’ve read and ,it was completely impossible to put down! There is a lot more (interesting) depth on the team dynamics and internal states of the main characters — definitely not apparent in the TV series. But Cleeves’ real strength lies in her stories — perfect pacing of new information twisting and shifting current assumptions. No filler (i.e. no gratuitous taking of tea, repeating what everyone knows twenty times to other characters, etc) — constantly kept my brain engaged in trying to figure things out. Some very interesting political commentary as asides to the story — not your standard PC or standard non-PC Stuff.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 6th, 2022.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Historical Fiction)

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

I’m conflicted about this book — on the one hand a good, engrossing story with an array of interesting characters; but on the other hand I found it utterly depressing (in the last third of the book) and developed a real dislike for the main character (which I don’t think was the author’s goal!).

The story primarily takes place in Paris just before and during the Nazi occupation, with occasional interleaving chapters 40 years later in a small, Montana town. Odile is the young, naive, book loving girl in Paris who gets her dream job at the American Library in Paris with the formidable Miss Reeder. The library is full of wonderful characters — many of them real figures of history (such as Miss Reeder and Boris, the head librarian, in Paris having fled the Russian revolution).

Paris declares itself a “Quiet City” so that the Nazis are allowed to occupy without bloodshed. And as they occupy they plunder libraries (trying to “eradicate the cultures of certain countries, in a methodical confiscation of their works of science, literature, and philosophy”), arrest people for being enemy aliens (e.g. British), and begin the persecution of local Jews. It’s the same old story but this time the Parisians cooperate with the nasty “crow letters” — voluntary letters denouncing their neighbors for rule breaking — all of which the local constabulary is obligated to investigate. Shades of the French revolution, this made me feel sick.

In the Montana timeline, a young girl who loses her mother befriends an older Odile who is able to help Lily not make the same mistakes we slowly find out she made back in Paris. Structurally, the book is well-paced and there are good messages that come out of the story, but it took me (the emotional sponge that I am) a full day to get over feeling utterly depressed by the whole thing.

I will say that I appreciated that the book was not melodramatic — the times were full of drama and the story itself was dramatic enough without embellishment. I thought the book was well-written, and I did like the well-drawn characters — I just don’t feel the need to be this depressed about something I’ve already spent enough time being depressed about.

A few good quotes:
“Of course he knew something was wrong, he was a librarian — part psychologist, bartender, bouncer, and detective.”

“After three months of no rest, Eleanor yawned constantly, no longer a perky parakeet, but a plump pigeon that waddled from the crib to the rocking chair.”

“Books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”

“The French language was a nasal bog that she had to wade through in the shops, the hairdressers, and the bakery.”

“The best thing about Paris? It’s a city of readers,” our neighbor said.

Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini (Fictionalized History)

I absolutely loved this book — one of the best pieces of fictionalized history I’ve read in a long time. The subject is the recruitment of female Telephone Operators to manage the switchboards in France during WWI as part of the Signal Corps.

Few people alive today can remember a time when every single call made using a telephone had to go through an actual person to be connected. And physical lines had to be in place for any call to be connected. Now picture the war torn fields of France during WWI — physical lines had to be laid and relaid to remote and exposed pieces of war terrain, and operators had to be in place in multiple locations to connect calls to send out new orders, to get reports, to contact other units and allies. It is estimated that during the two years the 223 bilingual women were in place, they connected over 26 million calls.

In this book, the history IS the story, not the backdrop for a romance or a mystery, and the story is rich and full of historical, technical, and personal detail. Characters — both real and fictional — are true to the time as they reflect on their roles, worries, and hopes. We get all the details of their lives: training, required uniforms, wildly varying accommodations, gas mask training, the conditions of the locals, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and appreciation they slowly earn from the initially skeptical men. Also, the strong patriotism each of them feels — true to the time, patriotism is not the dirty word it appears to have become today. This book is well researched (an excellent and long bibliography available at the back) and does not sink into melodrama — there are no broken hearts, gratuitous sobbing, or overwhelming romances. These women were competent, had an important purpose, and thrived in an environment of hard work, pressure, and real need. It wasn’t all rosy — after the war they were treated as volunteers and were discharged without proper veterans benefits. This was not rectified until 1977 when only 50 of the women were still alive.

The narrative follows three women (one real, two fictional) as they go through the process from recruitment shortly after the U.S. enters the war through the Versailles Peace Talks: Grace Banker of New Jersey (who later received the Distinguished Service Medal), Marie Miossec (a Frenchwoman and aspiring opera singer), and Belgian born Valerie DeSmedt (whose widowed mother ran a boarding house in Los Angeles).

Highly recommended.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.

Cold, Cold Bones by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Character:4/5

Number 21 in the Temperance Brennan series. Tempe is a forensic archeologist, and this series is full of interesting technical bits of the trade (sometimes a little too gross for me but so easy to skim if necessary!). This one opens with an unexpected eyeball delivery to her doorstep one find winter morning. From there things escalate rapidly as a madman appears to be copycatting many of Tempe’s cases, but they go off the charts when Tempe’s newly returned Afghanistan vet daughter goes missing. Plenty of action but not a lot of needless stress for the reader (this is a good thing). Some fascinating tidbits about knotology, preppers, and crematorium offerings pepper the mix. Additionally, Reich’s writing style cracks me up — I add a few of her one liners for illustration. This series is the basis for the TV crime drama “Bones.” I’ve only read a few of the books — absolutely not necessary to read in order. Fun read.

Quotes:
“Fine,” I said with the enthusiasm I typically reserve for plunging a toilet.

“The grapes were at least half a decade past their prime. And warm from the hours spent cuddling the sandwich.”

“After waiting out customers with requirements more complex than Patton’s at El Alamein, my turn finally came.”

“Inadequacy vied with melancholy for control of my emotions.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on July 5th, 2022.

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet (Literary Fiction)

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

Deceptively simple, deeply beautiful story about a man who learns to open himself up to the world of human connection. Gorgeous writing detailing nature, thoughts, and a continuum of effort to fight for and take care of other people, but never himself. Takes place in the Phoenix desert, where one neighbor lives in a “castle” overlooking another neighbor whose home is built entirely of glass.

This is the first book I’ve read by Millet, and I’m definitely going to seek out the others to see if they all have this iridescent writing. The story was slow paced (which is not usually my thing) but I couldn’t stop reading. Humor, kindness, friendship, confusion, love, and moments of great poignancy — the book had it all.

Thank you to W. W. Norton & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 10th, 2022.

We Are The Light by Matthew Quick (Fiction)

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

I’m blown away by this book and the way the author has managed to write about an incredibly difficult subject so powerfully without once becoming maudlin, trite or descending into Hallmark territory. I can tell you that I out and out cried (and not quietly) through the last third because of the way the author managed to capture the essence of such deeply felt and universal core emotions in mere words. I’m not doing this justice because I don’t have that skill — you’ll have to just trust me!

The story is about a town which has experienced an inexpressible tragedy. It does not focus on the tragedy itself but on the slow process of healing — for everyone — and the way Lucas Goodgame — a high school counselor led the way while simultaneously struggling himself. The narrative is contained in a series of letters Lucas writes to his Jungian analyst who inexplicably closed his practice after the event and stopped responding.

For all that I can’t remember the last time I cried so much at a book, I was never once depressed by it — far more inspired by it. The last line was a brilliant pulling together of the whole.

I was introduced to a new (for me) word which I just loved: numinous — having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.

While there are a lot of great quotes in this book, I don’t feel that I can include them without ruining the flow of the book, so … you’ll have to read them in context yourself!

Thank you to Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on November 1st, 2022.

The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 2.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
The story of two brave women during WWII — Ava Harper, a Library of Congress rare book librarian, recruited to spy in Lisbon, and Helene Belanger, a determined member of the French Resistance in Lyon — conspire to make at least one happy ending in a world that is utterly falling apart.

There were some very interesting aspects of this book: I’m a sucker for stories about books, librarians, and the printed word — and these all figured prominently. The author included a lot of accurate details about the processes (think bureaucracy and visas), technologies (Roneo machines!), and cultural practices of the time and place. The focus on both the French Resistance and “neutral” Portugal covered aspects of WWII that I haven’t read much about previously and were interesting, accurate, and detailed.

On the other hand, this book is really perfect for the kind of person who loves drama and appreciates how well the horror of war is depicted in the suffering of individuals — and I am not that person! The characters definitely draw you in, and I found myself crying frequently throughout because it would be impossible not to. But in truth, I found this book to be overwrought, consistently cliched, and far more melodramatic than I like which is disappointing because I very much liked Martin’s previous novel The Last Bookshop in London. It’s almost as though it were written by another writer.

Some of the writing actually made me cringe — “The Nazis had hovered over Lyon since the occupation, but now their breath whispered hot and fetid at the neck of the Resistance network.” And Ava’s behavior — while exemplary — did not in any way earn the incredible accolades that were awarded to her, giving the book more of an unrealistic Romance kind of feel, rather than historical fiction with a serious theme.

Still — plenty of action and drama, and I’m sure there are those for whom it will be a good reading experience. Bring plenty of Kleenex, and park your sunny disposition in the closet. It won’t be needed.

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

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill (Mystery)

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

A three-layer nested story merging a murder mystery, the evolution of friendships, and some fascinating insight into a writer’s process.

Australian Hannah Tigon is a writer, and in a semi-epistolary shell to the novel, she writes a chapter which is followed by detailed feedback and comments from an e-colleague living in Boston where her story is set. These comments get stranger and stranger as the book evolves. In the story itself, Winifred Kincaid (Freddie) is also a writer — trying to get some work done in the Boston Library when a bloodcurdling scream is heard. She — and the three others nearby — form a friendship after the scream as they try to figure out what happened. In the third layer of the story, she bases her characters on these three new friends.

Twisted. Engaging. Quite well written in the spare, thoughtful style that I like. The story is told from Freddie’s first person perspective and her internal dialog is clever, colorful and full of insight into a writer’s thoughts. I found it interesting that she presented some un-PC perspectives such as a white author bemoaning the fact that he never got to benefit from white privilege (see quote) and took an interesting perspective on race — never telling us the race of the characters while simultaneously being harangued for same by the man sending her feedback.

A few interesting quotes:

“I open my mouth to explain, to assure him that I’m a writer, not a leering harasser, but of course this is the reading room, and one does not conduct a defense while people are trying to read. I do attempt to let him know I’m just interested in him as the physical catalyst for a character I’m creating, but that’s too complex to convey in mime.”

“But they all smile while they talk — that’s the difference I think, that’s what makes it American. Australians don’t seem to be able to smile and talk at the same time — unless they’re lying, of course.”

“I write her terror gently, allowing what is unsaid to carry the narrative, aware that overt emotion could well move the story into melodrama.”

“The reality is, I suppose, that I am a straight white man with no diversity disadvantage to offer as a salve for the fashionable collective guilt that rules publishing. I understand that popular correctness demands that men like me be denied to compensate for all the years in which we were given too much. I just wish I’d had a chance to enjoy a little of that privilege before it became a liability.”

“I’m not sure if they have more information or if it is simply an inevitable evolution of sensationalism.”

“Cain smiles at me, and the fact that he’s handsome is again very salient.”

“New, but already beloved, wrapped in the excited crush of friendship’s beginning, untarnished by the annoyances, disappointments, and minor betrayals which come with the passing of time.”

Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White (Mystery / Fiction)

I love Karen White’s Tradd Street series — ghosts, mysteries, and the kind of characters you’d want to befriend (while simultaneously being tempted to wring their little high maintenance necks at times). This book is the first in a spin-off series about Nola Trenholm (step daughter of Tradd Street’s protagonist) who is setting up shop on her own in the Big Easy (where I am conveniently visiting atm for the first jazz fest in three years — hooray!)

Nola buys an historic fixer-upper that comes complete with dissatisfied spirits, a long festering mystery and plenty of architectural pearls.

Well-written and plenty of fun. High in puzzle solving but low in stress.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.