The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Story: 5

Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. Also some beautifully articulated messages on the importance of fatherhood both for the children and the fathers themselves. Top recommendation for the pure enjoyment of of the read!

38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. In the meantime, her 90-year-old grandmother “Birchie” (as in The Last Birch Standing of Birchville, Alabama) appears to be losing her mind in very colorful and public ways. Add in Miss Wattie, Birchie’s lifelong best friend and Rachel, Leia’s “and she knows it” perfect and pretty step-sister, and you have two pairs of “almost sisters” and the potential for a wild ride!

The story is exceptionally well put together, full of real people with giant personalities, and tons of interesting plot twists (that I’m desperately trying to not give away here!). Great writing that just eases you along until you completely forget that you are reading. Tackles racial issues as a seamless part of the story, triggered both by Leia’s awareness of the biracial baby growing within her and the events unfolding in Birchville that allow her to see a different side of the South (I had stepped into the Second South and seen that my South was a luxury I did not know I had,” she observes).

A special treat is the insight into the creative process of a comic book artist. Leia is well known for her graphic novel Violence-in-Violet (V-in-V) – a cult classic that she wrote, penciled, lettered, inked, and colored herself. After many years as a successful artist working for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc. she’s been offered a contract to write the prequel to V-in-V. Throughout the book we’re treated to her inspirations, ideas, backtracking, frustration, and glorious epiphanies. I’m not a big comic fan but after reading this I kind of want to turn into one. Really good descriptions of what the art can bring to the story. This is not a typical career for the heroine of a woman’s fiction book!

I enjoyed every inch of this book. It’s light and playful, but has enough meat in it to not be tossed out with the trashy epithet of a “summer read”. Highly recommended.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4
#disturbing

A powerful, woman-centric story encompassing two world wars. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair is a pregnant Yankee 19-year-old under escort to Switzerland via Southampton to take care of her “Little Problem”. She has a different priority: she holds out hope that her cousin Rose, last heard from 3 years ago in France, is still alive. She manages a secret detour to London to engage the help of the last person who worked the case – Evelyn Gardiner. Finding Evelyn a cantankerous woman with horribly disfigured hands, she nevertheless manages to engage her help in a search for Rose.

In alternating chapters we hear Evelyn’s story. In 1915, Evelyn (Eve) is a young, stammering, girl from Lorraine who is fluent in French, German, and English. Desperate to “fight” yet stuck in a dull, filing job, she is recruited for work in the highly successful Alice Network – a WWI spy network run by Alice Dubois in France. Alice Dubois was one of the many pseudonyms of Louise de Bettignies and this portion of the story is historically accurate.

The interlacing of the two timelines is one of the best examples of parallel narratives I’ve seen. There is just the right amount of interplay between the two – one will introduce an event just as the other requires it, or one will raise a question that is answered in the other – all with a subtlety that makes me admire the craft. The story had several parts that were highly disturbing – to the point that I had to skim – and knowing that they were coming (we learn about Evelyn’s disfigured hands within the first two chapters – we’re obviously going to hear something unpleasant about how that happened) filled me with dread. I really only had to skim twice so there is plenty of story that is not disturbing for those of us with faint hearts when it comes to torture and deprivation.

Finn Kilgore, a 30-year-old Scottish ex-con, star mechanic, and Evelyn Gardiner’s all around dogs body, serves as a love interest for Charlie, as well as providing another perspective on WWI experiences, while the experiences of Charlie’s brother James provide a parallel story from WWII.

Great for fans of historical fiction and a nice focus on the women who served in largely unrecognized and often unappreciated, highly dangerous, roles in these world encompassing conflicts.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

(pub date June 2018)

Writing: 3 Characters: 4 Plot: 4

In this epic novel of lives dismantled by the AIDS epidemic, the action bounces between the gay community in Chicago circa 1985, modern day Paris, and Bohemian Paris on the brink of WWI. There are strong themes of blame, shame, and redemption and good insights into human feeling and behavior in the midst of wide-spread tragedy. The loosely linked narrative streams each elaborate on the impact (both obvious and unrecognized) of large scale bereavement on both survivors and the world at large.

I learned a lot from this book and found the messages powerful, but it was a slog and it did not need to be. The narratives were far too long with little gems of insight buried in lengthy, repetitive, and sometimes irrelevant, prose. The author uses perpetual angst to move the plot forward leaving the reader wrung out by the end. While one could argue this is the right state for the subject, it’s wearing to have it drawn out to such length.

The two main threads – Chicago in 1985 and Paris in 2015 – are really two completely separate stories with only a thin strand of connective tissue. In 1985, Yale Tishman, a young gay man, works to acquire a valuable donation for his new gallery while simultaneously watching his community splinter, fight, panic, and finally succumb as AIDS strikes. In 2015, Fiona, a middle aged woman who was a close friend of Yale’s and whose brother Nico was one of the earliest AIDS victims, searches for the adult daughter (and possible granddaughter) who has intentionally withdrawn from Fiona’s life. Although Fiona features in both, I felt the 2015 story line offered little to the main themes of the book and feel it could have been left out altogether. The themes are really outlined in the 1985 story as well as embedded tale of the art donor, Fiona’s Great Aunt Nora, who feels those going through the AIDS crisis are the only ones who understand what she went through in WWI. She compares the many deaths from WWI (in her youth) to those from AIDS (current) and laments not only that so many friends are gone, but that they never got to live and accomplish. In a beautiful passage she brings to life all the art that never happened because these people died and the tragedy resulting from the fact that we didn’t even know enough to miss it.

On the whole I believe this book is worth reading, especially if you’re interested in a well-researched, detailed story about the devastating impact of AIDS on real, fully drawn people, but be prepared to work a little harder than you should.  Also note I read a pre-release version and there may be considerable editing prior to release.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Writing: 5+ Characters: 4 Plot: 4
#powerful

A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement. This is the story of Nadia and Saaed – two people who meet and become a couple as civil war first threatens and then engulfs the city in which they live. As they leave their country and become migrant refugees, we watch the evolution of their relationship with themselves and each other through the eyes of the omniscient (and prescient) narrator.

There are touches of parable where “magic” doors to other locales open, are guarded, or are destroyed – a nice abstraction of the diverse processes people use to enter the “doorways” into other countries, both welcoming and not. We never learn the name of the city or country in which they start – we don’t need to – this is an allegory for all such journeys. Nor do we ever learn the names of any other characters. They are referenced solely by labels that relate them to Saeed and Nadia: “Saeed’s father”, “a musician”, “the girl on Mykonos”. In this way we are forced to focus on these events solely from the perceptions of and impact on these individuals.

The writing is some of the best I’ve seen – one of those books in which each sentence is a gem, both in terms of beauty and pithy insight into human nature and behavior. While the story and environs are clearly disturbing, the prose is neither incendiary nor manipulative, providing a simple, yet detailed documentation of how these experiences shape Nadia, Saeed, and the relationship between them. In this way it reminded me of Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” which, as its name suggests, is about how people survive, not about the horrors inflicted on them.

I found my stereotypes challenged constantly in loud, messy and surprising ways. I watched assumptions I didn’t know I had disappear as I read. Most of our exposure to situations like this are through news services that focus on major, traumatic events – while this story let me connect to people I could identify with while they adaptated to unplanned and unpleasant circumstances. A mind-twisting (for me) example: Saeed’s father thinks he was selfish to pursue a life of teaching, research, and altruism as he would have been in a position to help his family to escape if he had pursued only wealth. I have never had to think about the acquisition of wealth from that perspective.

This book has all the characteristics I crave in reading: excellent writing, deep character insight, penetrating commentary of the nature of humanity, and relevant subject matter (also NOT depressing). Top recommendation!

By the Book by Julia Sonneborn

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 4

#chicklit

Modern chick lit version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion complete with posh lifestyles of the rich and famous (Hollywood style) merged with the not-so-posh lifestyles of the poor and academic. A gay, “best bud” professor sidekick adds both pathos and comic relief. Fun, well written, a little obvious as chick lit tends to be but nice and satisfying.

I enjoyed the fact that the heroine is a professor of English literature at a small liberal arts college and that the book didn’t shy away from lauding her (somewhat arcane) passions for women writers of the 19th century, also providing some entertaining and realistic classroom scenes with today’s undergraduates. The story veered away from Austen’s Persuasion quite a bit, and I feel that the primary point of Persuasion – that the heroine had allowed herself to be persuaded away from what she believed to be the right path forward when she was first engaged to the hero – was kind of lost. There was also a line that bothered me – a character in the novel blows off Austen as just “old-fashioned chick lit” to which our heroine replies “so what?”. Austen is a lot more than “old-fashioned chick lit” and it would have been nice for our professorial heroine to elaborate on that theme for at least a paragraph! However, the bottom line is that this is a fun read, with some good LOLs and plenty of likable characters.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Plot: 3
New words to me:
Xenomorphs – strange or foreign forms
Pareidolia – seeing faces in unusual places, a type of apophenia
Botrytis: “noble rot” used by vintners
NSFW – not safe for work

Lois Clary is a Computer Science whiz from Michigan recently recruited to San Francisco to work on control systems for robot arms at General Dexterity. She is known as one of the “newly Dextrous” and is accompanied solely by a cactus named Kubrick. A menu for CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH appears on her doorway and her life takes a very interesting turn.

Story tendrils include … a love affair conducted almost in silence; the Lois Club serving as a kind of Greek chorus for the action; a magical tale about a mysterious people called the Mazg; a bizarre sourdough starter that seems to have a greater personality than one would expect from … bread; a literary paen to the microbial world in which we swim.

A good story, some quirky (though slightly one dimensional) characters, and excellent writing. The descriptions of baking and baking technology, SanFrancisco and environs, and (especially) the belletristic exploration of microbiomes are absolutely top notch. I’m unimpressed by the stereotyped (and somewhat uninformed) descriptions of working for an intense tech company and I was somewhat confused by the conflicting themes of robotics utility and the joy of individual labor, but it was an enjoyable read, I learned a lot about interesting subjects on the ride, and I was particularly impressed with the writing.

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

Plot: 4 Characters: 4 Writing:4
#tearjerker #uplifting

Solid, well-written, historical fiction with an emphasis on family in times of duress. The Brights – Thomas and Pauline and their daughters Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa – leave their rural life to join Thomas’ uncle in his undertaking business in Philadelphia. The time is 1918.

Told through the alternating perspectives of the women in the family over the next 8 years, the story weaves through mortuaries, speakeasies, mental institutions, and hospitals as the community reels from the double crises of WWI (and the expanded draft) and the Spanish Flu pandemic and slowly heals by knitting itself together in new and unexpected configurations.

Good storytelling, heartfelt characters, and many surprising plot twists. Strong themes concerning family, loss, love, and finding the life you were meant to read. Worth reading.