The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4+

On New York’s Lower East Side in 1969, four siblings seek a psychic who is rumored to be able to tell you the exact date of your death. Ranging from 1978 – 2010, the rest of this captivating book takes us through the lives of each of these children as they live their lives in the shadow of this knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it really is the tour de force claimed on the book jacket. The scope is huge, and the detailed descriptions of everything from primate-based aging research to the world of magicians to the gay scene in San Francisco in the 80s are incredibly impressive.

On the other hand, I found the book depressing. These are not happy people and their life stories are full of tragedy, guilt, and angst. In some ways this book reminds me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which I could not finish). Beautiful writing, intricate stories with believable characters and captivating twists — and yet the main character is a f*** up who squanders every opportunity to make something of his life. Similarly, The Immortalists is more of a cautionary tale of how not to live, rather than a story of personal growth or redemption. (*** tiny spoiler alert — one character does manage to learn the lesson, but this comes in the final pages and too late for anyone else ***).

Overall an absorbing book — excellent writing, in depth characters, and vivid depictions of a wide variety of times and places. I read the 300+ quickly and didn’t want to put it down; however, I was not happy while I was reading (I had to read an uplifting children’s book before bed so I wouldn’t wake up in a bad mood). If you read with your head, prepare to be fascinated; if you read with your heart, prepare to mope. While the overall message is life affirming — embrace life and spend your time living rather than focusing on how to forestall death — that lesson comes too late for most of our poor characters.

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser, which will publish September 25, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I loved this young readers book. It is the second in the Vanderbeeker series and every bit as good as the first. It reminds me of some of my favorite series from childhood — the characters became my friends, and I couldn’t wait to go along on the next adventure.

The five Vanderbeeker children live with their parents on the bottom two floors of a brownstone on 141st in Harlem. When Mr. Jeet, the above floor neighbor, has a debilitating stroke, they decide to create a hidden garden in the abandoned lot adjoining the church as surprise for his homecoming. This simple plot line gives rise to opportunities for a whole array of neighborhood kids to contribute while learning about caring, friendship, and the ability to create beauty from nothing.

I love this book for many reasons. These people are regular people. They are neither rich nor poor. Taking place in Harlem, the cast is decidedly multicultural, and there are little hints as to different backgrounds — but that is not the point. Some kids obviously come from loving nuclear families, while others have absent parents, substitute parents, or bits of tragedy in their histories — but that isn’t the point either. These people come together as friends and neighbors; they care about each other and try to help each other out. The book unashamedly models good values and behavior, demonstrating friendship, caring, self sufficiency, and having the agency to make bad situations better. Five stars.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5; Characters: 5/5

New words (for me): Buba is an item of clothing; Gele – a Nigerian head scarf

A stunningly good book — I read it in a single sitting (OK – it was only 118 pages — but I had to halve my usual reading speed in order to fully enjoy the lovely language).

Morayo Da Silva is a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco. She arranges her books by which characters ought to be talking to each other and often rewrites the endings of well-known stories to allow women characters to survive, stay sane, or accomplish great things!

Her life story unfolds through memories as she roams around San Francisco engaging with friends, strangers, and the city itself. Her current story unfolds simultaneously as a fall interrupts her trajectory and exposes her to new people, places, and dependencies. While most is told through her first person narrative, we often get inserts of third person narrative describing an interaction with Morayo. It works!

There is no simplification or any sense that the author is actively trying to make the work more accessible. There are literary references you may not get ( I looked up several) and references to African cultural items and phrases (again – Google is your friend). I love that this book didn’t dumb anything down for potential readers. Similarly, you won’t find any political correctness in the pages — the story is as multi-cultural as you can get, but Morayo’s opinions are her own and she speaks them beautifully.

The writing is spectacular — it’s a short book but I took it slowly so I could appreciate every line. “A straciatella sky” stops Morayo from worrying about something; Lagos is the “land of constant sunshine and daily theatre”; and her home in Jos, unfortunately a target for Boko Haram, is “ … the place where people said “sorry” whenever someone tripped or fell or grazed themselves because that was the linguistic mirror of a culture based on empathy …”.

I picked this book up at last year’s Berkeley Book Festival after seeing the author on an African author panel. She was an intriguing speaker as well as writer. Wish I had started it sooner. Must get to work on that backlog!

Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, which will publish May 1, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
#Children’s Fiction #Middle Grade
Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A enchanting children’s book by best selling authors Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass. Ten-year-old Livy goes back to visit her grandmother in Australia after a five year absence. She has the nagging feeling that something important happened there but absolutely no memory of what it might have been. She was right: once back in her room she discovers a short, green, not-a-zombie waiting for her in her closet. He has been waiting for five years with nothing but a lego set and dictionary for company! Together they work out where he came from and how to get him home while also learning about friendship, loyalty, and family.

Charming, well written, good pacing, grade appropriate.

The Madonna of the Pool by Helen Stancey (short stories)

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

A very pleasant surprise! Not being a huge short story reader, I kept meaning to put the book down but instead kept reading “just one more story” until the book was finished in a day.

Stancey is a master of the English language. Hers is the kind of writing I love — spare, incisive, prose that captures the essence of the scene. Compared to the book I last reviewed, with its run on streams of consciousness, this was like entering a lovely, clean, room — full of curiosities and yet completely clutter-free.

These stories crawl around in people’s heads. Men, women, boys, girls, city-dwellers, country folk. Primarily in Britain but with at least one story of British vacationers abroad. We observe ways of life and death; growing up and growing old; contemplating mortality. These stories encompass everything a short story should be: a deep dip into another place and time, with a message or a twist. Little pieces of life – no great drama, people getting on with it in their own ways.

Some great first lines — my favorite: “Ostensibly it began with the dust mites.” Also some great last paragraphs (which I won’t include as they kind of give away the story!) Intriguing titles as well e.g. “You can’t rely on Pythagoras”.

Some other favorite lines:

“She always felt ambivalent about this. Here was where the demands of intellectual integrity were face-to-face to the demands of social cohesion.”

“Joan cut the cake, manipulating the size of the slices to avoid bisecting any dwarf.”

Looking forward to more from this author!

We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for an early review copy of We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

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

Although sold as a novel, this is really a set of interconnected stories, each an interior monologue of one of the guests at the lavish wedding of Elizabeth Gottlieb in Atlanta, Georgia.

The storytellers (or thinkers) range from mother of the bride, to bridesmaids, to family and friends. I wouldn’t call it a happy book — most of the narrators face or have faced some heavy challenges: a large port wine facial birthmark, clinical depression, a child with muscular dystrophy, a stroke, the aftermath of being a holocaust survivor. Still, as the characters bounce their thoughts off the wedding of a young woman who has led a completely charmed life, they reflect, they elaborate carefully constructed life philosophies, they rail against injustice, and they opine about love in all its myriad forms. While I missed the coherence and longer narrative arc of a novel, I enjoyed the insight that the narrators produced in their conscious thought stream. The author is a dermatologist from Atlanta and many of these stories revolve around doctors, medical conditions, and the way people cope with illness or disability.

I found the text long winded at times, but the writing was good and I highlighted many sections that made me think; overall an interesting read.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

Good, old fashioned, space adventure. Well, moon-in-space adventure. Solid, clean writing. Lots of great descriptions of science and engineering applied to problems. Diversity on every page but in the way I like: Artemis, the largest (and only) city on the moon, is populated with people from all over the Earth. The characters of the novel were of multiple ethnicities, colors, genders, and sexual orientations. And these characteristics were completely orthogonal to their choice of profession, whether they were rich or poor, honest or prone to criminality. I did a quick analysis and found that of the four characters who appeared the most intelligent, three were women, so he did err on the side of political correctness with that one — but why not?

Overall a fun read — the strength is in the writing and the adventure, not in any new ideas (which I prefer in my SF) or character depth — but I read it in a single sitting and enjoyed it, so no complaints!

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort by Jess Kidd

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for an early review copy of Mr. Flood’s Last Resort Side by Jess Kidd, which will publish May 1, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 5
New words (to me):
leylandii – fast growing coniferous evergreen tree used in horticulture
hurley – stick used in game of hurling
coulter – a vertical cutting blade fixed in front of a plowshare.

A great find! One of the perils of early reviewing is that you have no idea what you’ll get. And more often than not, what you get is OK but not great. However, a book like this makes all the early reviewing worthwhile — a real gem!

Intriguing characters, a continually twisting plot, and elements that just edge beyond our assumptions of reality. It is told in the first person narrative of Maud Drennan, a home health care worker in London. She has been sent to care for Cathal Flood — a bedraggled, Irish giant, cantankerous, and a hoarder of epic proportions. Bridlemere, his four story mansion in West London, is filled to the brim with oddities — Victorian Automata, taxidermy specimens, and scientific curiosities — most of which is hidden behind “The Great Wall of National Geographics”.

With brilliant pacing and suffused with the Irish gift for storytelling, several interconnected and constantly shifting tales unfold: Cathal’s son Gabriel wants to put him in a residential home; there is a mystery surrounding the death of Cathal’s wife some twenty years ago; a missing girl from Dorset from the same time period; and elements from Maud’s own traumatic past. Other characters include a good looking geriatric whisperer, an agoraphobic transsexual with an appetite for crime novels, and a slew of Catholic Saints who appear, emote, and opine at both appropriate and inappropriate times.

I love the writing — metaphors and similes that jar and then settle into being just right and lots of Irish swearing, Shakespearean in breadth. Some great lines:

“Mr. Flood salutes me with his glass and gives me the alligator smile of a TV-advert denture wearer: jauntily fraudulent.”

“Mrs. Cabello has quite then emotional range, from furious and distraught to angry and venomous.”

“The effect is oddly charming; it has something of an ancient misanthropic squirrel about it.”

About The Great Wall of National Geographics: “Each copy has been placed carefully, with aptitude and instinct, so that the whole has the arcane strength of a dry stone wall.”

The book got better and better as it went along — kept me up all night when I made the mistake of going to bed before finishing it! By the way, marketing has compared this with “A Man Called Ove” which I also liked, but frankly I don’t see much of a similarity beyond the fact that both centered around cranky, old, men. The similarity comes to an abrupt stop there. I found this one MUCH more interesting.

A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin

Thank you to Second Story Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of A First Around the Heart Side by Heather Chisvin, which will publish April 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 3 Characters: 3 Plot: 4

Quite the grand undertaking! This historical novel follows the fortunes of two young Jewish sisters who are sent to Winnipeg, Manitoba, from a Russian shtetl in order to escape the pogroms in 1881. Anna eventually makes her way to New York where, fiercely independent and with a strong social conscience, she becomes part of the birth control movement. Esther remains in Winnipeg, marries well, and yet continues to suffer from strange episodes of altered state and a (quite natural) obsessive fear of anti-Semitism. In 1942, where the “present day” is centered, Anna receives notice that Esther has died, apparently a suicide, just as she returned to Winnipeg from her last visit. Untangling this mystery, as well as the fog around their departure from Russia, is the loose driver of the book.

The story is intricate and rich — almost too rich as the narrative veers wildly between different time periods (and locations). There is a lot of history stuffed into their lives – particularly Anna’s as she participates in so many cultural trends over the 60 years. Historical episodes include the Bolshevik revolution, the assassination of Alexander II, the stock market collapse, the Dust Bowl, the birth of Avon, early feminism, bohemians, psychiatric methods, TB sanitariums, jazz music, the birth control movement, and “If Day,” a simulation of Nazi takeover in Winnipeg designed to help raise war funds held on Feb, 19, 1942.

While I wish the editing had been a bit tighter and the characters drawn with a little more depth, I found the story quite gripping and read it through pretty quickly. The descriptions of Winnipeg in particular were completely new to me, as were several of the stories from that time period in New York.


Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

#young readers (ages 8-12)
Writing: 4.5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4.5

This is one of those books that opens your eyes to a completely fresh perspective. Cora is a 12-year-old girl who is technically homeless.  Along with her mother and sister, she moves from placement to placement in South Brooklyn.  Some placements are better than others, and some almost begin to feel like home, but all are temporary and none is truly theirs.  They began this sojourn 6 years before when her father died suddenly of a too large heart.

Cora is a budding naturalist.  She carefully documents all the plants and trees she finds in each of the places they live, keeping note in her father’s field journal which she calls her “Tree Book.”  Through her observations and records, we are exposed to aspects of nature that I wouldn’t have known existed in these urban settings.  Frankly, I had never heard of the Red Hook and Gowanus sections of Brooklyn, and I was fascinated reading about them from within Cora’s story.

We also see a panoply of different people through her eyes: a new friend who lives on a houseboat and was home schooled for most of her life; an artist building a giant, slightly jagged, heart in an old warehouse; an old friend of her mother’s who lives a life of relative luxury near by; and her sister, Adare, who is “special.” Cora hates that word because “when it comes to Adare, nobody can get enough of the word special.” Adare was deprived of oxygen as a baby and is certainly different, but there is more to Adare than the label implies — she has a magical way of interacting with the world.

This is a real gem — one of the best young reader books I’ve read in a long time.  An honest and absorbing story about a young girl seeking to belong.  As a fun aside, in the acknowledgements, I found out that Sarno’s agent is none other than Rebecca Stead, one of my favorite children’s literature authors. An excellent recommendation!