Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Personal Enjoyment: 5/5

Sweet, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny — and this is a book about Alzheimers. I didn’t think that sentence was even possible!

30-year old Ruth quits her job in San Francisco to move back home (Southern California) to help with father —a prominent history professor father (Howard) who is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimers. Written in a journal style (short, dated, segments over a year), the entries slowly morph into a set of notes addressed to her father describing their days together — a mirror of the delightful notes he had addressed to her about their time together during her childhood.
Ruth, her brother, and her mother all have their own issues to deal with — breakups, infidelity, betrayal — but the focus on helping Howard helps them in unexpected ways: Ruth finds herself more forgiving, and more understanding of the frailties of the people around her. The story abounds in kindnesses, both large and small. Instead of focusing on the loss, they are able to reestablish the love and connections that bind them into a family, with this new (or old) version of their father. A beautiful, and insightful, line: “Sharing things is how things gets started, and not sharing things is how they end.”
Well-written, fun to read, full of odd factoids and observations, and really touching insights into what relationships (of any kind) are really about.
Great for fans of Weike Wang.

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019 — in 2 days!
Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Karen McManus is the Liane Moriarity of the YA set, writing gripping thrillers with characters that draw you in immediately and hold you fast.

California twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran find themselves in Echo Ridge, Vermont, living with a grandmother they barely know while their single mother Sadie dries out in rehab. Echo Ridge has a haunted past — it was the place Sadie’s twin Sarah disappeared 20 years ago and more recently the place that 17-year old prom queen, Lacey Kilduff, was killed in the aptly named Murderland theme park. And the haunting doesn’t seem to be restricted to the past…

Populated with well fleshed out, multi-generational, townies, the story is told in alternating voices: Ellery is a True Crime fanatic and invents crazy scenarios faster than they can be discounted; Malcolm Kelly is the younger brother of Declan Kelly, Lacey’s boyfriend at the time of her death and thought by many to be responsible for the crime.

It’s a story full of suspicion and trust, new friendships and old understandings, standard teen stuff and very non-standard teen stuff, and lots of tangled and tortuous plot twists. As with her last book — One of Us is Lying — I didn’t figure it out until the very end.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

(translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

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

An odd book about an odd woman who is trying to survive in a world she finds confusing. As a child, she proposes eating the dead bird found in the playground. This seems practical to her, as her father loves yakitori and she can’t see the difference, but the other children and mothers are appalled. She never manages to get more “normal” or accepted than that.

When she gains part-time employment as a convenience store worker at 17, she feels reborn — a successful part of the “machine of society.”  19 years later she is 36, still in the same part-time employment, and has never had nor wanted a sexual relationship. She tries to be normal, mimicking facial expressions, manners of speech, and even clothing items from those around her, but she is getting messages that it is still not enough. So she tries something very, very, different.

This is a book about conformity and fear of expulsion from the herd — a Japanese version of Eleanor Oliphant, The Rosie Project, or The 600 Hours of Edward. The author did a good job of getting us inside Keiko’s head and there are some masterful portrayals of other characters as seen through her eyes.  I always appreciate a book that can describe the world through a differently structured brain.  I liked the ending — it wasn’t a typically happy ending (as in the books I just mentioned) but it was an ending that was happy for Keiko.

2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 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. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — 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.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — 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.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (F&SF)

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

Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (three are available to date) is every bit as good (if not better) than book one. I wouldn’t mind a (non-invasive) peek into Sanderson’s brain because his ability to world build is better than any I’ve seen. The variety and depth of the cultures that populate these worlds is overwhelming — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

While volume one reads well as a stand-alone (no cliff hangers), volume two does take up where it left off (by the way, I waited one full year before reading the second book and had no trouble remembering the characters or world — it was that vivid). Words of Radiance brings the storylines of the three main characters closer together as they each muster their own internal resources (and develop unexpected capabilities) to tackle the danger that faces Roshar. Dalinar rises to the challenge of refounding the Knights Radiant in spite of overwhelming and devious opposition of all the other High Princes; Kaladin contends with his own bitterness, mistrust, and divided loyalties in his new leadership position as most trusted personal guard of the King and family; and Shallan — meek supplicant scholar in book one — develops in every dimension possible to become absolutely essential for the preservation of the human race on Roshar.

Plenty of action and tension, strong moral and ethical themes around honor, blame, responsibility, and doing what is right. Great character development — the heroes make sometimes drastic mistakes and have inner as well as outer demons to fight while the villains are often motivated by similar values but conflicting needs and situation assessments. There are more answers — and more questions — on some fundamental concepts of the world such as the Spren, the Void Bringers and the Desolations. Sanderson is a master at introducing other cultures by way of natural storytelling rather than long descriptions. As an aside, I love the division of labor between males and females: females are the scholars, scientists, and engineers; males are the warriors and politicians. Reading is considered too feminine for most men. Crossover happens — some people are scandalized and others couldn’t care less. A fun twist on gender assumptions!

My favorite line: “Do not let your assumptions about a culture block your ability to perceive the individual or you will fail.”