The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

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

A family drama steeped in a colorful Punjabi travelogue.

The three Shergill sisters reluctantly make a summer pilgrimage to India to fulfill their mother’s dying request. Plodding through an extensive and detailed itinerary, each is simultaneously dealing with a personal crisis she is unwilling to share with the others. Hyper-responsible Rajni is reeling from the discovery that her 18-year old son has vowed to marry a woman twice his age; Wild Jezmeen is suspended from her role as DisasterTube host due to an unfortunate interaction with a highly sensitive Arowana fish (the fish didn’t make it); and Shirina, who arranged her own marriage to a traditional Indian man and his controlling mother, has a particularly distressing secret mission for the trip.

Good writing with some interesting and topical social commentary. I consider it chick-lit — disasters are all successfully avoided and it willingly supplies the mandatory happy ending. The family is Sikh and there was some information on Sikh heritage, practices, and monuments, though not as much as I would have liked. It did spur a quick Wikipedia check which I found useful and interesting.

Many of the story threads address different issues faced by women in this region of India and traditional Sikh communities around the world. These affect the story in multiple ways, though primarily from the outside (our heroines are second generation British immigrants with little identification with their Indian heritage).

Overall an interesting read.

The Flavors of Other Worlds by Alan Dean Foster (SF)

This new collection of short stories is classic science fiction. Updated for modern times in terms of access to social media, etc, it nevertheless focuses primarily on old themes: how would human beings react and adapt to new situations.  Stories range from alien takeovers so subtle that nobody notices … to a dangerous addiction to knowledge… to a way of channeling the aurora borealis for unlimited power… to the reaction of a colonized world that is none too happy about receiving the “benefits” of a conquering race (us).

Each story is prefaced with a note from the author about the origins of the story — these are almost as interesting as the stories themselves. The writing is concise and clear — reminiscent of, well, Foster himself — the guy has been around for a long time! Like a lot of good science fiction, the stories allow us to think about many of today’s issues in the guise of “other” worlds, people, and cultures. A nice addition.

Chronicles of a Radical Hag by Lorna Landvik (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 4.5

When 81 year old columnist Haze Evans (the titular “Radical Hag”) slips into a coma, the local paper in Granite Creek, Minnesota decides to reprint selected columns from the last 50 years until she can start again. Always uncensored, these columns range in size and topic and bring history (both local and global) back to life in a personal way. The entire community relives events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma bombing, the Exxon Valdez spill as well as the meeting of her lifelong best friend, her short but loving marriage, the birth of local quadruplets, etc.

The characters in the novel are wonderful and run the gamut from newspaper publisher to RV salesman to nurse with assorted retirees and high school students thrown in. Each handling his/her own concerns while working towards his/her own definition of a good and decent life.

I loved the way the characters spent time *thinking* about what they were reading in the columns and engaged with those with differing opinions. One high school teacher instituted “Radical Hag Wednesdays” where students discussed column-instigated topics. In other conversations, the impact of #metoo style accusations on young boys, or love, divorce, and adultery were discussed — all with depth and a desire for understanding rather than condemnation. An artfully done blending of “homespun wisdom” with open minds.

I’ve been a fan of Lorna Landvik since her 1995 Patty Jane’s House of Curl. Her writing is simultaneously humorous and heartfelt, thought provoking and tolerant, touching on real people dealing with life in a real way.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J Lockington (YA)

A coming-of-age story for 11-year old Makeda. Opening on the road as she and her family are relocating West for her father’s new job as Principal Cellist in the New Mexico Symphony, we quickly learn that she is a black girl adopted into a white family shortly after birth. She both wonders about her birth mother and struggles with ongoing (and annoying) reactions of those around to her. People are constantly commenting on “how white she talks” and persisting with queries about where “she is really from” (even though the answer is simply “Atlanta.”)

Told with a mixture of prose, poetry, and tumblr posts with her best friend back in Baltimore (also a black adoptee in a white family), we get an up close and personal look at one young girl’s transracial adoption experience.

The writing is very good and the details of Makeda’s thoughts and feelings are incredibly perceptive and well-expressed. It’s important to remember that the book is completely focussed on Makeda — her perceptions, her memories, her hopes, and her experiences from her perspective. As an older white person (not the target demographic here), I cringed at the description of her mother — the absolute stereotype of a guilt-ridden white liberal. When it becomes clear that her mother is mentally ill — she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in the book — her whiteness and mental illness kind of blend together. Makeda’s experiences at her new school and a girl scout troop were also blatantly racist, without any compensating non-racist encounters which I found disappointing.

On the whole I found this worth reading — it felt authentic and certainly broadened my perspectives in a number of ways. I wish there had been a slightly more hopeful path at the end, but of course that is not the whole story.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 30th, 2019.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (Women’s Fiction)

A feel-good, heartwarming, story about the unlikely relationship between a woman whose husband died just as she was (literally) leaving him and a star Yankee pitcher who “loses his stuff” in a spectacularly public way.

Well-written with great banter, an array of likable characters, and plenty of humor. The premise is plausible enough and I enjoyed the social commentary and details of every day life in this small town on the mid-Coast of Maine. There is a lot more depth to the characters than is usual for a women’s fiction offering of this sort.

The author is the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast — I haven’t heard of this (I’m not a big podcast person), but I like the title, and I can guess that this explains a lot about the great character interactions!) Interesting to note that in two of the primary families, it is the mother that left, leaving the father to raise the children alone. I’m noticing a trend of this kind of gender role swapping which is always interesting!

One small annoyance for me personally — a (pretty humorous) diatribe on the part of one character about a woman who was destroying their book club because she wanted people to actually read the books and didn’t accept that book clubs were just for socializing. I am that woman, and I stand by my demands!!

Great for fans of Kristan Higgins.

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 June 25th, 2019.

Terminal by Marshall Karp (Police Procedural)

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

There are some book series that you keep reading simply because you have already invested so much time in them you just feel you have to keep going — this is NOT one of those series. Every single one of Marshall Karp’s Lomax & Biggs mysteries fall in the standalone, great entertainment category. Half-comedy (laugh-out-louds on every page), half-mystery (complete curve balls every couple of chapters), and half-character driven novel (yes, I’m aware my math skills look sketchy here but just go with it), these are my go-to “let me have an entertaining and engaging read” books.

Opening with an hysterical scene where Mike Lomax dressed (sort of) in a hospital gown gaping open at the back while he chases a shooter in a medical complex, this fifth installment of Lomax & Biggs tackles Big Pharma. Someone is recruiting terminally ill patients to knock off specific Big Pharma execs as their final act and it’s up to Lomax & Biggs to figure out the why.

In addition to the regular cast of wise-cracking characters (all of whom I’d be happy to have in my life), we have a couple of new additions. My favorite: Eli Hand, recovering rabbi who chose the medical field least likely to have complaining patients (pathology) — after his experience at the synagogue he referred to as “Temple Beth Oy, Do I Have a Problem.” I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

You can start this series anywhere, but I’d start with number one — The Rabbit Factory.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (Crime / Mystery)

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

An unusual crime drama — Atkinson’s fifth about Jackson Brodie, former policeman and soldier turned Private Investigator in Yorkshire. Brodie has your typical gruff exterior, and his personal life is in a perpetual, confusing, shambles, but he is a self-appointed White Knight. He has an eye for the predators in the world (and his world is full of them), and he feels a responsibility to potential victims everywhere. He will not rest — paid or not — until he is sure that everyone is safe.

The story is dark — as are all of Atkinson’s stories. This one revolves around human trafficking in myriad forms. The style is interesting — while Jackson is a familiar (to us) character, he is not the center of a single investigation. Instead, he is a player in a tangled web that includes various past and present strands of a set of ongoing and horrific crimes that eventually come together and are resolved (in a very satisfying way). While not in any sense a cozy, neither is it a nail-biter (important to me as I don’t like to purposely stress myself). The writing style is interesting. It appears muddy — with constant tangents and sardonic asides — but really is just a true-to-life depiction of the way people think. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective (all third person omniscient) so we are treated to an inside, tangled, look at what they are thinking, obsessing over, worrying about, hoping for, leering at, and feeling guilty about, simultaneous with what is actually happening in the scene. We get real insight to so many of the characters in this fashion. Oddly enough, my favorite character is Crystal, the clean eating, “trophy wife” of a husband she really doesn’t know that well, with a hefty (secret) past of her own.

Lots of plot lines that tie together (perhaps a little too neatly) at the end. What appears chaotic and confusing at the beginning comes together in just the way it would if you were dropped in to the story with an apparently small job on the periphery (as Jackson himself was). It did feel like the rapid closure of the many wiggling parts was a tad too hasty. This was an early access copy so perhaps that will be evened out before publication.

Thank you to Little, brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 25th, 2019.