The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (Fiction)

Characters: 3 Story: 4 Writing: 5

Another wild ride from Lisa Lutz. The setting: pervasive sexual harassment at a New England prep school and the girls who decide not to put up with it any longer. The boys at Stonebridge have a long standing practice of ranking the girls’ sexual prowess on a secret web site. It’s been going on for years, handed from one head boy to the next and tacitly approved by an administration that seems to know all about it.

Alternating between four first-person perspectives, Lutz’ hysterical and sardonic writing puts us in the heads of four characters: Ms. Witt, a new teacher who is appalled by what she sees (and who feels like my favorite — Izzy Spellman — with a new name and career); Mr. Ford, a long-time teacher who is writing a novel based on the school; Gemma Russo, a scholarship student hiding her background from the others; and Norman Crowley, the weak, guilt ridden, webmaster who supports the secret website even though he hates everything about it. Lots of other fun characters — newby Linny who takes matters into her on hands in delightfully inventive ways; Claudine Shepherd the bitter librarian; Martha Primm, the world’s worst guidance counselor; and Greg Stinson, the well-meaning but completely inadequate Dean of Students.

The female characters are well-developed; the male characters are stereotypes — like the old madonna / whore dichotomy, the men in this book are either evil or weak and ineffectual. I did enjoy one section where Gemma tells Jonah (one of the weak and ineffectual variety) that he is sweet — maybe too sweet. He responds that it is hard to know how to be a guy and that he was always confused. A small tip of the hat to how the new “norms” of behavior can be difficult and confusing for men. Ms. Witt takes the education of the girls in hand when she creates the Blowchart — a cartoonish flowchart that helps a girl understand when she should give a guy a blowjob (spoiler alert: the chart leads to “No” a lot more often than it leads to “Yes”). I have no doubt that this graphic will spread rapidly on the web once the book is published.

It’s over the top and lots of fun to read, if not totally plausible. Plenty of good messages exhorting girls to take matters into their own hands and not succumb to pressure or tradition.

Great quotes:
“The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.”

“I have a visceral memory of our fight to the death over the title. It feels like a migraine in my solar plexus.”

“She got up close to the coffeepot and was watching the drip, like a kid staring at her pet goldfish.”

“I also have a few strong and well-documented theories associating personality disorders with specific tie knots.”

“He looked exactly like I thought he would. Shaggy blond hair, skinny, with Mr Potato Head lips and a nose that should have been on a girl.”

“Having a marginally intelligent teenager regard you with superiority can put a man into a deep psychological trough.”

“Some people count sheep. What finally sent me to sleep was cycling through possible job alternatives in alphabetical order. For soporific purposes, you can’t leave anything off the table. I fell asleep sometime after carpet installer”

“Shame is cunning. Even if it doesn’t come from a rational place, it sticks. But that doesn’t mean it’s real.”

“You can keep telling girls to be polite, to keep a level head and it’ll all work out in the end. But don’t be surprised when they figure out that you’ve been feeding them lies. Don’t be alarmed when they grow tired of using their own voices and playing by your rules. And don’t be shocked when they decide that if they can’t win a fair fight, they’ll just have to find another way.”

The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman (Fiction)

Plot: 5 Characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

A taut thriller and (ultimately heart warming) family drama all in one.

Alice and 10-year old Oren are running away from an abusive man. A call to a hotline sends them to Delphi, NY where they are taken in by Mattie. Mattie is a spinster living in a decaying mansion who puts all of her time, energy, and money into The Sanctuary. Alice is highly suspicious of all do-gooders; Oren is a boy who seems to always know things he shouldn’t.

I’d forgotten how much I like Carol Goodman — she is a fantastic writer. The story is paced perfectly, with completely unpredictable twists and turns. No cliches or stereotypes (with one exception — see below)! The story of domestic abuse, the social structures and people who try to help, and the attitudes and interactions of the participants have depth and variety. I liked the balanced views — not all abusive relationships are the same, not all the male characters are scumbags, and not all the social workers are competent or effective.

Big themes are woven throughout — Justice; Vengeance; Forgiveness. Goodman has a Classics background and that figures in as well — Greek mythology keeps popping up, and I particularly liked the story of Orestes, Athena, and the Furies as the introduction of the concept of Justice replacing Vengeance in the scheme of human affairs. Lastly, the feeling of a ghostly presence lends an otherworldly quality to the story.

The only part of the book that didn’t quite work for me were the two nasty, abusive men. They are the only two characters whose behavior and dialogue felt like stereotypes rather than real people. I guess Ms. Goodman really didn’t want to be in their heads any longer than necessary. However, this was an issue in only a tiny fraction of the pages. This was one of those books that is almost impossible to put down (although due to the tense nature of the story I didn’t let myself read it too close to bedtime!)

Highly recommended!

Some quotes:
“I’m a woman on the wrong side of fifty, back where she started, with no way out but one.”

“Some people look up at the night sky and see random scatter, others read stories in the chaos. That’s what I do when I adjudicate a case. I make sense out of chaos.”

“She looks up when she reaches the shelter of the porch, and there’s so much anger and resentment in her eyes that I flinch, I’ve seen that look in abused women, that look that doesn’t just expect the next blow but says, I know I deserve it. But I’ve never gotten used to it, or liked how it made me feel, that little split-second flicker of Maybe you do.”

“But at some point I catch a satisfied smile on Oren’s face and realize that here is a child who takes on the weight of the emotions around him by playing the peacemaker.”

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (Non-fiction)

A blow by blow depiction of the sensational rise and fall of Theranos — the health technology startup founded by 19-year old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes in 2003. Her compelling vision: small devices that could perform hundreds of blood tests on a single drop within a short amount of time. For over fifteen years, she was able to convert this vision into big money (over $400 million raised) and big political connections (her board boasted big-name political enthusiasts such as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn) without any real breakthrough technology.  The scandalous story included strong-arm intimidation techniques on recalcitrant employees, drastic legal actions and threats against just about everyone, and general lying, cheating, and gross incompetence.

Easy to read and well-researched — the story is all based on interviews and depositions — and written by the man who first broke the story in the Wall Street Journal. While interesting, it’s not as cohesive or complete as it could have been and was completely one-sided. While that side is probably the correct side, I would have liked to at least hear what the other side said. However, what I’d really like to know is probably unknowable: Was Theranos always a scam or did the over-confident and over-encouraged Holmes really think she could do it, only falling into abhorrent behavior when things did pan out as expected? How did big partners such as Safeway and Walgreens agree to invest millions without any due diligence? What were people thinking as they got suckered in or were they thinking at all?  Why did Channing Robertson,  Stanford Professor of Engineering,  keep advocating for her when he of all people should have known better? (It’s just possible the 500k annual consulting fee might have something to do with that.)  The author does suggest a few answers. My favorite: “Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that momentarily forced people to suspend disbelief.”

For those wanting to know where Holmes is now: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a26810723/elizabeth-holmes-now/.

Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum (Young Adult)

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

16-year old Abbi Weinstein is known to the world as “Baby Hope” — she was the one-year old birthday girl clutching a red balloon fleeing the towers in the arms of a day care worker in an iconic (fictional) photograph from 9/11. Noah Stern is obsessed with that photo because he holds the secret hope that one of the background figures is his father, presumed dead. Both hail from Oakdale, New Jersey, a fictional town loosely based on Middletown, New Jersey, with the dubious honor of having the largest number of 9/11 fatalities outside of New York City. Together, they slowly put together the missing pieces from that day, and the ongoing impact ripples on the people affected.

Despite the subject matter, this is an uplifting book. It’s full of humor, friendship, and love as well as a lot of heartfelt and sob inducing stories. It is a way forward from tragedy, not a hopeless and depressing fixation on it. I like YA fiction because somehow the issues are clearer — less muddied by the accreted neuroses and mental sluggishness of age — and I am able to learn more easily from it.

I think Julie Buxbaum is brilliant — I love her characters and her humorous, banter-rich, prose. Each of her books focusses on real and difficult issues — and helps the characters work on making sense of the world and their place in it. This book is easily the best of all — I read it in one sitting. The stories woven together were touching, personal, and inspiring. I sobbed through a lot of it, but finished feeling centered and hopeful.

There are so many great lines in this book — here are a few:
“I think our stories are actually what make us people. We each have a history… Stories are like the … currency of connection. And all your stories woven together might tell some larger story about the history of our country from that moment to now.”

“I was fashionably late to the existential panic party.”

“She’s the one who gave my mom her stoicism. In my mother it takes on a cheery perversion, but my grandma is all strong, clean lines, when it comes to the difficult stuff. She’s stating a fact, true words without any sentimentality.”

“My mother has always liked to outsource our difficult conversations. It was my dad, not her, who sat me down last spring and asked if I’d be interested in going on the pill.”

“Well, the good news is that awkward phases help with long-term personality development.”

“All it takes is a tiny, inexplicable tear in the fabric of the moral universe.”

Abbi’s grandmother is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimers — this is what she tells Abbi: “You know what I think about sometimes? I think about how all the little bits of me that I’m losing will somehow find their way to you. Like they are … what’s the word … tangible. Like they are tangible things that can crawl from my bedroom to yours and so as I become less me, you will become more you, and I will continue to march on within you when I’m not me anymore. You’re going to keep growing. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Life can really suck, right? So why not make it at least a little bit fun whenever we can? I mean, think about it. There are few things that a well-timed joke can’t solve.”

“Pretty much everything about being in high school is embarrassing. Not only the hours spent jerking off behind locked doors, the days cooped up in windowless classrooms — not to mention the greasiness of it all. I’m talking our very existence. We are a reminder to grown-ups of how far they’ve come and how much further they wish they could go.”

“When you have a kid, it’s like letting your heart walk around outside your body. You never get used to it.”

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction / Mystery)

I’m a big McCall Smith fan — I like the ethical foundations of and philosophical ruminations in all of his books. This book marks the beginning of a new series which differs from his other three in two primary ways: the action takes place in Sweden (as opposed to Botswana and Scotland) and features a male protagonist.

In general, I don’t like the result when a writer chooses to write a main character of a gender opposite the writer’s own — it’s a personal thing — but for some reason I love McCall Smith’s female leads. Isabelle Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe are the kind of women I like — perhaps because they blend an emotional sensitivity with a strong rational thought process that resonates strongly with me. Ulf Varg — the senior policeman of the titular Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority — has a very similar personality, albeit clothed in a man’s body.

Ostensibly about “sensitive” crimes (a knife attack on the back of a victim’s knee, the disappearance of an imaginary boyfriend, a spa owner subject to apparent werewolf fits…) the stories primarily revolve around the ethical dilemmas we all face in everyday life. The characters have arcane interests (such as Nordic Art) which in typical McCall Smith style are presented in ways that spark an interest where none was present before, and the action is propelled forward by the intriguing and detailed flow between their rich interior worlds and the physical world around them.

A good read — I don’t know that the Swedish environment has been presented with the same depth as the Botswana and Scotland environments had previously, but then this is only book one. On the other hand, nice to read a Swedish mystery that isn’t steeped in horrifying scenes (e.g. the Dragon Tattoo books — yuck!)

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Story: 3.5/5 Historical depiction: 5/5

In 1933, Violet Speedwell is one of the many “surplus” women — women for whom there simply are no men, WWI having depleted the stores. This quiet, slow-paced, and yet utterly engrossing novel follows the 38-year old Violet as she slowly makes an independent life for herself without the availability of traditional options.

Leaving her home in Southampton and her embittered and critical mother, she takes a low-paid typing job and a room in a boarding house in nearby Winchester. It is there that she becomes drawn into the community of Cathedral Broderers who have taken on the task of producing the Cathedral embroideries (360 kneelers, 62 stall cushions and 96 alms bags). I am in no way “crafty,” but I found the description of the entire effort, from overall design, to process, to individual effort to be fascinating. As one of the volunteers (also a Latin teacher) says, “sic parvis magna — from small things, greatness,” commenting that these may be the only mark they are able to make on the world. I liked the fact that the lives described may have been “small” by modern dramatic standards, but were rich and full of meaning to those who lived them.

There is more: early forays into independence; friendships with other women who have not made conventional choices; beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the region; and some utterly fascinating descriptions of bell-ringing (did you know that in campanology (bell ringing) a “Peal” is a pattern of bell ringing that goes through 5,000 changes without stopping and can take over three hours? I did not. Don’t forget — each bell is pulled at the precise time by an actual human being.)

Excellent historical fiction based on real events and organizations and beautiful writing that stays true to the mores and habits of the period.

Thank you to Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

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

Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.

Our heroine is January Scaller, and the time is ~1900. January is a motherless child of indeterminate color who lives with her father’s employer, the kindly and wealthy Mr. Locke. By comparison, January is told she is “quite improper, willful and temerarious” — temerarious quickly becomes her favorite word :-). However, no thing or person is exactly what they seem in this deliciously complex story that weaves together intricate stories across time and multi-world space.

The Doors represent Change — as January’s father explains it: “Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned… Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified and storyless.” But not everyone is enamored of the “change” the Doors represent, and someone or something is working hard to close them all down, ostensibly to maintain order and bring Progress and Prosperity to our world (but mostly benefiting themselves).

A number of memorable characters step in to help or hinder including: Mr. Locke and his slightly unsettling Archeological Society; Samuel Zappia, January’s only “non-fictional friend;” Jane Irimu, sent from East Africa by way of a predatory Leopard people world by January’s father; and Adelaide Lee Larson “ born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude,” whose epic love story begins when she meets a ghost boy in an empty field at 15.

Speculative fiction is often used a vehicle for discussing difficult topics through the guise of “other worlds,” and this book is a thinly veiled portrayal of the perception of Change as necessary (liberals) or as something to be feared (conservatives). While I personally favor liberal policies, I don’t appreciate the over simplified and highly stereotyped cabal of rich, white, men that are literally out to rape, pillage, and destroy the happiness and life potential of everyone else. Well-written fiction can feel so real that it is easy for stereotypes like this to be perpetuated without the reader’s conscious awareness. So … great writing and a tremendous girl-power adventure — but a little heavy handed on the definition of the “bad guys” for me.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.