Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Jared is a bot. Engineered from human DNA, he lives a productive life as a dentist in Ypsilanti, Michigan and is deeply programmed to serve humans. Until one day … he starts to have feelings. Thus begin his simultaneously hilarious and yet poignant adventures as he heads to Hollywood to write a screenplay daring to portray bots as beings deserving humane treatment and not the “killer bots” that comprise the bulk of modern cinema.

The social commentary is priceless as Jared struggles to make rational sense of human behavior. Jared’s “voice” as a developing character is so appealing — his way of expressing surprise, disbelief, and acceptance is incomparable. He refers to himself as a “toaster with a heart.” Bots are the new underclass in this world because after all — they aren’t even human. While the journey is comic (laugh out loud funny much of the time), there are plenty of deep things to think about: What makes us human? What should our relationship with other beings be? What kind of “programming” do we humans have of which we are not explicitly aware?

In some ways this reminded me of Vonnegut — the speculative and humorous extrapolation of today’s social mores — but with a little more depth in terms of human (or bot) experience and how we treat others. As fun additions, there are some great descriptions of classic movies (without titles) that are fun to see through Jared’s eyes (and try to make the identification), some fun screen-writing tips, and all the details of a futuristic road trip adventure.

I won’t give away the ending but I loved the way the author embedded an intricately layered set of foreshadowing and self-referential plot twists.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 1st, 2020.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (Fiction)

A sweet story of compassion and benevolence. The style starts in a tongue-in-cheek, paternalistic manner and transitions to a kindness-conquers-all happy finish. It’s a bit of a fairy tale — both in terms of the happy ending and the oversimplified set of troubles with which the story begins — but it is uplifting and poignant and brought me to tears several times with the beauty of specific human moments.

The (self-stated absolutely ridiculous) story is about a bank robber. Sort of. Said robber only asks for 6,500 kroner but makes the mistake of going to a cashless bank … and somehow escapes into an apartment viewing, inadvertently taking hostages. Lots of things tie together in a twisted but essential way as we get to know all the characters, how they evolved into the state they are in, and how they will continue to evolve (more sanely) in the aftermath.

Some very interesting twists of gender expectations which I both enjoyed and found fascinating.

I found the initial chapters depressing and was irritated with the avuncular (and often second person) style. A very clear ultra-liberal message — everybody makes mistakes, it’s OK to blame society (and especially the money-grubbing banks) for everything that is wrong in your life, and if everyone is simply kind to each other, all our problems will be solved. There is one character — an economist / senior bank official — who spouts a defense of capitalism and responsibility, but it turns out that she is suffering from a trauma that has led her to withdraw into that opinion, and she “sees the light” by the end of the book. I find that kind of annoying and oversimplified, but I admit to really enjoying the book!

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 8th, 2020.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (Fiction / Speculative Fiction)

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 14th, 2020.

Writing: 3.5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4/5

A gritty, detailed and yet expansive, story about the evolution of a top (fictional) pop band (Utopia Avenue) in late sixties London. From obscurity to fame — raw talent discovered, initial deals, touring, and the bribery / flirtation / whatever-it-takes approach to getting the music played. The four main band members come from different backgrounds and blend different musical strengths: Dean — an “angry young bassist” specializing in R&B; Elf — a “folk-scene doyenne”; Jasper — a half Dutch “stratocaster demi-god”; and Griff — a Yorkshire jazz drummer.

A lot of dialog and description is devoted to describing the music itself and the music business. For me personally that was less interesting — I love listening to music but don’t translate writing about music to music itself well — but for those who do enjoy discussing and thinking about those topics there is plenty available.

He did a good job of bringing that musical time to life. Many famous musicians pass through these pages with mini appearances that appear true to recorded history: David Bowie, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa all make realistic cameo appearances. We spend time with the band at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. All the aspects of their world comes out — family issues, possible mental illness, drug use, the “offsprings” of philandering, and philosophies.

Mitchell’s books are sometimes hard to read. They all develop slowly and the writing style is a little more stream of consciousness than I like, but somehow I’m drawn in, and by the end I’m completely in the grip and continue to think about the emerging holistic picture afterwards. As an aside — and it’s a weird aside — one thread of this novel ties in with characters (beings?) that are elements of at least two of his previous works. It’s really just a thread here but this book fits squarely within the Mitchell universe which is not completely founded on the reality most of us share.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Fiction)

Thank you to Doubleday books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons (Fiction)

Plot: 2 Writing: 3 Characters: 3

This is a new entry into the recent spate of novels which begin with a cranky, bitter, oldster and end with a heartwarming celebration of life.

Eudora Honeycutt is 85 and is planning to end her life with the aid of a Swiss clinic. In alternating chapters we witness her life’s transformation into one worth living and the historical events that brought her to the situation: alone and calmly planning to end her life.

The best character in the present story is the irrepressible 10-year old girl who moves in next door and befriends Eudora. That character draws the reader in and makes the book worth reading. The other characters are friendly and pleasant but not (for me) very believable. I had more trouble with the historical sections — it’s a long, sad story that is told without nuance so that it is too easy to think of obvious alternative choices Eudora should have made.

It’s a feel-good book with a strong pro-people, pro-friends, pro-life message full of caring neighbors and social workers.  For me it crossed the border into saccharine and cliche but it was an easy, light, read with some funny and poignant bits.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 8th, 2020.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Memoir)

I loved this memoir — I expected the good writing, but I did not expect it to be so engaging (starting at page one and continuing throughout). I particularly liked the fact that it was a real memoir — very personal, often poignant, and focused on experiences and insight rather than a political agenda (which is what I was expecting).

Obama has a real talent for observation and introspection. She provides just enough detail and commentary to fully describe events without ever belaboring the point (or going off on unrelated tangents). She described race and gender issues from her own experiences without using them to tee up soapbox lectures. Instead, she focused on what she encountered, what impact things had on her, and what she personally tried to do (often successfully, sometimes not) to introduce more fairness in the world. She didn’t belabor the points, and I appreciated that she didn’t appear to stick to a straight party line. For example, she was part of a Gifted and Talented experiment at her elementary school — which was fantastic for her. She pointed out that people have claimed this is an undemocratic approach. With a few short sentences she managed to present both an opposition and an example of a positive personal impact without drawing conclusions or even stating an opinion on the issue.

It was fascinating to be able to share in her experiences: growing up on the South Side of Chicago, falling in love, having children, going through political campaigns, and of course being the First Lady. Never petty, never gossipy, the narrative always felt honest. Obviously, nobody writes a memoir to make themselves look bad, but I found some pretty honest analysis of why she made certain decisions, what she regretted, what she worried about.

For those who are hoping for another Obama presidency, it’s clear after reading this book that it is not to be! Michelle made it very clear that she has ideas and energy around the issues, but not around the politics in which they are embedded. I’m with her 100% on that one.

This book is inspiring and enlightening and intriguing. I’m sorry I put off reading it for so long.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals by Becky Mandelbaum (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

After a false start I ended up loving this book — it just got better and better. Kansas. An animal sanctuary. The nature of home, love, forgiveness, and understanding.

Mona runs the “Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” in rural Kansas with a single devoted employee on a shoestring budget. Her daughter Ariel left years ago to find a life of her own but is drawn inexorably back when news reaches her of a deadly fire at the sanctuary.

I almost stopped reading after the first chapters. Trump has just been elected, and the sanctuary fire is set by what appears to be a stereotypical “bad guy” (think swastikas, racists, Fox News). Not my kind of thing. Instead, the story delves into the people and all the connections between them. It looks at how personal histories (both good and bad) shape people and how each individual has to continually work to understand their own motivations, mistakes, and desires. The writing is excellent, depicting life in a (poorly funded) animal sanctuary in vivid detail — the animals, the work, the squalor, the caring.

The plot is unpredictable, all of the characters are engaging and fully fleshed out, and the environment is intriguing and very real. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:
“…how unfortunate it was that they didn’t kiss the way humans did, how they could never really hold a loved one in their arms. So few animals even had lips.”

“…because caretaking seemed like the only reasonable occupation in a world that needed so much care.”

“She had always admired this type of woman — women like her mother, like Sunny — who naturally exuded authority. They navigated the world with confidence, looking for things to improve, whereas Ariel moved through the world on tip-toes, expecting someone to reprimand her, to tell her she was doing something wrong.”

“Out here, we have to work with nature. It’s our boss. Our livelihood. Out there, people see nature as this dying thing they need to protect — this thing totally separate from themselves, from the world of people.”

“The animals are weird at night. You’d be surprised how many of them are awake — like they’re all dressed up and ready for church.”

“Maybe that’s the ingredient they’d been missing all along — the ability to say the squishy stuff other families had no problem tossing around.”

“Even in the moments of greatest anger, behind the flames there was always love. If anything, love was the air that stoked the blaze.”

“It seemed both absurd and unjust, that murdering animals made you rich while caring for them made you poor.”

“You know, my mom used to have this saying. She’d say ‘Mona, sorry is like a sponge. You can use it to clean up your messes, but the more you use it, the dirtier it gets.’”

“Dex would catch her looking at him, a shimmer of contempt in her eyes, as if his penis alone had engineered the electoral college.”

“It was something she’d noticed since the election: everyone was eager to dole out little kindnesses wherever possible, as if, deed by deed, they might tip the scales of the world toward goodness and restore some measure of order.”

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct 7th, 2020.