Homecoming by Kate Morton (Literary Fiction)

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

A dual timeline story in the Adelaide Hills (Australian Outback). In 1959 an inexplicable tragedy occurs with a nasty, but generally accepted explanation which is never actually proved. In 2018 Jessica Turner-Bridges races back to Sydney when the grandmother who raised her suddenly takes ill. A free lance journalist, Jessica gets obsessed with the 1959 story which she has stumbled on and which — it turns out — is closely related to her family.

Vivid writing bringing to life the surroundings and individual, interconnected stories. Good pacing continually introduces new stories and sources that shift your understanding at the same pace as it does for Jessica. I kept thinking I knew what had happened but was continually surprised. There was a little more scenic description than I like (I’m not a visual person) but I was able to skim those sections if they got too long. Plenty of drama (but not melodrama — the events were dramatic but the characters got on with doing their best and didn’t descend into wailing and teeth gnashing). It was difficult at time knowing in advance what happened (and that is is awful) and watching the narrative slowly unfold to explain the details. On the other hand, in a weird way it is less stressful knowing the end as there is no way to avoid it.

Some beautiful commentary on books and reading and a nice array of literary and cinematic references. Some genuine and insightful reflection on loneliness, community, motherhood, purpose, identity, and the impact of events on a wider assemblage of persons than might be suggested by the event itself.

Thank you to Mariner Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 4th, 2023.

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz (Speculative Fiction)

A new world with only 1,000 more years of terraforming left before becoming a human paradise;  a set of (remarkably long lived) “rangers” whose job is to terraform and protect the fragile environment; a money hungry (is there any other kind?) mega-corporation intent on capitalizing their investment a little early; and some “people” who were created to survive in the original (non human breathable) environment but shunted aside once the world could support “standard” human life.  This is the setting in which Newitz can explore just about every PC hot button that exists:  rich vs poor, a**hole right wingers vs right thinking lefties, eco sustainability, and the (more interesting)  sapient beings of all forms who have been decanted (created) in richly formatted  types — full sensory remote beings, flying moose who can text but not speak, and humanoid beings who can live in harsh (ie no breathable atmosphere) climates without technical support.  Plenty of gender/sexual preference diversity as well.

It’s well imagined, with lengthy descriptions of the world and diverse cultures that I really enjoyed.  Quite a lot of action and a little heavy on the (obviously) good guys vs (more obviously) bad guys front, and a little long winded on the battle / intrigue / angst for my taste, but overall some very interesting commentary and exploration of what it means to be human — especially when you have been “created” for specific (and not your own) purposes…

Thank you to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 31st, 2023.

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Five women find each other amidst the oppressive dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s. Together they manage to find and buy a small shack in a lonely coastal town where they can be themselves without fear, where they can blossom into themselves. They are “cantoras” or “women who sing” — a euphemism in this case for women who prefer women. Flaca, a relatively masculine butcher’s daughter; Romina, a Jewish refugee from Ukraine; Anita, renamed “La Venus,” a housewife who can no longer bear the standard life she is expected to lead; Malena, a schoolteacher with a hidden past; and Paz, the youngest at 16.

Following the individual and collective stories of these women through the long dictatorship and through the first years of recovery was far more captivating that I had expected. Based (I believe) on many interviews with people who had lived through this time period, the author really captured the experiences, feelings, and reactions of individuals without going overboard on the drama. I’m always appreciative of an author who recognizes that the subject can speak for itself when properly depicted without resorting to melodramatic finger pointing. Woven together in the narrative is the general persecution of people during an oppressive regime as well as the more generic persecution of homosexuals (in truth this persecution seemed to be more cultural and not actually related to the dictatorship, though the book jacket links the two together). The writing was full and descriptive, doing an excellent job of depicting the sensuality of the lesbian relationships and the pervasive tumult of feelings — fear, joy, worry, exultation — resulting from living through the period. I liked the reflection of each character as she considered her life and the larger situation into which she had been born. And her decision as to how she would participate — enjoy what she has? Take chances by working with those willing to rebel? Hide — either physically or culturally?

I learned a lot about Uruguay — I’m probably not alone in simply being unaware of this aspect of Uruguayan history. While not mentioned in the story, the all-knowing Wikipedia claims the 1973 coup that brought in the military was backed by the U.S. (I’m guessing to stop the perceived Community insurgency). Separately, the gradual opening of the culture to homosexuality, culminating in the 2013 right to same-sex marriage (the third country to do so in the Americas after Canada and Argentina), was also depicted through the stories of these women. The narrative brought together these two concurrent themes well — the book felt quite real.

A few good quotes:
“Histories tend to grow richer with time, gathering details as they pour down generations.”
“That the silence of dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now—all of that is layered and layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe. For many people it is too much. In Paraguay we have seen it. And so, here, none of you should carry the blame.”
“Furniture gave slow birth to itself: a table started as a plank on four stacks of bricks, then became a slab of swirled driftwood, found on the beach and dragged back home, cut, placed over the bricks at first until the attempt began to hammer on legs and to sand the knots and whorls on the top into a more even surface.”

A Death in Denmark by Amulya Malladi (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 3/3 Characters: 3/3 Plot: 3/3

I believe this is Malladi’s first detective novel (I’m far more familiar with her literary novels which I’ve liked very much). Gabriel Praest — her Danish detective — is a dapper ex-cop, part-time blues musician, and avid quoter of existentialists. An ex-girlfriend (the one who got away), asks him to clear her Muslim client of the brutal murder for which he has been convicted. The racism that has helped lead to his conviction is paralleled in the link to the Nazi murder of a particular group of Danish farmers and the Jews they were hiding during WWII.

This book may work for some people — plenty of interesting (though disappointing in that I thought the Danes were one of the few countries that valued and helped their Jews) Danish history, a look into modern Danish life (which is new for me), and a main character who has all the hallmarks of the brash, tenacious, undauntable PI with some modern trappings such as a flair for dressing, tight connections with both the under and over world, and (of course) relationship problems. He didn’t work for me — too many cliches and nothing particularly deep or insightful. The writing is decent but a lot of time is spent on political agendas and maneuverings while the rest is spent on describing clothing, interior design, and details of every day Danish living that don’t particularly interest me. Lastly, a lot of the writing was of the “tell, don’t show” variety, so long explanations of what happened when, but with no action and somewhat stilted dialog. To be fair, there was a lot of action in other parts.

I really loved her book “The Sound of Language” which I remember giving a genuine feel to the story of an Afghan refugee settling in Denmark. Obviously, this book is a detective novel which tends to be written differently, but I miss the good characterization and pacing of her previous works. This book didn’t work for me as either a literary novel or as a detective story, but it may work for others who like thrillers and more canonical hero types.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 28th, 2023.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5
A transposition of Dickens’ David Copperfield from Victorian England to Hillbilly country (the Appalachians). Damon (quickly nicknamed Demon) Copperhead is born to a drug addled and largely unconscious single mother in a rickety trailer. Kingsolver’s first line (getting us right into Dickens territory): “First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was in hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.” From this point, the book proceeds for 560 pages documenting the story of this one lovable and very lost boy through a childhood of poverty, foster care, addiction, and loss.

The writing is detailed, heart felt and persuasive — almost too much so as the absolute unfairness of almost everything that happens to Damon is described in such detail and with such clarity on his resulting feelings, it is literally hard (for me) to keep reading. His character is so complete and so genuine that you feel helpless watching him get crushed time after time by people and situations that were not of his making.

Aside from the emotional toll this book took on me, the storytelling was superb, with real depth ranging across a whole slew of people and situations. If you can squeeze out your emotional sponge and put it somewhere out of reach, you’ll love this wild storytelling ride. Some real insight into what it would be like to grow up in this environment.

Thank you to Harper Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 18th, 2022.

Maybe It’s About Time by Neil Boss (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
A book for our times, this book tackles the Covid era through the intimate stories of two very different people who meet by chance and end up having a surprising impact on each other. Marcus Barlow has everything money can buy, but hates almost every instant of his existence. He works for “The Firm” which is a Dilbertian take on management consulting. It all sounds over the top, and the language is heavily laced in satire, but having lived this myself, I know it’s not terribly exaggerated!. Claire Halford has literally nothing money can buy as she hasn’t any money — only two small children and an STI gifted to her by her adulterous (and now long gone) husband.
When Covid enters the picture — first as a scary whisper and later with a terrifying bang, both characters (along with Marcus’ family, Claire’s neighbors, and Gavin — Marcus’ friend and Claire’s social worker) — are tumbled along in its wake.
There is not a single cliche in this book, despite the fact that the plot could easily have descended into any of the multiple opportunities for banality. We watch each person — from the main characters to the many supporting characters — navigate the confusing, overwhelming, and stressful landscape of lockdowns, shortages, and sudden deaths. As we watch, the taxing times give rise to surprising self knowledge and hidden depths of kindness, compassion, and the desire to behave ethically, despite the discomfort inherent in doing so.
As an aside, the book had a great “soundtrack” as Marcus played different tunes to support his moods (I recognized and liked every one). Also, excellent descriptions of food from multiple tables — from the over-the-top meals for Partners at The Firm, to high end bachelor cooking, to children’s meals cobbled together from discount tins, to vegan meals offered to the unenthused. The author also managed to show empathy for many situations without descending into blame or broadcasting heavy handed social agendas and he spiced the entire book with plenty of humorous and dead accurate social commentary. Very good writing — reminds me of David Lodge who is one of my favorite British authors with the same kind of precise, intuitive writing.
Highly recommended.

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty (Literary Fiction)

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

A low-cost housing complex (The Rabbit Hutch) in a dying small town in Indiana, a set of disconnected neighbors, and a build up to a freakish act of violence that somehow weaves them together. It’s a bizarre and convoluted story that races from humor to creepy and back again without a second thought, culminating in an act that brings all the loose strands together. The writing is stunning (see the quotes below), the wildly diverse characters rendered in full technicolor detail with ongoing and minutely documented social commentary attached to individual observations. The characters: a lonely online obituary moderator, a young mother with dark thoughts, a 70ish couple decidedly not keeping up with the times, and a group of four teenagers who have aged out of the foster care system, including Blandine who is seeking meaning in the writings of the mystics — Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century in particular.

It’s brilliantly done, bringing psychology, philosophy, and reflection to bear on the ways all of these people trying to make sense of their own lives. The author has a pointed ability to see into the motivations, experiences, and fears of those who appear rather anonymous on the outside. From the mystics to sexual grooming to isolation to the environment to the effects of noise pollution (my favorite) — the book was intellectually interesting and humorous in places, but — I admit — overall had a doomed, hopeless feel. I made it a “daytime only” read. However, I did not find the end depressing — I think that is important to note, and I wish I had known that ahead of time!

New words (for me):
Misophonia — People with misophonia are affected emotionally by common sounds — usually those made by others and usually ones that other people don’t pay attention to. The examples above (breathing, yawning, or chewing) create a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape.
Balayage: a technique for highlighting hair in which the dye is painted on in such a way as to create a graduated, natural-looking effect.

A few quotes, but there are a million more…

“Joan apologized three more times, then returned to her seat, feeling evil. As usual, when she confronted the world about one of its problems, the world suggested that the problem was Joan.”

“…the cackles and squawks of three tween girls overthrow the words on the page, infuriating her. They sound like chimpanzees. Just when Joan thinks the tween cackling will stop, it gets louder, engulfing her flammable peace along with the compartment.”

“Tiffany is insecure, cerebral, and enraged. Pretty in an extraterrestrial sort of way. Addicted to learning because it distracts her from the hostility of her consciousness; she has one of those brains that attacks itself unless it’s completing a difficult task.”

“She did bring a book, but she wasn’t reading it, just bullying the ink into sense.”

“And then on top of that — weaponzing a person’s isolation — it convinced every user that she is a minor celebrity, forcing her to curate some sparkly and artificial sampling of her best experiences, demanding a nonstop social performance that has little in common with her inner life, intensifying her narcissism, multiplying her anxieties, narrowing her worldview.”

“It’s moments like these when Joan fears she is a subject in some elaborate, federally funded psychology experiement.”

“She feels like a demanding and ill-fated houseplant, one that needs light in every season but will die in direct sun, one whose soil requires daily water but will drown if it receives too much, one that takes a fertilizer only sold at a store that’s open three hours a day, one that …

“They are elite, climate controlled, dentally supreme.”

“Frequently, Hope wondered what it would be like to vacation in her cousin’s psychology.”

“She always knew that she was too small and stupid to lead a revolution, but she had hoped she could at least imagine one.”