Dreams of Arcadia by Brian Porter (Literary Fiction)

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

A gentle book about an East Texas veterinarian who leaves Houston (and the end of a disappointing marriage) for the rural lands of his father’s youth. The main character is very human and very relatable — he is supported by a whole array of well depicted and quite real people from the individuals in the small town to his many relatives, most of whom he hasn’t seen in years (or has never actually met). There is quite a bit of description of the landscape, the real (and brand new to me) day to day big (and small) animal vet cases and procedures, and his own internal thought processes. As he works to solve the little (but critical) every day mysteries that populate his profession and interpersonal engagements, he is able to find a place for himself that feels (finally) like home. I particularly liked the solution to the issue of one family’s ailing cows when no diagnostic test could turn up any problems. I won’t give it away here!

Thank you to Legacy Book Press LLC and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 27th, 2023

Harold by Steven Wright (Literary Fiction?)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters : 2/5
A deeply interior book with constantly catchy and cerebral writing. The narrative purports to be the thoughts of an obviously gifted and unusual seven-year old boy, primarily while he is sitting in a classroom absolutely not paying attention to the woman in charge. Harold has “tangent festivals in his head” — what a great way to put it! While I’ve read other interior novels, they often seem to focus on neuroses and over thinking, while this one is focussed purely on imagination.

I very much enjoyed the writing and the constant stream of bizarre and connected thoughts — my own brain works that way and it was fun experiencing someone else’s stream. Every thought in Harold’s head presents itself as a well-depicted bird flying through a rectangle in his head. I liked the imagery. However, to be honest, I did get a little bored with the book about half way through — the novelty wore off and I began to notice that Harold’s thoughts were more bitter, superior, and snide than comical (yes, I realize that that is the very definition of comedy for some people, but not me). I also started realizing that there was a fair amount of misogyny — his thoughts on his mother, the young, pretty girl he is obsessed with (Elizabeth), and his teacher are all pretty negative in stereotypical ways. For example, on Elizabeth: “Said the pretty very very smart, blonde girl who years later would send several men to their emotional deaths.”

A couple of good quotes:
“Harold loved living in the circus in his head. He saw his mind as a soup made up of a mixture of what was on the inside of his head and what was on the outside of his head. He considered himself a brain chef.”

“Harold thought that an echo was audio plagiarism.”

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 May 16th, 2023

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams (Historical Fiction)

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

Another book by Pip Williams — author of The Dictionary of Lost Words — about an element of The Oxford University Press (aka Clarendon Press) during the early 1900s. While Dictionary focused on those working to compile the OED, Bookbinder focuses on those working in the physical production of the books.

The eponymous bookbinder is Peggy Jones — a young woman who is working in the “Bindery” — the all-female component of the Press, which focussed on folding and preparing the pages of books. There is an absolutely fascinating 1925 silent video titled “Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book” which really helped me visualize Peggy’s work.

Peggy has been working at the Press with her neurodivergent (my term, not the way it is described in the book) twin sister since the age of 12 (they are now ~22). She has always wanted more — she longs for an education, longs to read and have opinions on the books she is folding — but feels that is impossible for someone of her background. She reads bits as she folds (watch the video — you’ll see how difficult that is), and the canal boat they live in is literally papered with scraps of books that did not meet quality requirements, but certainly meet hers.

The time period covered spans WWI — from 1914 to 1918 — with Peggy’s quest for “more” tied in with opportunities at the Press, the fight for women’s suffrage, and her volunteering with recuperating soldiers and Belgian refugees — all arisising from the upheaval of everyday life. Williams did an excellent job of bringing this time period to life, I was able to feel all the complex emotions of that insane time in a manner that felt very time appropriate.

I found the beginning a little muddy and confusing, but once I got into it, I very much enjoyed the story — particularly the vibrant and believable characters: the twin sister, some of the refugees, the canal community, and various suffragists, librarians, and female students. Every one was drawn deeply and was a person I would want to know. I also loved the details of how the Press was run, women’s colleges (which at the time were not allowed to confer degrees), access to libraries, and classical study. And of course, the ultimately successful effort of a woman from the “wrong side of the tracks” to attain an education and make more of herself.

Two interesting quotes:
“When we bound these books, I thought, they were identical. But I realised they couldn’t stay that way. As soon as someone cracks the spine, a book develops a character all its own. What impresses or concerns one reader is never the same as what impresses or concerns all others. So, each book, once read, will fall open at a different place.”

“The words used to describe us define our value to society and determine our capacity to contribute. They also … tell others how to feel about us, how to judge us.”

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 August 1st, 2023

Toward the Corner of Mercy and Peace by Tracey D. Buchanan (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Minerva Place, church organist, piano teacher, and long time resident of Paducah, Kentucky. Relatively crusty with a deeply suspicious nature and a dislike of personal interactions of any sort, Minerva does have one angle in her life which is quite engaging: she often visits the local cemetery, finds an interesting gravestone, researches the person portrayed and … is often visited by the spirit of that person who sets her story straight. Newcomers to the town — engineer Robert McAlpin and his seven year old, somewhat undisciplined son, George — appear on her doorstep requesting piano lessons. From this set of characters the story follows three separate lines simultaneously: the current day, the slow unfolding of Minerva’s person history, and the elaborations of the lives of the cemetery denizens, injected with Minerva’s imagination to fill the blank spots. There is personal growth and a real shift in Minerva’s life — however it comes rather slowly, and I admit to skimming a bit at the end. I really enjoyed Minerva’s creative stories about the historical figures interspersed in the narrative, but too much of the story focussed on shame and guilt (for my taste) and took too long to get to a (weakly) positive resolution.

Thank you to Regal House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 20th, 2023

Not the Ones Dead by Dana Stabenow (Alaskan Mystery)

Number 23 (!) in Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series. I must have gotten distracted because I missed the last two — I’ve read all the others, though.

I like this series because Stabenow invests in a deep background on all aspects of Alaska — the scenery to be sure, but also the lifestyle, politics, local industries, and the individuals who call it home — native Americans, born and breds, and recent immigrants. I love the details of a ranger’s life, the local businesses, and the Native Aunties who seem to run the show.

This particular story involved a highly stereotyped group of White Supremacists — which I could have done without — but I enjoyed every minute of the twisting plot, the investigative action, the characters, and getting to live in Shugak’s world for as long as it took me to read.

Thank you to Head of Zeus — an Aries Book and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023

About People by Juli Zeh (Literary Fiction)

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

Dora — a 36-year old advertising creative — thinks a lot. It doesn’t necessarily make her happy, but the stubborn core inside her makes her bristle at any hint of absolute truth, absolute authority, or socially enforced groupthink. Her long-term boyfriend, Robert, has become obsessed with climate change, steadily ramping up his insistence on (her) behavior modification to meet his right-thinking absolutes. When Covid hits, he retargets his laser focus on lockdown adherence and becomes unbearable in close quarters. Dora escapes to a dilapidated house in a small village for a breath of fresh air and finds herself in an AfD (right-wing German populist party) hotbed with the self-proclaimed Village Nazi as a neighbor. Thus begins an unasked for opportunity for a deeply introspective and stubbornly think-for-yourselfer to contemplate existence, humanity, and the nature of moral certitude while the world goes nuts around her.

Had I known anything about the author when I picked this book up, I wouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by how good it was — Zeh is an award winning German author and former judge. I realize that I haven’t kept up with European authors at all in the last decades. The writing / translation is excellent. Through a widely variable set of characters — her rigid climate activist boyfriend, the neo-Nazi next door, her highly confident (veering on the arrogant) neurosurgeon father, advertising colleagues, and a slew of village denizens — Zeh is able to cover a wide range of viewpoints on both specific hot topics (e.g. climate change, covid) as well as general socio-political attitudes towards life.

I loved this mildly satirical look at the way we humans cope with life — “mildly” satirical because it didn’t feel unkind to me. We all have our weaknesses, biases, rationalizations, and expectations and figuring out how to accept that ourselves and others seem like one of the more important problems to tackle. I appreciated Dora’s stubborn insistence on doing her own thinking and doing a lot of it. I loved the way explanation and depth was present in every argument, regardless of the character spouting it. It helped me to (surprisingly) be able to empathize with all of the characters, not just the ones I liked.

There were a lot of great quotes — here are a few:

“She follows the rules and regulations. But her thoughts remain free. Nobody can force her to view the beer drinkers outside the Spatis as treasonous public enemies.”

“What happened to the old certainty that there are no absolute certainties, which is why everything needs to be doubted, debated, and thought about? Dora couldn’t understand how Robert could feel so completely certain his lifestyle was so superior. She just didn’t follow.“

“The era of endless self-pity and constant complaining, JoJo will say. When everyone is always offended, afraid, and feels like they’re in the right. What a combination.”

“Take away the possibility of escape, and every refuge turns into a prison.“

“That sense of superiority is a long-acting poison that devours all humanity from the inside. “

“Then life prescribed her a neighbor. A nazi behind a wall. He was ugly and he stank. If he had been a product, he would’ve gotten only one star in the customer reviews on Amazon.”

“She’s often wondered what, exactly, lies behind this racism-triggered stiffness. Maybe a quandary. A series of impossible either-or decisions: Be a moralizer, or be a coward. Follow your convictions, or society’s expectations — or go for a third option and follow your aversion to conflict.”

“Everyone’s busy being interesting and important. And successful, of course, in both their professional and their personal lives. It’s a rat race of conformists outcompeting one another to come across as something special, someone different.”

“Of course there’s no law stating that neo-Nazis can’t appreciate hydrangeas. But it’s a jarring notion nevertheless. It poses a threat to the life-affirming yet mistaken idea that good and evil can easily be distinguished from one another.”

Thank you to World Editions and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 3rd, 2023

Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge by Helen Ellis (Memoir / Essays)

My first Helen Elllis book, though there are many. Laugh-out-loud funny “memoir” in essays written by a completely neurotic (and completely typical IMHO) New Yorker of a certain type and class. I like that all the snark is pointed (in a loving way) at herself and not at others. I also love that I get to both laugh and read about an actual happy marriage at the same time. Humor is the best lens through which to see the world if you can manage it.

Great storytelling, some insight and evolving personal understanding, but mostly just funny and not stupid. The stories do not feature lovable f-ups which is wonderful because, honestly I never find f-ups that lovable and don’t enjoy reading about them. Think of this book as a kind of more articulated and less curated instagram series. So much more depth! So many more laughs! A modern Nora Ephron.

Just a few funny quotes to give you the flavor:
“I gasped the kind of gasp that leaves your face looking like a cornhole board.”

“Papa likes to say, ‘your mother is such a good audience, she listens to a waiter list the specials like she’s in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert.’“

“My husband can’t lie. The man is less animated than a documentary on soap.”

“I wear my heart on my sleeve like a grenade. I wasn’t put on this earth to walk on eggshells. The world is my western omelette and everyone in it is diced ham.”

“I want to wear make up so heavy it exceeds JetBlue‘s carry-on limit.”

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 13th, 2023

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5
As with all of Schine’s writing, this is (at least) a two for one story. It is the story of identical, red-haired twins who — across their lifetimes — are simultaneously striving to bind tighter around each other and struggling to separate. Both fascinated by words and grammar, they take residence in diametrically opposed viewpoints on the nature and purpose of language. Daphne is writing a popular grammar column called “The People’s Pedant” , while Laurel cobbles together stories from phrases sampled out of old letters. As a child, Daphne collects words she likes, even if she has no idea what they mean, while Laurel looks them up and can’t understand the pleasure of a word without meaning. Daphne wants language to be correct, Laurel wants language to grow and be what people actually speak opining that “standard English is really just the dialect of the elite.”

We watch the two diverge in a kind of novelistic time lapse photography accompanied by constant wordplay (which I loved). As the twins grow older, we watch them dive into their love of language and watch their brains shifting with their observations. They love finding obsolete meanings in dictionary listings because “Obsolete meanings were treasures of infinite value and no use.”

Each chapter begins with a word and definition from Johnson’s dictionary circa a very long time ago. These are both fun and historically enlightening as you get a real sense of how language continually evolves. Some examples: Conversableness (the quality of being a pleasing companion; fluency of talk); Scrine (a place in which writings or curiosities are reposited); Collectitious (gathered up); Oberration (the act of wandering about); Genial (that which contributes to propagation); Citess (a city woman).

Everything is quotable. Schine has the best grasp (and obvious love for) language. I learned so many new words: fugacious (fleeting), diplopia (double vision), privity (private communication, joint knowledge), and my favorite — edacious (eating; voracious; devouring; predatory; ravenous; rapacious; greedy). And while we are enjoying the deep dive into all aspects of the beauty of language, we do so in the context of prose that is intricate in the nature of depicting full personalities in all their complexities and seeming incongruities. It’s simply wonderful to read.

“In an aquarium-like glassed-in enclosure, a tall woman and a short man shook their fists at each other, silent behind the glass, like exotic fighting fish.”

“There is something fair and just in what we do. Grammar is good. I mean ethically good. If you think of all these words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.”

“Grammar makes you respect words, every individual word. You make sure it’s in the place where it feels the most comfortable and does its job best.”

“It was so draining, worrying about finding love, as if it were an upcoming exam.”

“Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.”

“But Michael suspected Larry was as smart as anyone, just not paying attention. Like a Galapagos tortoise, he had no need to pay attention. He had no predators. He was protected by an expansive carapace of good nature, money, and family status.”

“The little girl with the hair that surely harbors a large bird of prey gave her an astonished look. It was not a look of astonished liberation, as Laurel momentarily hoped. It was a look of astonished pity.”

“They played with the words, as if they were toys, mental toys, lining them up, changing their order, and involving them in intrigues of love and friendship and bitter enmity.”

“Arthur had never understood how someone so humorless could claim to uncover the secrets of another person’s soul.”

“What is a soul if not a repository of the absurd? Expectations, disappointments, grievances, good wishes.”

“And Brian smiled and thought families were not so bad. They were like these pigeons, cooing and puffing up and scrapping for crumbs. Like every other kind of creature.“