When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (Literary Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

A crashed plane in the middle of the night in a small airfield in North Carolina. The dead body of a local black man is found nearby. A sheriff up for reelection in a week and very likely to lose to a younger man who is at the very heart of a good old boy network — to which many of the deputies also belong. And a daughter who returns home suddenly after the heartbreaking loss of her baby. These are the elements of this literary mystery.

The writing is very good in terms of the carefully crafted sentences and the sensitivity and depth of the main characters (Winston Barnes, the sheriff; his daughter; and to some extent Jay, the young black boy who is sent to live with his sister, the now widow of the victim). For me, the plot teetered between gripping and extraneous. Although the crime and the sheriff are front and center, this reads like literary fiction far more than crime fiction and the elements of plot that work to solve the crime are like sudden jagged edges introduced in spurts. I had a very hard time with the characters as well (other than the three I’ve mentioned). They were deeply stereotyped, reinforcing the dangerous divides our country is facing. Bradley Frye — property developer, running against the sheriff for reelection — drives a truck with confederate flags, calls black people the “n” word regularly, and has no trouble terrorizing the town. I also hated the ending — there was enough obvious foreshadowing that it was easy to see what was going to happen but somehow the sheriff didn’t. He behaved uncharacteristically, and I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers. The daughter theme resolves but had little to do with the crime plot.

I did enjoy much of the reading, but the ending and the stereotypes were such that I can’t recommend it.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on September 21st, 2021.

Come As You Are by Jennifer Haupt (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
An engaging family drama that bounces between the present (2002) and the teenage years of two best friend misfits from the Seattle grunge scene who managed to inadvertently make a baby. Zane and Skye are such well-drawn characters that I can’t sum them up with one-line quirk descriptors — suffice it to say that while they are appealing as characters, their depth exposes the intentions, confusions, mistakes, and self-doubts that all real humans experience. Definitely character driven, the plot nevertheless keeps up and holds together through episodes of grief, indecision, love, and growing self awareness.

Thank you to Central Avenue Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 1st, 2022.

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu (Science fiction audiobook)

The Wandering Earth contains ten, marvelously imaginative stories about humanity’s future, with China at the center (unusual for us Westerners to read and it definitely has an impact on the story lines).

The premise of each story is intriguing, and I never know where it will lead. I’m usually hooked by the first sentence which is very unusual — Cixin Liu is a tremendous writer, combining hard science fiction with individual reflection and massive socio-cultural settings and impact. Stories ranged from the rescue of the Earth from a dying sun to a simple malware virus turned into a death warrant for humanity to the results of capitalism run rampant (definitely a Chinese view on this one). One story embedded the author and a friend into a key point of the story with hysterical (and simultaneously sobering) results.

This is definitely a science fiction book written from a man’s perspective. The main characters (the ones written with such depth) are all men, and the few female characters fit stereotypes from the 50s — a little dumb, easily led, not a priority, and occasionally vindictive. It didn’t bother me — plenty of books written by women have only two dimensional depictions of stereotyped men — but it’s worth mentioning.

Liu’s political beliefs appear to align with those of the Chinese government which provides an interesting lens through which to read his stories. I believe this is the only Chinese science fiction translated into English that I’ve ever read. Ken Liu translated the Three Body Problem and did a beautiful job. For some reason I can’t seem to find out who translated this one but they, too, did a fantastic job.

The narrator(s) were a tad robotic at times, but that actually fits the stories well, and the reading speed was fast enough for me.

Thank you to MacMillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 12th, 2022.

Make Me by Lee Child (Thriller)

My book club is reading “Reacher Said Nothing” a book that follows Lee Child through the process of writing a Jack Reacher novel. Since I’ve never read one of the incredibly popular Reacher novels, I decided to read the one (Make Me) on which it was based.

Not bad — very clean writing, a sort of relationship (man-style — not much verbalizing of emotion but shown in action) — and plenty of action. Kind of a slow boil plot that eventually resolved into an unexpected (for me) conclusion. It was entertaining, though not really my kind of thing.

I did enjoy the guilty pleasure of vigilante justice — in the novels the bad guys are so very, very, bad, and it feels so good when Reacher just takes care of it — no long court trials, no rights …

Stay tuned for the review of “Reacher Said Nothing” in the upcoming weeks…

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves (Mystery / audio book)

This is the second book in Cleeves’ new Two Rivers series. The series is already slated to follow predecessors Vera and Shetland into (my) favorite British mystery shows.

An elaborately staged murder — the weapon, a beautiful piece of glass crafted by the victim’s daughter is the first murder to intrude on the idyllic North Devon countryside, but it won’t be the last. Detective Matthew Venn — calm and focused, works with colleagues Jen Rafferty (a now-single mom of two who left Liverpool and an abusive husband to come to Devon) and Ross May, a local boy.

I haven’t read any of Cleeves’ earlier books, but I have watched all of the mini series. What I really liked about reading (listening) to this one is how much depth her characters have. I liked that all the background and ongoing personal lives were integrated into the action — which after all is what life is like. I particularly liked that her characters have depth but are not overflowing with repetitive faults, as in so many of the newer TV series — I suppose that’s to make us readers / watchers happier about our own faults but I would prefer to engage with realistic characters who work to improve themselves than with screw ups who make me feel better about myself.

This was an audio book — the first I’ve ever reviewed. The reader — Jack Holden — was excellent. He read at exactly the right pace (so many readers are simply too slow), a lovely British accent, and good at doing the various accents and voices so that it was always clear who was doing the speaking. I’m not a huge audio book person — I read so fast that an audio book just takes far too long — so I’m very picky about readers and this is one I’d be happy to listen to again.

Complex characters, twisted plot, beautiful environment — I’m definitely going back to read book one and look forward to the ITV series.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Literary fiction / Historical fiction)


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

I love this book — it combines the humor and non-conformity of Eleanor Oliphant with the twisted and cleverly converging plots of John Irving.

Elizabeth Zott — master chemist — trying to do science in a late 50s / early 60s world that treats women as incapable, inferior, and irrelevant. Her experiences are kind of over the top IMHO — she gets hit with every possible thing that could happen to a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world — but the real story is what she does about it, so I accepted the 2D portrayals of the really bad guys and their machinations (and to be fair she gives a lot more page attention to truly good men as well).

The characters are wonderful — both quirky and deep thinking — and include Elizabeth, her out-of-wedlock genius child, Mad, (so named as a result of a miscommunication with a cranky nurse), and a dog named six-thirty whose vocabulary is expanding at a carefully tracked rate. The story is told from each of their perspectives — yes, the dog, too.

The plot and dialog kept me constantly hooked and included plenty of twists and turns as well as interesting philosophy discussions, opportunities for characters to rethink their assumptions, and very positive messages about what is important, practical, inspiring, and possible.

Also — and this is important to me — Zott really does love chemistry and there is plenty of real science included. This isn’t one of those (very irritating) books where the main female character “loves” some kind of science / tech field but spends all her time worrying about her love interest and giggling with her friends while shopping for the perfect dress. At one point Zott is running a cooking show based equal parts on the chemistry of cooking and female empowerment and those scenes alone are worth reading the whole book.

A lot of the plot relied on the bad people doing bad manipulative things which is not a favorite plot device for me, but again I forgive it because of how much I liked the characters and what they did. Funnily, I realized that this book gave me the same feeling of pleasure that I get from old Clint Eastwood movies — when the bad guys are so very obviously bad it feels great when they are brought down (albeit in this case without violence).

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 April 5th, 2022.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5 / 5 Characters: 4/5

Lit Hub lists this as one of the “22 novels you need to read this fall,” so I moved it to the top of my review list.

Willa is the bi-racial (Asian dad, white mom) daughter of parents who divorced when she was young and moved on to build new families. Somewhat adrift in New York City after finishing college, she falls into a live-in nanny position with a wealthy family and a precocious child and wonders what life would be like to be part of such a (in her eyes) perfect family. The story alternates between the present day and various experiences in Willa’s past.

What I liked about this book was the content-rich and easily flowing writing style and the high degree of reflectivity on the part of the main character. While at times it appeared to move slowly, that is a good reflection of how normal life proceeds, and I enjoyed the access to Willa’s mind as she slowly came to understand what was important to her and how she could make changes in her own behavior to make her life be what she wanted. I also liked the way the story focused on Willa as an individual and not as a representative of a particular group. It traces the impact of her various experiences (some teasing at school for being Asian, lack of attention in her broken home situation, etc.) without calling attention to an overly dramatic agenda. It’s a personal story of an individual.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 2nd, 2021.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Creative non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Coverage: ?? My enjoyment: 2/5

Bryson’s second book. This is the story of his hike on the Appalachian Trail.

This was my first and very probably last Bryson book. I love humor and had heard his books were hysterically funny. However, I found his humor to be quite mean spirited. Whether he was gratuitously making fun of well-known individuals (“the inestimably priggish and tiresome Thoreau” or Daniel Boone who “wrestled bears and tried to date their sisters”) or lambasting entire populations (every human in the South was portrayed as a variation of absurdly stupid and / or outlandishly obnoxious) — he rarely had a nice thing to say about anybody.

His writing is top-notch and I definitely laughed out loud at several of his lines, but after a while you get tired of listening to someone rant about how stupid, incompetent, and ridiculous everyone else is. Each chapter has some bit of history or doom like predictions about the climate, species deaths, or endlessly burning coal fires, and much of it was actually interesting. However, I got the feeling that his “research” consisted of browsing through some pamphlets and newspaper headlines (in 1996 the Internet was weak and puny) because he never delved into a subject, just dropped a few facts (all depressing) without ever going into the complexities of what is behind each and every problem.

He was paid to write this book and I don’t think his heart was in it. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t even come close to finishing the trail!

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (SF / Multi-cultural)

AO Oju has remade herself, literally, using cybernetics and AI augmentation, but in this Africanfuturism blend of technology with deep cultural roots, she is kept an outsider by people whose constant refrain is “what kind of woman are you?” On the run from a particularly disturbing engagement in the marketplace, she meets Fulani hersdman Dangote Nuhu Adamu (DNA), and together they set off into the desert, getting closer and loser to the abomination known as the Red Eye.

Written in Okorafor’s trademark mythical language, rich with pulsing sentiment, the story is an intriguing combination of the cultural and the technical. There is plenty of injustice and unfairness and big, bad corporations at the root of it all, balanced with wonderfully inventive technical solutions. I didn’t buy the science really, but as Arthur C Clarke famously said, “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” so …

An engaging read. Works for the YA and Adult SF market.

Thank you to DAW and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

Honor by Thrity Umrigar (Literary fiction / Multicultural)

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

Smita Agarwal is an Indian-American gender issues journalist who works hard to maintain her objectivity. Despite being Indian by birth, India is the one country she refuses to cover due to a long ago personal trauma that she has never really confronted. When a close friend is hospitalized and begs her to cover an important Indian story for her, Smita has no choice but to comply. The story is a tough one: a woman (Meena) whose husband was set on fire in an honor killing by her brothers is now bringing the case back to trial despite knowing that the outcome will not really help her in any way.

While the emotionally ridden story of the honor killing and precipitating events fills the pages, the real story is about the impact on Smita and Mohan — a well-to-do Indian man who took a vacation in order to help as her driver and translator — neither of whom are prepared for the ugliness they find.

This was a hard book for me to read. It’s written in a dramatic style that left me feeling constantly angry, frustrated, and hopeless (I am an emotional sponge type reader so these things hit me hard). The characters of Smita and Mohan were well-drawn — it was easy to identify and resonate with them as their reactions were similar to what mine would have been. The characters of Meena, her brothers, her mother-in-law, and her husband were more two-dimensional as though the author was trying to make sense of how uneducated villagers conduct their lives. It’s so alien to me that I couldn’t really “get” it, but let’s face it — it would be difficult for me to get it given my own, very different, background.

Good storyline — I like the way the author showed many good and non-abusive men in contrast to these utterly oppressive village men. At the same time she did a great job of showing how Mohan lived with an upper-caste and male oriented privilege and not even be aware of the advantages this conferred upon him. Also some wonderful descriptions of scenery and culture.

Worth reading but for me it became a “daytime only” book because it really put me in a depressed state that was not conducive to sleep.

Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 11th, 2021.