B.F.F. A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christie Tate

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5
This humorous and insight-rich memoir focuses on the author’s work on forming and maintaining female friendship — something that has been problematic for her for some time. The journey is immersed in the Recovery (12 step) world — a world I have no personal exposure to (except through the hilarious sitcom “Mom”) — but I found it pretty easy to pick up the vocabulary and principles. Despite that, I resonated a lot with her inner turmoil and suspicions and enjoyed the frank and honest way she progressed to a place where she could improve. It occurred to me that those of us who don’t have specific problems with any of the 12-step addictions could definitely benefit from the precepts and processes of these programs.

The narrative centers around a particularly strong friendship that she forms with Meredith and progress she makes with several previously close friends where the friendships ended one way or the other without resolution. I enjoyed her open self-analysis and her successes, and I liked the focus on friendships (one character pointing out that “All the tools for romantic relationships work for friendships”). There were parts that made me cringe and get judgmental, and that was instructional, too.

Some acronyms of recovery (new to me and I liked them):
KISS (keep it simple, sweetie)
ODAT (one day at a time)
FEAR (false evidence appearing real)
SHAME (should have already mastered everything)

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 February 7th, 2023

Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny (short stories)

Kathryn Heiny is a fantastic novelist, and I requested this book thinking it was a new novel. Slightly disappointed when I realized it was a set of short stories instead, I nevertheless kept getting trapped by the prose and the characters in each story until I found I had finished the collection in record time. While a few stories left me unmoved, most kept me interested and provided human behavior insight which is my sucker-point (as in I’m a sucker for narratives that include such). From a day in the life of a driving examiner at the DMV to a woman caring for her elderly father to unintentional affairs to pandemic inspired Migraine flairs, this collection hits a lot of human experience points. Fantastic writing, too. I’m including some of her more humorous lines, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time snorting with laughter as I read (apologies for the visual).

Quotes:
“Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it.“ (first line of third story)

“Your shirt is stuck to your back, your underpants feel like a piece of hot, wet, spinach, wrapped around your hips.”

“William had begun to worry that he no longer sparked joy in his wife and that she would give him to Goodwill.” (another story first line)

“Some people say time is like a river, but it’s really much more like an accordion, constantly squeezing you back to high school.”

“She resists the urge to shrug her shoulders, to flick the weight of his gaze off like confetti after a New Year’s Eve party.”

Thank you to Knopf and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 18th, 2023

Paper Names by Susie Luo (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 / 5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
I quite enjoyed this story which weaves together three characters: Tony, a first generation Chinese immigrant who gives up a prestigious engineering career in China for the promise of more opportunity in America for his descendants; Tammy, the daughter who “gets” to live his dream for him — Harvard educated with a promising legal career in a wealthy firm; and Oliver, a wealthy (white) lawyer with a very secret past, whose path brings him close to both of them.


I don’t agree with the book blurb: “An unexpected act of violence brings together a Chinese-American family and a wealthy white lawyer in this propulsive and sweeping story of family, identity and the American experience.” IMHO the “act of violence” — which happens fairly near the end — did serve as a forcing function for some essential reflection and self-reckoning, but it didn’t bring them together and detracts from the real meat of the story which indeed was about “family, identity and the American experience.”


I quite liked the characters and found them both realistic and individualized (no stereotypes!). I enjoyed the contrast between the first generation immigrant father and the second generation immigrant daughter. I found the expression of how each felt — about his or her history, opportunities, and values as well as the complex web of feelings and attitudes about each other — to be artful, genuine, and identifiable.

The chapters alternate between perspectives of the three and jump around in time. I didn’t find it difficult to keep track of the time (very appreciative of the chapter labels!)
There are a lot of Asian immigrant stories out there — I found this one to be more reflective, less stereotyped, and less over-dramatic than most. Definitely recommend.

Thank you to Ballantine, Dell and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link (Spec Fiction / Stories)

A set of modern fairy tales with an urban twist. Grimm style — brothers on quests, rescue missions to the underworld, etc. — but with more contemporary elements — a talking white cat who manages a Colorado marijuana farm, a faithful and persistent gay lover who tracks his husband to Hell, a post apocalyptic world where corpses provide protection against the terrorizing creepies. Well-written and surprisingly classic in nature. A lot of recent books seem to be modernizing existing fairytales but this one is absolutely adding new items to the Canon.

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 March 28th, 2023

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (Literary Fiction — audio book)

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

Matt and Beth are the “Hopefuls.” A young couple — Matt a Harvard trained lawyer eager to run for office and Beth a literary type earning a pittance at various writing / editorial jobs. They move to D.C. shortly after Obama is elected, Matt having worked for the campaign and eager to get into politics full time. When their best friends (Jimmy and Ash) decide to move to Texas to run for the coveted role of Railroad commissioner (hint: apparently has very little to do with railroads!), Matt and Beth go with them, Matt running Jimmy’s campaign. Jimmy is a democrat running against a well funded Republican — in TEXAS — so to say it is hard going is a bit of an understatement.
Beth is the narrator, so the point of view is far more focused on relationships (among all four of them) than on political strategy. She is quite observant, and the unfolding story is full of the kind of nuance and detail that makes people so interesting (and irritating and in this case — a bit whiny for my taste).
The writing is excellent, the story completely believable. My big problem — I did not like any of the characters. None of them were bad people, but they were not people I would have wanted to spend any time with. None of them. Matt was super intelligent and focused but clammed up when he was frustrated, and he was frustrated a lot. Beth didn’t do anything. She was so passive that I wanted to kick her.
Listened to it on audio, and the reader was excellent. The slower pace (I read very fast) really showed off the detail that I might have missed, and the reader really “got” the emotions in the narration. But it also meant a longer time dealing with characters who were irritating me!!

Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman (Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Norman’s books always make me happy. I love his characters — each one individually. They all live in imperfect worlds but make things work for them. They each think about what they want and can offer. They all have interesting personalities. I would be happy to spend time with every single character in the book.

Billy Perkins — cardigan wearing piano teacher with a prodigious knowledge of all music and an old time crush on the wild drummer from a briefly successful girl rock band who disappeared from sight nine years ago after a flame out on MTV. Margot Hammer — aforementioned drummer. And a bizarre, wonderful, somehow completely believable love story between them. Featuring a sprinkling of strong male and female characters, self knowledge, and relationships not focused on damage or drama, but on just figuring out what you want and can offer. And lots of music. All set down in Norman’s straightforward prose and great dialog.

I loved every minute of this book. No weak points. No filler. And a lovely ode to nice guys.

Thank you to Ballantine, Dell and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

No Two persons by Erica Bauermeister (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3/5
An interesting premise — in the first chapter, Alice Wein writes, and manages to publish, a deeply felt book, drawing on her own emotional experiences. It is titled “Theo.” Each of the next nine chapters (extending over a number of years) is a story about an individual who interacts with the book in a way that has a significant impact on his or her life: the Assistant who discovers the manuscript, the actor who narrates the audio book, a blocked artist, a driven diver, a deserted teenager, a bookseller, a ghost town caretaker, an intimacy coordinator (my favorite), and a book agent.

Each story is deeply personal; several brought tears to my eyes. While I didn’t find the book depressing, many were quite poignant. As the stories continue, we learn more about the book itself from it’s opening line — “wandering is a gift given only to the lost” — to succinct summaries of its development and denouement. Kind of clever embedding a book within a book without actually having to write it! I did find one story trite (I won’t tell you which — it may not feel that way to you!)

I greatly prefer novels to short stories, so I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t really a novel. On the other hand, I read them all (I often stop after the first few in a story collection). Bauermeister is a lovely writer, and the characters have real depth. And I have always liked the concept of books and how subjective each reader’s experience is. As an aside, I also really like the cover!

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 2nd, 2023

Summer’s Gift by Jennifer Ryan (Romance)

Funny story. I selected this book to read and review because I thought it was written by a different Jennifer Ryan — the one who specializes in WWII Home Front stories that I love. Who knew there were two? I figured out my mistake about 20% in. This book is a Romance novel — full of physically beautiful, successful and wealthy people — not a bomb or make-do attitude in sight.

Still — although Romance is definitely not my genre — I kept reading. While there was literally nothing realistic about the characters, I found them likable (despite all their money and good luck, they were pretty grounded and decent) and felt quite happy when things worked out (that’s not a spoiler — all Romance novels work out — that’s the point! )

The writing was fine, I liked the characters, and while parts of it got a bit repetitive, I appreciated the strong messages about responsibility, good communication, and being kind without allowing yourself to become a piece of marshmallow fluff that people can trod on with impunity.

Thank you to Avon 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

On Sarpy Creek by Ira S Nelson (Historical Fiction)

A hidden gem, this book was a bit of an adult Little House on the Prarie for me, following a tiny farming community in Montana from ~1920 to 1932 — through droughts, bank failures, and the ever present vicissitudes of rural life.  I loved the clean style — everything was so real and so matter of fact — there was no need for inserted drama or pointed narrative.  Instead , we are treated to the details of every day life with a window into the values, sense of duty, and struggles of individual characters.

Written in 1938 (and reprinted in 2003), there are none of our modern sensibilities subtly (perhaps unintentionally?) inserted into the sense these people had about their own lives.  It brought out for me the stark difference between life then and now — with absolutely no safety net outside of what your (few) neighbors might be able to provide.  Local Indians feature in the story and the engagement is nothing like the stereotypes I grew up with, nor are they like the updated pictures we like to paint today. We see different relationships created and evolving and once again the interactions between men and women don’t exactly follow stereotypes either past or present, but we are privy to people’s thoughts and reactions. Every person and interaction is both realistic and individual. 

I found it hard to put down (except when the smaller print drove me to rest my eyes).

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake (Speculative Fiction — Audio Book)

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

Mixed feelings about this one. A kind of combination of Hunger Games and Divergent. Six very powerful magicians (Medeans) — each with their own very particular kind of magic — are recruited to join the Alexandrian Society with power and secret knowledge offered to those who manage to be initiated. With one small hitch — one out of six will not be allowed to make it.

Pros: Some very interesting world building that blends philosophy, psychology, and a version of physics which embeds magic at its core. Really interesting description of reality and how it is perceived. Each of the six, with their own backstory and strength, adds a nice twisted spin to the way we think about things.

Cons: I found the characters and dialog pretty adolescent. Plenty of arrogance, and amused smirking, and competition as to who can adopt the most superior tone. Blah, blah, blah. Most are greedy for power for their own sake while I greatly prefer reading about people who are motivated by achievement and / or relationships.

And the biggest “con” of all: a complete cliff hanger at the end which I loathe.

So … entertaining for the most part, some cringeworthy and tedious introspection and sparring, and an irritating cliffhanger at the end. The second book just came out a couple of months ago, so if you’re interested, you won’t have to wait for the cliffhanger to be resolved. While I didn’t love it, this is a VERY popular title!

I listened to the audio book which had different (and good) readers for each of the six main characters as aligned with the chapter which centered on them.