The Writing Class by Jincy Willett (Mystery / Fiction)

The first of the Amy Gallup series. Unfortunately I read book three first so I already knew the resolution of this one. Still liked it but it is very strange knowing “whodunit” from the beginning!

This is the story of a writing class, taught by the anti-social and acerbic Amy Gallup — who appears to have a “sniper” member. This member leaves nasty grams for students, which is bad enough, but when two members suddenly drop dead, things get a little … tense.

The writing is excellent — at least three cuts above your typical genre fiction. She loves to make lists. My favorite — her list of “funny looking words.” This included prepuce, piebald, knothole and obnubilate. She’s right — they do look funny! And I hadn’t really ever considered how words could look funny as I’m too busy absorbing them at max rate. She includes brilliant commentary on writers, readers, and the writing process.

Stay tuned for book two which I’ll be reading next…

They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey (Literary Fiction)

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

This is the story of Carlisle — the ballet-obsessed daughter of dancers whose perfectly tuned body is too tall (at 6’1”) for most companies. The story follows her life from a ten-year old finally reunited with her father and his new (male) partner, both at the absolute center of the dance world, to her pursuit of performance, to the eventual shift in focus of the creative urges towards classical ballet choreography (a field not only dominated by men but with no women whatsoever). We alternate between two time lines — the present day where she learns that her long-estranged father is dying; and the time 19 years past wherein the estrangement began.

The tone is intimate — we are privy to all of Carlisle’s thoughts and confusions — the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is a book of real depth, with a comprehensive view of Carlisle’s rich and complex inner life and a profound and meticulous description of the passions, drive, and motivations of both a dancer and a creator of dances. A rarity. I happen to love ballet but even if you don’t, I think you will love this story of artistic striving. Rather than just a peek, I felt as though I lived within the soul of the artist as I read this book.

Beautiful characters and a real view into a life that is certainly very different than my own. For the balletically minded, I loved the (accurate) references to Mr. B (Balanchine) and the peek into the world of New York City ballet.

The book is filled with beautifully written and insightful phrases — here are a few:

“ ‘What if you weren’t always so hard on yourself?’ a boyfriend once asked me. I agreed my being self-critical had not made me a better person, which was a clever way of being hard on myself about being hard on myself.”

“…Isabel lives for her art, and as far as she’s concerned, what makes an artist is what makes a woman: suffering, devotion, endurance. It’s more fun than it sounds. It’s safer than it sounds. Her world has rules and codes and structure. It has rewards. There are costumes and flowers. There’s a god, George Balanchine, who loves them all and gives them miraculous ballets to dance.”

“Emotions have a way of collecting and hardening inside us, like neglected grease. We are all smoking stoves.”

“Balanchine famously said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. Meaning, it’s not an art form suited for portraying complicated family relationships, or psychological subtleties. It’s a place to get away from them, into a purer realm.”

“It’s not hard to feel you’re a good person if you ignore any semblance of an inner life.”

“In the classical repertoire, there’s a motif of large groups of women, often dressed in white, but they represent a kind of moral authority, beautiful or terrible, but not personal. You see the friendship between women only in the rehearsal room or the wings, when women are chatting or laughing or checking in with each other, released from the obligation of being divine representatives.”

“The body, which doesn’t understand time, remembers movement. Once class starts, my body falls into positions like batter filling a pan.”

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 November 15th, 2023.

Hang the Moon by Jeanette Walls (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

Sallie Kincaid — a larger than life heroine if I’ve ever read one — comes of age in hillbilly country during Prohibition. Daughter of “the Duke,” who runs the county, she eventually inherits all that was his — the power and the immense responsibility. Unwilling to marry (having seen how badly women fare in the imbalance between the sexes), she is going it alone.

Inspired by the Tudor dynasty, specifically Elizabeth I, this story is a fascinating and seamless transposition of that singular journey — a female growing from child banishment to the leadership of a patriarchal empire — from the Elizabethan Era (late 1500s) to the Prohibition Era (1920s). With outstanding writing, Walls brings to life a set of utterly believable characters with bold depictions of their inner and outer lives. Character interactions bring out both the individual striving and the (usually invisible) impact across other lives. Plenty of every day philosophy and thinking. Impossible to put down.

Some great quotes:
“I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave. Plenty of them still around. Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”

“This man whose approval I so craved. He loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.”

(She got what she deserved…) “That’s what some people said when Mama was killed. It is what you tell yourself sometimes, a way to make sense of things, a way to make you feel safer, that people who get hurt bring it on themselves. But it’s such a lie. Lots of folks don’t deserve what they get.”

“I’m not sure if I’m remembering what happened or just finally understanding it, but all these years, I’ve been hearing stories about Mama as told by others, and now, I finally understand the story as Mama would have told it.”

“What else are you going to do? You can get married or you can become a schoolteacher or a nurse. Other than that, it’s slim pickings — a nun or a whore or a spinster peeling potatoes in the corner of some relation’s kitchen.”

“If a woman wants to get ahead in this world, she marries well and mark my words, Sallie, no man worth the clothes on his back is going to let a woman outshine him.”

“A handout. You think you’re being all generous, but what you’re also saying is you got what the other person doesn’t — so much of it you’re giving it away.”

“It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.”

“There are two kinds of brave people in this world, it hits me, those who fight and those who protect the ones who can’t fight.”

“I thought being in charge meant I was beholden to no one. What it truly means is that I am beholden to everyone.”

“He’s going on about how, back in Scotland, we Kincaids fought the highlanders who tried to rustle our cattle and the English who tried to take our land, then we fought the Irish when they wouldn’t let us take theirs, and when we came to Virginia, we fought the Indians for the same reason, then the English again with a lot of talk about defending freedom, then the Yankees with a lot of talk about defending slavery. When we were defeated, we still declared victory but we also swore revenge. I wish I could say we were always on the side of right, but that would be a lie. We fought people for doing to us exactly what we did to others, fought for them wanting the same rights we had.”

Thank you to Scribner 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.

Amy Among the Serial Killers by Jincy Willett (Audio Book / Mystery)

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

Great title, right?

The titular “Amy” is a 70-something author and ex-writing coach — a bit of a hermit but with a soft spot for some of the members of her last workshops. Carla — an ex-child star is now the owner of “The Point” — a writer’s retreat in La Jolla. Carla is quite possibly Amy’s favorite ex-student (possibly because she saved Amy’s life in the first book — I won’t spoil any more of that as I haven’t read it yet either!). When one of the Point’s writers turns up dead, the cops wonder if the murder is connected with a spate of other local killings — hence the serial killers (note the plural!) in the title.

This is not your typical mystery. It is funny in an insightfully wry style. It is a book by and about writers and writing and is FULL of back stories, stories in progress, story planning, random story thoughts, etc. — creating a kind of fractal story universe that is somehow never confusing. I put this down to some high quality writing — excellent pacing and structure and a truly delightful use of vocabulary and phrasing. Because the characters (who are writers) are often thinking or talking about writing, there are even some lovely and humorous discussions of words themselves which I enjoyed thoroughly. The mystery aspect is good — I did figure it out a little before the characters did, but it was certainly a surprise. The story was nice and twisty and kept me well entertained. Some interesting character reflections as well, not usually present in genre books.

Audio books take more time (for me) than reading the print would, and often that means I get a little bored in parts because I can’t skim. This did not happen at all during this 13 hour audiobook which is saying quite a lot.

So what didn’t I like? While the narrator does a fabulous job with all of the different voices and her pacing and speech clarity were perfect, I did not love her natural voice — or at least the one she uses as the narrator in addition to slightly modified versions for most of the younger characters. It’s what I call a Millennial version of the old Valley Girl speak: lots of mid word tonal shifts and a slightly whiny feel. I think I’m just showing my age here because this does seem to be a popular speech pattern for younger people in some TV shows. I got over it because it was just so entertaining, but it did irritate me for a bit.

Thank you to Dreamscape Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this audio book in exchange for my honest review. The audio book will be published on August 23rd, 2022 — the print book is out already!

The Cliff’s Edge by Charles Todd (Historical Mystery)

Number 13 in the Bess Crawford series. Bess served as a nursing sister on the battlefields of WWI in France. Now it is 1919 and the war has ended. Bess is asked to nurse a formidable (and delightful) Countess Dowager through a gall bladder surgery in Yorkshire. But when the Dowager’s godson is gravely injured and another man killed during a terrible accident, Bess goes to help and becomes enmeshed in a bitter feud.

Oddly enough I find this series very calming (for me, not the characters!). The pace of life was slower at that time, and the authors (a mother and son team who go by the pseudonym “Charles Todd”) do an excellent job of blending action, context, interactions, and scene setting to keep the interest of different types of readers. This particular story was more gripping than usual, and I found myself wildly swiping my kindle pages to get to the end. Complete closure on the mystery but an additional little cliffhanger about the personal background of one of the series’ main characters has me wriggling with anticipation.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 14th, 2022.

Maame by Jessica George (Literary Fiction)

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

In Twi (one of the languages spoken in Southern and Central Ghana), Maame means “woman” or “mother” or “Responsible One.” And that is the name by which Maddie is known (and treated) within her (somewhat dysfunctional by many standards) family. This story of the 25 year old dutiful daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in London is beautiful, insightful, humorous, and utterly engaging. Maddie is finally ready to strike out on her own after several years of caring for her Parkinson’s debilitated father whilst her brother and mother have managed to find urgent excuses to be elsewhere. With a new job, a new apartment (with new flatmates), and a few boyfriend experiments, Maddie feels ready to transpose herself into “fun” Maddie and “happy” Maddie, though her true (intentionally stifled) feelings always manage to seep through. With deft and spare prose, the book delves into deep issues of how we become the selves we want to be, rather than the selves that have unintentionally emerged while we were making other plans.

The story explores the roots of Maddie’s desires and unhappiness — seen through the lens of multiple cultures, friends, family, religion, and … the ultimate source of all knowledge … Google. Some honest and new (to me) discussions of racism, from a personal point of view rather than a strident, social justice approach. I loved the first lines: “In African culture — Wait, no, I don’t want to be presumptuous or in any way nationalistic enough to assume certain Ghanaian customs run true in other African countries. I might in fact just be speaking of what passes as practice in my family, but regardless of who the mores belong to, I was raised to keep family matters private.” In one fell swoop George outlined Maddie’s personal context in the many layers of identity to which she belonged.

I absolutely love George’s writing. Great structure with most of the content deriving from interactions (in-person, text), reflections (including some great conversations with “subconscious Maddie” who can be quite flippant bordering on rude), and extensive (and intriguing) “conversations” with Google. I love her use of vocabulary — the exact right word at the exact right spot in the prose. I love that Maddie’s flirtation with one man made extensive use of accurately placed semicolons. I loved Maddie’s Voice — so real and so individual. The language conveys essence and experience skillfully, without resorting to tricks of plots and constant emotional tugging. It feels genuine — that rarest of literary attributes.

So many excellent quotes — here are just a few:

“When Waterloo station approaches, I brace myself for another day at a job Google itself has deemed deserving of a bronze medal in the race to unhappiness.”

“We were friendlier at first, joked around a bit more, but that dried up like the arse of a prune on a date and time I still can’t stick a definitive pin in.”

“For some reason, at night, when you’re meant to be sleeping, your brain wants answers to everything.”

“It’s mentally exhausting trying to figure out if I’m taking that comment on my hair or lunch too seriously. It’s isolating when no one I know here is reading the Black authors I am or watching the same TV shows.”

“Still, that doesn’t change the fact that although I didn’t think I’d be rich I expected to be happy and the failure to do so has left me gasping for air most of the day.”

“I only suffer a few hiccups, mainly with the printer because they’re all bastards and will likely lead the technological charge in the eventual war against humans, but I’ve finished everything before Penny returns from her last meeting of the day.”

“I’d googled what to do when your flatmate is dumped by someone they’re casually seeing, but Google seemed very confused with at least two parts of the sentence.”

“I know what to do, how not to bring attention to myself. I’m skilled in assimilation, though my subconscious is quick to remind me that it’s nothing to be proud of. I have spent the entirety of my professional life in predominantly white spaces. As a bookseller, a receptionist, at the theater, and now a publishing house. Over the years, my instinct has been to shrink myself, to make sure I’m not too loud, to talk only about subjects I feel well versed in.”

“She frowns. ‘I don’t know why you’re offended. Gold-diggers are our nation’s hardest workers; do you know how much effort goes into pretending to give a shit about some guy for his money? A lot. Hoes are Britain’s unsung heroes.”

“It’s about what love is. Which is trust, commitment, empathy, and respect. It means really giving a shit about the other person.”

“I’m late, arriving halfway through, and he’s speaking Fante, which when spoken quickly is like trying to catch bubbles before they pop.”

“I cut the conversation off there because the way I see it, apologies only benefit the beggar. They get a clear conscience, and I get a sequence of hollow words incapable of changing anything.”

“Okay,” she says, and for a word that is often spelled with only two letters, she makes each syllable work hard. I slightly hate her.”

“I think when working in white spaces we can feel programmed to not rock the boat; like, we got a foot in the door and we should try to keep that door closed behind us. Which means you begin assigning any and all problematic issues to just being a part of the job….”

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 February 7th, 2023.

The Invincible Miss Cust by Penny Haw (Fictionalized History)

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

This is the fictionalized story of Miss Aleen Cust, a minor English aristocratic in the 1880s who desperately wanted to be a veterinary surgeon at a time when that (and many other things) were forbidden to women (particularly of her class). She did, in fact, become the first female vet in Britain, and the description of the process was well documented and engaging. The story features great characters who were either those who encouraged and helped her along the way as well as those who did everything in their power to stop her (this category included most of her family who were aghast at the thought of a woman wanting to work!). I loved the details about the work itself and the arguments made by those horrified at the thought of a woman vet. Many felt that a woman castrating bulls was immoral. Not that it would be difficult or off putting, but immoral! That gave me pause as I considered a definition of morality that was so focused on women not having any exposure to (and definitely no enjoyment of) sex.

The story was interesting enough on its own, and I was pleased that the author didn’t add a lot of melodrama where it wasn’t needed. It followed the facts pretty well — I looked them up on Wikipedia earlier than I should have — don’t do that as it spoils the story when you know what is coming! The author is very clear on the few places where she allowed her imagination to fill in information that was based on unverified rumor. I will say that I personally did not feel those were the best parts of the story. I’m not generally a fan of fictionalized history — where the story of real people is fictionalized (as opposed to historical fiction where fictional characters are placed into real historical contexts). It seems somehow unfair to assign thoughts and words and actions to a person who doesn’t get to correct or object, but I did very much enjoy this subject, this characterization, and this book.

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 4th, 2022

Sam by Allegra Goodman (Young Adult)

A story about a young girl who sinks into despondency and manages to (literally) claw herself up through rock climbing, her perseverance and stubbornness when faced with impossible climbing challenges mirroring the way she finally finds a path that works for her. The six parts of the novel take us from seven to eighteen — dealing with a beloved father who, fighting addiction, disappears for long periods of time; a (temporary) step father with no fondness for her and a somewhat violent temperament; a (most of the time) single mother pushing her children to not miss the opportunities she herself had missed; a half brother who needs constant management to get even the smallest thing done; and many others on varying sides of (my) moral boundaries.

The writing is good and I appreciated the thoughtful characterizations. While she finds her way at the end, I found reading the book to be a little depressing. While there were many good characters, I found myself wishing that people had just made better choices up front. It’s always painful for me to think about how many screwed up people there are and how their mistakes cause such pain for others. I’m aware that I’m completely missing the actual point of the story which is about how someone overcomes the problems of their childhood, but I find myself unhappy that they ever had to face those problems to begin with.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group, The Dial Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 3rd, 2023.

Where Coyotes Howl by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas does a stellar job at evoking the historical West — in this case a small town on the prairies of Wyoming in the early 1900s. This is the story of two “ordinary” people of time — an imported schoolteacher and the cowboy she falls in love with. It’s a hard life and frankly that makes for a hard read. The tight friendships and support structure formed by the women who often live up to an hour by horse from each other can help but not quite overcome the relentless tragedies that occur — from weather, illness, starvation, and from (some) husbands that are just plain bad. Dallas never resorts to melodrama but then she doesn’t have to — the real life stories are (mostly) pretty awful. I’ve read every book that Dallas has written and will continue to do so, but I admit that this book left me pretty depressed — her depictions so vivid that (being the emotional sponge that I am) I couldn’t help but feel sad for all my new found fictional friends.

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 April 18th, 2022.

The Sweet Remnants of Summer by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

Number 14 in my favorite McCall Smith series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, moral philosopher extraordinaire. While the narrative in these novels feature every day troubles such as family disagreements, child rearing, and interpersonal … irritations, the real story is the deep and well-expressed thoughts they trigger in our editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. The musings of her “tangential mental life” are endlessly intriguing, insightful, and thought provoking. Her brand of philosophy is never dry — it is philosophy as applied to actual human lives.

I love McCall Smith’s writing — it consistently reminds me of the beauty of the English language and embeds new (to me) or rarely used words that I find absolutely stimulating. Well, I never said I wasn’t a weirdo! Two of my favorites from this volume: adumbration and purlieus (if you like words, look them up!)

He always tackles topics of current concern, and no topic is left un-thoroughly discussed. No slogans, no strict identification with any party line. Characters get to examine and evolve their own thoughts and principles (sometimes with a little gentle help) into something that better adapts to their current situation.

I always feel calmer after reading one of these books.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.