The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Keep writing, Elly! I always look forward to a new Ruth Galloway book and it never disappoints. I’m so glad Ms. Griffiths is making good use of her pandemic time to up her (already high) prolificity (I may have made that word up — not sure).

These books are a great mix of mystery and novel — full of Norfolk folk lore and history with plenty of archeology — with no repeats so far. In this novel we also get a group of Detectorists (defined as a person whose hobby is using a metal detector); an interesting (fictional but plausible) theory about the Beaker people who came to Britain about 4400 years ago and left only 10% of the native population after 200 years; and a timely plot line around dangerous and illegal vaccine trials. A high body count, some progression in the Nelson / Ruth saga, and a variety of eccentric and interconnected characters make this a real page-turner. Enjoy!

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 29th, 2021.

The Half-Orphan’s Handbook by Joan F Smith (Young Adult)

A well-written book about a young girl going through the grief of her father’s recent suicide. Lila is 16 and has been reluctantly cajoled into attending a grief camp for the summer. This is the story of her slow journey towards healing, including a healthy amount of new friends, a budding love interest, and that irreverent teen style that helps makes the unbearable, bearable.

The author, who went through a similar experience, does an excellent job at describing the confusion of competing feelings, the different ways grief hits you at different times, and the eventual return to the three Ls: laughing, loving, and living without guilt. I really liked all the characters, and I want to emphasize that this was not at all a depressing book — there was a lot of honest reflection, observation, and fun. Plenty of racial and sexual diversity as well as discussions of addiction, suicide, and first love.

Thank you to Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 6th, 2021.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Literary Fiction)

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

The sweeping story of a daring aviatrix (Marian Graves) who is determined to be the first to fly around the globe longitudinally and the self-destructive actress (Hadley Baxter) who will play her in a movie 60 years later. Their somewhat parallel stories (orphaned young, raised by benignly neglectful uncles) and innate curiosity help Hadley delve into the character more than the screen-writer had.

This book was interesting on so many levels. Stunning descriptions of gorgeous locales — Montana, Alaska, and Antarctica between 1920 and 1950 — spread throughout. In-depth discussions of aviation and art, as well as philosophical dives into isolation, the lure of solitude, the impact of war, and the evolution of personal identity are also ubiquitous. Shipstead really gets inside a subject, presenting it not as a separate entity but through the character’s perception of it. We see Antarctica not as a dry description of mountains and snow, but through Marian’s perspective, and it feels as though her soul is exposed through the beautiful language of what she sees and feels. Similarly, while aviation has no appeal for me, Shipstead describes Marian’s intellectual and emotional engagement with it, and I can feel the (unnatural for me) attraction. It’s a rare author who can transmute a dry topic into fascination through the mind of an obsessed character. Even the Hollywood bits feel real through character insight, rather than splashy opulence and name dropping.

Plenty of historical context is introduced via short tidbits from the news (flights from other aviatrices, difficulties for women in trying to achieve in male-dominated worlds, etc.). As always, I like the fact that the author just wrote the story, with realistic reactions and approaches of her characters and didn’t spend time pontificating on the obvious. Yes, life was much harder for women who wanted to pursue the unorthodox, but this story is about what they did anyhow, not what they were prevented from doing. Her writing style is also not overly dramatic — no heart wrenching prose — though the tale abounds with angsty opportunities.

I’d forgotten that I’d read one of Shipstead’s earlier works — Astonish Me —about ballet dancing and defection. She reminds me of Jennifer Egan a bit (I’m a big Egan fan) in the way she can bring clarity to complex topics in a variety of subjects.

A quick warning — I found the first two chapters a little dry — it gets much, much, better. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:

“…how best to squeeze Marian’s completely unknowable existence into a neat pellet of entertainment…”

“…and out over the loose northern jigsaw of spring ice that the planet wears like a skullcap, …”

“There should be an Antiques Roadshow for memories, and I would sit behind a desk and explain that while your memory might be lovely and have tremendous sentimental value, it was worth nothing to anyone but you.”

“The landscape is secretive and harsh and impossibly immense, and she borrows some of its inscrutability for herself, its disinterest in human goings-on. Unfriendliness is another form of camouflage.”

“Mountain everywhere: monstrous, ice-choked cousins of the forested peaks that had encircled her as she looped and spun over Missoula.”

“Was this what her father had done after he left Missoula? Slung his skills over his shoulder and set out?”

“Does that mean I wish to die? I don’t think I do. But the pure and absolute solitude in which we leave the world exerts a pull.”

“She thinks he means that no matter what earnest promises of peace are made, what fragments are hauled up and glued back together, the dead will not return. A return to the world as it was is impossible; the only choice is to make a new world. But making a new world seems dreary and exhausting.”

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 May 4th, 2021.

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (Historical Fiction)

A story you can slide right in to, The Last Garden in England brings to life three generations of women whose lives cross the spectacular gardens at Highbury House in Warwickshire. Mixing their voices in a collection of chapters slotted into each season of a single year, we witness the progression of their lives in the contexts of radically different times and accompanying social mores.

In 1907, Edwardian garden designer Venetia Smith designs the gardens. In 1944, recently widowed Diana Symonds is the Lady of Highbury House, now repurposed as a convalescent hospital; Stella Adderton, head cook, is caring for her orphaned nephew; and Elizabeth Pedley is a Land Girl on the adjacent farm. In 2021, Emma Lovett is trying to restore the gardens, struggling to unearth information on their original state.

The writing and story remind me of Kate Morton (I’m a fan) — deep characters and easily absorbed writing with a plot that that is equally character and story driven. I love the way each character makes her way through the constraints of her time period following the dictates of her own values on vocation, family, love, and internal worth. They were all different! Some were naturally maternal, some not; some were pulled towards a life of great achievement (despite difficulties), some not; some were willing to compromise for love, some not. I loved the lack of stereotypes and the matter-of-fact descriptions of social context for women in each time period and the way they got on with it. Included interesting insight into the process of garden design (both creation and restoration).

A real joy to read with that lovely combination that keeps both the heart and the mind engaged.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 12th, 2021.

Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis (Sci Fi)

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

Wonderful piece of sci-fi history that I somehow missed completely. First published in 1938 by C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame), this is a beautifully written novel of early space exploration with a deeply philosophical bent. Ransom, a Cambridge professor of philology (language), is kidnapped and taken to another planet in a mistaken desire to offer him as a sacrifice to the alien beings in residence. Instead, Ransom escapes on the planet and explores the landscape, the language, and the multiple rational species who manage to coexist peacefully. The book explores our place in the universe — with wildly competing views. His kidnapper — Weston — represents those who believe that Mankind holds a destiny as the Master Race in the Universe — destined to destroy anything in its way. Ransom, and those he meets on the planet, hold a starkly different view — one that is more theologically based (a common theme in Lewis books).

The writing is excellent — the world building includes descriptions of the physical world as well as ways of life for the various beings encountered. I was quite taken with Ransom’s evolution of perception and cognition as he continues his efforts to understand a completely different world. The consistent observation of his internal mental and emotional state made it much more interesting to me — initial fears based on childhood stories of “other,” timid approaches to strange beings, and his awareness that he represented all of Mankind and had to give beings with superior power an honest assessment of the faults of the race.

It was also fun to see the influences — he and Tolkien were friends, and you can see similarities; he references HG Wells and also borrows from an old favorite of mine, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. I even found small bits that were later borrowed by Madeleine L’Engle in my very favorite children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time.

This is the first of a trilogy — I plan to read the other two. I also learned a new word: consistory — a court presided over by a bishop, for the administration of ecclesiastical law in a diocese. Who knew?

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

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

Number 16 in the Maisie Dobbs series starts in October, 1941. As Britain is well immersed in WWII, Maisie is working with the War Office to psychologically vet potential recruits for undercover work in Nazi Germany — young, determined men and women who face low survival rates. Simultaneously, Maisie gets involved in a murder witnessed by a young (and disbelieved) boy that ties into high-level espionage with high-level allies.

I like the Maisie Dobbs series because each book moves us forward in time. Starting in the post WWI era, each installment features challenging situations that are set in the specific events of that period of history — it reminds me of one of my favorite British mystery series: Foyle’s War. Maisie is an interesting and ever-evolving character, leading an unusual investigation practice that blends psychology, forensic science, philosophy, and compassion in approaching tangled, often avoided or ignored problem knots. An appealing cast of expanding supporting characters helps set the mood and context.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 23rd, 2021.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction / Women’s Fiction)

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

Warm-hearted, home-front WWII story about the way people (in this case mostly women) pull together in times of hardship. Based on the real life “Kitchen Front” radio cookery program which was designed to help its listeners make the most of wartime food rations — this is the tale of a competition to find a new, female, co-presenter for the BBC show. Four women in sleepy Fenley Village take up the challenge: Audrey, widowed mother of three trying to eke by with a home baking business; her estranged sister Gwendoline, married to the Lord of Fenley Hall and possessor of Audrey’s crippling mortgage; Nell, undercook at Fenley Hall and terrified of the outside world; and Zelda, a London chef bombed out of her kitchen and sent to the Fenley Pie refectory to work bringing a surprise with her. Alternating between their four voices we get the backstories, recipes, and current challenges (plenty of drama there!) while we follow their inspiring journey from fierce competitors to best friends using will, determination, and compassion to overcoming terrible adversity.

Definitely an upbeat story along with impressive food and food preparation descriptions (though I am only interested in eating food so I kind of skimmed those bits). This is one of those books where human initiative solves problems with the help of some luck and overly-easy good results, but it’s a nice, buoyant glimpse into a world with some obvious parallels to approaches to the problems of today.

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 February 23rd, 2021.

The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

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

Carol Goodman writes the most intriguing, convoluted, surprising novels. She is a master of setting the mood (in this case — creepy, mysterious, righteous, and fearful). The Stranger Behind You is a woman-centric, Gothic-style, mystery-thriller whose plot lines and main characters keep twisting together in unexpected ways. It all comes together beautifully but with constant surprises and a real sense of not ever feeling like you know the characters all the way. The theme might be — you never know who you can trust. Parallel stories weave together police corruption, mobsters from the past, and #metoo style manipulation of women. I’m not generally a reader of books that induce anxiety or stress, and I did have to limit myself to daytime reading for the first third of the book — but it was not the kind of thriller that induces too much anxiety (for me). I’m not a fan of heavy-handed books where all the men are horrible and the women manage to thrive regardless, so let me hasten to say that this is not one of those books. There are some pretty nasty men, and a few nasty women — but there are also plenty good men and women and possibly even a delightfully drawn and mysterious guiding spirit. Enjoy trying to figure out which is which in advance!

Great writing, great storytelling.

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 will be published on July 6th, 2021.

Yoga Pant Nation by Laurie Gelman (Humor)

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

Always hysterical, this is the third in Gelman’s “Class Mom” series. Jennifer Dixon is the ever-wry, always-irreverent class mom for her 5th grade son in Overland Park, Kansas. This year she gets coerced into leading the biggest fundraiser ever (she calls her team the “We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team” or WeFUKCT); gets startlingly accurate messages from her friend’s crazy mother-in-law (or rather her two ever-present spirit guides); fights off a surprising custody battle; and deals with what appears to be the simultaneous rapid decline of both parents who see “little people” in the basement. This is a comedy, so OF COURSE everything works out just fine and with plenty of laughs on the way.

This is number three in the series — it can certainly be read on its own but why not start with number one (Class Mom) and/or number two (You’ve Been Volunteered) while you’re waiting for Yoga Pant’s July release?

Just a few fun lines — I should have highlighted more but I was too busy laughing:
“Yes, I’m hilarious. In fact, these past two years have been a yuck a minute as I have endeavored to understand Viv’s unique parenting style that can best be described as a cross between Mary Poppins and the surgeon general.”

“Ah yes, “that baby” — also known as the light of my life and the bane of my existence, all rolled into one perfect almost-two-year-old package.”

“In my mind I wonder just how far this PC thing is going to go before we all just give up talking.”

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray (Literary Fiction)

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

Beautifully written story about five members of a strict Mormon family as they struggle with the death of the four-year old daughter, Issy. Extending far beyond your typical grief story, each family member wrestles with competing urges and goals — what it means to be a good person, the boundary between faith and thinking for themselves, and their relationships with each other, the community, and the church.

Ian is a bishop within the church. While I personally found him too sanctimonious for my taste, he (like most humans on this planet) is a complicated man trying to do his best — based on a firm belief in the foundations and practices of the church. Claire is a willing convert to Mormonism but is angry at God and is simply unable to keep going. Zippy (16) struggles with her attraction to a boy in light of the very strict teachings on the role for women; Alma (14) grapples with his belief and guilt over an (as yet to be detected) infraction; Jacob (7) just misses Issy and is working on using the Church’s teachings to resurrect her — confused between what is possible in religious stories and what is possible in everyday life.

For me it was not an attractive view of Mormonism, but then I am not very religious and am unhappy about people telling me what to do based on my gender :-). The characters are presented realistically, some offering comfort based on faith and others offering censure, and while I would bristle on the constraints on women, many of the characters appeared perfectly happy in their lives. Like one of my favorite books — A Place For Us — this book offers an inside view of another culture.

Some good quotes:
“I know something about being good. If you’re good and you get lost, someone you love comes and finds you.”

“It feels as if her hopes are leaking from a small perforation between her lungs, and although each escaping wish is small and ordinary — for Dad to think before he speaks, for Mum to get out of bed in the mornings, for Adam to serve a mission — the hurt as they trickle away is considerable.”

“Dad stops and she thinks she’s done enough, but he’s too wound up so intent on being right, that he’s forgetting to be kind.”

“Girls need to be careful — you like him; you love him; you let him; you lose him — that’s what happens.”

“He keeps talking but Claire can’t keep up with his words, she can’t catch them, they’re flying past her ears like tiny birds, fluttering to the open door and out into the hospital corridor. He has made Issy’s recovery contingent on her faith and she doesn’t know how she will ever forgive him.”