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.

Yellowface by RF Kuang (Literary Fiction)

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

This book never goes where you expect it to go. Ostensibly the story of an author (Juniper Song) who takes the latest manuscript from a recently deceased friend (Athena Liu), completes it, and publishes it as her own. But the depth of introspection, thought, and reaction every step of the way neatly details the complexities of every aspect of the world of writing, publishing, marketing and fandom. And it is absolutely fascinating.

Ever noticed how easy it is to have a (strong) opinion on something for which you’ve only read a headline? You’re not the only one. This book forces us to think a lot more deeply about a whole slew of issues: What is plagiarism vs influence vs mashups? How are we influenced by both direct marketing / branding and the more subtle (but equally insistent) influence of current trends and fads? How quick are we to leap to conclusions without analysis or an attempt at understanding?

Kuang also tackles the hydra of cultural appropriation by having her narrator (a white woman) writing a (thoroughly researched) book about Chinese history. Does she have the right to write about something that is not her heritage? Is it more reasonable for someone who is of Chinese descent but has never experienced (or been exposed to) anything like the characters in the book to write it? Kuang (who herself is ethnically Chinese) presents multiple sides to a whole slew of issues via the opinions, thoughts, and comments of various characters — both fully fleshed out and spewed in every angry storm of social media commentary. If Kuang herself has a strong opinion on these topics, she keeps it well camouflaged through her characters’ many disparate voices. I think she showed real courage tackling the subjects — helpful that she is already an award winning author — but I hope the strong-minded Internet trolls bother to think things through before attacking!

Lots of literary references, real insight into the industry, and a wildly convoluted plot that is actually clean, believable, and easy to follow. Human nature presented with all of its intricate folds dancing about in the intersection of morality, social acceptability, and judgement. Very different from her last book (Babel — which I loved) — it is equally compelling.

A fantastic first line, which drew me in instantly: “The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.” A fantastic last line, too, but I won’t include that here!

A small selection of good lines — there are so, so many:
“I stare at Athena’s brown eyes, framed by those ridiculously large lashes that make her resemble a Disney forest animal, and I wonder, What is it like to be you?”

“Cue the myth making in real time, the constructed persona deemed maximally marketable by her publishing team, paired with a healthy dose of neoliberal exploitations. Complex messages reduced to sound bites; biographies cherry-picked for the quirky and exotic.”

“The Last Front hardly breaks new ground; instead, it joins novels like The Help and The Good Earth in a long line of what I dub historical exploitation novels: inauthentic stories that use troubled pasts as an entertaining set piece for white entertainment.”

“In any case, Twitter discourse never does anything — it’s just an opportunity for firebrands to wave their flags, declare their sides, and try to brandish some IQ points before everyone gets bored and moves on.”

“It’s hard to reach such a pinnacle of literary prominence that you remain a household name for years, decades past your latest release. Only a handful of Nobel Prize winners can get away with that. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.”

“But enter professional publishing and suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers. Editors go in and mess around with your words, your vision. Marketing and publicity make you distill hundreds of pages of careful, nuanced reflection into cute, tweet-size talking points. Readers inflict their own expectations, not just on the story, but on your politics, your philosophy, your stance on all things ethical. You, not your writing, become the product — your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one in the real world gives a shit about.”

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 May 16th, 2023

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson (Historical Fiction)

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

This is a fictionalized history of the Bethnal Green (at the time) unfinished tube stop in East London during WWII.  This book focuses on the library that was moved to the station when the above ground version was bombed, but there was a veritable city created in the stop and (unused) tunnels, with triple bunks for 5,000 people, a nursery, cafe, and the as-always top notch administration by locals.  I don’t like reading books about war, but I’m always drawn to books about how civilians create on the fly systems to help them survive.  The addendum explains the actual history more fully, making clear what part of the book was fiction vs fact, though I found that pretty obvious anyway.

It’s March 1944. Clara Button is the 25-year old childless widow who is “temporarily” put in charge of the library, with the help of the irrepressible library assistant Ruby Munro.  A well-detailed set of characters ranging across age and socio-economic levels populate the library, all with inspiring and heart-breaking stories.  Thompson does a good job of bringing these characters to life.  An engaging story — I could pick apart aspects of the plot if I were in a snippy mood, but overall I quite enjoyed it.  It spoke well to the value of books and reading in all circumstances which means that it spoke very well to me!

This book would make a great movie — I hope it gets optioned!  

Thank you to Forever Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 21st, 2023

The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille (Non fiction)

A comprehensive and detailed account of The Sullivan Institute — a (somewhat secret) urban commune in New York City that ran a 35 year “experiment” to reengineer family, sex, and social life.  Starting in the 50s as a combination of psychotherapy and radical politics, it evolved into an oppressive cult before finally crumbling in the early 90s (largely as a result of various salacious court cases).

Stille compiled the narrative from extensive interviews, written member accounts, and court case documentation.  He proceeds linearly through time covering various motivations and experiences as well as the long dissolution into a bit of a nightmare and the “waking up” of those who went mainstream once it all fell apart.

Begun in the 50s by avowed Marxists, the goal of the Institute was partially to bring the “human” into Marx.  The founders came to see: “the nuclear family as the basic unit of capitalist production, the means by which the system perpetuated itself to the detriment of individual growth.  Parents tamed and squelched their children’s most vital needs in order to turn them into obedient and productive citizens.”  They felt that growth could only occur only through interaction with others.  Unusually for therapy at the time, therapists encouraged complete patient dependence — telling patients what to do in every aspect of their life.  Members were forced to break all bonds with those outside the group, they were not allowed to form pair bonds, and were not allowed to raise their children, being told that they would be “poison” to those children.

What fascinated me was how the group fit into the times — starting with Marxist theories and communal living and progressing through the 70s where alternative therapies— EST, TM, rebirthing, etc. — were thriving.  And the way initial egalitarianism devolved into hierarchical conformity with a controlling personality at the top.  The pattern matches those of cults, certain religious orders (ultra-orthodox Jews, strict evangelical Christians, …), and true communist countries as a whole: impose a demanding lifestyle on members, maintain a boundary between the group and the outside, and ostracize those who want to leave.  And the people in this group were intelligent and well-educated.  In its heyday, the group boasted famous members such as Jackson Pollack, Lucinda Childs, Richard Price, members of the musical group Sha Na Na, etc.

Completely fascinating.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux 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

Earth’s the Right Place for Love by Elizabeth Berg (Literary Fiction)

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

A sweet, uplifting story with real depth.  I loved Berg’s previous novel — The Story of Arthur Truluv (see my review here).  This novel is Arthur’s memory of the long courtship of and friendship with his (now deceased) wife. Beginning in 2016 when Arthur is 85 and finds himself “waiting for small things,” we spend most of the book in the 1940s when he first falls in love with Nola McCollum.

The novel deals with the key elements of life — relationships, mortality, family, and nature. Her descriptions of the every day aspects of life often brought tears to my eyes, simply because they touched the essence of tiny details so very well.  There are some wonderful quotes because Berg is a fantastic writer, but I’m not including them as they tend to give away certain aspects of the plot.

Beautifully done.

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 21st, 2023

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto (Cozy Mystery)

This book really grew on me. At first I just thought it was a (very silly) cozy mystery, but in reality the mystery is just an excuse for Vera Wong — a kind of Chinese Mary Poppins — to make everything better for everyone. Definitely upbeat!

Vera Wong runs a tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Vera Wang’s World Famous Tea House in fact, though it is named after the famous Vera Wang not the proprietor Vera Wong, and doesn’t appear to be very terribly famous as it rarely has any customers. Everything changes one morning, though, when Vera heads down to the shop and finds a dead body clutching a thumb drive on the floor. Based on her unshakeable premise that a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, Vera soon has four “suspects” who, while still under suspicion (from Vera’s perspective), also become close friends and subjects for Vera’s meddlesome, tyrannical and yet heartfelt ways.

What started as a kind of stereotypical Chinese auntie persona for Vera really blossomed with individual personality as the story went on. One of my favorite scenes: Vera reads Rumplestiltskin to an impressionable young girl and rails against the utter stupidity of the story in favor of an alternative Chinese folk story that addresses the situation … differently. Some actual interesting comments on tea as well. And the resolution of the mystery nicely surprising. Very pleasant read.

Some good quotes:

“In Chinese culture, respect only flows in one direction, from the younger to the older, like a river. The older generation doesn’t owe the younger ones respect; if any is given it is done so out of kindness and generosity, not necessity.”

“Lipton, like many other Western brands of black tea, uses inferior tea leaves that are then roasted at a higher temperature, killing all traces of subtle flavoring. The result is a strong black tea that can stand up to aggressive boiling and generous amounts of sugar and milk.”

As an opening line, this one tickled me: “Vera Wong Zhuzhu, age sixty, is a pig, but she really should have been born a rooster.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 14th, 2023

Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino (Non-fiction — Audio book)

The title says it all — this book is Tarantino’s very personal account of his love of movies and the industry, launching from accompanying his single mother and her friends to “grown up” movies when he was eight. His analysis of practically every movie he saw includes a full grasp of the trends of the times and how the movies exploited, responded to, and sometimes created those trends. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge about the industry and the book serves as an intellectual history of the age through the medium of film. He paid particular attention to audiences and how they interacted with the film. Listening to his mom’s commentary on the way home and watching some films in crowded theaters full of viewers who were happy to provide their own loud and colorful commentary.

It’s no surprise that Tarantino got more out of every movie he watched than I ever could. He described them so well and with such passion that I started making lists of movies I wanted to see (or see again) though I know I won’t enjoy them as much as he did or be able to understand them in the context of cinematic history as he did. I’m not a cinephile but that is a big part of what I liked about this book — it allowed me to see movies through the eyes of someone who is a dedicated, articulate, and passionate cineast (new word for me!) An extra plus is that Tarantino and I are roughly the same age so I recognize each decade (and the actors, films, and experiences) as his commentary proceeds through the years.

I listened to this on audio book and Tarantino read the first and last chapters himself. Unfortunately, someone else read all of the other chapters — a real disappointment. Nothing wrong with the other reader but he doesn’t have Tarantino’s rapid fire, wise guy kind of voice or delivery. The other reader articulates his words too much and can’t swear well — too stiff! But listening to the first and last chapters made the book far more compelling to me and I was able to listen to the others with Tarantino’s real voice in mind. It gave that personal edge to the story. Apparently there are pictures in the actual book, however, which I obviously missed by listening to the audio.

Needless to say I am now heading off to rewatch my favorite Tarantino movies (which, given that I’ve caught a miserable head cold, seems like a brilliant plan for the day!)

Winter’s End by Paige Shelton

Number four in Shelton’s Alaska series following Beth Rivers in tiny-town Benedict, Alaska. Beth — a famous novelist in hiding in Alaska after a traumatic kidnapping that occurred before the first book in this series.

This episode starts with the annual Death Walk — where every citizen is expected to come to town and “be seen” after the long winter to make sure everyone made it through.
Add a longstanding feud between two families, a budding friendship for Beth that ends abruptly when her friend goes missing, some rumors of gold, and a charming new criminal who is “assigned” to the halfway house where Beth is living and you have the recipe for an easy-to-read, fun, cozy. (My) Favorite town characters — Viola, the tough-as-nails manager of the halfway house; Orin, the peace-sign flashing librarian and computer genius; and Gril, the relocated Chicagoan grizzled police chief continue to be involved, and I enjoyed getting to “say hello” through my reading.

In truth, I have no reason to believe that anything in this series is particularly realistic about living in a small town in Alaska. I don’t have any real reason not to believe it either. It doesn’t really matter; I like the community, I like the specific characters, I like the plots, and I always have a fun time reading them. Oddly enough, I don’t particularly enjoy her other series, but I really love this one!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on December 6th, 2023

Hard Rain by Samantha Jayne Allen (Mystery)

Second in the series about budding PI, Annie McIntyre.

Small town Garnett, Texas is suffering from a (very) wet natural disaster as heavy rain causes the river to jump its banks and bring massive floods. Preacher’s wife and old friend Bethany Richter hires Annie to find the man who rescued her from the flood while being swept off himself. The case gets muddied when the trail leads to a woman who is found dead in her truck, floating in the river. But she didn’t drown — she was shot. Nice and convoluted, with a wide variety of characters from drug dealers to preachers to drifters to Annie’s atypical family, their circle of friends, and their ties to law enforcement.

For me it was a little too long — I favor a more spare prose — but if you’re enjoying the story you night appreciate all of the novelistic commentary on scenery, character background, and fully fleshed out experiences. Annie suffers from occasional bouts of self-doubt which I hope she has less often in the future (I like to see characters grow!)

Thank you to Minotaur Books 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

A World of Curiosities by Louis Penny (Literary Mystery)

Number 18 in the extremely (and understandably) popular Inspector Gamache from Louise Penny. An absolute page turner; I read it in just a couple of sittings (was preparing to host a party — had to take some breaks to cook and clean!).

In addition to the actual who-done-it or who-is-about-to-do-it plot line, I found it full of scenarios that triggered thought about when to trust your instincts and how even well-trained professionals can be subject to bias and manipulation. Also — despite Gamache’s overwhelming kindness and ability to see potential in people who have been tossed aside by the rest of humanity — the book appears to admit to some people being beyond redemption, broken to the point of no return, even hinting at some genetic predisposition to “badness.”

As always, the book is full of interesting arcana — literary references, historical notes, and art commentary, including a full description of an enormous (and unfortunately fictional as I would love to see it) painting called “A World of Curiosities.”

I can definitely pick a few holes of the “why wouldn’t he have thought of that” variety, but why bother? Completely gripping.