A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (speculative fiction)

200 years after The Awakening — when sentient robots left the abusive factories for the wilderness, rejecting further contact with humans — a human and robot meet in a twist on the traditional “First Contact” story. Sibling Dex — a gender neutral monk, meets Mossbank — a sentient “wild-built” robot whose family tree boasts several generations of wild-built individuals descending from16 factory bots. What follows is short on plot but long in world building, while we follow the two as they wander through untraveled areas and talk about their similarities, differences, and rising self-awareness.

I’m a big Becky Chambers fan — I enjoy her writing and her exploration of cultures. This is the beginning of a new series, and I’m hoping some of the future episodes have a little more plot to them. While this was philosophically interesting, I did get a little bored to be honest. Also, she uses the pronoun “their” for Dex and his/her fellow monks. This drove me crazy — I was not able to get used to it although it peppered every single page. Every time I read the word I struggled to figure out who the rest of the people were and then had to remember it was only Dex! Every time! I’m super happy to use someone’s choice of pronoun when I remember — including a made up one (I like zhe) — but using plurals for a singular drives me batty. I probably won’t read the next book because of this — I just don’t need the cognitive load. However, if this doesn’t bother you and you enjoy slow-paced, philosophical, stories, you will enjoy this!

Thank you to Macmillian-Tor/Forge 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.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (Non-fiction)

A fascinating and timely story about the life sciences revolution (specifically gene editing) and the Covid bomb that ignited a community already poised at the brink of discovery — all told through the biographical lens of recent Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna.

Isaacson is a skilled biographer and synthesizer. He has an unsurpassed ability to explain very complex concepts in accessible terms. I’ve read four of his books and have been impressed by his ability to explain well things I already know (Steve Jobs and computers) and things in which I have little background and zero aptitude (Leonardo Da Vinci and 15th century art). His descriptions of CRISPR (DNA sequences that enable the gene editing at the heart of the book) and the myriad ways it was discovered, applied, and deployed do not disappoint. What I liked best? You actually feel the zing of scientific discovery as he describes the evolution of gene editing tools and techniques and the researchers who made it happen.

Getting to know the researchers was almost as interesting as learning the science — to the point where Jennifer Doudna — while thoroughly admirable — did not have a personality that eclipsed the other players, making it feel less like a biography and more like a community portrait. Every one of the key contributors was profiled in a succinct but insightful way: James Watson of DNA discovery fame (more on him later); Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church (who felt trapped in the present when he should be in the future); Doudna’s co-Nobelist and co-discoverer of the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” the peripatetic Emmanuelle Charpentier who likes to keep herself on edge and not get too comfy; Feng Zhang — credited (but bitterly contested) with applying CRISPR to the human genome; and the many, many additional researchers pursuing careers in the field.

In addition to the science and the scientists, Isaacson spends a fair amount of time on the aspects of commercialization including the competition between academics resulting in sometimes bitter patent battles on rights regarding various facets of the technology and its applications. In contrast, he also gives plenty of air play to the wealth of technologies born of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic covering how the community was poised to act and the incredible bureaucracy and what strings had to be pulled to get through it (and who had the clout to pull those strings). Also included is a pretty comprehensive description of the requirements and applied innovations to virus detection, vaccination, and treatment. I actually feel much calmer about covid having read the book.

Lastly, Isaacson devoted a lot of time and discussion to the question of ethics — a topic I always enjoy. Ethical questions such as safety and unintended consequences, the tradeoff between individual needs and the needs of society, the potential widening of the privilege gap, and the potential impact on human diversity if we allow people free choice on gene selection for offspring. Isaacson inserted a lot of his own ideas into this section and I can’t say I agreed with everything he said, though he did fairly include multiple viewpoints. He appeared to conflate (as people often do) genius with debilitating problems — pointing to Van Gogh (mental illness) and Miles Davis (sickle cell anemia) as examples where a change to their genetic structure might alleviate their suffering but hamper their creative output — a loss to society as a whole. He (again, as most people do) also firmly yoked diversity to physical characteristics instead of a wide range of personality, opinion, intelligences etc. There appears to a strong fear that if left to their own devices, everyone would choose to have blonde haired, blue eyed children. Also — nobody ever seems to bring up the ethical question of parents making decisions for their as-yet-unborn children! I have more strong opinions on this chapter but I encourage you to read it yourself!

I have a few other issues with the book — Isaacson seems to insert himself into the action more often than I thought necessary and spent a little longer than I liked on a somewhat sensationalized version of the patent wars. He also loudly supported our new “cancel culture” with his full chapter treatise on James Watson’s fall from grace due to unpopular racial remarks. I’m a big believer in a free electorate who must be trusted to think for themselves and not in favor of shutting down people who have beliefs different from my own (no matter how distasteful). Controlling people’s freedom of expression is really a bad move for a free society, regardless of how much we each wish we could get the other side to shut up!

Still — small annoyances aside — this is a fully engaging book about a fascinating topic told in an accessible manner and covering one of the key turning points of human civilization — so go buy it today and read it!

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny (Literary Fiction)

Jane is a second grade school teacher in Boyne City, Michigan. In chapter one she falls in love with Duncan — the town playboy — and spends the rest of the book following an unexpected path through her own life. Each chapter (carefully labeled with the year — thank you!) is a mini-story that captures the essence of Jane’s personal story in that time frame. Story and personal evolution proceed apace with humor, insight, and poignancy as she becomes deeply involved with a set of characters she might not have voluntarily sought out: Jimmy, Duncan’s sweet and intellectually slow colleague; Aggie, Duncan’s bossy ex-wife; and Aggie’s flat out strange husband Gary.

I love Heiny’s writing style — her precise language perfectly captures internal thoughts and external behaviors. Jane possesses a biting interior commentary and the descriptions of second grade classroom life are pointed and hysterical. The characters are real — some times you love them and sometimes they irritate you completely. Good for fans of Anne Lamott.

Some random quotes:

“In fact, she had not only stopped being the maid of honor, she nearly stopped being human and became just a help desk in a giant green dress. She had to tell the caterers to start serving, and direct the florist on where to put the arrangements and the staff which table to designate for gifts.”

“It all reminded Jane that having a baby was not that miraculous. Any two fools could do it.”

“Worst of all were the mood swings. Although, actually, could it be considered a mood swing if it only swung one direction? Maybe it was more like a mood acceleration. Like the needle on a speedometer that whipped straight from ZERO to ANNOYED and stayed there. Because it seemed like the world was in an unkindly conspiracy to irritate Jane.”

“Endless rolling nausea without vomiting, nausea that spun out before Jane like a curving country lane meandering through a hilly green landscape, the end always just out of sight.”

“Jimmy was always there. He lived with them, and sometimes Jane thought that spontaneous adult conversation had fled her life forever.”

“Little insights into the murky liquid that sloshed around in the fishbowl of Gary’s mind.”

“She felt a sort of cellular-level sorrow and wondered if she loved more deeply than other people. Or was everyone else just more mature, more rational? More realistic?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 13th, 2021.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

The Hidden Palace is a sequel to one of my favorite books: The Golem and the Jinni. Taking up where the G&J left off, we follow the two as they continue their inhuman lives amidst the sea of humanity that is New York City in the early1900s.

The story ranges over fifteen years encompassing WWI, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the disaster of the Titanic and takes place in New York City and parts of Syria. Including most of the characters from the first book, we also meet a Jinniyeh (a female Jinni) who is impervious to iron; an orphaned, ultra orthodox young girl who had helped her rabbi father create a golem to fight the pogroms in Russia; and Yosselle, the new golem himself.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book — the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were fascinating — especially between the young girl and “her” golem. The continuing themes of “otherness” and immigration continued from book one with additional examples through various human and inhuman characters. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t captivated in the way I was by the first book — for me there was too much time spent evoking the time and place through description when I prefer character interaction. Also, the overall tone felt more sorrowful than I remember book one, which is perhaps more realistic, but less satisfying. While book one brought multiple cultures together through these (non-human) representatives, this book felt more like the follow up on a couple in love but with such different essences that they were heading for an inevitable divorce (my impression — not what actually happens). For those who haven’t read the first book, she does a decent summary of the important background and events in the first few chapters.

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 June 8th, 2021.

Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

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

1941, Oahu: Daisy Wilder — high school drop out, gifted horse trainer, and sole support for her widowed and non-functioning mother — is out diving for supper when the world changes. It’s December 7th and it’s Pearl Harbor. She feels the vibration of hundreds of Japanese planes in the sea.

This book is an ode to female friendship, love, and … learning the intricacies of the then brand new weapon — RADAR. Daisy becomes a newly minted WARD (Women’s Air Raid Defense) and dives into learning everything there is to know to be able to support the war effort in this capacity. While there is romance, what I liked about this book is that it really follows Daisy’s growth and development through multiple facets in her life. Fully half of the book is focused on her war work — what she learns, what she experiences, what gets in her way and how she overcomes obstacles. Often in a romance the heroine has a kind of pretend career with no depth while she goes after her personal hunk. In this book she tackles everything you should be tackling in your twenties — meaningful work, good friends, and a life partner. I was impressed by the (not dull, not dry, not boring) descriptions of the organization and implementation of the war work — using radar to spot planes and ships, vectoring in pilots in trouble, and traffic filtering. Really pretty fascinating and not at all typical women’s fiction fare.

To be honest the writing was OK but not great. There are a lot of cliches, some characters are extremely shallow (the “bad” guys), and some of the action was choppy. However, the story was engrossing, I liked the portrayal of most characters, and I really enjoyed myself while reading it!

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Loved this book! Motherless Esme grows up in the Scriptorium — OED prime editor James Murray’s repurposed garden shed — playing under the table as her father and other lexicographers labor over entries for the decades long effort that will result in the magnificent Oxford English Dictionary.

As she grows older and becomes more involved in the work, Esme begins to notice patterns in the words that are excluded and the definitions that lean away from certain interpretations. She begins to collect words — women’s words, bawdy words, words spoken but never written from the poor and illiterate. Her awakening to the world around her via the medium of the constituent pieces of the English is simultaneously subtle and stunning. Spanning and encompassing the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, it is a phenomenal coming-of-age story with intellectual and emotional growth circumscribed on the story.

Excellent writing with detailed and fascinating descriptions of the process of compiling a dictionary from scratch including solicitation, editing, typesetting, and printing. Wonderful characters including Esme, her Da, the individual lexicographers, her Godmother Edith (also a contributor / editor), and the Murray’s maid Lizzie who serves as a kind of mother figure. While Esme is fictional, many of the other named characters are not, and Williams does a skilled job at weaving Esme and her ideas into an historically accurate narrative.

Highly recommended.

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 April 6th, 2021.

All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss (Literary Fiction / YA)

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

All the Little Hopes is a double coming-of-age story set in a North Carolina tobacco farming community from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Thirteen-year old Lucy Brown lives with her family on a tobacco and honey producing farm when she meets Allie Bert Tucker (Bert) who was shipped away from her Asheville mountain home when her mother died. The story alternates between their voices as they rapidly move from strangers to best friends to family. Lucy worships Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective; Bert wants more than the “puny life” she was headed towards back home. They both get what they want when a German POW camp provides labor nearby and men — not the nicest of men — start disappearing.

The story is firmly embedded in factual events and surroundings — WWII on the home front with a beeswax contract with the government; cheap labor from a nearby POW camp and community misgivings; an entire world of German glass marbles and the ubiquity of earned marble skills; purple honey with potentially healing properties; and Shape Note Singing (look it up — it’s cool) as examples. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, segregation, and attitudes are matter-of-factly included without being the focus on the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is billed as Literary Fiction but could easily serve as YA. It’s a small and local story painted on a big and global canvas that gives insight into young lives maturing under the auspices of war, propaganda, and local culture. Great characters and an intriguing plot as told from the perspective of youngsters who were forced to gather information piecemeal and fit it into their own emerging mesh of internal knowledge.

Some good quotes:

“I don’t tell Bert that sometimes I wonder if Irene’s heart is too small. She isn’t very amiable, and she’s stingy with kind words, like she’s scared she’s going to run out. It must be tiresome being Irene.”

“It’s got bits and pieces that glue me together when I’m coming apart.”

“It ain’t nice to shine a light on the ugly, but the ugly came home with Whiz and sits in our front yard.”

“We’ve crossed some invisible line into the land of beguile, and I feel a power I never knew before.”

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 July 27th, 2021.

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb (Memoir)

Writing: 4/5 Coverage: 5/5
Lori Gottlieb likes to document her life in a series of simultaneously hysterical and insightful installments. Marry Him is focused on her dating life — at 41 she finds herself an (intentional) single mother, looking for a life partner and having trouble. She brings us along as she consults with friends, matchmakers, a rabbi, and a dating coach with episodes of online and speed dating. There are some valuable insights (which I try to summarize below) and it’s a fun read. My favorite parts were her interactions with the dating coach — Evan Marc Katz. Like therapy sessions you watch him call her out blow-by-blow on the (bad) habits she brings to her search for love. The forced reflection is fascinating.

Some of my favorite insights (** indicates favorite-favorite!):
• People tend to focus on objective and unimportant criteria (height, looks, clothes, shared interests) and not on the important subjective criteria like shared values and goals.
• Stop looking for what’s wrong with people — instead focus on what is right and have compassion for the “not as good.” Make a list of what a partner would have to put up with to be with you and think about how you would like to be considered under those circumstances. **
• Be careful of the assumptions you make — Gottlieb would infer whole (usually incorrect) personalities from tiny little comments or statements in a profile.
• Stop looking for a one-stop shopping life partner — nobody can be everything to you, and it is unfair pressure to apply!
• Be a sufficer rather than a maximizer. A sufficer says “this one is good enough” while a maximizer is always wondering if there is something better out there.
• Looking for instant chemistry — many women give up on a man after one date because “they didn’t feel it” or “there were no sparks.” Katz points out that real intimacy (and sparks) often come later and initial sparks distract you from the red flags until it’s too late to unhook easily.
• Understand the basic rules of biology — a man of similar age may be looking for a younger woman to start a family with. No use being annoyed — it’s just the way it is. (Personally I have always found it interesting that while women thought it fair to date older men during their younger years, leaving the male half of the cohort dateless, they aren’t happy when the tables turn at the other end of the time scale.)

In many ways I felt this book focused on a certain type of woman — New York, Jewish, and neurotic — but the advice / messages are valuable for people of any age or gender who are looking for love. For me there was a little too much repetition and a few too many anecdotes — but I completely enjoyed her writing, clarity, and humor. Much more fun to read (and probably more insightful) than a dry self-help book on the same topic.

Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction)

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

A wild coming-of-age story — Vera is the daughter of the Barbary Coast’s most successful (and infamous) Madam (Rose) and is raised by a “proper” Swedish widow (Morie) who lives on that income. At 15 Vera is a “scrawny and sharp-tongued girl” seething with a fervent desire for more: more time with her real mother, more options, more life. And then the 1906 San Francisco quake hits.

With a cast of unforgettable characters deployed across unforgettable scenes, we follow Vera through adventures during and after the quake and resulting fire (which burned 28,000 buildings and 500 city blocks). From Rose’s “gold house” on Lafayette Square to Chinatown to the many encampments for the suddenly homeless (400,000 people), the novel depicts the new mixtures of uppercrusters, corrupt politicians, wandering orphans, and the military with their overrun field hospitals — all adhering to their own sense of morality, loyalty, and their survival instinct.

Real life personalities Alma Spreckles, Abe Ruef, Caruso, and Mayor Eugene Schmitz (the quake occurring on the eve of his arrest on corruption charges) all play parts. The writing is full of details such as the ingredients in Dills cough medicine (chloroform and a heroin derivative). Completely brings to life the time and the place for a variety of characters with different backgrounds. Could not put it down.

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 2nd, 2021.

China by Edward Rutherfurd (Historical Fiction)

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

A sweeping novel of China from 1839 – 1900, from the Opium Wars through China’s Century of Humiliation to the suppression of the Boxer rebellion. It’s the story of the conflicts surrounding the forced opening of China to Western trade, customs, and religion. The story is told through a variety of characters who span cultures, classes, backgrounds, and professions (including plenty of women characters with different roles, abilities and agendas). Multiple generations of characters such as a young English merchant trying to make his fortune (through opium), an upright Mandarin charged with enforcing the emperor’s ban of opium, a palace eunuch, a peasant girl, a mercenary pirate, a missionary, a Manchu bannerman, the emperor and various concubines and princes, and some craftsmen. The characters have depth, too. They reflect on what is happening, how they feel about their own role, and how to achieve their goals while maintaining their values (or how to shift their values to attain their goals).

I love that history itself is the protagonist in this novel, rather than the background setting for individual stories. Everything is told through the personal stories of the characters — either through participation in the action or through conversations between neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Even past history is exemplified in ritual and description of the origin of individual morality. This approach brings to the fore what it was like to live through these times with only direct observations and rumors as sources of information. And how very different that information was depending on your location, background, profession, culture and connections. Additionally, there were so many fascinating descriptions of various ways of life — all told in a style that was interesting because someone was learning it (e.g. a craft) or going through it — so always real and never dry. This was a long book, and I literally had trouble putting it down. (As a warning, one of these “fascinating” descriptions was about foot binding, and I skimmed through trying not to read that at all. Of all the atrocities visited upon humans, this is the one I find most horrific and barbaric (yes, even more than female circumcision which comes in a close second).

This is my first Rutherfurd and I’m now going back to read more. Meticulously researched, personal and accurate — a kind of modern day Michener for those old enough to remember classics like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Source, or Caravans. After reading this, I have a far more in-depth understanding about the relationship between China and the West and of life in the 19th century.

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 May 11th, 2021.