What To Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

I fell in love with these characters.

This is a young adult boy meets girl story, but the boy is David Drucker, who may or may not have Aspergers Syndrome (he probably does, he spends a fair amount of time analyzing  the DSM with respect to his personality) and the girl is Kit Lowell, still in shock from her father’s accidental death just a month before.  Kit finds David weird, but “good weird”; David has Kit on his “trust list” as detailed in the Harriet-the-spy style notebook his sister Miney helped him start to record and reference the rules of social interaction.

I won’t give away any of the plot – suffice it to say that the things that happen are interesting, plausible, surprising, and give rise to reflection and growth on the part of the characters.  The story is told in their alternating voices.

I spent some more time wondering about why stories about people on the autistic spectrum interest me so much and I think its the aspect of the syndrome whereby they don’t get nuance, don’t get the social signals, and always tell it straight.  I think the ability to lie and manipulate (even for good) is really overrated.  It’s so refreshing (and relaxing) to talk to someone (or read about someone talking to someone else) and know that what they say is actually what they mean.  I think the world would be a better place if people could actually say what they thought and other people could receive that information without excess offense and emotion. I would like to be sensitive to what other people think and feel, and to be aware that they don’t necessarily share my background, experiences, or opinions; but if I have to modify what I say in order to please or calm them, then we aren’t really having an honest conversation.  Minority opinion, I know!

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

The spellbinding adventure story of a British expedition to Peru in 1860 to steal Cinchona trees for their desperately needed Quinine production capabilities. Merrick Tremayne is a badly injured ex-East India Company employee.  Master gardener, one-time opium smuggler and tea plantation manager, he is now living off the “benevolence” of an angry brother in a crumbling estate in Cornwall. Enter Sir Clement Markham – a bit of a swashbuckler with a title – and the backing of the East India Company, and off they go.

The story gets odder and odder as it progresses.  Not a typical adventure story, we meet quinine barons anxious to keep a monopoly, travel to a village in the mountains with very strange and ancient Incan technology, and encounter stone statues that behave oddly.  Most importantly, Merrick is befriended by a large Indian fluent in Quechuan, Spanish, and a kind of archaic English and it is this friendship that slowly takes priority in the story.

I was completely pulled in bit by bit and I don’t think I once figured out where the story was going next.  Pulley’s prose is mesmerizing – I had to slow myself down so I could read every word.  I’ve ordered her previous novel (The Watchmaker on Filigree Street) and hope it is every bit as good!

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Writing: 4; Characters: 4; Plot: 4

Tags: Fiction, first-person narration, good for book clubs

Ginny Moon is an autistic teen living with her “Forever” pareGinnymoonnts.  She calls them “Forever Mom” and Forever Dad”.  Soon, she will have a “Forever Sister”. But Ginny has an obsession with the Baby Doll she had 5 years ago in her original home before she was taken away for abuse and neglect. With single minded determination she works hard to fulfill the responsibility she feels towards her Baby Doll with some pretty surprising results.

I’m fascinated by Autism for some reason – I find brains that work differently to be intriguing and there is something very appealing about the direct, lie avoidant, non conformist, approach that autistic brains seem to take.  I’ve always liked this line from a poster written by someone with autism about neurotypicals (the rest of us): “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.”

In any case, Ginny Moon is a delightful book.  Ludwig appears to do a good job of presenting the story from Ginny’s perspective, but of course we are all listening to the story with our neurotypical responses so reading the story often gave me brain confusion as I struggled to rectify the two – it was fun to experience! Benjamin Ludwig and his wife adopted a teenager with autism so I’m guessing this book is written with some real experience.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Writing: 2  Characters: 2  Plot: 2 (on scale from 1-5)

Tags: Mystery

GlassHousesIn this installment of the Inspector Gamache series, he tackles the drug cartels and the fentanyl crisis (which we are reminded frequently kills 50 people for every kilo sold) all out of the seemingly peaceful sanctity of Three Pines. Meanwhile, a disturbing, hooded figure takes up residence on the Village Green and silently stares, bringing a sense of forboding to the sleepy town. Modeled after a Cobrador, or Conscience with a capital C, everyone in the Village feels certain it has come for them.

This is a hard review to write.  I’m a huge Louise Penny fan – I loved the first 11 books in the Inspector Gamache series and eagerly preordered the 12th, pouncing on it as soon as it arrived.  Perhaps those high expectations are part of why I found this book so absolutely dreadful.  Had it been any other author I would have stopped reading after the first couple of chapters.  The writing is simply bad.  It reads like a first draft. Characters that I loved, that had wonderful depth in previous books, have become caricatures of themselves. I literally do not like these people any more.

The structure is a big part of the problem.  The book opens at the murder trial with Gamache on the witness stand.  We don’t find out who was actually murdered until 50% of the way through the book.  It is 75% of the way through the book before we find out who the accused murderer is.  There is very little action (until the very end) and the dramatic tension is maintained not by what is happening but by what we as readers aren’t told.  Multiple chapters end with Gamache and Beauvoir looking at a new piece of startling information and exchanging serious looks – but the reader isn’t let in on the secret.  About 60% of the book alternates between repetitious hand-wringing (about the drug crisis, the scary guy on the green, or Gamache’s approach (or apparent lack of approach) to solving the problem) and bland filler about food and drink (and by the way, for a novel focussed on how terrible the drug crisis is, our heroes drink A LOT!).  That is just sloppy writing!

The last chapters in the book, where the action finally comes to a head, reminds me of the old Louise Penny.  I enjoyed reading that, but it in no way made up for the hours I spent slogging through the rest.  I know that Ms Penny’s husband died, and I know that writing was her escape during a very, very, difficult time and I feel bad giving it a bad review, but I can’t pretend something is good when it is really very, very bad!  I wish she had gone back and and done some editing before releasing.  I will certainly give her the benefit of the doubt and give the next book (if there is a next book) a try, but this book was truly awful.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

A beautifully written book about art, life, loss, and the morality of revenge that spans three Golden Ages – 17th century Holland, New York City in the 1950s, and Sydney in the year 2000.  According to the author, each a time of “bullish optimism with its own dark underbelly”.

Sara de Vos is a fictional character based on Dutch women painters of the 1600s – she is the first female to be admitted to the Guild of St Luke (for painters and artists). Ellie Shipley is an Art History grad student at Columbia in the late 50s, with a lucrative side line in art consultancy and conservancy; Marty De Groot is a wealthy lawyer whose painting – the only de Vos painting known to exist – has been stolen from his house and replaced with a forgery.  Although he feels it has brought nothing but unhappiness and early death to his family over their three hundred years of ownership, he feels compelled to track down the forger.

A well-paced story sprinkled with lucid technical details about painting, restoration (and forgery), and the care and transportation of art works as they cross the globe on inter-museum loans.  Filled with Tom Wolfe-style social commentary (but less biting) and richly drawn characters with plausible insight into their own desires, motivations, and perils.  It’s a shame the paintings described don’t exist as you’ll finish the novel longing to see them.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Wow! Another great book!  This one defies easy description – the book jacket blurb doesn’t do it justice at all.  Eleanor Oliphant, as the title suggests, is completely fine but really isn’t.  Having survived a truly traumatic event in her childhood (which we learn about via small hints because even she has completely repressed the memory) she is simply ill prepared for living, even though she goes through the motions.

Eleanor is very smart with a huge vocabulary, an interest in the classics, perfect pitch and a complete disinterest in the opinions and practices of those around her.  The story is told in her voice – reminiscent of the narrator of The Rosie Project – as she works her way through the landscape of human interaction and practices like the proverbial man from Mars. The mood is humorous with moment of tear-inducing poignancy – not heavy handed or depressing but the warm impact of even the simplest kind word or touch.

A chance encounter with a handsome, would-be rock star stimulates Eleanor to embark on a project to bring about true love with the man she has identified as The One.  Don’t be fooled, this is not a rom-com, and Eleanor has serious work to do to learn how to actually wake up and live her life (hint:  the rock star, while triggering this desire to live, does not figure highly in the result – I meant it when I said no rom-com!)

A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass

I love Julia Glass’ books – she is one of those authors who can spin a tale around characters that can both surprise me and make me happy to have their acquaintance. Every novel draws the reader in with the rich inner lives of multiple thought-provoking characters paraded through unexpected situations and events.

A House Among the Trees revolves around a character who is dead before the book begins. Mort Lear is a very successful children’s author and illustrator (think Maurice Sendak in terms of fame) who dies suddenly when he falls off a roof while trying to fix something. The impact of his life (and his untimely death) on a number of characters is explored throughout the novel. Tommie – Tomasina Daulair – has been Lear’s assistant and platonic living partner for over 20 years and has been made executor of his estate, a position she finds overwhelming; Nicholas Greene is a famous British movie star who has been hired to play Mort in an upcoming film called “The Inner Lear” based on an interview Mort gave years ago alluding to abuse in a garden shed in Tucson where he and his mother were living; Merry is the curator of a new museum devoted to children’s literature who expects to receive all of Mort’s artwork and papers (and doesn’t).

Each chapter progresses a day or two as the characters try to move forward on projects that have been rudely shocked by Lear’s death. Important backstories are inserted as needed explaining how Tommie was first drawn into Lear’s orbit, how previous loss has prepared each of them, and how the AIDS epidemic influenced Lear’s life and writing.

High marks for plot, character development, and writing style – it’s not often that you get all three!

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

Cooper Gosling receives an Artist & Writers great from the NSF to join an eclectic group of intense scientists (“Beakers”) and maintenance staff (“Nailheads”) at the South Pole for a year in order to find inspiration and come to terms with the recent suicide of her twin brother. But that is only the tip of the iceberg (ha ha) of the plot for this deeply engaging and satisfying novel.

There are several different plot lines –  in addition to Cooper and her artistic struggles, there is a detailed story line devoted to the competing theories about the origins of the Universe, along with the scientists espousing them and the experiments designed to prove them.  This is well described and aligns with reality (according to Stanford News from March 17, 2014).  Also a lot of great description of the station(s), the people who fund them, maintain them, and work in them. Throw in some interesting political and ethical issues in the form of a climate skeptic who has been given research funds to disprove climate change due to human activity and the way he is treated by other researchers at the Pole and you have an engrossing set of stories.  Compelling from start to finish.

SPOILER ALERT – I have one small issue with the book. Frank Pavano, the climate skeptic, is at first presented as a reasonable man with some reasonable arguments for the research he is pursuing looking for alternate causes (heliocentric) for global warming.  There is some great discussion about how he is treated by the other researchers and how objectivity in science should be maintained.  However, towards the end the author made it clear that he was on the take from a group of politicians and oil companies and threw a whole conspiracy theory slant into what had been interesting scientific debate.  She also painted an unrealistic (to me) portrait of how Dr. Pavano became this dishonest scientist. It made me realize how much I rely on the author’s imagination and experience to paint portraits of people in different environments. In this particular case I think she did a really poor job – not up to the level of her other characters and story arcs.

That aside, South Pole Station was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Lydia has established a life for herself after suffering a particularly traumatic event as a child. She works in the Bright Ideas Bookstore (named for the light bulb factory previously in residence) and collects “Book Frogs” – lost souls who inhabit the book store and find the same solace in reading as she does.  One day, seemingly of nowhere, Joey, her favorite Book Frog, hangs himself from the third floor just after closing.

Alternating between the present and her childhood we are presented with two mysteries that slowly resolve together.  More of a novel than a standard mystery, there is real attention to character, motivation, and tangled relationships. Books, libraries, librarians and a love of reading are ubiquitous.   Many of the characters are troubled and  a lot of effort is made to motivate their actions from their experiences. I found many of these connections be a bit too pat, more following a script based on current assumptions around the causes of social problems rather than any real experiences or insight.  However, that aside, it’s an easy, interesting, and a real page turner PLUS the author is a long time bookstore employee and is married to a librarian so he definitely walks the walk!

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith

An apt title for this 12th installment of the Scotland based, Isabel Dalhousie series  There are many McCall Smith fans who shy away from these books.  This is understandable.  Isabel is not warm like Precious Ramotswe nor is she quirky like the denizens of 44 Scotland Street.  Isabel is a Philosopher, she is editor-in-chief (and owner) of the Review of Applied Ethics.  She is a good person, a moral person, even a generous person, but she is reserved and absurdly lucky in life (independently wealthy and cohabiting with a gorgeous, younger, musician who is head over heels for her).  In this book, another character tells her she is “muted” and she is surprised and a little hurt, but it is absolutely true!

The novel does have a thin layer of plot – Isabel is asked to look into the moral character of a man who has reputedly extracted money from wealthy women through nefarious means – but it is even more thin than usual. However, Isabel’s main activity is musing.  In fact, “Isabelle Muses” would be an apt subtitle for the series. She muses when she should be paying attention to people, her work, or the world around her.  I love her musings – they are far reaching, exploratory, and center around the kinds of things I like to think about myself.  A sampling of topics from this volume: population growth, enlightened capitalism, poetry, Churchill’s growl, psychopaths vs sociopaths, selfies, neuroscience, the generous obfuscation of titles, and the letters column of The Scotsman which is the “spiritual home of the combative and the contrary”. So while I don’t open these books in anticipation of spending time with a close personal friend, I do anticipate meeting with a very interesting conversationalist and this is why I remain a fan of this series.