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.

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.

Almost Human by HC Denham (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 2/5
A cautionary tale of a future where AI based humanoid robots may be slowly taking over the planet while the human population they are intended to serve remains blissfully unaware. All but one — the utterly competent, perfectly empathic, friendly humanoid robots just give Stella Mayfield the creeps.

While the plot had potential, I really didn’t enjoy this book. The characters were extremely stereotyped (and really, although Stella was a Biologist with a PhD, she behaved like the stereotypical neurotic woman while the men behaved like stereotypical men — completely out of touch with their feelings blah blah blah. The techie robot engineer was the biggest stereotype of all (and spoke some weird dialect that didn’t match anything I’m familiar with and I live and work in Silicon Valley!). There is very little science and very little plot — instead it includes lots of filler encompassing a lot of clichéd relationship stuff that had little to do with the plot. Writing is decent enough that I finished the book, but nothing special, and the end was completely predictable. Could have made a decent short story with better characters and more philosophic depth.

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.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

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

A heartwarming piece of historically accurate fiction. Grace Bennet — 23 — heads to London just in time for Britain to enter the war and the Blitz to begin. Without any kind of reference, she is lucky to get a job at Primrose Hill Books, complete with the requisite curmudgeonly owner, Mr. Evans.

This is the story of Grace’s growth into a stellar human being and unassuming pillar of the community. We share her experiences as a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, her discovery of books and reading, and her ability to find ways to bring some light into people’s lives.

While similar stories have been told before, Martin’s depictions of the British spirit and the way the community comes together in the face of terrible adversity were completely inspiring. I was also, of course, enraptured by her transformation into a bonafide Reader of Books.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 20th, 2021.

Thin Ice by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

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

I’m loving this new (to me) mystery series. Thin Ice is book one which I’m reading out of order after enjoying the pre-release of book two (Cold Wind). Beth Rivers has run away to the small (fictional) town of Benedict, Alaska to hide from her still-on-the-loose kidnapper. Growing up with the local police chief (her grandfather), she has a talent for crime scene measurement and an education in deduction. She is also a well-known (by pseudonym) crime novelist. All make her useful in helping solve cases in her new (temporary?) home. The plots of both books blend the solving of a current murder with Beth’s slow memory recall of her harrowing kidnapping experience and the search for the perpetrator.

So what attracts me to this series? I love the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness; I love the lack of filler and just-the-right-level and not over-the-top amount of tension; but mostly I love the characters who populate the town: Viola, the tough-as-nails manager of the halfway house; Orin, the peace-sign flashing librarian and computer genius; Gril, the relocated Chicagoan grizzled police chief; and others. This reminds me of what I originally loved about the Louise Penny novels — characters that I can both admire and like!

The writing is decent — clear, not full of fluff, moves along. I like the straightforward, first person tone — as she is telling the story Beth admits to her ignorance, reflects on how she is handling things and what she needs to do to improve, and what she is thinking when she moves forward with “stupid” decisions.

I haven’t tried her other series but I’ll probably give them a try!

The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (Fiction)

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

A heartwarming story of three lost souls who come together in a small farming community (Hood River, Oregon) to find their place in life — one with purpose and people to care about. Alice Holtzman has worked in the County Planning Office for twenty years but her passion is beekeeping and the dream of one day running her own orchard. Jake Stevenson is eighteen and trapped in a wheelchair after a stupid stunt at a high school party. His proudest achievement? The world’s tallest Mohawk (at 16.5 inches). Other than hair maintenance, however, he is just killing time and soaking in regret. Harry Stokes is a “passenger in his own life” — desperate for a job with a criminal history and a now-condemned trailer as a living space.

I loved the main characters and the manner in which the author describes the way they each find each other and a solid, “feels right” path moving forward. There is a relatively simplistic overlay plot concerning the evil Supragro company that is pushing a toxic pesticide spray that is lethal to bees — and how the community comes together to successfully fight it. The “bad” guys are fairly two-dimensional — stereotypical greedy, powerful, and corrupt men — but I did like the way social media and video was used to expose what was happening. I also very much enjoyed the descriptions of Hood River and rural life.

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

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Fiction)

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

This was a hard book to read — not because of the ugly truths it laid bare (that too) but because of the ugly truths the author calls for: black revenge in the form of “Apocalypse sweeps the South. Vengeance visits the North.”

It’s the story of two siblings. Ella has her “Thing” — a deep and growing power that she spends years learning to control: clairvoyance, astral projection, and the ability to destroy with a glance. Her younger brother Kevin was born into violence: he is “Riot Baby” — born just as the Rodney King riots sparked. Kevin’s life is supposed to represent that of a typical black urban youth. We strobe through it: a smart kid doing well in school; a kid taunting cops; a failed armed robbery attempt; 7 years in Rikers waiting for an ever-delayed trial; parole release into a “sponsored community” with a chip in his thumb to keep him both tracked and drugged as necessary (the author extrapolates seamlessly into this future vision of released prisoners). The word “n**ga” is ubiquitous in the dialog as in every single sentence.

Onyebuchi’s writing is phenomenal — he brings the people, culture, and environment to life. He illustrates societal issues via Kevin’s life while Ella serves as the symbol of black anger and black power — the former slowly coming to a boil as she learns how to control it and turn it into the latter.

Reading this book you are immersed in the author’s feeling of what life is like in this environment. And it’s horrible and depressing. He doesn’t hide the fact that individuals are contributing to their own problems: Kevin didn’t have to try to try to rob a bank, he didn’t have to harass the cops when they patrolled, he could have stayed in school and taken advantage of what appeared to have been a good brain. But Onyebuchi appears to lay the blame squarely in White America’s lap calling out (fairly) the police brutality and discriminatory justice system. Like most fiction, the information included is emotionally powerful but also anecdotal. While the studies definitely show the discriminatory patterns, is it really the case that every black urban youth is destined for this future? Is there nothing short of the revolution he calls for that would help? Is every policeman who goes into these neighborhoods an a*hole bent on harassing the residents? Could we not try to do something about the bangers who commit far more murder of black residents than any number of cops? I know these are complicated issues, and I know as a white middle class woman I can’t possibly know what it would be like to be born into this life — but I also know it is the rare revolution (I can only think of one) that doesn’t just cause a lot of murder and destruction and end up in a similar situation with just another set of people with power.

Bottom line — powerful book, worth reading but very disturbing. One pretty dark picture of modern urban black life — I hope in future books Onyebuchi can come up with some positive actions towards improving things rather than revolution and rebirth. Definitely an author to watch — I’ll have to go back and look at his young adult fiction; this is his first adult novel.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Mystery)

Coopers Chase retirement village — a place where everyone has done something interesting with his or her life and everyone has a story. And trouble with technology, memory, and joints. They aren’t afraid to play the dementia card if it suits them. The Thursday murder club meets every — you guessed it — Thursday to talk about cold cases to see if they can solve the cases to its own satisfaction. That is, until a real murder falls into their lap. And then another, and possibly a third.

Sounds like your everyday cozy but it isn’t at all. The ocatgenarians of the club are interesting and smart: Elizabeth, with the mysterious background and friends in high and low places who all seem to owe her favors; Ibrahim, the retired psychiatrist, who pores over the cases he failed; Ron, the former trade union leader who loves a chance to get back on the stage; and Joyce, the newest addition, who has the often underappreciated skill of bringing everyone together while remaining invisible herself.

The plot is convoluted with all sorts of intertwining stories, some with actual bearing on the case and others simply with bearing on individual lives. Great writing that had me in stitches, completely gripped, and even tearful at times.

My one word summary: fun! Make that two words: Great fun!

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

 

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.