We Are The Light by Matthew Quick (Fiction)

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

I’m blown away by this book and the way the author has managed to write about an incredibly difficult subject so powerfully without once becoming maudlin, trite or descending into Hallmark territory. I can tell you that I out and out cried (and not quietly) through the last third because of the way the author managed to capture the essence of such deeply felt and universal core emotions in mere words. I’m not doing this justice because I don’t have that skill — you’ll have to just trust me!

The story is about a town which has experienced an inexpressible tragedy. It does not focus on the tragedy itself but on the slow process of healing — for everyone — and the way Lucas Goodgame — a high school counselor led the way while simultaneously struggling himself. The narrative is contained in a series of letters Lucas writes to his Jungian analyst who inexplicably closed his practice after the event and stopped responding.

For all that I can’t remember the last time I cried so much at a book, I was never once depressed by it — far more inspired by it. The last line was a brilliant pulling together of the whole.

I was introduced to a new (for me) word which I just loved: numinous — having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.

While there are a lot of great quotes in this book, I don’t feel that I can include them without ruining the flow of the book, so … you’ll have to read them in context yourself!

Thank you to Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on November 1st, 2022.

The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White (Mystery / Fiction)

I love Karen White’s Tradd Street series — ghosts, mysteries, and the kind of characters you’d want to befriend (while simultaneously being tempted to wring their little high maintenance necks at times). This book is the first in a spin-off series about Nola Trenholm (step daughter of Tradd Street’s protagonist) who is setting up shop on her own in the Big Easy (where I am conveniently visiting atm for the first jazz fest in three years — hooray!)

Nola buys an historic fixer-upper that comes complete with dissatisfied spirits, a long festering mystery and plenty of architectural pearls.

Well-written and plenty of fun. High in puzzle solving but low in stress.

Tne World of Pondside by Mary Helen Stefaniak (Audio Book / Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5
A rather bizarre story about an “old geezers” home, an online game designed to allow players to experience things their (old geezer) bodies no longer allow, and Robert (the game’s designer) — a (youngish) man near the end of his battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

While initially appearing as a murder mystery (Robert’s body — in wheelchair — is discovered in the pond at the very beginning), it’s really more of a novel following the lives of a set of pretty interesting characters ranging from the “kitchen boy” to the facility’s frustrated director, the nurses and CNAs, and of course, the many inhabitants — all in different states of physical or mental decline.

I listened to this on audio — the reader was very good. It was a little bit slow with more filler than I like, although once I realized it wasn’t actually a murder mystery, the filler magically turned into character development and I was happier. Quite a bit of the story revolved around the “kitchen boy” — who had helped Robert implement the game. A high school dropout who was a bit of a loner, I found him likable but kind of slow for my taste. Still, he did develop nicely giving a kind of hopeful view about those who don’t have an easy time making their way in our society.

Overall an interesting listen (I would probably have preferred to read as I could have made my way through it much faster, and it wouldn’t have felt so slow paced).

Thank you to Blackstone Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 19th, 2022.

Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson (Fiction)

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

This latest from the author of the uber bizarre The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here is another tale of weirdness focussed on two lonely and awkward teens (Frankie and Zeke) with nothing to do one summer in Nowheresville, Tennessee. Together they craft a poster with the captivating phrase “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us” and distribute it anonymously throughout the town with gobsmacking (British for astonishing) and kind of scary results. Decades later,a reporter tracks Frankie down, somehow having discovered her role in what became known as the “Coalfield Panic” and sends Frankie into a tailspin of fear.

It’s a coming-of-age story packed with trauma, art, young maybe-love, and some eye-opening insight as to how one can inadvertently have a big impact on the world. Wilson’s books tend to be unconventional stories with somewhat broken characters that you like in spite of yourself. To be honest, while I did enjoy reading this, the story didn’t feel like it was enough to keep my interest for as long as it took to read the book, and the characters were broken (as expected) but somehow less appealing than in previous books. I got kind of bogged down in the middle. The phrase — albeit an interesting phrase — didn’t fascinate me quite enough to make the constant repetition anything other than dulling.

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 8th, 2022.

The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth (audio book)

Once their mother heads to the nursing home with an advanced case of early onset Alzheimers, sisters Tully and Rachel are shocked to find their father planning to marry a (much) younger woman — Heather. That is the basic premise of this family drama, but what starts as one kind of story rapidly turns into something else. Or does it? Rotating narration among the three girls, what emerges is gripping, surprising, and a little insidious. The chapters for each woman are narrated by a different reader, and they are all good (lovely Australian accents for those of us who like that kind of thing).

Good writing, lots of character depth, and plenty of slowly creeping plot twists.

Great for fans of Liane Moriarity.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 12th, 2022.

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley (Fiction)

A cheerful, happy, just-what-I-needed book. A series of commutes on the Waterloo lines (London) leads to a burgeoning group of friends centered on one larger-than-life Iona Iverson — previously an “It Girl” alongside Bea, the love of her life. Iona is a popular “magazine therapist” (not an Agony Aunt!) plying her trade at a women’s magazine, but her clueless boss is pushing her towards the door due to her advanced age (57). Meanwhile, her unofficial and unpaid break-all-the-norms-of-commuting business is thriving.

Watching the group coalesce, each facing his/her own problems (a teenage girl afraid to show her face at school, a successful banker rapidly losing his money, a husband so dull his wife can’t stand him, and a male nurse without the confidence to approach the bookworm with an overbearing boyfriend) is funny, poignant, and uplifting. Big kudos to the author for actually bringing out the assumptions we make about people we don’t know and showing how wrong we can be. Rather than taking the easy way out and subscribing to the always popular white male bashing, she lets the person who appears to be the “smart but sexist Manspreader,” turn out to be a pretty decent guy (see one of the quotes below). Kudos!

Some fun quotes:
“Sanjay wound the tape back in his head, re-examining it from a different angle. Perhaps Piers hadn’t actually been flaunting anything. Perhaps that was just what he’d wanted to see. Was he just as guilty of stereotyping as everyone else? The thought lodged in his brain like a festering splinter.”

“…peering at him through narrowed eyes, giving him the impression of being scanned by a supermarket checkout machine before being declared an unexpected item in the bagging area.”

“He was like an electrical appliance on standby — still plugged in, but not functioning — and she had no idea where to find the remote control.”

“Emmie, why on earth did you decide to go into advertising if you have such an inflexible conscience?”

“Shakespeare, she’d discovered, never used four words when twenty-six would do. He might be good at the whole play thing, but he’d be useless at writing the emergency evacuation instructions for an airline.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking, Pamela Dorman Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass (Literary Fiction)

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

Vigil Harbor — an historic town on the Atlantic Seaboard — is a kind of safe harbor for many of its residents. It feels protected from the ever increasing calamities of the broader world — rising oceans, increased acts of terrorism, epidemics. When a spate of divorces and a couple of strangers arrive —each with a hidden agenda — suddenly the problems of the world seem to hit a little closer to home.

Only ten years into the future, many of the characters are understandably living in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and despair. In the world (too well) portrayed by the author, Survival Studies has become a college major, climate change has diminished songbirds and summer fruit almost to extinction, coastal towns have been triaged into oblivion, various groups are hunkering down in survivalist bunkers, and eco-terrorism is on the rise with frequent and deadly bombings. One character suggests that humankind is busy “unbuilding the ark.” Other characters are stubbornly optimistic or simply moving on with their lives, adapting to a constantly changing reality as we humans have been doing for millennia.

A set of deeply drawn characters — a despairing biologist who believes he works in “marine hospice”; a retired English high school teacher bent on revenge; an optimistic architect who considers himself “an architect for the future, not the apocalypse”; a college drop out back home after a narrow escape; a brilliant landscaper still terrified of possible deportation after 40 years in the country; and others — all wind around each other while living, reflecting, worrying, and hoping. They are having children and consciously considering what it means to parent in a rapidly deteriorating landscape. They are creating art, appreciating beauty, and finding people and places to love. They are finding ways to define and follow their passions to try to make the world a better place (for some definition of better and some definition of place).

Julia Glass is one of my favorite writers — as in the actual use of words to describe, set a mood, bring to life. Her vocabulary is both large and up-to-date (it’s possible that she made up several of the more modern slang words). She creates these amazing turns of phrase — the words literally turning / tumbling around in the phrase — and so many of her sentences are gorgeous little nuggets that I grew tired of underlining. She does a pretty interesting job of describing nature, pieces of art, and different architectures. I say “interesting” because I typically don’t enjoy descriptions — I don’t visualize from words well — but her descriptions touch on more than just the visual, and I find myself reading slowly, rapt. Her depiction of technology evolution and the resulting shifts in human behavior over the next ten years was seamlessly and utterly believably done.

I valued the personal reflections, discussions, and general interactions between characters — each with sometimes wildly different perceptions of reality — what was happening, what was important, what could be done, who to blame. I appreciated the sometimes subtle differences between generations, culminating in a last few pages describing the thought processes of a young (middle school age) boy whose worldview had obviously been molded by the events of his short life.

Overall, a book that made me think, made me understand other people a little better, and gave me a set of characters that I would enjoy knowing better. I did stick to reading during the day because I am easily anxietified (my word) and wanted to be able to sleep.

Some good quotes:
“The slivers of grief in your flesh dissolve or work their way out. One day they’re gone, even if they leave you with tiny, whisper-thin scars.”

“Celestino is not a man who thinks that thorough knowledge of a person’s history, much less his or her emotional “journey,” equates with greater trust or deeper love.”

“The art she made was the obsession reaching for a language.”

“Did all intelligent, creative people need to be tangled up in thickets of neurosis, their psyches riddled with the stigmata of previous heartache?”

“She was living on less than a shoestring; she was living on a filament of fishing line.”

“I am a living redundancy. I realize: the wife not so much replaced as deleted, just as I might take my green pen … and blithely score through a student’s unnecessary adverb when the verb can stand on its philandering own.”

“Time will tell,” said Margo. “As it alway does, the fucker.”

“Is this the beginning of old age, this irrepressible pull of futility? My own father lapsed into a storm cloud of silence once he retired.”

“But that was one of my worst faults: fretting over past choices when they have been chiseled into history.”

“His step father refers to his generation as Generation F: failure, fuckup, fatalist; take your pick.”

This book will be published on May 3, 2022. Many thanks to the author for giving me an early reader copy

Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe (Fiction — Audio book)

Summer 1999 — the Robert Taylor Homes (aka the Projects) on State Street on the South Side of Chicago. 12-year old Felicia (Fefe) is happy jumping rope on the third floor porch with her three friends: Precious, the daughter of a pastor; Stacia, member of the notorious, gang-affiliated, Buchanan family; and newcomer Tanya, the ultra-timid, obviously neglected daughter of a crackhead on the 10th floor. Everything changes during this fateful summer: The Chicago Housing Authority is demolishing all of the Project buildings on State Street, and theirs is slated to go next; her brother, Meechee, is taken by the police in the middle of the night in a warrantless raid; random gunfire becomes more frequent; and Stacia begins to favor the family business over jumping rope.

Labeled a novel, the story reads like a memoir, and it would be easy to believe that much of the story comes from the author’s personal experience as she was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes in this time period. The writing is excellent (I have no quotes as I listened to it on audio), and the reader is absolutely excellent — perfect pacing, differentiated and consistent voices for the multiple characters, and beautifully timbre in her voice. Told in the first person from Fefe’s perspective, we follow her through that summer and then on through her life for the next twenty years, giving her an opportunity to revisit the turning point that summer was and to get closure on some of the events. It’s a gritty and truthful telling with added introspective commentary as Fefe comes of age in the midst of gangs, police crackdowns, drugs, single mothers on the one hand, and a strong community, loving family, and supportive clergy, teachers, and neighbors on the other. I love the advice she is given, the wide array of people from whom she gets it, and what she does with it. Fefe is a success story — she gets out of the Projects and finds her vocation in helping others — unlike some of the friends she had who do not have some of the same advantages offseting the meanness, cruelty, and unfairness of the environment.

This is a coming-of-age story, not a political treatise. Her conclusion near the very end is that “We are not the originator of our misfortunes — we are all the victims of it.” Her point: people do what they have to do to survive. I would have been a little happier with some ideas on what creates these misfortunes and how everyone — including those who live amidst it — could contribute to making it better.

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 14th, 2022.

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang (Audio Book – Fiction)

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

Fine Chao Restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin, serves mouthwatering Chinese food to the local Chinese American community. While the jacket blurb promises us the dead body of the patriarch and all around not-very-nice-guy, this doesn’t appear until roughly half way through the book. In the meantime, we are introduced to his three sons (Dagou, the brash head chef; Ming, a financial success overcome with self-hatred; and James, home from college for Christmas) along with Katherine, a stubborn but no longer wanted fiancee, and an entire community struggling to define itself in an environment that is not exactly hostile, but isn’t exactly welcoming either.

I listened to this on audio so had more trouble taking notes and identifying quotes. The writing is very good — with an excellent vocabulary and the ability to tease out individual personalities and issues for each of the distinct characters (even the dog!). The racially based and often insidious experiences of each character was felt and reacted to differently for a more subtle and (IMHO) realistic portrayal. I found the book deeply interesting, but not nearly as comic as the marketing blurb suggested. I’m honestly confused about why it is billed as a comedy (I have a hard time laughing at other people’s problems unless they themselves are making a joke of it). I also found it less tense than I expected (which is a plus, as who needs more tension in their life?). I was impressed that the book didn’t resolve in anything even approaching a formulaic way — another big plus!

In summary — definitely worth reading, more family drama than mystery, stereotype busting, and full of character depth.

Thank you to RB Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on February 11th, 2022.

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

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

This is one book where the marketing blurb is spot on, so I’m going to quote from it rather than trying to describe it myself: It is “an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.” Own Your Unconscious — a technology that enables recording your own unconscious memories, and the attendant Collective Unconscious arising from the blending of millions of such externalized memories is transforming the world — for better or worse. In a set of tangled vignettes connecting characters who are, in their way, each pursuing the answers to their own existential dilemmas, we follow their reactions, reflections, experiences, and goals in this rapidly changing dynamic.

I loved this book — full of the complexity and layering of life where we are all spinning in and out of our each others’ stories. Egan has fantastic insight into so many wildly different characters — full of depth and quirk with none of the shallow explanations for behavior we (too often IMHO) accept in fiction. Each vignette is written in a slightly different style, depending on the “voice” of the main character — I liked them all but my favorites were those told from the perspective of a troubled (and troubling) child, one from an autistic perspective, and one told in a set of text / emails spreading out to include ever more surprisingly (to them) connected characters. I wish I had drawn out a character map from the beginning because I sometimes lost track of current (and past) relationships. If you read Welcome to the Goon Squad, you will recognize several of the characters.

Plenty to think about — lots of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology applied to the social media ++ of shared memories and identities within a well thought out slightly speculative fiction setting. Some interesting multi-generational family dynamics and a particularly thought-provoking examination of the role of fiction in a world which has the actual recording of experience as opposed to those crafted by authors. Egan’s writing — as always — is flawless.

Some good quotes:

“He was known not to curse; his mother, a sixth-grade grammar teacher, had heaped such withering scorn on the repetitive dullness and infantile content of profanity that she’d managed to annul its transgressive power.”

“Gazing up at the lighted windows on one, Bix thought he could practically hear a potency of ideas simmering behind it.”

“I never know what’s going on, and because my attempts to find out lack the tactful goo that typicals smear all over their actions and words to blunt their real purpose, I come across as lurching and off-putting.”

“But whereas in music, a prolonged pause adds power and vividness to the refrain that follows it, pauses in conversation have the opposite effect, of debasing whatever comes next to the point that a perfectly witty riposte will be reduced to the verbal equivalent of a shrunken head, if too long a pause precedes it.”

“… no one escaped the roving, lacerating beam of my judgement. I can access that beam, even now, decades later: a font of outraged impatience with other people’s flaws.”

“In this new world, rascally tricks were no longer enough to produce authentic responses; authenticity required violent unmasking, like worms writhing at the hasty removal of their rock.”

“Social media was dead, everyone agreed; self-representations were inherently narcissistic or propagandic or both, and grossly inauthentic.”

“Here was his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective. He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.”

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 April 5th, 2022.