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.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (Fiction)

A sweet story of compassion and benevolence. The style starts in a tongue-in-cheek, paternalistic manner and transitions to a kindness-conquers-all happy finish. It’s a bit of a fairy tale — both in terms of the happy ending and the oversimplified set of troubles with which the story begins — but it is uplifting and poignant and brought me to tears several times with the beauty of specific human moments.

The (self-stated absolutely ridiculous) story is about a bank robber. Sort of. Said robber only asks for 6,500 kroner but makes the mistake of going to a cashless bank … and somehow escapes into an apartment viewing, inadvertently taking hostages. Lots of things tie together in a twisted but essential way as we get to know all the characters, how they evolved into the state they are in, and how they will continue to evolve (more sanely) in the aftermath.

Some very interesting twists of gender expectations which I both enjoyed and found fascinating.

I found the initial chapters depressing and was irritated with the avuncular (and often second person) style. A very clear ultra-liberal message — everybody makes mistakes, it’s OK to blame society (and especially the money-grubbing banks) for everything that is wrong in your life, and if everyone is simply kind to each other, all our problems will be solved. There is one character — an economist / senior bank official — who spouts a defense of capitalism and responsibility, but it turns out that she is suffering from a trauma that has led her to withdraw into that opinion, and she “sees the light” by the end of the book. I find that kind of annoying and oversimplified, but I admit to really enjoying the book!

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 8th, 2020.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (Fiction / Speculative Fiction)

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 July 14th, 2020.

Writing: 3.5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4/5

A gritty, detailed and yet expansive, story about the evolution of a top (fictional) pop band (Utopia Avenue) in late sixties London. From obscurity to fame — raw talent discovered, initial deals, touring, and the bribery / flirtation / whatever-it-takes approach to getting the music played. The four main band members come from different backgrounds and blend different musical strengths: Dean — an “angry young bassist” specializing in R&B; Elf — a “folk-scene doyenne”; Jasper — a half Dutch “stratocaster demi-god”; and Griff — a Yorkshire jazz drummer.

A lot of dialog and description is devoted to describing the music itself and the music business. For me personally that was less interesting — I love listening to music but don’t translate writing about music to music itself well — but for those who do enjoy discussing and thinking about those topics there is plenty available.

He did a good job of bringing that musical time to life. Many famous musicians pass through these pages with mini appearances that appear true to recorded history: David Bowie, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa all make realistic cameo appearances. We spend time with the band at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. All the aspects of their world comes out — family issues, possible mental illness, drug use, the “offsprings” of philandering, and philosophies.

Mitchell’s books are sometimes hard to read. They all develop slowly and the writing style is a little more stream of consciousness than I like, but somehow I’m drawn in, and by the end I’m completely in the grip and continue to think about the emerging holistic picture afterwards. As an aside — and it’s a weird aside — one thread of this novel ties in with characters (beings?) that are elements of at least two of his previous works. It’s really just a thread here but this book fits squarely within the Mitchell universe which is not completely founded on the reality most of us share.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Fiction)

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 June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons (Fiction)

Plot: 2 Writing: 3 Characters: 3

This is a new entry into the recent spate of novels which begin with a cranky, bitter, oldster and end with a heartwarming celebration of life.

Eudora Honeycutt is 85 and is planning to end her life with the aid of a Swiss clinic. In alternating chapters we witness her life’s transformation into one worth living and the historical events that brought her to the situation: alone and calmly planning to end her life.

The best character in the present story is the irrepressible 10-year old girl who moves in next door and befriends Eudora. That character draws the reader in and makes the book worth reading. The other characters are friendly and pleasant but not (for me) very believable. I had more trouble with the historical sections — it’s a long, sad story that is told without nuance so that it is too easy to think of obvious alternative choices Eudora should have made.

It’s a feel-good book with a strong pro-people, pro-friends, pro-life message full of caring neighbors and social workers.  For me it crossed the border into saccharine and cliche but it was an easy, light, read with some funny and poignant bits.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 8th, 2020.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg (Fiction)

Thank you to Random House and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 27, 2020.

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

The ultimate feel good book, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop takes up where Fried Green Tomatoes left off, following the beloved residents of Whistle Stop, Alabama as they disperse through the South. Told vignette style, we bounce between time periods, characters, and locales — like a collection of friendly gossip between friends about people they love in common. The main narrative arc follows Buddy and his daughter, Ruth, in the present. You may remember Buddy as the six-year-old who lost his arm in a train crossing accident in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s an amazing journey.

The ending is absolutely delightful, and I won’t give it away with any hints. Let’s just say I’m in a much happier space than I was when I started. Thank you, Fannie Flagg!

Great for fans of Elizabeth Berg.

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I gulped this book down in (almost) a single sitting. Perfect for long quarantine days: part novel with great characters who have evolved over the 12 books in Griffiths’ Dr. Ruth Galloway series and part mystery with all that closure we crave in these anxious days.

Four dead woman and a convicted murderer, but do they have the right man? In this installment, Ruth has moved to Cambridge with a new partner and a new job but is drawn back to Norfolk by the prisoner offering to disclose the location of additional bodies if Ruth promises to do the excavation. An artist colony and cycling group feature prominently in the story with plenty of local history, folklore, and archeological digs. All our favorite characters are back, each slowly progressing in their own long term narrative arcs.

Now I just have to wait for the next one…

p.s. For those who are new to this series, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist who, before this book, lived in a remote area near Norfolk amidst the marshes near the sea. She works with the large and brooding but spectacularly capable Detective Chief Inspector Nelson. Another favorite character is Cathbad — part-time University employee and full-time modern druid. You can start the series anywhere, really, but the it never hurts to start at the beginning!

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 14th, 2020.

Just Like You by Nick Hornby (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Story: 3.5/5

London, England.  Boy meets Girl in this simple story with character depth and plenty of everyday life thrown in. Girl is Lucy — a 42-year old white English teacher, divorced with two sons. Boy is Joseph — a 22-year old black “portfolio worker” (someone who works lots of jobs rather than one) interested in grime music and hoping to DJ. (As an aside, it is not possible to have a Nick Hornby book in which there is no character who is immersed in music).

I’m a Nick Hornby fan — this book had the great dialog and likable characters I’ve come to expect from him — while the characters didn’t all agree with each other, I would be happy to spend more time with most of them. Plenty of topics covered in ways that gave me something to think about: race, age and socioeconomic gaps, stereotypes, affinity groups, and how opinions can be formed by one’s willingness to to cling closer to or distinguish oneself from a group.

Brexit and later the Trump election form the larger-than-life background topics. He must be kicking himself to have finished this too soon — the pandemic would have made another excellent backdrop! By throwing together two people with wildly different backgrounds and characteristics, each situation can be specific to them and not representation of a category. I liked the way difficult issues could be presented and discussed as part of daily life without the heavy handedness of larger-than-life events. I also liked the fact that there was no clear resolution, because guess what? How often do we get real resolution in life? Deftly done and entertaining to boot.

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept 29th, 2020.