Interior Chinatown by Charles Wu (Fiction)

A bizarre, screenplay format novel told in the second person as Willis Wu describes his life as a series of bit part Asian roles, particularly Generic Asian Man with a dim hope of becoming a specialty character: Kung Fu Guy. Moving from an SRO to the Golden Palace restaurant where the cop show Black and White (starring — wait for it — a black cop and a white cop) is constantly “playing,” we are treated to an ongoing internal monologue where the bitterness is as often directed against himself as to others. Full of a wry humor that derives from essential and uncomfortable truths, the narrative is interspersed with a recitation of U.S. laws aimed specifically at excluding Asians (e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882; the SF Bingham Ordinance of 1890; the Geary Act of 1892; the Cable Act of 1920; and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 — look them up — they are appalling) and a pretty compelling speech asking why, after two centuries in America, Asians are not fully assimilated and are not considered “American”? By the way, I particularly enjoyed this quote which I am including out of context:

“What are you looking? Do you think you’re the only group to be invisible? How about: Older women. Older people in general. People that are overweight. People that don’t conform to conventional Western beauty standards. Black women. Women in general in the workplace.”

It’s always irked me that there are so many “groups” which are treated unfairly in one way or the other, but unless you are part of some larger, acknowledged, “oppressed” group, nobody really cares…

In sum: a short book with a pretty interesting message and engaging format.

Flight by Lynn Steger Strong (Literary Fiction)

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

A family drama focussed on three siblings and their families on the first Christmas after their mother’s death. Each is experiencing some disappointment / pressure in life and each twirls within their own constant inner monologue while engaging with each other in a kind of complex dance with needs, desires, and irritations constantly up for rebalancing. Martin, the eldest, is on temporary leave after having made some ill-advised statements to the wrong people at his educational institution; his wife Tess is the practical one, a lawyer who is in a constant state of worry and irritation; Kate is a housewife and mother, married to Josh who has managed to run through the inheritance they were living on; Henry is an artist obsessed with the climate, and his wife Alice somehow shifted from artist to social worker and now finds herself over-attached to one of her charges. When that particular charge disappears on Christmas Eve, each individual gets a jolt that drives him or her to a deeper understanding of his or her own life.

While slow at times, the book contains a lot of insight through each person’s reflections coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and situations. An enjoyable read.

Thank you to Mariner Books 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 Ink Black Heart by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith (Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
I’ve been a JK Rowling fan since I bought the first Harry Potter book in England before it was released in the US. She is just a fantastic writer. This book was over 1,000 pages, and I got through it in three days because I could not stop reading, much to the irritation of family and friends whom I was supposed to be paying attention to!

The Ink Black Heart is the sixth book in the Cormorant Strike series. Best one yet. This one tackles murder both spawned and executed within the anonymity of social media with the convoluted detection progressing simultaneously in both online and real life. Edie Ledwell, the now successful author of a surprise hit cartoon, approaches the agency begging them to help her uncover the identity of an online figure who has been publicly tormenting her for years, almost driving her to suicide. With the agency already overloaded and no real skillset in cybercrime, Robin rejects the request, only to be shocked days later when Edie is found brutally murdered.

The ensuing puzzle to identify Anomie — the anonymous tormentor — is muddied by an incredibly complex web of characters — both online and in real life. Reminded me of the old logic puzzles I used to love where you have to match which person goes with which car which goes with which dessert etc. While I’ve been “aware” of some of the nastiness that happens online, the progressing story included plenty of excerpts that brought the nastiness to life in a way that made it finally real for me. From incels (involuntary celibates) to alt-right nasties to pedophiles to naive victims, it was a whole unsavory world I’m glad I have no contact with. And it’s a world that I’m guessing Rowling knows first hand as she has been targeted by various “unhappys” in some very aggressive and loathsome ways. As an aside, I always search out the original comment or event that gets people riled and rarely find anything worthy of the reaction. Certainly not in Rowling’s case. I sure wish people would think and investigate before they jump on the vicious attack bandwagon.

So why are these books so good? Firstly, Rowling has a writing style that I just love — it’s so clean that you completely forget that you’re reading and yet she manages to reduce very complex topics and events to easily comprehensible dialog and action. Yet the complexity is not oversimplified, it’s just explained clearly. Maybe she should run for office. The plots mimic the cacophony of real life — lots going on, plenty of opinions, multiple opportunities for internal biases to raise their ugly heads, and tedious and slow moving mechanisms for verification. Rowling has an incredible ability to juggle multiple complex plot lines into a cohesive whole. Plenty of philosophic commentary on people, the internet, and the inability to think for themselves. Nothing she writes about fits neatly into a “type,” an “identity,” or a “role.” I love it.

I also like the characters a lot — while they are flawed (as is the preference these days in crime fiction) — they have characteristics and values that are important to me — they care about right and wrong, they are intelligent, they understand their flaws and actually work to improve themselves. I would be very happy to spend time with these people were they so inclined!

Exiles by Jane Harper (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
Aaron Falk from Harper’s The Dry reappears with previous partner Greg Raco in this suspenseful story of a once local woman who disappears at the town’s annual Festival, leaving her six week old baby and purse in a stroller on the grounds. As always, Harper is a master of suspense, painting the every day lives of a rural Australian community amidst the slow understanding that not all was what it seemed. I can never stop reading any of Harper’s books once I’ve started them. Well written, characters that I would love to spend time with, and some well done detailed reflection on what a policeman sees, thinks, and handles that little niggling in the back of a trained mind that whispers “you’re missing something.”

Thank you to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 31st, 2023.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett (Mystery / Fiction)

The first of the Amy Gallup series. Unfortunately I read book three first so I already knew the resolution of this one. Still liked it but it is very strange knowing “whodunit” from the beginning!

This is the story of a writing class, taught by the anti-social and acerbic Amy Gallup — who appears to have a “sniper” member. This member leaves nasty grams for students, which is bad enough, but when two members suddenly drop dead, things get a little … tense.

The writing is excellent — at least three cuts above your typical genre fiction. She loves to make lists. My favorite — her list of “funny looking words.” This included prepuce, piebald, knothole and obnubilate. She’s right — they do look funny! And I hadn’t really ever considered how words could look funny as I’m too busy absorbing them at max rate. She includes brilliant commentary on writers, readers, and the writing process.

Stay tuned for book two which I’ll be reading next…

Amy Among the Serial Killers by Jincy Willett (Audio Book / Mystery)

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

Great title, right?

The titular “Amy” is a 70-something author and ex-writing coach — a bit of a hermit but with a soft spot for some of the members of her last workshops. Carla — an ex-child star is now the owner of “The Point” — a writer’s retreat in La Jolla. Carla is quite possibly Amy’s favorite ex-student (possibly because she saved Amy’s life in the first book — I won’t spoil any more of that as I haven’t read it yet either!). When one of the Point’s writers turns up dead, the cops wonder if the murder is connected with a spate of other local killings — hence the serial killers (note the plural!) in the title.

This is not your typical mystery. It is funny in an insightfully wry style. It is a book by and about writers and writing and is FULL of back stories, stories in progress, story planning, random story thoughts, etc. — creating a kind of fractal story universe that is somehow never confusing. I put this down to some high quality writing — excellent pacing and structure and a truly delightful use of vocabulary and phrasing. Because the characters (who are writers) are often thinking or talking about writing, there are even some lovely and humorous discussions of words themselves which I enjoyed thoroughly. The mystery aspect is good — I did figure it out a little before the characters did, but it was certainly a surprise. The story was nice and twisty and kept me well entertained. Some interesting character reflections as well, not usually present in genre books.

Audio books take more time (for me) than reading the print would, and often that means I get a little bored in parts because I can’t skim. This did not happen at all during this 13 hour audiobook which is saying quite a lot.

So what didn’t I like? While the narrator does a fabulous job with all of the different voices and her pacing and speech clarity were perfect, I did not love her natural voice — or at least the one she uses as the narrator in addition to slightly modified versions for most of the younger characters. It’s what I call a Millennial version of the old Valley Girl speak: lots of mid word tonal shifts and a slightly whiny feel. I think I’m just showing my age here because this does seem to be a popular speech pattern for younger people in some TV shows. I got over it because it was just so entertaining, but it did irritate me for a bit.

Thank you to Dreamscape Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this audio book in exchange for my honest review. The audio book will be published on August 23rd, 2022 — the print book is out already!

Maame by Jessica George (Literary Fiction)

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

In Twi (one of the languages spoken in Southern and Central Ghana), Maame means “woman” or “mother” or “Responsible One.” And that is the name by which Maddie is known (and treated) within her (somewhat dysfunctional by many standards) family. This story of the 25 year old dutiful daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in London is beautiful, insightful, humorous, and utterly engaging. Maddie is finally ready to strike out on her own after several years of caring for her Parkinson’s debilitated father whilst her brother and mother have managed to find urgent excuses to be elsewhere. With a new job, a new apartment (with new flatmates), and a few boyfriend experiments, Maddie feels ready to transpose herself into “fun” Maddie and “happy” Maddie, though her true (intentionally stifled) feelings always manage to seep through. With deft and spare prose, the book delves into deep issues of how we become the selves we want to be, rather than the selves that have unintentionally emerged while we were making other plans.

The story explores the roots of Maddie’s desires and unhappiness — seen through the lens of multiple cultures, friends, family, religion, and … the ultimate source of all knowledge … Google. Some honest and new (to me) discussions of racism, from a personal point of view rather than a strident, social justice approach. I loved the first lines: “In African culture — Wait, no, I don’t want to be presumptuous or in any way nationalistic enough to assume certain Ghanaian customs run true in other African countries. I might in fact just be speaking of what passes as practice in my family, but regardless of who the mores belong to, I was raised to keep family matters private.” In one fell swoop George outlined Maddie’s personal context in the many layers of identity to which she belonged.

I absolutely love George’s writing. Great structure with most of the content deriving from interactions (in-person, text), reflections (including some great conversations with “subconscious Maddie” who can be quite flippant bordering on rude), and extensive (and intriguing) “conversations” with Google. I love her use of vocabulary — the exact right word at the exact right spot in the prose. I love that Maddie’s flirtation with one man made extensive use of accurately placed semicolons. I loved Maddie’s Voice — so real and so individual. The language conveys essence and experience skillfully, without resorting to tricks of plots and constant emotional tugging. It feels genuine — that rarest of literary attributes.

So many excellent quotes — here are just a few:

“When Waterloo station approaches, I brace myself for another day at a job Google itself has deemed deserving of a bronze medal in the race to unhappiness.”

“We were friendlier at first, joked around a bit more, but that dried up like the arse of a prune on a date and time I still can’t stick a definitive pin in.”

“For some reason, at night, when you’re meant to be sleeping, your brain wants answers to everything.”

“It’s mentally exhausting trying to figure out if I’m taking that comment on my hair or lunch too seriously. It’s isolating when no one I know here is reading the Black authors I am or watching the same TV shows.”

“Still, that doesn’t change the fact that although I didn’t think I’d be rich I expected to be happy and the failure to do so has left me gasping for air most of the day.”

“I only suffer a few hiccups, mainly with the printer because they’re all bastards and will likely lead the technological charge in the eventual war against humans, but I’ve finished everything before Penny returns from her last meeting of the day.”

“I’d googled what to do when your flatmate is dumped by someone they’re casually seeing, but Google seemed very confused with at least two parts of the sentence.”

“I know what to do, how not to bring attention to myself. I’m skilled in assimilation, though my subconscious is quick to remind me that it’s nothing to be proud of. I have spent the entirety of my professional life in predominantly white spaces. As a bookseller, a receptionist, at the theater, and now a publishing house. Over the years, my instinct has been to shrink myself, to make sure I’m not too loud, to talk only about subjects I feel well versed in.”

“She frowns. ‘I don’t know why you’re offended. Gold-diggers are our nation’s hardest workers; do you know how much effort goes into pretending to give a shit about some guy for his money? A lot. Hoes are Britain’s unsung heroes.”

“It’s about what love is. Which is trust, commitment, empathy, and respect. It means really giving a shit about the other person.”

“I’m late, arriving halfway through, and he’s speaking Fante, which when spoken quickly is like trying to catch bubbles before they pop.”

“I cut the conversation off there because the way I see it, apologies only benefit the beggar. They get a clear conscience, and I get a sequence of hollow words incapable of changing anything.”

“Okay,” she says, and for a word that is often spelled with only two letters, she makes each syllable work hard. I slightly hate her.”

“I think when working in white spaces we can feel programmed to not rock the boat; like, we got a foot in the door and we should try to keep that door closed behind us. Which means you begin assigning any and all problematic issues to just being a part of the job….”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 7th, 2023.

Where Coyotes Howl by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas does a stellar job at evoking the historical West — in this case a small town on the prairies of Wyoming in the early 1900s. This is the story of two “ordinary” people of time — an imported schoolteacher and the cowboy she falls in love with. It’s a hard life and frankly that makes for a hard read. The tight friendships and support structure formed by the women who often live up to an hour by horse from each other can help but not quite overcome the relentless tragedies that occur — from weather, illness, starvation, and from (some) husbands that are just plain bad. Dallas never resorts to melodrama but then she doesn’t have to — the real life stories are (mostly) pretty awful. I’ve read every book that Dallas has written and will continue to do so, but I admit that this book left me pretty depressed — her depictions so vivid that (being the emotional sponge that I am) I couldn’t help but feel sad for all my new found fictional friends.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 18th, 2022.

Out of Patients by Sandra Cavallo Miller (Fiction)

Story: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

Norah is the tending-toward-cynical but unfailingly caring and dedicated family practice doctor in the Arizona desert. In her 50s, she thinks of retirement almost every day, but can’t get herself to pull the trigger.

With a jaded but humorous and never bitter tone, Miller brings to life the modern family doctor. Forget Marcus Welby, Norah and her colleagues are beset with endless regulations, condescending specialists, arrogant medical students, health insurance battles, and a plethora of patients who don’t always (ie hardly ever) advance their own cause. On top of this, the practice seems to be losing money despite a full waiting room, and someone is leaving nasty-notes on car windshields. Norah had to kick her do-nothing boyfriend of three years out of the house for … continuing to do nothing, and she has nearly daily calls with (possibly my favorite character) her 86-year old mother who has a crush on the elderly, but well-built mailman and gives detailed instructions on what to do if she doesn’t answer the phone (wait several days to make sure she is dead!). While too grumpy to even consider dating, Norah does come across some potential love interests — an even grumpier vet and a shy radiologist who suffers at her side during endless student admissions committee meetings .

I loved the tone, loved the characters, and appreciated the peek into a real doctor’s life by someone who a) has lived through it themselves and b) translates her knowledge into a highly self-aware and comical story. Some very interesting medical tidbits and asides as well…

Some good quotes:
“To give your life more purpose, for what that’s worth. I’m not sure anyone has ever convincingly proved that human life actually has a purpose. Evolution just does its thing. Sunrise, sunset.”

“I guess when your spirit pales to a washed-out shadow, you grow tentative.”

“Once upon a time we became physicians, but now we also must perform as secretaries and transcriptionists and file clerks and coding authorities and billing experts ad regulations enforcers.”

“And I wondered how anyone can eat baloney, that mash of pig snouts and ears and genitals. You can feel gritty little bits of bone.”

“That made me sad, but why should it? Why should I impose my arduous overdrive, my endless quests, on a quietly contented person?”

“No, apparently my ego needed to analyze and try to fix them. Make a difference in their lives. Maybe I worried that my failure with Grace, a previous student, might repeat itself. I may have mentioned how doctors often obsess about doing things right.”

“Nobody listens. Sometimes I feel like a tiny squeaky voice in a wind tunnel, about to be blown away.”

“And even before I say this next sentence, I’m aware it isn’t fair, because I know tons of great physician men, smart and intuitive, generous and wise. But between Jeremy Newell and Carter Billings, I’d drink my fill of medical males that day.”

“A long afternoon, but mostly rewarding. Nothing easy, nothing cut and dried. Everyone needed to talk. Mostly good patients, all with real problems. No one surly or defiant, no one acting like I owed them good health because they demanded it, no matter how unwilling they might be to earn it. Every now and then those petulant people stayed home and I felt in my element, listening, sorting, treating. Come on, Norah, I told myself, settling in with my charts after everyone had gone.”

“What would fix me would be better healthcare systems, not spending hours grappling with a convoluted computer program. Where I got more than ten minutes with an addict. Consistent medical billing and affordable insulin. Free insulin, Where medical students didn’t lose their glittering idealism in a few short years, while a handful of ego-besotted attending physicians badgered them into despondency. Until some students lost themselves under the crushing demise of their dream. The statistics on physician suicide are dreadful — every day, at least one physician or medical student is lost forever. What an unforgivable waste.”

Thank you to University of Nevada Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 16th, 2022.

Some Maintenance Required by Marie-Renee Lavoie (Audio Book — Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Audio reader: 3/5
A sweet novel about a young woman kind of wandering through her own life: school ends and she contemplates university, she gets a job and experiences the drama of group dynamics, and she watches over (and becomes quite attached to) a badly neglected 2nd grader. And then … circumstances beyond her control slam her in the face. It’s a story about bringing love (and continual ongoing maintenance) to our relationships — with family, friends, and even possessions like a favorite car.
The writing is very good with many memorable phrases (unfortunately I listened to this in the car and therefore couldn’t capture any of them) and depictions of places and situations — both real and imagined, internal and external. I enjoyed the characters — the guys who worked at the garage with her father, her best friend, and a veterinarian-in-training who likes her, but whose social class makes her uncomfortable. And her mother — the best character of all. I also love the role that books play in the world that she and her mother have created.
Listening to this audio version of this particular book did highlight something for me that I hadn’t really noticed before. The reader did a good job with voices, pacing, etc. but she also imparted a distinct personality to each person through vocal pitch, pace, and tone over and above that which you would perceive simply from reading the words. Specifically, I found the main character to have a hint of whininess (that I didn’t like) which may or may not have been intended by the author. Overall I enjoyed listening but did take note of that point.

Thank you to Dreamscape Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 5th, 2022.