The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery (Women’s Fiction)

Three women combine resources to open a combined business in a gorgeous piece of boardwalk real estate. Bree (bookstore) is walled off emotionally in a desperate attempt at self protection; Mikki (gift shop) is three years into a “friendly” divorce but is having trouble moving on; and Ashley (Muffin shop) whose boyfriend is everything she could possibly ask for, except for his tenacious anti-marriage stance.

But while their businesses are flourishing, their personal lives are not. The story comprises family history and relationships, realistic scenarios requiring improved self awareness and difficult decisions, the requisite (and utterly unrealistic but who cares) hunky but deeply sensitive and supportive men, and a special guest appearance by a vibrator named Earl.

Another fun, warm, and self-help worthy offering from Susan Mallery.

Thank you to Mira Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 31st, 2022.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (Fiction)

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

Immersed in the Gaming world, this novel follows two childhood best friends who alternate periods of estrangement and brilliant (and wildly successful) collaborations in game design over a thirty year period. Sam and Sadie meet in a hospital when they are twelve years old — she is visiting her cancer-fighting older sister, he is recovering from a terrible car accident which has crushed his foot. She is the first person he has spoken to in the six weeks since the accident.

In the gaming world, you always have a tomorrow — you never really die — and this contrast between the imaginative worlds they create and play in and the experiences of the real world in which they dwell figures highly. Moral and ethical dilemmas, a good long story with plenty of twists and turns, and (most importantly to me) characters that you like, even when they are actively disliking each other, make this book worth reading. I’m a Zevin fan so there was no surprise in my enjoyment.

I’m not a gamer or someone who is even remotely interested in online or video games, but this did not impact my enjoyment of the book at all. At heart it’s about people and relationships, and I did enjoy the descriptions of the games and the creative process that generated them — even if I have no desire to ever play them! If you are a gamer, I would imagine it would enhance the experience.

Some fun new words (for me):
cicerone — is an old term for a guide who conducts visitors and sightseers to museums, galleries, etc. and explains matters of archaeological, antiquarian, historic or artistic interest.
torschlusspanik — gate shut panic — fear that time is running out and you’ll miss the opportunity

Some fun quotes:

“She had once read in a book about consciousness that over the years, the human brain makes an AI version of your loved ones. The brain collects data, and within your brain, you host a virtual version of that person. Upon the person’s death, your brain still believes the virtual person exists, because, in a sense, the person still does.”

“Ands what is love, in the end? Except the irrational desire to put evolutionary competitiveness aside in order to ease someone else’s journey through life?”

“Sam experienced his body as an antiquated joystick that could reliably move only in cardinal directions.”

“The way to turn an ex-lover into a friend is to never stop loving them, to know that when one phase of a relationship ends it can transform into something else. It is to acknowledge that love is both a constant and a variable at the same time.”

“The conversation was an ouroboros of inaction that they dutifully repeated every couple of months.”

“Sadie felt a swelling of love and of worry for him — what was the difference in the end? It was never worth worrying about someone you didn’t love. And it wasn’t love if you didn’t worry.”

“Sadie was, by nature, a loner, but even she found going to MIT in a female body to be an isolating experience.”

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

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

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

A retelling of Austen’s popular Pride and Prejudice: Sittenfeld did a masterful job at “modernizing” the characters while keeping their essential personalities and issues intact. (As a quick recap, one could summarize P & P as about a family with five daughters that tries to marry them off, although the book is much more interesting than that). Jane, the eldest, at 40 is trying to have a baby via artificial insemination, while Liz (#2) has been dating a married man, having been led on for decades. While Jane and Liz both live in Manhattan, they are home in Cincinnati to help care for their father who is recovering from a heart attack. It is from this setup that they meet newly local doctors Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. What follows is hysterically funny and completely engaging, including Reality TV shows, tech millionaires, Atherton estates, and — wait for it — a trans husband. My absolutely favorite part, though, oddly enough, is Mr. Bennet with his ROFL sardonic one liners.

Sittenfeld is a seriously good writer. While this review may make this sound like a light weight beach read, it really goes much deeper than that — full of the insight, reflection, and social commentary featured in the original. I guess I’m going to have get over my prejudice against modernizations because this was hilarious, fun, and a good piece of literature. Put me in a great mood for the New Year.

Quotes:
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you — that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”

“The truth, however, was that he did not seem egomaniacal to her; he seemed principled and thoughtful, and she felt a vague embarrassment that she worked for a magazine that recommended anti-aging creams to women in their twenties and he helped people who’d experienced brain trauma.”

“At the table, Caroline was on Darcy’s other side and had spent most of the meal curled toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed.”

“Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

“‘Fred’, the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could not longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible.”

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow (Fiction / Multi-cultural interest)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

The story covers 70 years in the lives of a family in Memphis ranging from 1937 through 2001. Sisters August and Miriam, their mother Hazel, and Miriam’s daughter Joan are the voices that tell the story with date labeled chapters that jump back and forth across time (which can be confusing — I had to take careful notes). The book is written in a highly emotional style, guaranteed to make you angry at the injustice and hardships these women must suffer through.

I believe this is intended to be a positive novel about the tight knit Black community of women who pull together and give each other strength when needed — and I loved these women characters and would have loved to be a part of the community. But the other side of the coin is that the book is strongly anti-man and pretty anti-white as well. The big sign in August’s hair shop is “NO CHILDREN, NO MEN, & WE EAT WHITE FOLK HERE.” It’s not really a joke.

Through the generations, everything bad possible happens to this family including a child rape, multiple instances of domestic abuse, and lynching. It reinforces negative stereotypes of current Black culture — single mothers and abusive, violent men. The one decent man in the history was lynched, with the strong implication being that he was lynched by his white colleagues (he had made homicide detective — the first Black man in the area to do so). The author took every opportunity to blame whites or men for everything that went wrong, without considering any errors of judgement made by the women. And while she gave each of the violent black men a backstory that might explain their violence, she gave them no path to rehabilitation and completely exonerated the women who may have contributed to their “badness,” whether intentionally or not.

In summary, the story was gripping but I found the writing overly dramatic, manipulative, and full of good messages (be strong, be independent) based on the wrong (IMHO) reasoning. I’m all in favor of women being independent because everyone should be able to take care of themselves — this is not a safe or uniformly just world — but they shouldn’t need to be independent because men are uniformly violent, bad, and untrustworthy.

I know a lot of people love these emotionally heavy-handed books. For me, however, it is too easy to absorb strong, negative, messages without a more nuanced treatment. No, there is no amount of nuance that makes lynching or domestic violence OK, but there are a lot of good men (black and white) out there and lots of good white people, too. Do we really need to fan the flames of racism and sexism (in reverse) by ascribing horrible behavior to every person who appears to be male and / or white? I found the book disturbing — not just for the content (which was disturbing enough!) but for the incendiary way that Black men and all white people (except one nice Jewish store owner!) were painted as irreedemably and unquestionably bad.

Thank you to Random House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on March 1st, 2022.

Adult Assembly Required by Abbi Waxman (Fiction)

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

A light and fun novel that allows us to inhabit a happy, kooky world full of lovable characters with more intellectual curiosity than I typically expect in this genre.

Laura Costello has abruptly moved cross-country to study physical therapy much to the dismay of her academically-oriented family and charming but domineering ex-fiancee. Within days of her arrival, her apartment house has burned down along with all of her belongings. Luckily for her, as an uncharacteristic downpour converts her to utter bedraggledom, she wanders into Nina Hill’s bookstore (the star of the utterly delightful The Bookish Life of Nina Hill) and things take a sudden turn into the neighborhood of charm, quirk, and delight.

I love Waxman’s writing — it’s simultaneously funny and thoughtful. While none of the story is particularly realistic, it also isn’t stupid — it creates a world I’d like to inhabit even if I don’t ever expect to do so. In addition to the plot (which is engaging), there are lots of interesting descriptions of various fields of study from the perspective of someone who really knows and cares about it. For example, I loved the descriptions of the human body and what it does mechanically during every day activities.

The setting of Larchmont Village (a real LA neighborhood that sounds like a place I’d like to visit) along with a lovely boarding house run by an even lovelier landlady reminds me a bit of Maupin’s Tales of the City books, albeit with a little less focus on sexual experimentation and discovery.

Some fun quotes:
“What had been tobacco and paper was now dog vomit, and Herbert was sitting under the kitchen table regretting his life choices.”

“Anything’s interesting when it’s explained by someone who cares about it.”

“I’ve learned recently that my mind isn’t the safest neighborhood to go into alone.”

“Laura looked at the cat. The cat looked at her. Neither of them said anything, Laura because she didn’t speak cat and the cat because she was mentally composing a letter to her senator.”

“Ferdinand was no longer pregnant, but she was still built along capacious lines.” (bookstore cat)

“Anxiety lives in the unknown future, depression lives in the unforgettable past, and peace lives in the acceptance of the present moment.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 17th, 2022.

The Verifiers by Jane Pek (Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

Claudia Lin is the tiny, stereotype-busting, Asian, lesbian, bicyclist hero of this tongue-in-cheek, semi-snarky, story of an amateur detective gone wild. Having landed a job at a dating detective agency, she ignores protocol and starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of an unusual client. And so it goes…

The mystery lives within an interesting premise — online matchmaking systems using AI based bots which move from verifying dating profile claims to nudging clients to becoming one with their claims. Claudia (and obviously the author) is an inveterate reader, and I enjoyed her literary asides and the source of Claudia’s detective know-how — the (fictional) mystery series starring the philosophical Inspector Yuan. Some interesting, novel likes explorations of the life and background of Claudia and her family that dips freely into a somewhat standard immigrant parent backstory. It’s a bit of a genre mishmash that started as a lot of fun with well-drawn characters but ultimately took too long to get to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 22nd, 2022.

Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close (Fiction)


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

Cousins Teddy, Gretchen, and Jane alternate perspectives on their not-quite-mid life crises in Chicago as Trump wins the election and the Cubs finally win the World Series just weeks after their biggest fan — famed restaurateur Bud Sullivan — passes away. His eponymous restaurant is the center of most of the action as Teddy struggles with an affair with his recently-ex, not engaged boyfriend, Gretchen is forced to leave her band, pondering her “failed experiment with adulthood,” and Jane uses a cheating husband to examine what she wants in life (hint: it turns out not to be him).

It’s a fun story with a decent amount of insight as characters figure out how to keep going in a world that seems to be falling apart. Great family dynamics and social commentary.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 26th, 2021.

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz (Fiction / Humor / Mystery)

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

Funny, acerbic, and irreverent (Lisa Lutz’ signature trio). The action follows two best friends — Luna Grey and Owen Mann. No, they never slept together; yes they are the most important people in each other’s lives.

The story spans time, bouncing between 2003 and 2019 with important (and weird, always weird) flashbacks to the familial primordial ooze from which each has sprung. Four murders — connected but not in the way you think — and an intricate web of secrets, trust, suspicion, and guilt pervade the narrative.

The plot is consistently surprising and the characters engaging — plenty to love and plenty not to love. The pages are full of bizarre details that help us deep dive on who Luna and Owen really are and how they became that way. As an aside, I love the way Lutz describes her minor supporting characters — deftly reducing them to one to two sentence descriptions that capture the essence of what they present to outsiders — it’s a talent.

I always have fun reading Lisa Lutz — I was a big fan of the Spellman Files, but I’m glad she is moving to stand alone stories as I think Izzy Spellman is at the point where she can’t acgtually develop any more without losing what makes her interesting in the first place — the Spellmans are spent!

A few fun quotes:

“Thinking about being good didn’t make you good. Sacrificing individual happiness didn’t make the world a better place.”

“Sam didn’t believe in using words to state the obvious, or fill up silence, or attempt to ease discomfort.”

“I don’t like it when you ask me to explain men to you, like I have special insight into lascivious behavior.”

“He wasn’t Teflon; closer to particleboard. He soaked everything, letting it warp him, become part of him.”

Once, Owen had tried to talk to the guy. He asked Mason what he did when he wasn’t smoking pot. Dude, that’s like a really personal question, was Mason’s response.”

“He was obsessed with variety, which Luna had only recently correlated with his inability to stay faithful.”

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 January 25th, 2022.

Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

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

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

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 January 18th, 2022.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Drama/depression index: too high!

Greek classics, a love of books and literature, and the twin pillars of human suffering and hope pervade this broad, sweeping story which spans interstellar travel, the siege of Constantinople, and eco-terrorism in an Idaho library. The published book description is actually very good, so I encourage you to read it directly rather than my trying to do an inadequate recap.

This is a beautifully written, deeply researched, cleverly interconnected story and by the end I was enjoying it a great deal. The characters are intricately done with their memories, desires, and deep need to survive, understand, and have agency in their lives. However, there is an awful lot of pathos for my taste. Before each character can succeed, there is an incredible amount of (too well) described suffering. This is not surprising — the siege of Constantinople is not a great place to be an orphaned girl with an antipathy for embroidery or a hare-lipped boy considered a demon by the greater population. But I clocked 65% through my kindle version before things stopped being utterly depressing. I did love the way literature and the classics were woven throughout, and I found the interstellar generation ship running away from a dying Earth thread quite interesting. The slowly emerging resolution of these independent threads was remarkably well done giving me an overall positive view of the book.

This is a strong and brilliantly executed book. If you loved his Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light You Cannot See, you will likely love this as well.

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 September 28th, 2021.