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.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarity (Australian Fiction)

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

Impossible to put down, this is a twisted, gripping, family drama / mystery that explores the violence and cruelty as well as the compassion, kindness, and personal development of ordinary people.

Stan and Joy Delaney are tennis obsessed — champs in their youth, they ran a successful school for training and coaching tennis players, including their four tall, talented, (and now adult) tennis offspring. All appears well until one day Joy Delaney disappears, and the police turn their (frankly not so laser focused) gaze on Stan.

Let me hasten to say that this is NOT one of those tense books about false accusations and a man desperate to prove his innocence. What I just described is the structure of the story but not at all the point. The story alternates between the present day and clearly labeled time periods in the past. In Moriarity’s signature style, the plot keeps twisting, the people get more interesting, and sleep becomes impossible as you have to race to the finish. I’ve read many (most?) of Moriarity’s books. Some I like better than others — this is now one of my favorites.

Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

Another happy charmer from Jenny Colgan. Taking place in a dusty, largely unvisited, book store in Edinburgh, this story brings a sparkling array of oddball (not super realistic but very lovable) characters including a Quaker dendrologist from Brazil, a self-important and extremely handsome self-help author, an all-too-perfect sister (complete with unfortunately charming offspring) and an old recluse with potentially shameful secrets. Add a magic shop, the Ormiston Yew, and a terribly annoying yoga slinging blonde nanny with a nasty streak, and you have the perfect recipe for a light, fun, heartwarming read.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 26, 2021.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman (Fiction / Mystery / Humor)

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

Another fun title (the second) from Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series. In this episode, our four retirement village oldies take on the local drug lord, the useless baddie who attacked their most timid member, and a tangle of spies spying on spies — one of whom happens to be Elizabeth’s very-ex-husband.

A reminder on the characters from my first review: 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.

As an American, I had not heard of Richard Osman before reading the first book, but I gather he is well-known in Britain as “an English comedian, producer, television presenter, writer, and the creator and co-presenter of the BBC One television quiz show Pointless.” I like his writing a great deal — funny, wry, with characters who could appear dull on the outside but are actually intriguing on the inside (as so many people are if you take a deeper peek). His spare style distills what you need to know without muddying the waters with a lot of extraneous fluff. I gulped it in a single sitting.

BY the way, I feel like I just reviewed Osman’s first book — The Thursday Murder Club (link) but apparently that was about a year ago. Time flies when … everything is closed and you’re stuck in the house? In any case, one benefit of Covid is that every single one of my favorite authors appears to have tripled their productivity. My “to read” pile is overflowing.

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 28th, 2021.

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White (Fiction / Mystery)

The seventh (and possibly last) book in White’s immensely popular Tradd Street series sees family, romance and historic house restorations Charleston-style (read: expensive and persnickety) come together in this exciting story of betrayal, old and new. And did I mention Ghosts? No? They populate every corner — friendly ghosts, malevolent ghosts, and immensely sad ghosts still seeking justice after many, many, years. For those new to the series, Melanie Trenholm — star realtor, new mother, and label gun enthusiast — can see and often speak to the dead.

A nice combination of women’s fiction (relationship issues, shopping, extravagant theme parties), mystery (cold cases as presented by sad, justice-seeking ghosts), and historical fiction (plenty of interesting research into Charleston’s history as it bears on the cold case du jour). A fun mix of humor and over-the-top lifestyles with complicated plot twists, an overly dramatic research librarian, and intricate treasure hunts. You could certainly read this book on its own, but given the five months to publication, I recommend starting at the beginning with The House on Tradd Street. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the series.

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 Nov. 2nd, 2021.

Little Souls by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

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

Little Souls takes place in Denver, 1918. The Influenza has hit the population badly, and the men are still away at war. At 19, Lutie Hite is a carefree artist working in advertising for the local department store; her older, more careworn, sister Helen is a nurse. Through an interesting set of events they become responsible for Dorothy, the ten-year old daughter of their now deceased tenant. From these beginnings follows a fairly wild, often heartbreaking, but ultimately heartwarming ride.

I’m a big Sandra Dallas fan. Dallas writes Western historical fiction about strong women making it through adversity with fortitude, intelligence, and the help of their community. She always brings in the small details of life in that particular time and place to make everything ring true.

Her stories tend to the dramatic, but never go over the top and feel quite realistic for their time. She is even-handed about how people thought and behaved at the time — different characters have different opinions on everything from mask-wearing (ha!) to personal morality, and no opinion is presented as obviously better than the others. Religious feeling and participation was a big part of life in that place and time, and I liked how she treated it. While this in no way dominates the book, there were some beautiful passages about how individual characters felt about God that moved me, despite my not being religious myself.

This is a real page-turner — I’m afraid I annoyed my husband by reading on into the night…

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 26th, 2022.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (Fiction / Romance)

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

Anna Sun — musical prodigy and dutiful daughter. Her carefully constructed facade starts to crack as the pressure gives her complete musician block and her long-term boyfriend suggests they see other people for fun. Then she gets an even bigger surprise — her (secret) therapist tells her she may be on the autism spectrum. And suddenly, everything begins to make sense. Quan Diep has fully recovered from cancer but can’t quite come to terms with the scars it left behind. When Anna and Quan meet on a hookup site they intend to have a one night stand only — but that one night keeps going wrong so they have to have another. And another. Until maybe “one night stand” isn’t the right word for what they are doing.

This is a deeply reflective novel that masquerades (well!) as a steamy romance. What I like about Hoang’s books (this is the third and the first two are also great) is that her characters spend as much time learning about themselves and how to fit into the world as they do about seeking a relationship. Also — no shopping and the relationships that develop are supportive and loving as well as physically intense. I love the process Anna goes through to understand her diagnosis, how it explains aspects of her personality that she hadn’t understood before and — most importantly — how she can move forward in the face of disbelief and unintended but deeply felt censure from her family.

There has been a spate of popular novels about people on the spectrum (eg Eleanor Oliphant, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) but I find those entertaining rather than enlightening. These book help me understand from the inside. For me (not a professional!) what we currently label high functioning autism is more about a different brain organization than a disability and one that I often find makes more sense than the “normal”. In the current world of social manipulation and personal branding, I find the direct, literal and honest engagement depicted quite refreshing. [As an aside, I loved this description of “neurotypicals” (the “normals” I referred to) from a spectrum group: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity… Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one…NT is believed to be genetic in origin. Autopsies have shown the brain of the neurotypical is typically smaller than that of an autistic individual and may have overdeveloped areas related to social behaviour.” Makes you think!

If you’re looking for a romance, a positive story about relationships, or are interested in the personal development of an unusual woman who is learning about herself, you will enjoy this book.

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 August 31st, 2021.

The Ghost Dancers by Adrian C Louis (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction)

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

A posthumous publication by the author of Skins, this is a raw story of Indian life in late 80s / early 90s. Bean Wilson is an educated Indian — a well known poet and journalist. Born and raised a Paiute in Nevada, he now lives and works with Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The events in the book follow Bean, his son Quanah, and his girlfriend’s son Toby. Wilson’s interior and verbalized rants permeate the pages on topics ranging from Indians (and himself in particular) being their own worst enemies to harangues on White oppression. While he tries to honor the old ways, he grapples with alcoholism and his womanizing tendencies. The writing depicts his internal struggles and the male culture in which those are common and even respected traits. This is extremely well done. It’s often crude, but feels real and does an excellent job of fleshing out each of the primary male characters — their experiences, their interactions with friends, family, and those who are “other” and the impact on their personal development. Oddly enough, while plenty of bad things happen, I didn’t find it depressing the way I do most Louise Erdrich books (for example). The tone is not as emotional, or maybe it is just more angry and less hopeless. Perhaps this is because the real focus is on men? The women characters have depth, but the real magnifying glass is on the men.

I have no insight into why this was not published when it was written — probably in the late 80s or early 90s according to the Forward. That was the only frustrating bit — the world was so well-depicted and I have no clue how things may or may not have changed since then.

The writing is powerful, insightful, and supports the complexity required of any real story. Some quotes below demonstrate both the writing and some of the rants. I loved the first line (which is also the first quote) — somehow it just completely grabbed me.

“The Cancerous burrito of Los Angeles summer seemed to have no effect upon the rambunctious innocence of yelling Chicano kids.”

“Bean looked from the two warriors in the painting to the two Pine Ridgers and repressed an urge toward epiphany.”

“America was a cannibalistic society. There was no true freedom in America. The White man thought he was free. The Black man thought he had been freed. The Indian knew he had been corn-holed.”

“…that garish monument to White greed, carved out of the mother earth, gouged out of the sacred Black Hills, and stolen from the Indians despite the treaties promising no intrusion.” (About Mount Rushmore)

“He despised the rhetoric of contrition that AA and its kindred organizations espoused. He despised the self-righteous reformed drunks who made their various programs for alcoholics a large industry on the Pine Ridge reservation.”

“It’s depressing to the max around here. I hate to say it, but you Sioux live like Black people in ghettos. No pride. No hope. Just booze, drugs, and violence. Pregnant teenagers and commodity cheese.”

“And as educated Indians, we know who our worst enemies are. Some of the worst are our own people. They must be re-educated, those that are the rip-offs. And the other bad enemy is the White liberal who lives on the reservation and purports to help our people. They are bloodsuckers. But that is a different matter.”

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 September 14th, 2021.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (Speculative Fiction)

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

Book two of the Scholomance series (which I previously labeled “Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind”). Galadriel (“El”) is finally a senior at the Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted that operates without staff of any sort and typically graduates (i.e. allows to survive) only a quarter of the class. But this year, even the school itself is looking for a change, and if El and the invincible fighter Orion Lake have their way, this may be the last graduating class ever…

Very similar to book one — good writing, fun to read, likable characters — perhaps a little more detail on innovative monsters than I needed but it made for some very impressive “magical” world building. Strong messaging about the benefits of working together to ensure everyone does well, rather than desperation leading to selfish and ultimately self-destructive strategies.

I still have a preference for her earlier works — Spinning Silver and Uprooted but I always enjoy reading anything she writes. Is this the last book in the series? Hard to say — once again there was no real cliffhanger but … I do feel a little more needs to be explained! This could be read without reading book one but if you plan to do that, go online and get a quick plot summary for book one just to gain familiarity with the characters.

Thank you to Ballantine Del Rey 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.