Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny (short stories)

Kathryn Heiny is a fantastic novelist, and I requested this book thinking it was a new novel. Slightly disappointed when I realized it was a set of short stories instead, I nevertheless kept getting trapped by the prose and the characters in each story until I found I had finished the collection in record time. While a few stories left me unmoved, most kept me interested and provided human behavior insight which is my sucker-point (as in I’m a sucker for narratives that include such). From a day in the life of a driving examiner at the DMV to a woman caring for her elderly father to unintentional affairs to pandemic inspired Migraine flairs, this collection hits a lot of human experience points. Fantastic writing, too. I’m including some of her more humorous lines, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time snorting with laughter as I read (apologies for the visual).

Quotes:
“Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it.“ (first line of third story)

“Your shirt is stuck to your back, your underpants feel like a piece of hot, wet, spinach, wrapped around your hips.”

“William had begun to worry that he no longer sparked joy in his wife and that she would give him to Goodwill.” (another story first line)

“Some people say time is like a river, but it’s really much more like an accordion, constantly squeezing you back to high school.”

“She resists the urge to shrug her shoulders, to flick the weight of his gaze off like confetti after a New Year’s Eve party.”

Thank you to Knopf and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 18th, 2023

Paper Names by Susie Luo (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 / 5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
I quite enjoyed this story which weaves together three characters: Tony, a first generation Chinese immigrant who gives up a prestigious engineering career in China for the promise of more opportunity in America for his descendants; Tammy, the daughter who “gets” to live his dream for him — Harvard educated with a promising legal career in a wealthy firm; and Oliver, a wealthy (white) lawyer with a very secret past, whose path brings him close to both of them.


I don’t agree with the book blurb: “An unexpected act of violence brings together a Chinese-American family and a wealthy white lawyer in this propulsive and sweeping story of family, identity and the American experience.” IMHO the “act of violence” — which happens fairly near the end — did serve as a forcing function for some essential reflection and self-reckoning, but it didn’t bring them together and detracts from the real meat of the story which indeed was about “family, identity and the American experience.”


I quite liked the characters and found them both realistic and individualized (no stereotypes!). I enjoyed the contrast between the first generation immigrant father and the second generation immigrant daughter. I found the expression of how each felt — about his or her history, opportunities, and values as well as the complex web of feelings and attitudes about each other — to be artful, genuine, and identifiable.

The chapters alternate between perspectives of the three and jump around in time. I didn’t find it difficult to keep track of the time (very appreciative of the chapter labels!)
There are a lot of Asian immigrant stories out there — I found this one to be more reflective, less stereotyped, and less over-dramatic than most. Definitely recommend.

Thank you to Ballantine, Dell and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman (Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Norman’s books always make me happy. I love his characters — each one individually. They all live in imperfect worlds but make things work for them. They each think about what they want and can offer. They all have interesting personalities. I would be happy to spend time with every single character in the book.

Billy Perkins — cardigan wearing piano teacher with a prodigious knowledge of all music and an old time crush on the wild drummer from a briefly successful girl rock band who disappeared from sight nine years ago after a flame out on MTV. Margot Hammer — aforementioned drummer. And a bizarre, wonderful, somehow completely believable love story between them. Featuring a sprinkling of strong male and female characters, self knowledge, and relationships not focused on damage or drama, but on just figuring out what you want and can offer. And lots of music. All set down in Norman’s straightforward prose and great dialog.

I loved every minute of this book. No weak points. No filler. And a lovely ode to nice guys.

Thank you to Ballantine, Dell and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson (Historical Fiction)

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

This is a fictionalized history of the Bethnal Green (at the time) unfinished tube stop in East London during WWII.  This book focuses on the library that was moved to the station when the above ground version was bombed, but there was a veritable city created in the stop and (unused) tunnels, with triple bunks for 5,000 people, a nursery, cafe, and the as-always top notch administration by locals.  I don’t like reading books about war, but I’m always drawn to books about how civilians create on the fly systems to help them survive.  The addendum explains the actual history more fully, making clear what part of the book was fiction vs fact, though I found that pretty obvious anyway.

It’s March 1944. Clara Button is the 25-year old childless widow who is “temporarily” put in charge of the library, with the help of the irrepressible library assistant Ruby Munro.  A well-detailed set of characters ranging across age and socio-economic levels populate the library, all with inspiring and heart-breaking stories.  Thompson does a good job of bringing these characters to life.  An engaging story — I could pick apart aspects of the plot if I were in a snippy mood, but overall I quite enjoyed it.  It spoke well to the value of books and reading in all circumstances which means that it spoke very well to me!

This book would make a great movie — I hope it gets optioned!  

Thank you to Forever Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 21st, 2023

Earth’s the Right Place for Love by Elizabeth Berg (Literary Fiction)

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

A sweet, uplifting story with real depth.  I loved Berg’s previous novel — The Story of Arthur Truluv (see my review here).  This novel is Arthur’s memory of the long courtship of and friendship with his (now deceased) wife. Beginning in 2016 when Arthur is 85 and finds himself “waiting for small things,” we spend most of the book in the 1940s when he first falls in love with Nola McCollum.

The novel deals with the key elements of life — relationships, mortality, family, and nature. Her descriptions of the every day aspects of life often brought tears to my eyes, simply because they touched the essence of tiny details so very well.  There are some wonderful quotes because Berg is a fantastic writer, but I’m not including them as they tend to give away certain aspects of the plot.

Beautifully done.

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 March 21st, 2023

Poster Girl by Veronica Roth (Speculative Fiction)

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

This concise description of the plot comes from Goodreads: Poster Girl is an adult dystopian and mystery novel about the imprisoned former face of a strict government regime and the task she’s given to buy her freedom. I’ll add to this that I don’t really think it is any more dystopian than our modern life is today and I wouldn’t call it a typical mystery per se, but the plot summary is accurate if not inspiring. Just read the book — it’s good!

Roth seems to have been born a skilled writer — she penned her first novel (Divergent) at 22 over her senior year winter break and in addition to be a runaway best seller, it was actually good (I read it)! Poster Girl is — as expected — completely gripping from start to finish. No tangents, no filler, perfectly structured plot. What I really liked was the major shift in the reader’s understanding of the situation that paralleled the (equally major) shift in the main character’s understanding. And in this particular case, that shift brings up an essential (to me) issue: at what point in someone’s life do they reach an understanding of their own sense of morality? And when should they be held accountable for that? We all go through a kind of conditioning (or brainwashing) when we are young — it’s called being raised and your parents, schools, and community all take part. What does it take to question and possibly overcome your conditioning? Why is it easier for some people than others?

A fast, engaging read with plenty of thought provocation and no long battle or chase scenes (those are so tedious!)

The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Elinor White has been trained to be a predator rather than prey which served her well during WWI when her home in Brussels was occupied by Nazis. It also served her well during WWII as she worked to protect her adopted country (England). But exercising those skills left their mark, and she finds herself torn between protecting those who can’t protect themselves and letting go of the violence that continues to haunt her.

A standalone (or possible new series beginning?) from the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, this book is kind of a mix between an historical novel and a mystery, with an emphasis on the former. It had a bit of a slow start but I was drawn in and found myself caring very much about the characters. I’m a big Winspear / Maisie Dobbs fan. I wouldn’t mind finding out more about Elinor White if this turns into a series…

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 21st, 2023

Holmes Coming by Kenneth Johnson (Audio book)

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

Pretty entertaining audio book with a fantastic radio-style cast of readers (including the author) who make it a very entertaining background for driving or long, solo walks. Part speculative fiction, part crime novel, and part literary novel, the premise is that Hubert Holmes (the real man behind Sherlock) put himself into a cryogenic hibernation and woke up a few years early in 2022 in a Marin based manor home maintained faithfully through the years by successive generations of Hudsons. With the help of Dr. Winslow (a female pediatrician who happened to be visiting the house when Holmes “woke up”), Holmes discovers not only a fresh but a world with decidedly different moral tenets, attitudes towards women, and delightful sources of data (think — Internet).

Nicely convoluted plot, some very good characters, fantastic readers (loved all of the accents), and some fun and thought tweaking contrasts between the world of 1899 and 2022 as seen through the eyes of someone who “popped” quickly from one to the other. Personally, I had a little trouble with the superior attitude of Dr. Winslow who continually pointed out Holmes’ inferior empathy / emotional engagement attributes (but oddly enough I had no problems with his superior attitude towards … everything else. Go figure!). She was actually my least favorite character but perhaps that says more about me than the book. I happen to love know-it-alls (men or women) who actually do know-it-all and don’t always like others putting them in their place for not “playing well with others.” As I said … more about me than the book!

The Daydreams by Laura Hankin (Fiction)

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

Four somewhat innocent (at the time) stars of a wildly popular teen show in the early 2000s had their dreams of stardom snuffed quickly after a disastrous live finale at the end of season two. Going their separate ways — one a Washington lawyer, one the wife of a famous athlete, one a star in his own right, and one a complete disaster in and out of rehab — they somehow end up agreeing to a reunion … and then things really fly.

Good writing, a convoluted plot full of surprises (where I wasn’t expecting surprises) that unwound at a good pace. The machinations of the entertainment machine, with its inherent bias toward men and white girls and its double standards for men and women was well portrayed without overplaying the drama (I am so over drama these days). Good interactions and self assessment with real depth and a somewhat unusual but gratifying ending. Quite enjoyable!

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 2nd, 2023

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty (Literary Fiction)

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

A low-cost housing complex (The Rabbit Hutch) in a dying small town in Indiana, a set of disconnected neighbors, and a build up to a freakish act of violence that somehow weaves them together. It’s a bizarre and convoluted story that races from humor to creepy and back again without a second thought, culminating in an act that brings all the loose strands together. The writing is stunning (see the quotes below), the wildly diverse characters rendered in full technicolor detail with ongoing and minutely documented social commentary attached to individual observations. The characters: a lonely online obituary moderator, a young mother with dark thoughts, a 70ish couple decidedly not keeping up with the times, and a group of four teenagers who have aged out of the foster care system, including Blandine who is seeking meaning in the writings of the mystics — Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century in particular.

It’s brilliantly done, bringing psychology, philosophy, and reflection to bear on the ways all of these people trying to make sense of their own lives. The author has a pointed ability to see into the motivations, experiences, and fears of those who appear rather anonymous on the outside. From the mystics to sexual grooming to isolation to the environment to the effects of noise pollution (my favorite) — the book was intellectually interesting and humorous in places, but — I admit — overall had a doomed, hopeless feel. I made it a “daytime only” read. However, I did not find the end depressing — I think that is important to note, and I wish I had known that ahead of time!

New words (for me):
Misophonia — People with misophonia are affected emotionally by common sounds — usually those made by others and usually ones that other people don’t pay attention to. The examples above (breathing, yawning, or chewing) create a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape.
Balayage: a technique for highlighting hair in which the dye is painted on in such a way as to create a graduated, natural-looking effect.

A few quotes, but there are a million more…

“Joan apologized three more times, then returned to her seat, feeling evil. As usual, when she confronted the world about one of its problems, the world suggested that the problem was Joan.”

“…the cackles and squawks of three tween girls overthrow the words on the page, infuriating her. They sound like chimpanzees. Just when Joan thinks the tween cackling will stop, it gets louder, engulfing her flammable peace along with the compartment.”

“Tiffany is insecure, cerebral, and enraged. Pretty in an extraterrestrial sort of way. Addicted to learning because it distracts her from the hostility of her consciousness; she has one of those brains that attacks itself unless it’s completing a difficult task.”

“She did bring a book, but she wasn’t reading it, just bullying the ink into sense.”

“And then on top of that — weaponzing a person’s isolation — it convinced every user that she is a minor celebrity, forcing her to curate some sparkly and artificial sampling of her best experiences, demanding a nonstop social performance that has little in common with her inner life, intensifying her narcissism, multiplying her anxieties, narrowing her worldview.”

“It’s moments like these when Joan fears she is a subject in some elaborate, federally funded psychology experiement.”

“She feels like a demanding and ill-fated houseplant, one that needs light in every season but will die in direct sun, one whose soil requires daily water but will drown if it receives too much, one that takes a fertilizer only sold at a store that’s open three hours a day, one that …

“They are elite, climate controlled, dentally supreme.”

“Frequently, Hope wondered what it would be like to vacation in her cousin’s psychology.”

“She always knew that she was too small and stupid to lead a revolution, but she had hoped she could at least imagine one.”