Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 26, 2019.
Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 4.5

69-year old leading Cambridge economist Professor Chandra is a shoe-in for the Nobel prize in Economics — except that he doesn’t get it. Divorced, distant from his three children, and frustrated with the new tenor of academic life, this “non event” coupled with a silent heart attack sends him off on an unintended, Siddhartha-like quest for personal enlightenment (naturally starting with a sabbatical at UC Bella Vista in Southern California).

His journey takes him to unlikely places — both physical and emotional. He is tricked into attending a weekend workshop at Esalen; he visits his ex-wife and new, annoying husband in Boulder in order to see his troubled daughter Jasmine; he searches for a way to reach his middle daughter Radha — an angry Marxist who hasn’t spoken to her conservative father in over two years; and visits his son Sunil’s highly successful Hong Kong-based “School for Mindful Business” (based on principles completely antithetical to his own). He learns that he is human and not infallible and finds himself more OK with that than he would have expected.

Excellent and insightful writing — wry and witty with deliciously pithy and often hysterical articulations of his evolving viewpoints. Lots of interesting commentary about psychology, economics, spirituality, achievement and the personal search for meaning and happiness.  I appreciate that while he learns more about himself, his priorities, and his relationships, he does not relinquish his intellectual interests or accomplishments.

Some great lines:

Brief but scathing summary of the identity politics Radha adheres to:
“‘West’ … ‘bourgeois’ … ‘capitalist’ … these words would fly from her lips like tiny swastikas, her knuckles turning white, her jaw clenched, her eyes hard as Siberian pickaxes as she sentenced most of the world to the gulag for their crimes against ideology.”

“An Indian Miss Havisham with an Emeritus Professorship and a takeaway menu.”

“… but he couldn’t help believing meditation was best suited to those with less mind to be mindful of: sociologists, for example, or geologists”

“Humans were like those snowflakes against the window, buffeted by winds no one understood.”

“Chandra accepted the phone as if he’d been handed a small but quite genuine lump of plutonium.”

“They seem to come pre-offended, forsaking any analytical content in favor of emotion and outrage.”

“But the undergraduates were even worse than in Cambridge: arrogant, unhygenic, and brazen, convinced that lazy platitudes and fallacious arguments would earn them nothing but praise if delivered with sufficient conviction.”

“King’s was Chandra’s least favorite college. It was the intellectual equivalent of a Disney princess, fluttering its eyelashes at tourists who didn’t know any better.”

“It was what Chandra loathed most about liberals — their shameless self-righteousness, as if the species’ failings were always someone else’s fault, while anything they did, murder and arson included, were heroic acts in the service of liberty and justice.”

Chemistry by Weike Wang

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

A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The writing style is spare and humorous, comprised of short 1-3 page segments bundled into two large “parts.” Tidbits of chemistry, science, Chinese history, culture, and parenting are brought in as elements of the crucible which forged her personality. We never learn her name — the narrative is all 1st person — and only one character — the man she lives with — is given a name (Eric). Everyone else is referred to by label: the best friend, the lab mate, the dog, her mother, her father, the math student, the husband (of the best friend), and the Chinese roommate.

While some of the characters (her emotionless, overbearing, push to succeed parents for example) might appear to be stereotypes, they are completely personalized in backstories told through her memories. They appear quite real. One day our narrator sees a flyer in the park written by someone named “Peggy” that says: “The way you talk to your human children becomes their inner voice.” She rails at this: “Who is Peggy? I ask the other dog owners. And does she have a PhD to back up such claims?” I love this short scene because clearly her upbringing has been condensed into the inner voice that constantly plagues her.

I had a hard time reading this at first — I found the narrator to be self-absorbed and that is not a characteristic I favor in my book-friends. I felt sorry for the boyfriend who had no flaws, was very good to her, and who proposed marriage in chapter one. However, as I continued reading, it became clear that she was literally unable to cope with the life she was living and was going through the necessary steps to create a life that she could live — and voila — the story!

Very well-written, entertaining, and insightful.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

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

New word (to me): deliquescence — the process by which a substance absorbs moisture from the atmosphere until it dissolves in the absorbed water and forms a solution.

Shakespeare’s sonnet on grave robbers starts “Before the golden tresses of the dead…” which gives a hint as to the subject matter of this delightful installment of the Flavia De Luce series. For those of you who haven’t met Flavia before, she is the precocious pre-teen with a penchant for poisons and passion for chemistry and now the owner of Buckshaw — the somewhat decaying family estate in Bishop’s Lacy. This episode was internally referred to as the “Curious Case of the Clue in the Cake” (said clue was the finger bone of a recently deceased Spanish guitarist found in Flavia’s sister’s wedding cake!) — but the digit-based investigation uncovers a more deliciously evil plot swirling around homeopathic distillations and murder.

Bradley’s writing is fun — every volume is full of arcane references in the fields of literature, history, anthropology, architecture, and of course Flavia’s favorite: chemistry. My favorite line:

“Like a sponge the human brain can only absorb so much before it begins to leak.”

This one is pretty good too:

“Great music has much the same effect upon humans as cyanide, I managed to think: It paralyzes the respiratory system.”

You can certainly read this one without the others — or really start anywhere you like in the series, though there is a nice progression to going in order.

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

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

Women’s fiction pairing romcom humor with a smart, capable, protagonist. Complex themes with authentic resolutions. Multi-cultural and sexual diversity interest.

29 year-old Raina Anand is under constant pressure from her beloved Nani to get married. Her best friend is about the tie the knot and the close knit Indian community in her Toronto suburb is all geared up to help her follow suit. However, Raina is keeping a shameful secret — she is still in love with the man she left (in another country) 2 years ago. In order to protect this secret, she allows her Nani to believe she is gay — with broad and surprising consequences.

This is not your typical romcom. There are no firemen, no Fabios flexing muscles, and no ditzy but lovable blondes prepared to make some man very happy. The story continually veers off into unexpected territory and allows the main character to experience real emotional growth while trying to find her way in the world. Opening on Raina’s 29th birthday, the narrative carries through to her 30th, interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks to previous memorable birthdays. Her family is not typical (is anyone’s?). Half Indian, half caucasian, she was raised by her grandparents and only rarely saw her mother who bore her when only 16. But even this is not exactly as it seems — there is depth and nuance in this story.

There is a strong theme of sexual orientation diversity — portrayed in an interesting way because while our first person narrative protagonist is not gay herself, this “small” white lie highlights the clash of tradition and modernism simmering beneath the surface of her small, tight-knit, community.

Fun, witty, writing. Well structured with good messages about diversity, values, and the danger of letting shame drive you into making bad decisions.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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

A “wow” book for me — a blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Real noir. I hadn’t heard of Lauren Beukes before but can’t wait to read more — luckily she is prolific.

Zinzi Lelethu December is our first person narrator — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment. Hints of being a post-apocalyptic, or at least a post-civilized world, it frankly sounds pretty close to parts of South Africa today — Zoo City is full of the hustle vibe. “Zoos” refer to the intense people-animal pairings that come unrequested to many of those who have committed a crime — Zinzi’s animal is a sloth; boyfriend Benoit’s a mongoose. Zoo City is the area of Johannesburg that has become a hustler ghetto for the animalled.

Zinzi is a finder of lost things — the “talent” that came with the acquisition of her animal. This helps her see webs of connection between people and the things they have lost. While this brings her some remuneration, she works off the bulk of her large drug debt by writing the form letters and processing the responses for current affairs sympathy scams. She is depressingly good at it. In the midst of her self-loathable existence as a petty criminal, she is offered a great deal of money to find someone. And then things start going very wrong.

Although there isn’t a great deal to like about Zinzi, we can’t help but root for her the whole time. I believe this is because we love flawed characters who have or are developing a strong moral sense. While Zinzi makes her way through an unsavory underground, she starts to gain a real sense of right and wrong and develops an interest in actually making something better.

Listen to the Marriage by John Jay Osborn

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for an early review copy which will be published Oct. 23, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 3

A surprisingly interesting book — all the “action” takes place in the marriage counselor’s office where Steve and Gretchen meet weekly for the 9 months following their split. I have a somewhat skeptical view of how helpful therapists usually are, but I found this view into the detailed process both plausible and fascinating. The novel enumerates the session conversations, revealing the bad habits and miscommunications that can develop between people without their realizing it.

Sandy (the therapist) makes it clear to her clients that she has never been a “neutral” marriage counselor. “You can ask whatever you want,” she says. “I don’t do the therapist-must-keep-her-distance thing.” She views the “marriage” as an entity in and of itself and allocates an odd-looking chair in the room to be its representative.

I have no insight as to why John Jay Osborn of “Paper Chase” fame is writing a novel about marriage counseling, and with a female therapist to boot. I’m always nervous when a man writes a book from a woman’s perspective (and similarly unhappy when a woman writes a book from a man’s) but in this case, Sandy comes across as a gender neutral being. Her role in the therapy, and her thoughts, actions, and words, could equally well have belonged to a man. Even her name appears to have been chosen to be gender neutral.

The book felt slightly too long — while realistic, the repetition required in good long term counseling can get a bit dull for the reader — and the ending was a bit too sappy for me (though not in the way you’d predict), however I did find it a fast and absorbing read.

Good for fans of Irvin Yalom.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for an early review copy which will publish Dec. 4, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 4 Plot: 5+ Characters: 4

An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

In (roughly) England in the mid-1800s, near a powerful river that may or may not be the Thames, there stands The Swan — a country inn known for the storytelling skills of its patrons. One night during a rough storm the regulars swear to a Miracle — the corpse of a drowned child, pale and angelic, comes to life hours after the local healer pronounced her dead. The child has a strange effect on those who see her — she raises an inexplicable feeling of connection and need in them all. Lily White swears the child is her long-dead sister Ann; the Vaughans are convinced she is the child abducted from them two years ago; Robert Armstrong thinks it is the abandoned child of his neer-do-well son Robin. Launched by this perceived Miracle, there are stories upon stories, many intertwined, all of them rich, some bursting forth while others are slowly extracted. The overall pacing at which the confusion unravels is just right. With beautiful descriptions of the countryside and the different moods of the river, it is a lyrical tale about the power of storytelling that utterly embodies the point!

Great for fans of Alice Hoffman or Charles De Lint.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

A strong, character-driven novel supported by the eponymous “Mothers,” who represent the local church community as a kind of Greek chorus opining on events in the first-person plural (we) at the beginning of each chapter (cool technique!).

17-year old Nadia has an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy just months after her mother’s suicide. Luke had a promising football career until suffering a knee injury. Aubrey appears to be a goody-goody but is haunted by an abusive past. Through keen insight and excellent writing, the narrative follows these three through life, observing their thoughts, choices and ramifications of those choices without judgement. I think this is what I liked so much about the book — there were no preachy messages, strong statements of “right” or “wrong,” or even characters that were obviously “good” or “bad” — just people living their lives, making choices, and living with the results of those choices (along with community pressure as personified in the Mothers’ commentary). Bennett handles the themes of motherhood, connection, and growing up with depth and dexterity — I’m really looking forward to future work!

Some great lines:

“Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”

“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern.”

“Reckless white boys become politicians and bankers. Reckless black boys become dead.”

“A tragic woman hooks into an ain’t shit man, or worse, lets him hook into her. He will drag her until he tires. He will climb atop her shoulders and her body will sag from the weight of loving him.”

“Now they were slow and deliberate the way hurt people loved, stretching carefully just to see how far their damaged muscles could go.”

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks

Thanks to NetGalley and Tin House Books for an advance review copy. The Orphan of Salt Winds will be published on Jan. 16, 2019.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

A dark and moody historical drama set against English marshes on the eve of WWII. Virginia — a ten-year-old orphan — comes to live at Salt Winds as the adopted daughter of Clem and Lorna. Clem is the author of wildlife books and Lorna a somewhat reluctant housewife. Tension unfurls at a steady and insidious pace as Virginia works to makes sense of the strain between her adoptive parents and the perfidious and disagreeable neighbor Max Deering. When a German aviator crashes into the marsh, events unfold that lead to a terrible denouement. Alternating chapters take place in 2015 when Virginia, in her dotage and still haunted by past events, spies a young girl clinging to the marsh wall in the bitter winds.

The writing is very good and the tension palpable. The descriptive prose brings the marshes and the time to life. The pacing is a bit slow for my taste with not enough story to warrant the length, and I would have liked a more upbeat ending. One of the more interesting aspects of the book for me is the way Virginia’s (and therefore our) understanding of individual characters changes over time. For example, Clem is the sympathetic character at the start — he behaves like a father while Lorna doesn’t seem to know what to do with the role of mother that has been foisted upon her. However, over time Virginia begins to see, and understand, how circumstance shaped Lorna and how she finally pushes through a learned submissiveness to become the person she needed to be. It’s interesting to realize that we see everything through the eyes of a ten- to twelve-year-old, and later through the eyes of the (somewhat bitter) old woman she becomes.

Good for fans of Kate Morton.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

Heavily pregnant, Scarlett and Daisy, meet at Perfume Bay — the exclusive maternity home in Los Angeles for Chinese women who want to have their “anchor” babies in the U.S. for automatic citizenship. Neither wants to be there — teen-age Daisy has been placed there by parents anxious to separate her from an “unsuitable” boyfriend; Scarlett has been placed there by the baby’s father — also her married boss — who wants the son he believes she is carrying.

After an opportunistic escape, they make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown where they learn about motherhood while trying to bulldoze their way to legal status and financial stability (Scarlett) and find the boyfriend (Daisy).

Woven throughout the modern day narrative are the historical stories of Scarlett’s China — highlighting the contrasts between the traditional and modern, the city and the country, and China and the U.S. There are a lot of interesting details included: Scarlett’s estranged mother was the village “family planner” — the woman charged with upholding the unpopular “one child” law (only recalled in 2013, this novel takes while the law was still in effect). Historical immigration policies in the U.S. had banned Chinese women from immigrating as families “weren’t supposed to take root here.” The backstories of other characters reveal even more detail of life in China under Communist rule.

While the end is tied up perhaps too neatly, the story is unpredictable and engaging, the characters are appealing, and I appreciated the inclusion of historical and cultural detail. It is simultaneously a novel about China and San Francisco, quirks and all. It shirks from neither!