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!

Cold, Cold Bones by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Character:4/5

Number 21 in the Temperance Brennan series. Tempe is a forensic archeologist, and this series is full of interesting technical bits of the trade (sometimes a little too gross for me but so easy to skim if necessary!). This one opens with an unexpected eyeball delivery to her doorstep one find winter morning. From there things escalate rapidly as a madman appears to be copycatting many of Tempe’s cases, but they go off the charts when Tempe’s newly returned Afghanistan vet daughter goes missing. Plenty of action but not a lot of needless stress for the reader (this is a good thing). Some fascinating tidbits about knotology, preppers, and crematorium offerings pepper the mix. Additionally, Reich’s writing style cracks me up — I add a few of her one liners for illustration. This series is the basis for the TV crime drama “Bones.” I’ve only read a few of the books — absolutely not necessary to read in order. Fun read.

Quotes:
“Fine,” I said with the enthusiasm I typically reserve for plunging a toilet.

“The grapes were at least half a decade past their prime. And warm from the hours spent cuddling the sandwich.”

“After waiting out customers with requirements more complex than Patton’s at El Alamein, my turn finally came.”

“Inadequacy vied with melancholy for control of my emotions.”

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

For the Love of the Bard by Jessica Martin (Rom-com)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A delightful rom-com immersed in all things Shakespeare. Miranda Barnes — literary agent and anonymous author of the fantastically popular YA series Elf Shot — heads home to Bard’s Rest to finish her next book amidst fan outrage at the ending of the previous installment. Privacy and quiet do not appear on the horizon, however, as she is roped into directing one play at the annual Shakespeare festival, mentoring a teen director on another, and serving on the well-functioning (ha!) festival steering committee.

While fairly predictable and not terribly realistic (but what rom com is?), it is laugh out loud funny and wins major points for continual snappy banter and quirky gotta-love-them characters. Plenty of enjoyable detail about the town of Bard’s Rest, its Shakespearean themed shops (e.g. Tempest Tossed Pizza), and the sausage making stagecraft involved in simultaneous theater productions.

Requisite LGBQT… characters included.

Very enjoyable read.

Fun quotes (the last one is the best!):
“You put gold leaf on a truffle. You sped past too much hours ago and blew it an air kiss.”

“It’d been a while since I’d seen Bunny, but she still had that look of someone who’s decided that the FDA wasn’t credible when it came to sunscreen. She reminded me of those mango chews that Portia snacked on — orange and leathery and completely dehydrated.”

“She writes a series called Elf Shot — it’s basically a call to arms for the women of this generation to not settle for the status quo and rise up to change it.”

“I was just going to have to pretend like I hadn’t committed outdoor frottage with Adam while I sat here with a pair of teenagers who were bloodhounds at sniffing that kind of thing.”

“Took me forever to suture it because he kept batting me with his paw as if to say, ‘Hurry it up, human. The backyard isn’t going to patrol itself.’”

“My traitorous id emerged from a cave worthy of Grendel to spin visuals involving Adam’s hands.”

“More importantly, I don’t want you dating the emotional equivalent of Splenda because you think that’s all you deserve.”

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 June 28th, 2022.

Racing the Light by Robert Crais (Action / Mystery)

Elvis is back! Well, Elvis Cole that is — sorry — couldn’t help myself! Cole and his quiet (but definitely-the-guy-you-want-to-have-your-back) partner, Joe Pike, help an old woman find her missing adult son, Josh. But it’s not just any old woman and not just any missing son. Adele Schumacher pays in cash, doesn’t trust phones, and talks about conspiracies and aliens as obvious facts. She has a couple of very buff “helpers” who follow her everywhere. And Josh is the controversial podcaster of In Your Face with Josh Shoe (with a listenership of approximately 20 people).

Laugh out loud funny, with plenty of action (the good kind where a lot happens and it happens quickly but we don’t have to suffer through long car chases or drawn out battles — ugh) and plenty of colorful characters. A fast and thoroughly enjoyable read. This is book 19 but you can really start anywhere — a few references to previous cases but nothing problematic.

Thank you to G.P Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 1st, 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.”

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.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Creative non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Coverage: ?? My enjoyment: 2/5

Bryson’s second book. This is the story of his hike on the Appalachian Trail.

This was my first and very probably last Bryson book. I love humor and had heard his books were hysterically funny. However, I found his humor to be quite mean spirited. Whether he was gratuitously making fun of well-known individuals (“the inestimably priggish and tiresome Thoreau” or Daniel Boone who “wrestled bears and tried to date their sisters”) or lambasting entire populations (every human in the South was portrayed as a variation of absurdly stupid and / or outlandishly obnoxious) — he rarely had a nice thing to say about anybody.

His writing is top-notch and I definitely laughed out loud at several of his lines, but after a while you get tired of listening to someone rant about how stupid, incompetent, and ridiculous everyone else is. Each chapter has some bit of history or doom like predictions about the climate, species deaths, or endlessly burning coal fires, and much of it was actually interesting. However, I got the feeling that his “research” consisted of browsing through some pamphlets and newspaper headlines (in 1996 the Internet was weak and puny) because he never delved into a subject, just dropped a few facts (all depressing) without ever going into the complexities of what is behind each and every problem.

He was paid to write this book and I don’t think his heart was in it. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t even come close to finishing the trail!

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.

Boy by Roald Dahl (Autobiography sort of…)

Penguin Books is reissuing Roald Dahl’s “not an autobiography” memories of youth. It reads exactly like one of his fantastic children’s books, and in particular it is easy to see the inspiration for my favorite — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — in many of the stories. It is consistently funny and engaging and fascinating in its ability to demonstrate the development of one of my favorite childhood authors. Since his childhood began in 1916, the descriptions of what life was like (operations without much anesthetic, the typical (and ridiculously cruel IMHO) boarding school experience, and complications of international travel) are plentiful and eye-opening. All in all a very fun (and fast) read.

Looking at some background on Dahl, I’m surprised at all the vitriole — he’s been accused of racism, profanity, and sexual innuendo. The examples given were ridiculous. I despair.

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.