Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

Homegoing is a collection of vignettes following two half-sisters in Fanteland (Ghana) — each unaware of the other’s existence — and their descendants through seven generations. One is captured and sold into slavery; the other is sold off to the white Governor of the Cape Coast Castle and serves as his “wench” or native wife. The writing is excellent and the structure — while often confusing — does an impressive and subtle job of weaving together the cross-generational stories. Each story captures the essence or main turning point of one person’s life, but the closure on that life isn’t delivered until the next generation’s story where the impact of the generations before is felt and details recalled.

The family tree in the front pages is essential — if you’re reading an ebook, find the tree online, print it, and refer to it often. Because Gyasi alternates between the descendants of the two half-sisters, generation by generation, it is sometimes difficult to hold to the previous story of one line by the time you get to the next. Similarly, it can be difficult to know what time period you’ve come to — some stories mention a date, others mention an event whose date can be retrieved, others involve more math (it had been 16 years since my mother died).

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is well-written, the characters full of depth, the individual stories emotionally gripping. However, it reads like one long compendium of tragedy. Every storied individual — on each side of the sisterly divide — suffers the atrocities of that generation: from abduction to the slave ships to the hopelessness and cruelty of slavery and the futility of escape attempts. Later generations on the American side suffer from the Fugitive Slave Act, broken families, drug addiction, the loss of family who can pass for white. The African side suffers as well from the impacts of colonization, “well-meaning” missionaries, internecine struggles, and the guilt of their own role in slavery. It is a relentless history lesson which highlights only the troubles and oppression and little of the gains or joys. While it is at times heavy handed, it does not descend into emotional manipulation for which I was grateful.

Definitely worth reading, but keep in mind the larger context — humans of every race and ethnicity have done abhorrent things to each other since the dawn of time — as a species I like to think that we are continually working to tame ourselves and make things better for everyone, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like. While none of the white people mentioned in the book were particularly “good,” she did a good job of not casting blame on whole groups of people for what takes place in these pages.

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart (Mystery / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
I am loving these Chinese mysteries by Elsa Hart. They go far beyond genre fiction with beautiful language that brings China in the early 18th century to life — detailed descriptions of history and culture embedded in the story rather than a dry droning.

Li Du was a scholar and a librarian in the Forbidden City before events five years past saw him exiled for his friendship with a man found to be a traitor. In his new life as a “scholar recluse,” Du finds himself in the far corner of China near the Tibetan planes just before the Emperor is due to arrive to predict a solar eclipse and strengthen his divine hold on this remote region. When a Jesuit priest turns up dead, Du feels compelled to learn the truth. The story progresses through the six days preceding the eclipse.

That’s the description, but the story is so much more. I was completely drawn to Li Du — a thoughtful, deliberate and highly moral man with a drive for the truth. I was also drawn to the idea of his quiet scholar’s life with quiet, beautiful physical books, and few people. Hart’s powers of description made me slow down and pay attention (I’m not a description person — I usually skim description in favor of dialog, action, or reflection).

This is the first of a three book series — I’ve already read (and loved) the third. I’m sad that I have just the second to go. I really think the BBC should do a mini-series!

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett (Literary / Historical Fiction)

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel immersed in antiquarian book lovers, collectors and sellers. It is full of details on literary research, history, and techniques for binding, conserving and protecting — all seamlessly woven into a novel about love, passion, fascination, and … finding the holy grail of Shakespeare studies — proof of authorship.

The narrative alternates between three timelines: the “present” (1995) where antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly is trying pull his life back together after the untimely death of his wife; 1983 when Peter is first drawn into the heady world of rare books and meets his wife-to-be; and lastly, a progression from 1592 through the late 1800s following the path of the particular book that may be all Peter has ever hoped to find.

A warning — around page 200 the book suddenly spews up a murder for which Peter appears to be being framed — I almost stopped reading right then. I worried that the entire book would devolve into a Da Vinci Code wanna be (not a compliment!) thriller protesting our hero’s innocence. Luckily — not so. It went back to the literary mysteries with the (somehow less important) murder mystery until the loose ends all tied up and everything was solved. I can see why the murder had to happen, but not why Peter had to be “framed.” Lovett gets dinged for that.

Great levels of depth and sophistication, intricate details about the rare book trade that are somehow never dry or dull, impressive insertion of academic mysteries into story — again not a boggy moment to be found. Lovett has a brand new book about to come out, and I am signing up to read it now!

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons (Mystery)

Number 17 in the ever enlightening, ever entertaining Bryant & May series. In this episode, the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) — finally tipped over the brink of being shut down permanently — is “temporarily” reinstated to solve a series of high profile murders that appear to be following the verses of the age old children’s nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.”

As always, the writing has me in stitches as well as completely gripped by the story. We have an intriguing new character — Sydney — who when queried about whether or not she is “on the spectrum” responds that she prefers to think of herself as “over the rainbow.” When accused of being offended by something, she responds “It’s the millennials who take offense. I’m Generation Z.” I love her. Each of the misfits of the PCU is bursting with an off-canter personality of some sort, especially Arthur Bryant who dwells happily in the arcana of existential English history and alternate forms of knowledge.

And also as always, I never saw the end coming until it smacked me in the face.

This is a unique mystery series — I’ve never read another one quite like it.

Thank you to Ballantine Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on NovDecember 8th, 2020.

 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Mystery)

Coopers Chase retirement village — a place where everyone has done something interesting with his or her life and everyone has a story. And trouble with technology, memory, and joints. They aren’t afraid to play the dementia card if it suits them. The Thursday murder club meets every — you guessed it — Thursday to talk about cold cases to see if they can solve the cases to its own satisfaction. That is, until a real murder falls into their lap. And then another, and possibly a third.

Sounds like your everyday cozy but it isn’t at all. The ocatgenarians of the club are interesting and smart: 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.

The plot is convoluted with all sorts of intertwining stories, some with actual bearing on the case and others simply with bearing on individual lives. Great writing that had me in stitches, completely gripped, and even tearful at times.

My one word summary: fun! Make that two words: Great fun!

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 22nd, 2020.

 

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow (speculative fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Harrow is a fantastic storyteller! I very much enjoyed her The Ten Thousand Doors of January and this second novel is every bit as good if not better. Hooray!

The action takes place in New Salem in the 1890s. It’s a kind of alternate history where the women’s suffrage movement becomes entwined with a movement to bring back witching —benevolent witching being another route to to recover lost power for women in an era rife with female oppression. The three Eastwood sisters — bookish Beatrice Belladona, strong Agnes Amaranth, and wild James Juniper — are at the heart of the story as they work together with a growing sisterhood to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon.

It’s a book focused on women, with a smattering of male characters playing both utterly good and utterly evil men — a male version of the madonna / whore dichotomy. I love it! I also loved the way the embedded fairy tales — written by Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang — bore little resemblance to the fairy tales with wicked witches I’ve grown up with. A not so subtle reminder that history is written by the victor!

Lots of action but not the kind that bores me, plenty of interesting characters, and some fantastic malevolence captured in an evil creature of some inner complexity. She even manages to weave in lesbians and a trans person in a completely matter-of-fact manner. Lush prose suffused with magical realism and gripping from start to finish.

Great for fans of Alice Hoffman, Diane Setterfield, and Deborah Harkness.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 13th, 2020.

Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

Jared is a bot. Engineered from human DNA, he lives a productive life as a dentist in Ypsilanti, Michigan and is deeply programmed to serve humans. Until one day … he starts to have feelings. Thus begin his simultaneously hilarious and yet poignant adventures as he heads to Hollywood to write a screenplay daring to portray bots as beings deserving humane treatment and not the “killer bots” that comprise the bulk of modern cinema.

The social commentary is priceless as Jared struggles to make rational sense of human behavior. Jared’s “voice” as a developing character is so appealing — his way of expressing surprise, disbelief, and acceptance is incomparable. He refers to himself as a “toaster with a heart.” Bots are the new underclass in this world because after all — they aren’t even human. While the journey is comic (laugh out loud funny much of the time), there are plenty of deep things to think about: What makes us human? What should our relationship with other beings be? What kind of “programming” do we humans have of which we are not explicitly aware?

In some ways this reminded me of Vonnegut — the speculative and humorous extrapolation of today’s social mores — but with a little more depth in terms of human (or bot) experience and how we treat others. As fun additions, there are some great descriptions of classic movies (without titles) that are fun to see through Jared’s eyes (and try to make the identification), some fun screen-writing tips, and all the details of a futuristic road trip adventure.

I won’t give away the ending but I loved the way the author embedded an intricately layered set of foreshadowing and self-referential plot twists.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 1st, 2020.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals by Becky Mandelbaum (Literary Fiction)

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

After a false start I ended up loving this book — it just got better and better. Kansas. An animal sanctuary. The nature of home, love, forgiveness, and understanding.

Mona runs the “Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” in rural Kansas with a single devoted employee on a shoestring budget. Her daughter Ariel left years ago to find a life of her own but is drawn inexorably back when news reaches her of a deadly fire at the sanctuary.

I almost stopped reading after the first chapters. Trump has just been elected, and the sanctuary fire is set by what appears to be a stereotypical “bad guy” (think swastikas, racists, Fox News). Not my kind of thing. Instead, the story delves into the people and all the connections between them. It looks at how personal histories (both good and bad) shape people and how each individual has to continually work to understand their own motivations, mistakes, and desires. The writing is excellent, depicting life in a (poorly funded) animal sanctuary in vivid detail — the animals, the work, the squalor, the caring.

The plot is unpredictable, all of the characters are engaging and fully fleshed out, and the environment is intriguing and very real. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:
“…how unfortunate it was that they didn’t kiss the way humans did, how they could never really hold a loved one in their arms. So few animals even had lips.”

“…because caretaking seemed like the only reasonable occupation in a world that needed so much care.”

“She had always admired this type of woman — women like her mother, like Sunny — who naturally exuded authority. They navigated the world with confidence, looking for things to improve, whereas Ariel moved through the world on tip-toes, expecting someone to reprimand her, to tell her she was doing something wrong.”

“Out here, we have to work with nature. It’s our boss. Our livelihood. Out there, people see nature as this dying thing they need to protect — this thing totally separate from themselves, from the world of people.”

“The animals are weird at night. You’d be surprised how many of them are awake — like they’re all dressed up and ready for church.”

“Maybe that’s the ingredient they’d been missing all along — the ability to say the squishy stuff other families had no problem tossing around.”

“Even in the moments of greatest anger, behind the flames there was always love. If anything, love was the air that stoked the blaze.”

“It seemed both absurd and unjust, that murdering animals made you rich while caring for them made you poor.”

“You know, my mom used to have this saying. She’d say ‘Mona, sorry is like a sponge. You can use it to clean up your messes, but the more you use it, the dirtier it gets.’”

“Dex would catch her looking at him, a shimmer of contempt in her eyes, as if his penis alone had engineered the electoral college.”

“It was something she’d noticed since the election: everyone was eager to dole out little kindnesses wherever possible, as if, deed by deed, they might tip the scales of the world toward goodness and restore some measure of order.”

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct 7th, 2020.

The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

An Isabel Dalhousie book. For those unfamiliar with McCall Smith’s less well-known protagonist (Mma Ramotswe of Number One Ladies Detective Agency is far more popular), Isabel is a philosopher of independent means. She serves as the publisher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. What an unusual character on which to base a series! These books center around questions of morality, and amidst the light plots that loosely guide each episode, we are treated to a constant stream of philosophical musings and epiphanies. I love the fact that rather than read the (probably) dry research papers that populate Isabel’s Review, we instead get to hear the intriguing summaries.

In this installment, Isabel is asked to serve as executor of a dying man’s trust while simultaneously coming to terms with her niece’s engagement to an (to Isabel) unsuitable man. These situations give rise to musings about the accidents of love, moral obligations, moral strangers, the sphere of moral proximity, and what it means to act graciously. Populated by the educational elite of Edinburgh, this series also gives rise to discussions on a wide variety of topics — this time including Himalayan languages and Scottish Country dancing.

I have a very good vocabulary and have read most of McCall Smith’s books and yet he *still* surprises me with new words. This time: Gluckschmerz and commensality. Gluckschmerz is feeling pain in the face of another’s success — the opposite of Schadenfreude. Commensality refers to the positive social interactions that are associated with people eating together.

My favorite phrase in the book: “the suppurating corruption of greed.”

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 July 28th, 2020.

Just Like You by Nick Hornby (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Story: 3.5/5

London, England.  Boy meets Girl in this simple story with character depth and plenty of everyday life thrown in. Girl is Lucy — a 42-year old white English teacher, divorced with two sons. Boy is Joseph — a 22-year old black “portfolio worker” (someone who works lots of jobs rather than one) interested in grime music and hoping to DJ. (As an aside, it is not possible to have a Nick Hornby book in which there is no character who is immersed in music).

I’m a Nick Hornby fan — this book had the great dialog and likable characters I’ve come to expect from him — while the characters didn’t all agree with each other, I would be happy to spend more time with most of them. Plenty of topics covered in ways that gave me something to think about: race, age and socioeconomic gaps, stereotypes, affinity groups, and how opinions can be formed by one’s willingness to to cling closer to or distinguish oneself from a group.

Brexit and later the Trump election form the larger-than-life background topics. He must be kicking himself to have finished this too soon — the pandemic would have made another excellent backdrop! By throwing together two people with wildly different backgrounds and characteristics, each situation can be specific to them and not representation of a category. I liked the way difficult issues could be presented and discussed as part of daily life without the heavy handedness of larger-than-life events. I also liked the fact that there was no clear resolution, because guess what? How often do we get real resolution in life? Deftly done and entertaining to boot.

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept 29th, 2020.