When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (Literary Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

A crashed plane in the middle of the night in a small airfield in North Carolina. The dead body of a local black man is found nearby. A sheriff up for reelection in a week and very likely to lose to a younger man who is at the very heart of a good old boy network — to which many of the deputies also belong. And a daughter who returns home suddenly after the heartbreaking loss of her baby. These are the elements of this literary mystery.

The writing is very good in terms of the carefully crafted sentences and the sensitivity and depth of the main characters (Winston Barnes, the sheriff; his daughter; and to some extent Jay, the young black boy who is sent to live with his sister, the now widow of the victim). For me, the plot teetered between gripping and extraneous. Although the crime and the sheriff are front and center, this reads like literary fiction far more than crime fiction and the elements of plot that work to solve the crime are like sudden jagged edges introduced in spurts. I had a very hard time with the characters as well (other than the three I’ve mentioned). They were deeply stereotyped, reinforcing the dangerous divides our country is facing. Bradley Frye — property developer, running against the sheriff for reelection — drives a truck with confederate flags, calls black people the “n” word regularly, and has no trouble terrorizing the town. I also hated the ending — there was enough obvious foreshadowing that it was easy to see what was going to happen but somehow the sheriff didn’t. He behaved uncharacteristically, and I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers. The daughter theme resolves but had little to do with the crime plot.

I did enjoy much of the reading, but the ending and the stereotypes were such that I can’t recommend it.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on September 21st, 2021.

Come As You Are by Jennifer Haupt (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
An engaging family drama that bounces between the present (2002) and the teenage years of two best friend misfits from the Seattle grunge scene who managed to inadvertently make a baby. Zane and Skye are such well-drawn characters that I can’t sum them up with one-line quirk descriptors — suffice it to say that while they are appealing as characters, their depth exposes the intentions, confusions, mistakes, and self-doubts that all real humans experience. Definitely character driven, the plot nevertheless keeps up and holds together through episodes of grief, indecision, love, and growing self awareness.

Thank you to Central Avenue Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 1st, 2022.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Literary fiction / Historical fiction)


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

I love this book — it combines the humor and non-conformity of Eleanor Oliphant with the twisted and cleverly converging plots of John Irving.

Elizabeth Zott — master chemist — trying to do science in a late 50s / early 60s world that treats women as incapable, inferior, and irrelevant. Her experiences are kind of over the top IMHO — she gets hit with every possible thing that could happen to a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world — but the real story is what she does about it, so I accepted the 2D portrayals of the really bad guys and their machinations (and to be fair she gives a lot more page attention to truly good men as well).

The characters are wonderful — both quirky and deep thinking — and include Elizabeth, her out-of-wedlock genius child, Mad, (so named as a result of a miscommunication with a cranky nurse), and a dog named six-thirty whose vocabulary is expanding at a carefully tracked rate. The story is told from each of their perspectives — yes, the dog, too.

The plot and dialog kept me constantly hooked and included plenty of twists and turns as well as interesting philosophy discussions, opportunities for characters to rethink their assumptions, and very positive messages about what is important, practical, inspiring, and possible.

Also — and this is important to me — Zott really does love chemistry and there is plenty of real science included. This isn’t one of those (very irritating) books where the main female character “loves” some kind of science / tech field but spends all her time worrying about her love interest and giggling with her friends while shopping for the perfect dress. At one point Zott is running a cooking show based equal parts on the chemistry of cooking and female empowerment and those scenes alone are worth reading the whole book.

A lot of the plot relied on the bad people doing bad manipulative things which is not a favorite plot device for me, but again I forgive it because of how much I liked the characters and what they did. Funnily, I realized that this book gave me the same feeling of pleasure that I get from old Clint Eastwood movies — when the bad guys are so very obviously bad it feels great when they are brought down (albeit in this case without violence).

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 5th, 2022.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5 / 5 Characters: 4/5

Lit Hub lists this as one of the “22 novels you need to read this fall,” so I moved it to the top of my review list.

Willa is the bi-racial (Asian dad, white mom) daughter of parents who divorced when she was young and moved on to build new families. Somewhat adrift in New York City after finishing college, she falls into a live-in nanny position with a wealthy family and a precocious child and wonders what life would be like to be part of such a (in her eyes) perfect family. The story alternates between the present day and various experiences in Willa’s past.

What I liked about this book was the content-rich and easily flowing writing style and the high degree of reflectivity on the part of the main character. While at times it appeared to move slowly, that is a good reflection of how normal life proceeds, and I enjoyed the access to Willa’s mind as she slowly came to understand what was important to her and how she could make changes in her own behavior to make her life be what she wanted. I also liked the way the story focused on Willa as an individual and not as a representative of a particular group. It traces the impact of her various experiences (some teasing at school for being Asian, lack of attention in her broken home situation, etc.) without calling attention to an overly dramatic agenda. It’s a personal story of an individual.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 2nd, 2021.

Honor by Thrity Umrigar (Literary fiction / Multicultural)

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

Smita Agarwal is an Indian-American gender issues journalist who works hard to maintain her objectivity. Despite being Indian by birth, India is the one country she refuses to cover due to a long ago personal trauma that she has never really confronted. When a close friend is hospitalized and begs her to cover an important Indian story for her, Smita has no choice but to comply. The story is a tough one: a woman (Meena) whose husband was set on fire in an honor killing by her brothers is now bringing the case back to trial despite knowing that the outcome will not really help her in any way.

While the emotionally ridden story of the honor killing and precipitating events fills the pages, the real story is about the impact on Smita and Mohan — a well-to-do Indian man who took a vacation in order to help as her driver and translator — neither of whom are prepared for the ugliness they find.

This was a hard book for me to read. It’s written in a dramatic style that left me feeling constantly angry, frustrated, and hopeless (I am an emotional sponge type reader so these things hit me hard). The characters of Smita and Mohan were well-drawn — it was easy to identify and resonate with them as their reactions were similar to what mine would have been. The characters of Meena, her brothers, her mother-in-law, and her husband were more two-dimensional as though the author was trying to make sense of how uneducated villagers conduct their lives. It’s so alien to me that I couldn’t really “get” it, but let’s face it — it would be difficult for me to get it given my own, very different, background.

Good storyline — I like the way the author showed many good and non-abusive men in contrast to these utterly oppressive village men. At the same time she did a great job of showing how Mohan lived with an upper-caste and male oriented privilege and not even be aware of the advantages this conferred upon him. Also some wonderful descriptions of scenery and culture.

Worth reading but for me it became a “daytime only” book because it really put me in a depressed state that was not conducive to sleep.

Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 11th, 2021.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi-cultural)

A Minneapolis bookstore is haunted by its most annoying (and recently deceased) patron. It’s not just any bookstore — it’s Birchbark Books — the very real bookstore owned by none other but the author herself who makes cameo appearances in the story. Tookie — a large, Native American woman who took up reading with a passion while serving a long prison sentence — is our narrator. Tookie is wonderful — she keeps her “to read” pile next to her bed in two stacks: the Lazy Stack and the Hard Stack — my kind of woman. The haunting story takes place while Minneapolis suffers first from Covid and then from being ground zero for the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

It’s a tender, multi-faceted story with characters that are so real, so nuanced, and so vibrant it made me cry to know that I would never actually be able to meet them. Absolutely beautiful writing as always — see the quote sampler at the end. Louise Erdrich has gone from “never read because too depressing” to “favorite author” in the last year or two. I loved LaRose, I really loved The Night Watchman, and now I have fallen in love with her latest — The Sentence. By the way, I loved her use of the word “sentence” with multiple meanings, both literary and punitive.

The story follows personal lives through these bigger events — their fears, perspectives (not all predictable), frustrations, and actions — the impact on relationships. The long buried hurts that emerge at inconvenient times. The scenes in the bookstore with vignettes on various customers — their needs, conversation, and frequent crankiness — are priceless. Lots of great book references and lists interspersed — I was happy to find new authors (and I read a lot — this doesn’t happen to me very often). As always, plenty of historical and current information on Native Americans including (as an example) the statistic that Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned). The bookstore employs a great number of “indigerati” — a term I believe Erdrich coined because I can’t find it anywhere else — I love it!

One warning — reading the first chapter I thought this was going to be a very different kind of book, and I wasn’t thrilled. Once you get to chapter two everything works better (for me).

Quotes:

“Native Americans are the most over-sentenced people currently imprisoned. I love statistics because they place what happens to a scrap of humanity, like me, on a worldwide scale.”

“Pen is one of a mass of young Native people who have book-crushes and rich book life, a true Indigerati.”

“Actually, Penstemon is desperately romantic, deeply tied to her traditions, and I worry for her paper heart.”

“Sometimes she worked on the collage after plane trips, claiming that in hurtling through the stratosphere she’d lost brain cells. he couldn’t shake the conviction that pieces of her mind were scattered about in the sky.” When she came down to earth, she had the urge to glue things together.”

“Once free, I found that I could not read just any book. It had gotten so I could see through books — the little ruses, the hooks, the setup in the beginning, the looming weight of a tragic ending. I needed the writing to have a certain mineral density. It had to feel naturally meant, but not cynically contrived. I grew to dislike manipulations.”

“And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.”

“I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.”

“The thing is, most of us Indiginous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We’ve endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives.”

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 November 9th, 2021.

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.

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin (Multi cultural / Literary Fiction)

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

A beautifully understated and surprisingly engaging book about a Chinese tenor struggling to make it on his own in the US after finding himself on the wrong side of the Chinese party. I appreciated the picture of modern China and an individual Chinese artist through Tian’s experiences with the Chinese government, friends, and family as he is bribed, blacklisted, and receives appeals to his love of and duty towards his country. Where some of the government techniques were things I had heard of, many were not, and I was surprised at the insidious nature of government manipulations outside of China through local operatives, foreign newspapers, etc. Tender and reflective, this is the story of Tian’s life, not a political treatise or call to arms. Tian in some ways is a bit of an innocent — decidedly apolitical and consistently working to maintain artistic integrity and personal principles. I learned a lot and was surprised that the book kept pulling at me as it isn’t my typical fare. Definitely worth reading.

A few quotes:

“This new understanding threw him into a peculiar kind of excitement, because it indicated that the citizens and the country were equal partners in an agreement. Tian gathered that this equality must be the basis of democracy. Now he could see why the Constitution meant so much to the United States. It was the foundation of the nation. With such a realization he became willing to defend the Constitution, even to bear arms if he was called upon, simply because he believed in noble ideas and was willing to sacrifice …”

“He realized many immigrants were in varying degrees of the same situation: They were attempting to break loose from the grip of the past and to start over in a faraway place, but few of them could foresee the price for that new beginning, or the pain and the hardship that came after.”

“In the context of the Tiananmen massacre, China seemed to him more like an old hag, so senile and so ailing that she had to eat the flesh and blood of her children to sustain herself. In the back of his mind lingered a question to which he didn’t yet know the answer: If a country has betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

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.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi cultural)

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

I’m grasping for words to express how much I loved this book but all the good words — profound, brilliant, amazing, etc. — have been rendered meaningless through overuse. So just think about what they used to mean and apply here.

The novel is based on the experiences of Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, in his determined fight against the proposed termination of his Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa named in House Concurrent Resolution 108 passed in August of 1953. Gourneau is fictionalized as Thomas Wazhashk.

While that is the overarching plot line, the story is told as a set of short chapters from various character viewpoints. While the termination fight touches everyone, much of the content covers the progression of individual lives in the community. Pixie Paranteau supports her family with earnings from a job at the new jewel bearing plant; her sister, Vera, has disappeared in the Cities and has been caught in the underbelly of the beast; Wood Mountain is becoming a top boxer, training with Barnes, a local white coach with eyes glued on Pixie; Millie Cloud is in Minneapolis and has authored a study of her father’s reservation which will be useful in the fight against termination; and Thomas spends his nights as the Night Watchman at the plant — struggling to stay awake by writing letters using the Palmer Method ingrained in him at the Indian boarding school. Other characters are ghostly visitors, Mormon missionaries, and various officials from the BIA, congress, and tribal councils.

Erdrich’s characters are wonderful — each one an individual that defies stereotype; each one full of complexities that never descend into entertaining “quirks.” In contrast, we do see the usual stereotypes through the perspective of others — in Barne’s memory of the “luscious” Indian girls depicted in ads and earnest lectures given by the missionaries, for example.

What I love most about this book is Erdrich’s articulation of the feelings, perspectives, and philosophies of the various characters. Thomas, in his desperation to leverage every possible angle available to him reads the Book of Mormon to better understand the bill’s author — Arthur V. Watkins — a staunch Mormon. He has discussions with Barnes about why Indians can’t / don’t want to become “regular” Americans and why Barnes could never “become” an Indian. He is immensely philosophical, and we are treated to his thinking, his process, and his growing understanding of life and his part of this world. Every chapter is full of enlightening description and presence.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time and by far my favorite Erdrich book. The Pulitzer committee definitely got it right this time.

Some quotes:
“This termination bill. Arthur V. Watkins believed it was for the best. To uplift them. Even open the gates of heaven. How could Indians hold themselves apart, when the vanquishers sometimes held their arms out, to crush them to their hearts, with something like love?”

“Thomas was convinced that he’d destroyed their chances. He couldn’t point out exactly how he’d done it, but he knew. And the other thing. The senator had also asked every single Indian person who testified about their degree of Indian blood. The funny thing was, nobody knew exactly.”

“Especially Senator Watkins. The word supercilious. That was the word for every detail. Watkins’ coin-purse mouth. His self-righteous ease. The way he held himself, giving off that vibration. Filling the air with sanctimony. Another word that flung itself into her mind.”

“She was inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit. The same spirit had hatched the bird that pecked Bucky’s face. When she got home, she’d clean up the sweat lodge and ask her mother to help her get rid of these thoughts.”

“All were cast together onto allotments, to break apart the earth, to learn the value of a dollar, and then how to make one dollar into many dollars and cultivate the dollar into a way of life.”

“His father was so very old now that he slept most of the day. He was ninety-four. When Thomas thought of his father, peace stole across his chest and covered him like sunlight.”

“To most of their neighbors, Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness and shame. Except the good ones. There was always “a good Indian” that someone knew.”

“For days. he’d tried to make sense of the papers, to absorb their meaning. To define their unbelievable intent. Unbelievable because the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language. Unbelievable because the intent was, finally, to unmake, to unrecognize. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.”

“Emancipation. This word would not stop banging around in his head. Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.”

“He wasn’t one for giving names to things. Or finding their basis. His feelings were like weather. He just suffered or enjoyed them.”

“He felt it coming. Wanted to duck. Winced. A sensation like when he was chastised at school gripped him. Like when he went into a bank or bought something expensive in an off-reservation town. Their looks pressing down on him. Their words flattening him. Their eyes squeezing him. Isey, for shame. As his mother used to say. But it was so much worse in English, the word shame.” It made him curdle inside. And the curdling became something hard in his stomach. Or a thought that stabbed so hard he might cast it out in a flare of anger. Or it might stay in there hardening even further until it flew up to his brain and killed him.”