Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (YA / African Futurism)

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

A coming-of-age story set in a future Northern Ghana. Sankofa is only five when her favorite tree pushes up a strange seed after a meteor shower brought sparkling bits of green to the Earth. Before she has any clue as to what is happening, she has been “gifted” with a terrible power which continues to bring tragedy even as she struggles to control it.

A combination of myth, juju, and technology populate this picture of future Ghana. The “bad guy” is LifeGen — a “big American corporation that’s probably going to eventually destroy the world.” But Sankofa is a child, and we watch as she absorbs information and tries to understand what has happened to her, why, and what she can possibly do with it. This is not your typical, action-oriented, one man against a giant, evil machine.

Okarafor labels her work a combination of “African Futurism” and “African Jujuism” — terms she coined — to reflect its African-centricity. I like her definition: “I am an African futurist and an African jujuist. African futurism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.”

I enjoyed the writing and the characters and the imagery of a blended future — but I did find the plot a little weak.

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 19th, 2021.

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood (Literary Fiction)

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 February 2nd, 2021.

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5
An utterly engaging novel combining a coming-of-age story, a love story, and a story about the relationship one American Muslim has with his religion and community.

Anvar Faris is a sharp, wise-cracking, Pakistani immigrant who uses humor as a shield to protect his vulnerabilities and confusions. He questions his religion — his belief in God, the rigorous requirements of being a “good” Muslim, and most definitely the wrath of his mother who prefers moral to rational arguments. At heart, despite his apparent irreverence, he struggles to do the right thing in the messy human situations that pervade life.

I love the characters in this book — Anvar, the morality-wielding mother, the brother who always colors insides the lines, the fairy-godfather-like Hafeez who reserves his dilapidated apartments for “good Muslims” and has his own means of judging what is good, and Zuha — the woman Anvar has been in love with since childhood who struggles to get Anvar to see that she is living her own coming-of-age story that isn’t completely linked to his.

A separate thread follows Azza — a young woman growing up in war-torn Iraq who eventually makes her way to the U.S. and serves as a kind of catalyst for Anvar’s growth in self-knowledge. Azza is more of an exemplar of a situation than a nuanced individual but the moral choices she makes and the way she questions God about her fate as compared to the Americans she sees are pointed in addition to the part she plays in Anvar’s story.

Spanning 9/11 and the Trump election, the narrative explores multiple aspects of Islam on the global stage — from the radicalizing of the religion in response to “Allah’s punishment” for moral failures to the US execution (without trial) of an American citizen of Yemeni descent suspected of being a terrorist in Syria and beyond. I enjoyed the writing and have included several quotes below. Great character depth and another window into the lives of a community I know little about. As always, I appreciated the focus on individuals rather than stereotypes.

Quotes:
“As usual, Karachi was screaming at its inhabitants and they were screaming right back.”

“My mother preferred morality to rationality because it put God on her side.

“Aamir Faris, in short, uses dull crayons but he is relentlessly fastidious about coloring inside the lines.”

“Checkers is the game of life. Idiots will tell you that chess is, but it isn’t. That’s a game of war, Real life is like checkers. You try to make your way to where you need to go and to do it you’ve got to jump over people while they’re trying to jump over you and everyone is in each other’s way.”

“Muslims — our generation, in the West — are like the Frankenstein monster. We’re stapled and glued together, part West, part East. A little bit of Muslim here, a little bit of skeptic there. We put ourselves together as best we can and that makes us, not pretty, of course, but unique. Then we spend the rest of our lives looking for a mate. Someone who is like us. Except there is no one like us and we did that to ourselves.”

“My husband says that I’m the YouTube of tears. Always streaming, you know.”

“The moment that I took God out of the equation, the world became too large, too cruel and too indifferent for me to live in. I decided then that there was a God. There had to be. I needed Him.”

“Aamir’s chunky laptop hissed, shrieked and beeper its mechanical anxiety as the dial-up connection attempts to link it to the internet. The panicked sound a computer made in the early days of the internet, before cable and before wi-fi, was the swan song of solitude.”

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 19th, 2021.

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5
A very readable book about Maddy — a 20-year old homeless girl in San Francisco who unwittingly witnesses the tail end of the murder of a homeless boy and gets tangled up with the victim’s parents and general ineffectiveness of the judicial system.

The writing is good and it does thoroughly depict at least one homeless person’s life in San Francisco — the utter tedium of hanging around doing little but scamming for money or getting high all day, sleeping in the park but waking at 4:00 am to avoid the cops, heading to the shelter for showers and food — rinse, repeat. While the book was clearly supposed to trigger a feeling of empathy, pity, and a desire for more social programs to “help,” it really did the opposite for me. Maddy and her friends were given so many opportunities to live a different life: in addition to all the free food, showers, medical care, etc. they got from the shelter and free clinics, they were constantly offered entrance into all kinds of programs to help by a slew of well-meaning social workers. Instead, they spend their days hanging around doing nothing, begging for money to get high, and sitting in the park gathering program pamphlets from do-gooders. Which they didn’t want. Eventually, after watching the young boy bleed out, engaging with the boy’s heartbroken parents, seeing one of her friends almost OD, and having a social worker make the effort to find her in the park every day offering encouragement, more programs, and a round trip bus ticket to find her estranged mother, Maddy begins a journey we hope will be more productive. I was honestly left feeling like maybe all of the money behind these programs could have been better spent elsewhere. I’m completely behind offering people opportunities to get out of a hole — whether of their own making or not — but I’m not enthused about chasing them down repeatedly until they deign to give it a try.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Mystery / Literary Fiction)

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

Loved this 5th installment of JK Rowling’s (written as Robert Galbraith) Cormoran Strike books. 925 pages would have been off-putting from any other writer but the pages just flew by. Part mystery / part novel, the books are character driven and — most important to me — the characters are people I am happy to spend 925 pages with!

In this book, Strike and (his now partner) Robin have to one year to solve a cold case — the 40-year old disappearance of a female doctor with a young child at home. The investigative threads have to consider the (temporary, but severe) mental illness of the original investigator, the now incarcerated psychopath whose killing spree overlapped with the disappearance, and the hosts of secrets and red herrings presented by original witnesses who have had forty years to shift their memories and priorities. In the meantime, the agency is handling other bizarre cases and Strike and Robin each have their own issues to face and wade through.

Lots of great dialog reifying individual perspectives on a number of current issues such as Scottish (and Cornish) independence, race relations, social identity theory, gender stereotypes, and dealing with fame (I wonder what informed Rowling’s ideas on that!). Plot delightfully twisted and engaging. Read it in three days and was never tempted to skim.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.

If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley (YA)

A coming-of-age story in small town Pennsylvania with magical realism thrown in the form of crows — thousands and thousands of them.

At 17, Leighton is living two lives: one as a teenager with a best friend, an excellent GPA, and a budding love affair with the handsome, athletic, bi-racial Liam McNamara. The other life is at home trying to protect her mother and sisters from domestic abuse — the kind of simmering, mostly hidden abuse that is so easy for everyone outside to ignore.

The writing is excellent, and the author offers a nuanced and in-depth treatment of a difficult subject. The dialog — both with others and within Leighton’s head — is full of insight. The denouement is artfully done — as the crows, her family, and the citizens are captured in Leighton’s prize-winning essay for the town’s “Auburn Born, Auburn Proud” contest.

I like that the book does not dwell on victimhood, and while the father’s behavior is explained, it is never excused. I also liked the wide variety of male and female characters — none are stereotypes. And lastly, I loved the sweetness and the intentional overcoming of her family’s emotional patterns that defines the relationship between Leighton and Liam.

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.