Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction)

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

A wild coming-of-age story — Vera is the daughter of the Barbary Coast’s most successful (and infamous) Madam (Rose) and is raised by a “proper” Swedish widow (Morie) who lives on that income. At 15 Vera is a “scrawny and sharp-tongued girl” seething with a fervent desire for more: more time with her real mother, more options, more life. And then the 1906 San Francisco quake hits.

With a cast of unforgettable characters deployed across unforgettable scenes, we follow Vera through adventures during and after the quake and resulting fire (which burned 28,000 buildings and 500 city blocks). From Rose’s “gold house” on Lafayette Square to Chinatown to the many encampments for the suddenly homeless (400,000 people), the novel depicts the new mixtures of uppercrusters, corrupt politicians, wandering orphans, and the military with their overrun field hospitals — all adhering to their own sense of morality, loyalty, and their survival instinct.

Real life personalities Alma Spreckles, Abe Ruef, Caruso, and Mayor Eugene Schmitz (the quake occurring on the eve of his arrest on corruption charges) all play parts. The writing is full of details such as the ingredients in Dills cough medicine (chloroform and a heroin derivative). Completely brings to life the time and the place for a variety of characters with different backgrounds. Could not put it down.

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 March 2nd, 2021.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Alcevedo (Young adult)

Spectacular book — possibly one of the best I’ve read this last year. Made me really “get” some concepts that I knew only peripherally.

This is a coming-of-age story about Xiomara — an Afro-Latina teenager with an intensely religious immigrant mother and a father who is absent even in his presence. She is “unhideable” with “too much body for such a young girl.” And she is a secret poet who puts her thoughts about family, religion, boys, and the place for girls into her poetry.

The story is a novel-in-verse — told in poetry with an overall narrative arc. I was hesitant because I don’t typically enjoy poetry but this was utterly engrossing. The author was able to consistently distill complex thoughts, feelings, and narrative into a concise set of stanzas of great profundity. Told from Xiomara’s point of view, we see depth in the characters — her mami, papi, twin brother, best friend, potential boyfriend, priest, and the teacher who convinced her to join Poetry Club — through their relationship with her. Incredibly engaging and incredibly well-executed. No stereotypes in this book — Xiomara is anything but — she is always “working to be the warrior she wanted to be.” I was surprised to find that I really liked the character of the priest who was culturally bilingual (able to deal simultaneously with Mami’s deeply religious life and Xiomara’s search for her own way) and thus was able to help Xiomara and her mother come to terms with their different priorities and goals.

I’ve put some of my favorite quotes below — additionally, I absolutely loved the whole of the “Church Mass” poem on page 58-59.

“The world is almost peaceful
when you stop trying
to understand it.”

“But everyone else just wants me to do:
Mami wants me to be her proper young lady.
Papi wants me to be ignorable and silent.
Twin and Caridad want me to be good so I don’t attract attention.
God just wants me to behave so I can earn being alive.”

“How your lips are staples that pierce me quick and hard.”

Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson

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

A collection of (somewhat) interconnected short stories that revolve around life in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on the 25-year employment experience of the author (and her very active imagination). The stories range from the surreal (art coming alive, ghosts swirling about, people slowly disappearing) to the real (experiences of interns, neurotic but talented curators, donors, Lampers, and night guards). Coulson experiments with different POVs — first person “chair,” plural first person, third person omniscient, etc.

From the description I really should have liked this book but I didn’t. For me, the writing got in the way — I found it overwrought and pretentious. Lots of obviously carefully crafted metaphors and similes (LOTS) that felt more self-indulgent than communicative to me. I love writing that can distill insight into a few carefully chosen words — this felt like the opposite — more stream of consciousness chock full of impressions and feelings but (to me) utterly lacking in insight. I can see that many people would really enjoy this open, imaginative gush of sentences but it’s not a style that works for me. My favorite stories were those focussed on real people told in a 3rd person style — the characters had more depth, the writing was more spare. I should point out that I’m a huge speculative fiction fan; my issue with the more fantastical stories here was the writing, not the subject matter.

I did like this particular line: “He shoves his anxiety into every second of every minute, like jamming extra socks into an overstuffed suitcase.”

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Literary Fiction)

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

The sweeping story of a daring aviatrix (Marian Graves) who is determined to be the first to fly around the globe longitudinally and the self-destructive actress (Hadley Baxter) who will play her in a movie 60 years later. Their somewhat parallel stories (orphaned young, raised by benignly neglectful uncles) and innate curiosity help Hadley delve into the character more than the screen-writer had.

This book was interesting on so many levels. Stunning descriptions of gorgeous locales — Montana, Alaska, and Antarctica between 1920 and 1950 — spread throughout. In-depth discussions of aviation and art, as well as philosophical dives into isolation, the lure of solitude, the impact of war, and the evolution of personal identity are also ubiquitous. Shipstead really gets inside a subject, presenting it not as a separate entity but through the character’s perception of it. We see Antarctica not as a dry description of mountains and snow, but through Marian’s perspective, and it feels as though her soul is exposed through the beautiful language of what she sees and feels. Similarly, while aviation has no appeal for me, Shipstead describes Marian’s intellectual and emotional engagement with it, and I can feel the (unnatural for me) attraction. It’s a rare author who can transmute a dry topic into fascination through the mind of an obsessed character. Even the Hollywood bits feel real through character insight, rather than splashy opulence and name dropping.

Plenty of historical context is introduced via short tidbits from the news (flights from other aviatrices, difficulties for women in trying to achieve in male-dominated worlds, etc.). As always, I like the fact that the author just wrote the story, with realistic reactions and approaches of her characters and didn’t spend time pontificating on the obvious. Yes, life was much harder for women who wanted to pursue the unorthodox, but this story is about what they did anyhow, not what they were prevented from doing. Her writing style is also not overly dramatic — no heart wrenching prose — though the tale abounds with angsty opportunities.

I’d forgotten that I’d read one of Shipstead’s earlier works — Astonish Me —about ballet dancing and defection. She reminds me of Jennifer Egan a bit (I’m a big Egan fan) in the way she can bring clarity to complex topics in a variety of subjects.

A quick warning — I found the first two chapters a little dry — it gets much, much, better. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:

“…how best to squeeze Marian’s completely unknowable existence into a neat pellet of entertainment…”

“…and out over the loose northern jigsaw of spring ice that the planet wears like a skullcap, …”

“There should be an Antiques Roadshow for memories, and I would sit behind a desk and explain that while your memory might be lovely and have tremendous sentimental value, it was worth nothing to anyone but you.”

“The landscape is secretive and harsh and impossibly immense, and she borrows some of its inscrutability for herself, its disinterest in human goings-on. Unfriendliness is another form of camouflage.”

“Mountain everywhere: monstrous, ice-choked cousins of the forested peaks that had encircled her as she looped and spun over Missoula.”

“Was this what her father had done after he left Missoula? Slung his skills over his shoulder and set out?”

“Does that mean I wish to die? I don’t think I do. But the pure and absolute solitude in which we leave the world exerts a pull.”

“She thinks he means that no matter what earnest promises of peace are made, what fragments are hauled up and glued back together, the dead will not return. A return to the world as it was is impossible; the only choice is to make a new world. But making a new world seems dreary and exhausting.”

Thank you to Knopf and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 4th, 2021.

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (Historical Fiction)

A story you can slide right in to, The Last Garden in England brings to life three generations of women whose lives cross the spectacular gardens at Highbury House in Warwickshire. Mixing their voices in a collection of chapters slotted into each season of a single year, we witness the progression of their lives in the contexts of radically different times and accompanying social mores.

In 1907, Edwardian garden designer Venetia Smith designs the gardens. In 1944, recently widowed Diana Symonds is the Lady of Highbury House, now repurposed as a convalescent hospital; Stella Adderton, head cook, is caring for her orphaned nephew; and Elizabeth Pedley is a Land Girl on the adjacent farm. In 2021, Emma Lovett is trying to restore the gardens, struggling to unearth information on their original state.

The writing and story remind me of Kate Morton (I’m a fan) — deep characters and easily absorbed writing with a plot that that is equally character and story driven. I love the way each character makes her way through the constraints of her time period following the dictates of her own values on vocation, family, love, and internal worth. They were all different! Some were naturally maternal, some not; some were pulled towards a life of great achievement (despite difficulties), some not; some were willing to compromise for love, some not. I loved the lack of stereotypes and the matter-of-fact descriptions of social context for women in each time period and the way they got on with it. Included interesting insight into the process of garden design (both creation and restoration).

A real joy to read with that lovely combination that keeps both the heart and the mind engaged.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 12th, 2021.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray (Literary Fiction)

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

Beautifully written story about five members of a strict Mormon family as they struggle with the death of the four-year old daughter, Issy. Extending far beyond your typical grief story, each family member wrestles with competing urges and goals — what it means to be a good person, the boundary between faith and thinking for themselves, and their relationships with each other, the community, and the church.

Ian is a bishop within the church. While I personally found him too sanctimonious for my taste, he (like most humans on this planet) is a complicated man trying to do his best — based on a firm belief in the foundations and practices of the church. Claire is a willing convert to Mormonism but is angry at God and is simply unable to keep going. Zippy (16) struggles with her attraction to a boy in light of the very strict teachings on the role for women; Alma (14) grapples with his belief and guilt over an (as yet to be detected) infraction; Jacob (7) just misses Issy and is working on using the Church’s teachings to resurrect her — confused between what is possible in religious stories and what is possible in everyday life.

For me it was not an attractive view of Mormonism, but then I am not very religious and am unhappy about people telling me what to do based on my gender :-). The characters are presented realistically, some offering comfort based on faith and others offering censure, and while I would bristle on the constraints on women, many of the characters appeared perfectly happy in their lives. Like one of my favorite books — A Place For Us — this book offers an inside view of another culture.

Some good quotes:
“I know something about being good. If you’re good and you get lost, someone you love comes and finds you.”

“It feels as if her hopes are leaking from a small perforation between her lungs, and although each escaping wish is small and ordinary — for Dad to think before he speaks, for Mum to get out of bed in the mornings, for Adam to serve a mission — the hurt as they trickle away is considerable.”

“Dad stops and she thinks she’s done enough, but he’s too wound up so intent on being right, that he’s forgetting to be kind.”

“Girls need to be careful — you like him; you love him; you let him; you lose him — that’s what happens.”

“He keeps talking but Claire can’t keep up with his words, she can’t catch them, they’re flying past her ears like tiny birds, fluttering to the open door and out into the hospital corridor. He has made Issy’s recovery contingent on her faith and she doesn’t know how she will ever forgive him.”

The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield (Literary Fiction)

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

A raucous novel about redemption, forgiveness, and tolerance (or lack thereof). Rachel Flood returns to Quinn, Montana (population 956) to make amends (AA — step 9) to the entire town — all of whom (especially her mother) hate her (and with good reason). She befriends the flamboyant 12-year old boy next door, is forced to join the local softball team (The Flood Girls) who are … not the best, and is coerced into tending her mother’s bar — The Dirty Shame.

The novel is full of outlandish characters — the large, scary, and violent Red Mabel who is also a most loyal friend, Black Mabel the local drug dealer, a bar full of lesbian silver miners, an array of religious characters with varying degrees of religiosity and forbearance, the local AA group (composed of older men from Rachel’s past), and the wildly diverse softball team. It’s also full of casual violence, stupidity, and intolerance as well as perseverance, kindness, and endurance. The style reminds me of John Irving’s books, with a little of Tom Wolfe’s “equal opportunity sneering” style mixed in. It is a detailed, engrossing, full picture of a (fictional) town, though definitely painted by an outsider looking in (and possibly reinforcing negative stereotypes of rural areas).

Despite the fact that the characters are probably not people I would befriend in real life, I loved them on the page. Now that the book is over, I miss them.

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.