All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

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

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

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

Captivating novel about the lifespan of an antique (circa 1905) upright Blüthner piano and the two women whose lives are inextricably bound to it across place, time, and culture. Katya grows up in Leningrad. She inherits the piano at a young age from the blind pianist in the building with the note: “Even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart.” She devotes her life to music and the Blüthner until she is ripped from everything that she loves by her husband’s unilateral decision to leave Russia for a better life in the U.S. (~1980). Life is not easy for Soviet Jews in that time period (well, any time period in Russia, really).

Clara is a mechanic. Born to academic parents in Santa Monica, she loses everything in a fire when she is twelve. Only the Blüthner piano that her father gave her a week before he died is saved, having been in the shop for repairs at the time. She is insistently self-reliant, having learned long ago the heartbreaking loss when someone you depended on disappears abruptly. She grows up with an Aunt and Uncle in Bakersfield, and while she never develops any musical skills, the Blüthner is her prized possession. When a professional photographer offers to rent her piano for a series of desert shots in Death Valley, she is reluctant, but persuaded by the large sum on offer. She impulsively follows the piano on its journey and ends up discovering more than she ever imagined about her own history and approach to living.

Told through alternating narratives, the story is intricate and riveting. I loved the descriptions of music and the myriad ways it affected different people. Katya’s favorite piece, and one which threads through both narratives, is Scriabin’s Prelude #14 in E flat minor. Clara’s father’s attempt at characterization: “It’s poetry and color and imagination. In any of the languages I know, I can’t find the right words for it.” The depictions of Death Valley and the piano-centered photographic essay process make for both an inspiring travelogue and a photography primer for the uninformed (that would be me) — worth the price of admission all on its own.

As one narrative proceeds from bittersweet to utterly heartbreaking, the other narrative flows towards understanding, growth, and release. A full and satisfying read full of characters with depth for whom we cannot help but have great empathy.

2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct 9, 2018.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

This (well-written) book could easily be subtitled: “Three Generations of Unhappy Women.” Evelyn — the matriarch — gave up the intellectual life she craved to marry a man she didn’t love. Her daughter, Laura, became a “pleaser,” working constantly to smooth tensions between her mother, her husband, her troubled son, and the rest of the world. Laura’s daughter, Grace, struggles to free herself from family binds but can’t seem to make much progress.

The book is 336 pages of pure drama — unwanted pregnancies, extramarital affairs, alcoholism, cancer, drug addiction and rehab, and just plain old meanness fill the pages giving the characters the opportunity to experience grief, angst, anger, and numbness in a raucous merry-go-round of emotions. While it is very well done — a real page turner — I found it a little annoying that most of these problems (the cancer excepted) were of their own devising and fully under their own control to fix. There was little insight, revelation, or determination brought to bear on the various situations. I personally did not identify with, or even particularly like, any of the characters.  That’s just me — I’ve read some of the other early reviews and people seem to really like the emotional intensity of the story and identify with the troubles these people face — maybe you will too!

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for an early review copy  which will publish November 27, 2018

Writing:5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4

A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA. Abramović’s sits in silence in a large room furnished only with a table and two chairs. Without speaking, she gazes into the eyes of those who choose to sit across from her. From museum opening until closing, Marina does not speak, move, eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. Expecting only modest participation, by the end of the 75 days people are lining up the night before to get a chance at participating. By the end, over 1500 people had sat and over 500,000 had observed either in person or online.

The book delves into the internal experiences of those who participate — either by sitting or by observing. The reflections on art, life, and meaning that emerge from the beings brought together by this piece are incredible, with fresh insights on every page. Abramović says her pieces are “establishing an energy dialog” and that she is “only interested in art that can change the ideology of society.” Some fascinating background on Abramović’s personal history and other pieces are included — I was half way through the book before I realized that this was a real artist and a real piece. Heather Rose has not fictionalized any real people or events but has instead built a story around the deep and transformative impact the piece had on those who bore witness. In some cases we get whole storylines, in others simply passing comments. It was brilliantly done.

Some of the longer storylines follow Arky Levin — a composer of film scores whose beloved wife is sinking into what may be the last stages of a long-term, eventually fatal, genetic condition; Jane Miller, a 54-year old middle school art teacher from the South who is grieving her recently deceased husband; Brittika Van Der Sar, a pink-haired Asian adoptee from the Netherlands writing her PhD on Abramović; and Healayas Breen, a tall and gorgeous media personality.

It brought me to tears many times — not through drama but because of the nakedness of the human experience portrayed as the art “captures moments at the heart of life.”

The Quiet Side of Passion by Alexander McCall Smith

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Plot: 3

New words (to me):
• akrasia: the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.
• tricoteuse: a woman who sits and knits (used especially in reference to a number of women who did this, during the French Revolution, while attending public executions).
• rumbustious: boisterous or unruly
• lactucian : the essence of lettucehood, from Latin lactuca (lettuce) — this is a word made up by our protagonist — but it is a good one!))

Another installment of the Edinburgh based Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel is the editor (and owner) of the Journal of Applied Ethics (as well as the wife and mother). Her life is “lived under a moral microscope” and we are treated to her inner philosophical musings as well as her external adventures.

These “adventures” come from noticing things that aren’t as they should be and getting involved in bringing them to rights. In this book, she meets another character with the same tendency who is able to put it into words: “I can’t stand not being able to do something about things that I think need to be sorted.” I identify with this in a big way!

I love McCall Smith’s writing — his use of language is impressive. I have read most of his 59 (!) books and I still have to use the dictionary for new words with each one. The Dalhousie books explore the moral landscape in which we all dwell but of which we are mostly unaware. As examples, in this book she thinks about loyalty and betrayal, the morality of human-robot relationships, and whether or not music has a moral flavor. The “action” in this installment concerns Isabel’s attempt to get some assistance in the form of an Italian au pair (for the children) and a Philosophy PhD student (for the journal). She also uncovers a potential untruth on the part of a fellow nursery school mum with rather large ramifications.

Thoroughly enjoyable BUT this is the first book of the series in which I found myself slightly irritated by Isabel’s allowing herself to be taken advantage of so easily out of “kindness” and making constant excuses for other people’s poor or selfish behavior. While it all works out in the end she really should know a little better by now!

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 5 World building: 5

The third book in Chambers’ Wayfarer series, this volume is the origin story for human introduction into the Galactic Commons. The Fleet is the set of 30 homestead ships that launched the human diaspora from poisoned Earth into the rest of the Galaxy. Many generations later humans have been accepted into the Galactic Commons and dwell planet side with many other (mostly technologically superior) alien species across a wide variety of locations — and yet the Fleet lives on as an active community with a strong culture of family, community, self-reliance (almost) and sharing.

Orbiting around a sun gifted to them by another species, the Fleet lives on and this book follows the storylines of five representative Fleet characters: Tessa, a young Fleet mother questioning her role in evolving Fleet culture; Eyas, a caretaker responsible for respectfully composting human remains and inserting them back into the ecosystem; Isabel, an archivist charged with maintaining all human knowledge and experience; Kip, a youngster lured into bad behavior who is seeking his place in the world; and lastly Sawyer, a planet dweller considering the Fleet as a potential home. Interspersed in the narrative are dispatches sent by Gluh’loloan, a somewhat slimy but very friendly, visiting Harmagian ethnographer who seeks to understand Fleet (and human origin) culture.

While still enjoyable, I found this installment a little weaker than the previous two. While the worlds and cultures and characters are thoroughly depicted and quite interesting, there really isn’t a compelling story line to bring it all together. I’m also a little disappointed at the disparity between the male and female characters — the females are the strong characters while the males are side characters, or hopelessly naive, young and immature. I’ve noticed this in previous Chambers’ books — it’s not a huge problem but I do prefer a little more gender equality!