Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (Women’s Fiction)

A feel-good, heartwarming, story about the unlikely relationship between a woman whose husband died just as she was (literally) leaving him and a star Yankee pitcher who “loses his stuff” in a spectacularly public way.

Well-written with great banter, an array of likable characters, and plenty of humor. The premise is plausible enough and I enjoyed the social commentary and details of every day life in this small town on the mid-Coast of Maine. There is a lot more depth to the characters than is usual for a women’s fiction offering of this sort.

The author is the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast — I haven’t heard of this (I’m not a big podcast person), but I like the title, and I can guess that this explains a lot about the great character interactions!) Interesting to note that in two of the primary families, it is the mother that left, leaving the father to raise the children alone. I’m noticing a trend of this kind of gender role swapping which is always interesting!

One small annoyance for me personally — a (pretty humorous) diatribe on the part of one character about a woman who was destroying their book club because she wanted people to actually read the books and didn’t accept that book clubs were just for socializing. I am that woman, and I stand by my demands!!

Great for fans of Kristan Higgins.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 25th, 2019.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

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

This book has all the makings of an Oprah book club selection — it’s a well-written, family oriented drama, full of people with serious personal issues but who are striving to deal with them (and succeeding). The triple narrative switches between the first-person viewpoints of the three Butler sisters: Althea (48), convicted of government fraud and in prison; Viola (40), recently separated from her partner and subject to long-term eating disorders; and Lillian (36), in the old family homestead struggling to take care of Althea’s teenaged twin daughters and her 88-year old ex-mother-in-law (who is one of my favorite characters).

Insightful character studies that elicit empathy in the reader without being overly dramatic (though gut-wrenching in places) — I was surprised that the author actually got me to understand and empathize with Althea, who after all had stolen charity money from people who could ill afford it. The characters bring to life the impact and genesis of several issues: IED — Intermittent Explosive Disorder, eating disorders, the stigma of jailed parents in a small community, and childhood abuse. Sometimes painful to read, but generally uplifting in the way the characters draw together for healing and never give up on themselves or each other.
Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Feb. 19th, 2019.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Romance)

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

(Note: I’m not a romance reader but I agreed to review this book because I am endlessly fascinated with Austistic brains and the people who house them).

An erotically charged, utterly non-traditional, romance novel. Diệp Khăi is a successful, Vietnamese-American accountant, with his own business in Sunnyvale. He was also diagnosed with Autism and decided long ago that his “Stone Heart” and “inability to feel emotions” disqualified him from having romantic relationships. His grandchildren-desiring mother (Cô Nga), however, is not willing to give up. Unbeknownst to Khăi, she travels to Việtnam to find him a bride.

Esme Tran (Việtnamese name — Trán Ngọc Mỹ) cleans bathrooms in a nice hotel in Hơ Chi Minh city. While resting between disappointing bride interviews in the ladies’ lounge, Nga finds what she is looking for in the attractive, diligent, and polite Esme. Esme has a few secrets of her own — she has a five-year old fatherless daughter, and longs to find her own father — an American named “Phil” who went to UC Berkeley over 20 years ago. Esme accepts Nga’s offer — a job and a visa for the summer and a chance to convince the reluctant Khăi that he wants to marry her.

Well-written, with alternating chapters offering alternating character insights in addition to steamy prose. In an interview, the author revealed her own recent Autism diagnosis and the evolution of the Esme character based on her own mother’s immigration to U.S. As a side note, I enjoyed all the Vietnamese names written in the full alphabet and made the (somewhat difficult) effort to include them here. It’s a beautiful looking language which I admit to knowing nothing about. If you’re interested, scan the Wikipedia article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_alphabet.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 7th, 2019.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 3

A gripping, character driven, novel — classic Moriarty. A fairly simple plot — nine “perfect strangers” sign up for a ten-day retreat at a high-end health resort promising a “transformational” experience. Each is there for wildly different reasons and none really expects to be “a different person” at the end but … it’s possible they will be.

Moriarty draws interesting, intricate, and believable characters. Each character — across a wide range of backgrounds, ages, and motivations — is completely developed in the story. Each chapter is told from a specific character’s point of view, giving rise to some fascinating contrasts between what a character is saying, is thinking, and is assuming about the others. I was most interested in these assumptions and the way those perceptions of each other shifted over time with more exposure and information. It’s rare that we get so much insightful detail about how our assumptions play into our behavior towards people and vice versa.

The story includes many social issues such as microdosing, lotteries, teen suicide, shaming, and trophy wives. My favorite line and sly message about the “shaming” current authors are susceptible to (as expressed by character Frances Welty, aging romance author: “She dared to look up and the stars were a million darting eyes on the lookout for rule-breaking in her story: sexism, ageism, racism, tokenism, ableism, plagiarism, cultural appropriation, fat-shaming, body-shaming, slut-shaming, vegetarian-shaming, real-estate-shaming. The voice of the Almighty Internet boomed from the sky: Shame on you!”

Great read!

City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay (Historical Fiction)

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

A great story! It grabs you from the first page and won’t allow itself to be put down. It’s a fascinating piece of historical fiction taking place in Hollywood during the Silent Era (1890s – 1920s). The history comes to life through the experiences of our three main characters: Irene Van Beck, Millie Martin, and Henry Weiss. In the opening scene, the three jump off a moving train to escape their current employer — the Burlesque company Chandler’s Follies — and its enforcement goons. They make their way to Hollywood for a chance at a better life.

This is my favorite kind of historical fiction — the author embeds as many of the personages, events, and mechanics of the era into the story as possible: vaudeville, burlesque, and films; jobs within the studios (scenarists, costumes, editing, etc); prohibition and speakeasies; taxi dancing and prostitution; (legal) use of heroin; housing issues (No Jews or actors!); unintended pregnancies; a budding studio Publicity department and the power of the Press to destroy; fancy Hollywood parties; and most interesting — the feel of the small Hollywood enclave within which social mores are relaxed, and many kinds of “forbidden” love are possible (though only with great discretion — hence the budding Publicity department).

In summary — a terrific story with a real feel for what life was like, embedding historical facts and figures without fictionalizing real people (I hate that!). The characters are very likable, with fully fleshed out, historically accurate, backstories (but not the rich interior life that I like). Excellent pacing, decent writing, the story “sticks” with you for a long time…

As an aside, the author lists many sources in the afterward, including a reference to a 13 part documentary called Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. All the episodes (listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_(1980_TV_series)#Episode_list) are available on YouTube. Start at Episode 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mo3Z8IkLnU.

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 April 16th, 2019.

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew (Historical Fiction)

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

A coming of age story in a racially divided South. Told from 13-year old Jubie Watts’ perspective, the story follows the Watts family as they travel with their “girl” (their 48-year old negro maid) through the South in August, 1954. From anti-integration signs to a lack of motels and bathrooms willing to accept Mary to downright nastiness and hostility, the narrative heads towards the bad end hinted at in the very first paragraph of the book.

The real story, however, is not about this “bad end.” It’s about Jubie trying to understand how and why different people are treated so very differently. To her, Mary is someone she loves, someone who is the “heart” of their family — but her family, friends, and the white world at large, at best, treat Mary as a useful piece of furniture.

The narrative alternates between the events of August 1954 and the previous eight years with Mary in the household. In some ways, the story feels like a jumble of experiences, without the synthesis and understanding that might come to the narrator later in life. The characters (other than Jubie) are a little two-dimensional and several story elements are left unresolved. In this, the tale is a realistic depiction of the world as seen through the eyes of a 13-year old.

The book includes a lot of historically accurate detail about the time, and the story is compelling — but it felt a bit too long and somewhat oversimplified.

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan. 29, 2019.