The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

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

Carol Goodman writes the most intriguing, convoluted, surprising novels. She is a master of setting the mood (in this case — creepy, mysterious, righteous, and fearful). The Stranger Behind You is a woman-centric, Gothic-style, mystery-thriller whose plot lines and main characters keep twisting together in unexpected ways. It all comes together beautifully but with constant surprises and a real sense of not ever feeling like you know the characters all the way. The theme might be — you never know who you can trust. Parallel stories weave together police corruption, mobsters from the past, and #metoo style manipulation of women. I’m not generally a reader of books that induce anxiety or stress, and I did have to limit myself to daytime reading for the first third of the book — but it was not the kind of thriller that induces too much anxiety (for me). I’m not a fan of heavy-handed books where all the men are horrible and the women manage to thrive regardless, so let me hasten to say that this is not one of those books. There are some pretty nasty men, and a few nasty women — but there are also plenty good men and women and possibly even a delightfully drawn and mysterious guiding spirit. Enjoy trying to figure out which is which in advance!

Great writing, great storytelling.

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 will be published on July 6th, 2021.

Yoga Pant Nation by Laurie Gelman (Humor)

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

Always hysterical, this is the third in Gelman’s “Class Mom” series. Jennifer Dixon is the ever-wry, always-irreverent class mom for her 5th grade son in Overland Park, Kansas. This year she gets coerced into leading the biggest fundraiser ever (she calls her team the “We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team” or WeFUKCT); gets startlingly accurate messages from her friend’s crazy mother-in-law (or rather her two ever-present spirit guides); fights off a surprising custody battle; and deals with what appears to be the simultaneous rapid decline of both parents who see “little people” in the basement. This is a comedy, so OF COURSE everything works out just fine and with plenty of laughs on the way.

This is number three in the series — it can certainly be read on its own but why not start with number one (Class Mom) and/or number two (You’ve Been Volunteered) while you’re waiting for Yoga Pant’s July release?

Just a few fun lines — I should have highlighted more but I was too busy laughing:
“Yes, I’m hilarious. In fact, these past two years have been a yuck a minute as I have endeavored to understand Viv’s unique parenting style that can best be described as a cross between Mary Poppins and the surgeon general.”

“Ah yes, “that baby” — also known as the light of my life and the bane of my existence, all rolled into one perfect almost-two-year-old package.”

“In my mind I wonder just how far this PC thing is going to go before we all just give up talking.”

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

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

A heartwarming piece of historically accurate fiction. Grace Bennet — 23 — heads to London just in time for Britain to enter the war and the Blitz to begin. Without any kind of reference, she is lucky to get a job at Primrose Hill Books, complete with the requisite curmudgeonly owner, Mr. Evans.

This is the story of Grace’s growth into a stellar human being and unassuming pillar of the community. We share her experiences as a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, her discovery of books and reading, and her ability to find ways to bring some light into people’s lives.

While similar stories have been told before, Martin’s depictions of the British spirit and the way the community comes together in the face of terrible adversity were completely inspiring. I was also, of course, enraptured by her transformation into a bonafide Reader of Books.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 20th, 2021.

The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (Fiction)

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

A heartwarming story of three lost souls who come together in a small farming community (Hood River, Oregon) to find their place in life — one with purpose and people to care about. Alice Holtzman has worked in the County Planning Office for twenty years but her passion is beekeeping and the dream of one day running her own orchard. Jake Stevenson is eighteen and trapped in a wheelchair after a stupid stunt at a high school party. His proudest achievement? The world’s tallest Mohawk (at 16.5 inches). Other than hair maintenance, however, he is just killing time and soaking in regret. Harry Stokes is a “passenger in his own life” — desperate for a job with a criminal history and a now-condemned trailer as a living space.

I loved the main characters and the manner in which the author describes the way they each find each other and a solid, “feels right” path moving forward. There is a relatively simplistic overlay plot concerning the evil Supragro company that is pushing a toxic pesticide spray that is lethal to bees — and how the community comes together to successfully fight it. The “bad” guys are fairly two-dimensional — stereotypical greedy, powerful, and corrupt men — but I did like the way social media and video was used to expose what was happening. I also very much enjoyed the descriptions of Hood River and rural life.

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

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser (Women’s Fiction)

What better way to get over a humiliating divorce than to inherit a house in a remote part of Scotland that is replete with antiquarian books? While Thea Mottram bemoans her all-too-cliched fate (husband fell in love with her good friend), she does a nice job swimming to the surface when she checks out the inheritance from a great-uncle she had only met four times previously (he liked her because she preferred reading to talking — our kind of girl!). While intending to stay just long enough to decide what to do with the house, she ends up working at the local bookstore owned by the curmudgeonly (but naturally also quite hunky) man of aristocratic origins, Edward Maltravers.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. While the bones are pure “women’s fiction,” the frills include Scotland, a bookstore selling both new and antiquarian books, and a few twists on the standard chick-lit plot. Good, humorous, writing and a strong, though self-deprecating, heroine that I would be happy to call a friend. My only complaint is that there wasn’t really enough discussion about the cool books! Her contributions to the book talk were denigrations of various classics with toss-off comments about how she doesn’t really care for it for some (to me stupid) reason.

A happy book and I learned a new (to me) phrase: Fourth Wave Feminism — a phase of feminism that began around 2012 and is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women and the use of internet tools, and is centered on intersectionality. Who knew?

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 May 4th, 2021.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (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 June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons (Fiction)

Plot: 2 Writing: 3 Characters: 3

This is a new entry into the recent spate of novels which begin with a cranky, bitter, oldster and end with a heartwarming celebration of life.

Eudora Honeycutt is 85 and is planning to end her life with the aid of a Swiss clinic. In alternating chapters we witness her life’s transformation into one worth living and the historical events that brought her to the situation: alone and calmly planning to end her life.

The best character in the present story is the irrepressible 10-year old girl who moves in next door and befriends Eudora. That character draws the reader in and makes the book worth reading. The other characters are friendly and pleasant but not (for me) very believable. I had more trouble with the historical sections — it’s a long, sad story that is told without nuance so that it is too easy to think of obvious alternative choices Eudora should have made.

It’s a feel-good book with a strong pro-people, pro-friends, pro-life message full of caring neighbors and social workers.  For me it crossed the border into saccharine and cliche but it was an easy, light, read with some funny and poignant bits.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 8th, 2020.

500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

This is just one of those happy, sweet, books that buoys my spirits. The fact that all the action takes place in London and a Scottish village near Loch Ness (two of my favorite locations on the planet) doesn’t hurt a bit. OK — also I am a Jenny Colgan fan, so no surprise that I enjoyed this one.

Kind of a cross between “The Holiday” and “84 Charing Cross Road,” two Nurse Practitioner Liaisons switch jobs and houses for a three month period — Lissa Westcott leaving London for Kirrinfief, Scotland while Cormac MacPherson heads to London. Having never met, they get to know each other via daily email check ins and … you can guess the rest. Very nicely done — the perspective of the stranger learning the ropes in a foreign place (I’m sorry, but Scotland wins every time) — made me hunger to visit (a little difficult right now as we have to wonder when we will ever be able to travel again). Some lovely descriptions of nature, tight knit communities, friendship, and the excitement of learning something new. Very sweet ending.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 9th, 2020.

Ask Again,Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Character: 5/5

I ended up loving this story exploring the impact of a “tragic event” on two families. In general, I don’t like reading about tragic events — it’s depressing, upsetting, and being the emotional sponge that I am, I don’t feel the need to soak up more misery than is absolutely necessary. But! This really wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s a book about people making their way through life, living with choices — both the ones they make and the ones thrust upon them — and learning about themselves and each other.

Two families brought together happenstance (two rookie cops in the same class, a move to adjacent houses in the suburbs) are inextricably bound together by the aforementioned “tragic incident.” The book does a brilliant job of showcasing the full impact of mental illness — from the person who suffers, to his or her family, and the swath of destruction left in its wake. Ranging from the early seventies to the present day, we get intimate portraits of each character as his or her innate personalities are molded, expanded, and stunted by his or her experiences — a kind of a human development lab examining the twining of nature and nurture. Some excellent portraits of marriage — I love one of the lines: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested.”

Absorbing writing, in-depth, and insightful characters — an exploration of the impact of the vicissitudes of life on evolving into the person you become.

Good for fans of Ann Packer or Joyce Carol Oates.