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.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Lit Fiction)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on July 9, 2019.

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Fun book with a capital F!

Nina Lee Hill is introduced to us as the “spinster of this parish and heroine both of her own life and the book you’re holding in your hand.” The parish in question is Knights — an independent bookstore in Larchmont Village (a quaint neighborhood in central Los Angeles) and her place of employment. She is a delightfully interesting character — an anxiety-ridden Millenial with a super-active brain who thinks of books as “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things.” A surprise bequest from a father she didn’t know she had coupled with an obnoxious but attractive trivia competitor form the scaffolding of the simultaneously modern and Edwardian plot of this ultra-literary, romp through a central LA I never knew existed.

Funny, intelligent, and clever writing coupled with an array of engaging and quirky characters make this book what it is. Great dialog and banter and even … grammar jokes! The literary references range from Harry Potter to Chinua Achebe, Dickens and Austen to SF biggies Gaiman and Stephenson, Star Wars to Flowers for Algernon. I even discovered some new “classics” — a rare occurrence for me. Part Eleanor Oliphant, part Jane Austen, a great, fun, read that will leave you gasping on the floor from too much lol-ing.

Delightful Quotes:
“Grilled cheese in any form was her spirit animal.”

“Nina might battle crippling anxiety once or twice a week, but she also worked in retail, and rudeness is the special sauce on the burger that is the Los Angeles shopping public.”

After sputtering the phrase “Cool Beans” at the object of her affection … “At this her brain threw up its metaphorical hands and curled upon its stem like a pissed off hen.”

Quotes about Los Angeles:
“Whenever Nina was stuck there, which was rarely, because she would rather have filled her ears with flaming dog turds than go to the West side…”

“Sartre said hell was other people, but that was only because the 405 hadn’t been built yet.” <— my favorite!

New (to me) words / concepts:
– bullet journaling – https://bulletjournal.com/
– vampiring other people’s feelings
– quisling – a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.

 

In Dog We Trust by Beth Kendrick

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkeley Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Jan 8, 2019.
A fun, cheerful, chick lit + canine installment of Kendrick’s Black Dog Bay series (this is number five but each is a happy standalone). Black Dog Bay is a new island paradise for the recently discarded. Known as “breakup central,” the locals are tapping the economic gusher with businesses like “Better Off Bed & Breakfast,” “Jilted Cafe,” “Eat Your Heart Out Bakery,” and “Rebound Salon.” Tourist money has infused life into the island’s economy but also served to accentuate the differences between the locals and summer visitors.

Jocelyn Hillier runs a linen service for the tourists, but gains extra employment as “nanny” to three pampered but lovable show dogs when she saves one from a poorly driven speeding vehicle. When cranky owner Peter Allardyce dies and leaves everything to the dogs with Jocelyn as their guardian, suddenly things start to change — and not always for the better. Throw in a sassy best friend with unacknowledged psychic abilities, a hunky guy who is apologetically suing Jocelyn for Allardyce’s beach house, and a Duran Duran road trip for two “old” ladies, and you have the makings of a hilarious and heart warming read.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 5, 2019

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 3.5

Daphne Maritch inherits one thing from her recently deceased mother: a 1968 High School Yearbook with regularly updated snarky marginalia. Newly divorced and living in a postage-stamp sized apartment in New York City, she tosses the tome and focusses on her “recovery project” — a course in chocolate making. However, thoroughly obnoxious neighbor, Geneva Wisenkorn, has another plan. Purporting to be documentary film maker (her main claim to fame is a Matzoh docudrama), Geneva has latched on to the yearbook (procured through dumpster-diving) as her path to fame and fortune. Thoroughly horrified, Daphne spends the book alternating between the shocking discoveries unearthed and trying to keep those discoveries quiet. She is helped by her father — whose move to New York fulfills a life long dream — and hunky across-the-hall neighbor, Jeremy, who plays a small part in the successful series Riverdale.

Entertaining and reasonably well-written with great humor. The plot is a little thin, and the characters are a little too stereotyped for my taste. We find out at the end that it’s really a (happy) love story though it doesn’t read that way from the start. I would have been a little happier if our heroine found something she actually wanted to do with her life rather than just find a boyfriend … but that was not to be.