The Sisters Sputnik by Terri Favro (Science Fiction — Audio book)

Broad, sweeping story that spans all 2058(!) worlds in the multiverse (and some time shifts to boot) — starring Sputnik Chick: A Girl With No Past. Debbie Reynolds Biondi is Sputnik Chick — and the comic book artist and storyteller bringing her to life for others. What I loved about this book — and I really did love listening to it — was the way the author brought every one of the various worlds to life with each fully developed (and different) culture resulting from differences in the world’s timeline. Synthetic humanoids, AIs brought to life, mutations, language deterioration, and Cozy World — where pandemics have converted the populace into retiring hermits terrified of human interaction. I’ve been reading science fiction since I was five (really) and this book constantly surprised me with both new ideas and many old ideas morphed and molded into unrecognizable emerging customs and habits. There is plenty of action and adventure — which I can find boring — but it was all enveloped in such interesting philosophy, reflection, and world building that I never had to skim.

Highly recommended for those interested in a more human-centric, creative type of science fiction.

Thank you to ECW Press Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this audiobook in exchange for my honest review. The audiobook will be released on June 30th, 2022 (the printed book was released on May 17th)

The House in the Orchard by Elizabeth Brooks (Fiction)

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

A story within a story — in 1941 Peggy inherits the house in the orchard (in Cambridgeshire) from her husband’s Aunt Maude (her husband died in the war). Her rather difficult father-in-law (Maude’s brother Frank) hates the place and encourages her to sell. The bulk of the book is Peggy reading Maude’s diary (beginning in 1876) — a rather horrific tale of how Maude came to own the place.

I wanted to like this book — I love English historical fiction, and there was the potential for a good story. “Victorian era girl brought up to be proper in a home devoid of warmth makes good” is the story I wanted to read, but it was not to be. Instead I disliked her more and more until I thought I couldn’t dislike her any more (I was wrong). By the end, I had to ask myself what was the point of the book? What lesson should I have learned? Who was I supposed to empathize with? And was the story at all believable?

The story moved slowly, and there was a lot of description which I kind of skimmed over, but my main objection is the insidious way the story went downhill into darkness. Luckily (for me) it was not written in a melodramatic way, so I was able to finish the book with my emotional state intact, but I can’t say I gained any wisdom or enjoyment from reading it.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 27th, 2022.

Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King (Mystery)

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

Loved this book — a complete page turner with engaging characters, a twisted plot, and a hippie commune backstory that I just loved. Raquel Laing is an unintentionally non-conforming behavioral investigator for the SFPD — working on an old serial killer case (The Highwayman) when a body is unearthed from beneath a giant statue on the Gardener Estate outside of Palo Alto, California. The statue was erected 50 years ago — could this be another of the Highwayman’s victims?

This is the perfect kind of mystery for me — character driven, never boring but also never stressful (except for a short bit at the end), and a plot and backstory that never allow my interest to flag. Plenty of interesting psychological details on all the characters — including the serial killer lying in a hospital bed. I read a few of Laurie King’s Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes books a long time ago, but I didn’t like the premise (I don’t like books that add their own characters to existing fiction), but I liked this book so much I’m now planning on checking out her non Mary Russell books which look pretty interesting. This is a stand alone novel, though I do see opportunity for additional volumes!

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine, Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 11th, 2022.

Bad Vibes Only by Nora McInerney (Memoir)

McInerney’s memoir-in-essays takes us from her largely technology-free childhood through to the reality-TV and social media reshares infused present. A cross between Anne Lamott, Florence King, and Nora Ephron, the book is both insightful and hysterically laugh-out-loud funny. Or is it? This woman is self professedly neurotic and an incredibly intuitive writer. What I found both instructive and a little depressing is how closely some of my own neuroses match hers — reading her descriptions made me realize how incredibly neurotic (in just these TINY little ways) I really am — and maybe those aren’t quite as funny as the rest. Still, I totally laughed my way through.

McInerney is the creator / host of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I haven’t listened to it (because podcasts don’t unreel as fast as I can read) but I bet it’s great.

Some great quotes:

“Memory loss was a problem for future me, and I trusted she’d be able to deal with the consequences of my actions. That trust was entirely misplaced, because I’m not even forty yet and on a good day I’ll walk into a room and ask Matthew, ‘What was I about to say?’ as if he’s a searchable database with a Bluetooth connection to my brain.”

“ ‘Good Vibes Only’ makes a cute saying for a mug, but a pretty ominous interpersonal standard.”

“It doesn’t take a psychology degree to understand that some things are just more pleasant than others, and that as comfort-seeking mammals with disposable income we are attracted to the pleasant, the easy. And yes, we know that ‘life is hard’, but we also really want it to be hard in ways that are manageable and more inconvenient than difficult.”

“Because no, this is not what happens on my version of the internet, where opinions are either inconsequential (what does your coffee mug really say about you?) or authoritative, loud and devoid of all nuance.”

“I hate to describe critical thinking as a privilege, but take a look around: life is hard, and people are tired, and the small doses of camaraderie and dopamine we get from clicking “reshare” on a hot take will always be easier and more satisfying than reading a well-researched piece of reporting and thinking aloud to yourself, ‘Well, it certainly seems like a complex issue.’ “

“Our children — God willing — will grow up and move out, will establish their own lives shrinking and shifting so that we are no longer the sun but some outer planet that upon further inspection actually may just be a defunct satellite stuck in their orbit.”

“At nine she had realized that our memories are the only things keeping us here; a weak Velcro preventing us from being ripped from the history of time. We want to remember because we too fear existential obliteration, shudder at the thought of being lost to an endless sea of unforgettable moments long forgotten.”

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 11th, 2022.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
This third chapter in the Lucy Barton series (I am Lucy Barton and Oh William!) might alternately be titled Lucy Gets Through the Covid Pandemic as it extends from just before Covid slams into New York City and continues through the availability of vaccines. Lucy and her first husband, William (the parasitologist), head to Maine for what (very) naive Lucy is told will just be a few weeks to escape the ravages of Covid. William is — very simply — trying to save her life.

I’m a huge Strout fan and have read most or all of her books — I love her clean, clear writing and insight into personal experience. I did find this book a little more preachy than previous novels to the point where I liked the main character much less than I did previously. This is largely because the book took on political topics (Covid, George Floyd, the Capitol Riots) and manipulated the story to show how very correct her side of the political spectrum was in every case (the Capitol Rioters were all nazis and racists but the George Floyd riots were all peaceful; everyone in her book who did not adhere to strict covid protocols were rashly stupid and were all punished by death or hospitalization, etc.). While worrying about the state of democracy and bemoaning child labor in foreign countries, she has access to lots of money, and while befriending people with very different beliefs and professing love for her born again sister, she comes off as feeling superior to them. Of course, it is Lucy’s story and to be fair, the author does let some characters blast Lucy for just that! She even has Lucy (a writer) write stories about people very unlike herself so … overall I enjoyed the book, and it gave me a lot to think about (I think I’m still just sensitive to the many sanctimonious people I weathered Covid with, some of whom called me a “grandma killer” when I went out to run on deserted streets).

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 20th, 2022.

The Rising Tide by Ann Cleeves — A Vera Stanhope Novel (Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5
A group of friends have been meeting for reunions on Holy Island for fifty years. One — a particularly obnoxious media star who just lost his job due to a #metoo style accusation — is surprisingly upbeat with a new plan he is hatching. At least until he is found hanging in his room the next morning. Suicide? He didn’t seem the type but … Vera has to untangle a pile of messy relationships and a forty year old tragedy before she gets to the bottom of it. I didn’t figure out whodunnit until very near the end.

I’m a long time fan of the ITV Vera series, but this is the first book (number 10) that I’ve read and ,it was completely impossible to put down! There is a lot more (interesting) depth on the team dynamics and internal states of the main characters — definitely not apparent in the TV series. But Cleeves’ real strength lies in her stories — perfect pacing of new information twisting and shifting current assumptions. No filler (i.e. no gratuitous taking of tea, repeating what everyone knows twenty times to other characters, etc) — constantly kept my brain engaged in trying to figure things out. Some very interesting political commentary as asides to the story — not your standard PC or standard non-PC Stuff.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 6th, 2022.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Historical Fiction)

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

I’m conflicted about this book — on the one hand a good, engrossing story with an array of interesting characters; but on the other hand I found it utterly depressing (in the last third of the book) and developed a real dislike for the main character (which I don’t think was the author’s goal!).

The story primarily takes place in Paris just before and during the Nazi occupation, with occasional interleaving chapters 40 years later in a small, Montana town. Odile is the young, naive, book loving girl in Paris who gets her dream job at the American Library in Paris with the formidable Miss Reeder. The library is full of wonderful characters — many of them real figures of history (such as Miss Reeder and Boris, the head librarian, in Paris having fled the Russian revolution).

Paris declares itself a “Quiet City” so that the Nazis are allowed to occupy without bloodshed. And as they occupy they plunder libraries (trying to “eradicate the cultures of certain countries, in a methodical confiscation of their works of science, literature, and philosophy”), arrest people for being enemy aliens (e.g. British), and begin the persecution of local Jews. It’s the same old story but this time the Parisians cooperate with the nasty “crow letters” — voluntary letters denouncing their neighbors for rule breaking — all of which the local constabulary is obligated to investigate. Shades of the French revolution, this made me feel sick.

In the Montana timeline, a young girl who loses her mother befriends an older Odile who is able to help Lily not make the same mistakes we slowly find out she made back in Paris. Structurally, the book is well-paced and there are good messages that come out of the story, but it took me (the emotional sponge that I am) a full day to get over feeling utterly depressed by the whole thing.

I will say that I appreciated that the book was not melodramatic — the times were full of drama and the story itself was dramatic enough without embellishment. I thought the book was well-written, and I did like the well-drawn characters — I just don’t feel the need to be this depressed about something I’ve already spent enough time being depressed about.

A few good quotes:
“Of course he knew something was wrong, he was a librarian — part psychologist, bartender, bouncer, and detective.”

“After three months of no rest, Eleanor yawned constantly, no longer a perky parakeet, but a plump pigeon that waddled from the crib to the rocking chair.”

“Books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”

“The French language was a nasal bog that she had to wade through in the shops, the hairdressers, and the bakery.”

“The best thing about Paris? It’s a city of readers,” our neighbor said.

Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini (Fictionalized History)

I absolutely loved this book — one of the best pieces of fictionalized history I’ve read in a long time. The subject is the recruitment of female Telephone Operators to manage the switchboards in France during WWI as part of the Signal Corps.

Few people alive today can remember a time when every single call made using a telephone had to go through an actual person to be connected. And physical lines had to be in place for any call to be connected. Now picture the war torn fields of France during WWI — physical lines had to be laid and relaid to remote and exposed pieces of war terrain, and operators had to be in place in multiple locations to connect calls to send out new orders, to get reports, to contact other units and allies. It is estimated that during the two years the 223 bilingual women were in place, they connected over 26 million calls.

In this book, the history IS the story, not the backdrop for a romance or a mystery, and the story is rich and full of historical, technical, and personal detail. Characters — both real and fictional — are true to the time as they reflect on their roles, worries, and hopes. We get all the details of their lives: training, required uniforms, wildly varying accommodations, gas mask training, the conditions of the locals, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and appreciation they slowly earn from the initially skeptical men. Also, the strong patriotism each of them feels — true to the time, patriotism is not the dirty word it appears to have become today. This book is well researched (an excellent and long bibliography available at the back) and does not sink into melodrama — there are no broken hearts, gratuitous sobbing, or overwhelming romances. These women were competent, had an important purpose, and thrived in an environment of hard work, pressure, and real need. It wasn’t all rosy — after the war they were treated as volunteers and were discharged without proper veterans benefits. This was not rectified until 1977 when only 50 of the women were still alive.

The narrative follows three women (one real, two fictional) as they go through the process from recruitment shortly after the U.S. enters the war through the Versailles Peace Talks: Grace Banker of New Jersey (who later received the Distinguished Service Medal), Marie Miossec (a Frenchwoman and aspiring opera singer), and Belgian born Valerie DeSmedt (whose widowed mother ran a boarding house in Los Angeles).

Highly recommended.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.

Cold, Cold Bones by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

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

Number 21 in the Temperance Brennan series. Tempe is a forensic archeologist, and this series is full of interesting technical bits of the trade (sometimes a little too gross for me but so easy to skim if necessary!). This one opens with an unexpected eyeball delivery to her doorstep one find winter morning. From there things escalate rapidly as a madman appears to be copycatting many of Tempe’s cases, but they go off the charts when Tempe’s newly returned Afghanistan vet daughter goes missing. Plenty of action but not a lot of needless stress for the reader (this is a good thing). Some fascinating tidbits about knotology, preppers, and crematorium offerings pepper the mix. Additionally, Reich’s writing style cracks me up — I add a few of her one liners for illustration. This series is the basis for the TV crime drama “Bones.” I’ve only read a few of the books — absolutely not necessary to read in order. Fun read.

Quotes:
“Fine,” I said with the enthusiasm I typically reserve for plunging a toilet.

“The grapes were at least half a decade past their prime. And warm from the hours spent cuddling the sandwich.”

“After waiting out customers with requirements more complex than Patton’s at El Alamein, my turn finally came.”

“Inadequacy vied with melancholy for control of my emotions.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on July 5th, 2022.

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet (Literary Fiction)

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

Deceptively simple, deeply beautiful story about a man who learns to open himself up to the world of human connection. Gorgeous writing detailing nature, thoughts, and a continuum of effort to fight for and take care of other people, but never himself. Takes place in the Phoenix desert, where one neighbor lives in a “castle” overlooking another neighbor whose home is built entirely of glass.

This is the first book I’ve read by Millet, and I’m definitely going to seek out the others to see if they all have this iridescent writing. The story was slow paced (which is not usually my thing) but I couldn’t stop reading. Humor, kindness, friendship, confusion, love, and moments of great poignancy — the book had it all.

Thank you to W. W. Norton & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 10th, 2022.