Wolfsong by TJ Klune (Speculative Fiction / Romance)

This about-to-be-reissued book is a story about community, self-esteem, and personal growth carefully hidden within a big action story about Werewolves and a special human who manages to join the pack in a surprising way.

The story is interesting and the writing good (I absolutely loved Klune’s “In the Lives of Puppets” which was just released). Wolfsong could be simply summed up as a gay “Twilight,” with more emotional depth. It’s action and gay romance (with a capital R). At first I felt like it was more of a YA book, but about 80% of the way in began some seriously explicit homosexual sex scenes. More explicit than I really needed — frankly I would have liked a little warning! The book was also (for my taste), too long and quite repetitive. On the other hand, if you love action and enjoy a little gay romance / porn, this might be a great book for you!

I did actually love the stereotype busting world of he-men (mechanics, warriors, werewolves) who like to cuddle like puppies in a pack, love ferociously, and explore their feelings — sometimes out loud. I enjoyed the characters a lot — I just wish they had managed to figure out a few pretty obvious things a little earlier.

Thank you to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 4th, 2023

Road to Surrender by Evan Thomas (Non-Fiction — History)

Writing: 5/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5 References: 5/5

My favorite kind of non-fiction — all well-referenced facts, with details of people’s thoughts, motivations, and actions as captured at the time through records, diaries, and notes. The book covers the day-to-day (and sometime minute-to-minute) events pertaining to the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — not the development of the bombs which is well covered elsewhere, but everything to do with the (somewhat chaotic) logistics, strategy, political machinations, and even the evolution of revisionist history to do with the use of the bombs. Drawing heavily from memoirs of several of the key players, including Japanese foreign minister Togo, we are treated to the decision making process with all of the attendant, intermingled motivations and fears of the time.

The writing was superb — clean, clear, and detailed, but never rambling. I don’t tend to read non-fiction unless it’s like this (and very few books are!). The action ranges from March – August 1945, with a well-summarized epilogue that followed some of the main characters (Stimson, Togo, Spaatz) to the end of their lives amidst shifting popular perceptions of the war and the US role in ending it. In many ways, I found this chapter the most interesting — watching the way history gets retold when the stress of an uncontrollable situation is gone and the pontificators get to revise strategy with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. Towards the end of this period, there is also the scepter of the Russians — allies at the time, but allies who are starting to behave in a not-so-collegial fashion. To trust or not to trust? (I think the answer to this one is now pretty clear).

Of the many character portraits painted, three stood out: Henry Stimson — Secretary of War whose ongoing worry was that “man’s technical capacity to do evil will outrun man’s human capacity to do good;” Carl “Tooey” Spaatz — the Commander of the Strategic Air Forces who insisted on written orders to deploy the bomb(s) and carried the orders around in his pocket; and Shigenori Togo —the only Japanese Cabinet member to oppose the war (and the only one not executed as a War Criminal). I loved the peek into the minds of the men (yes, they were all men) making the decisions — what they worried about, what information they had at their disposal, and how their insights and opinions were informed by their individual backgrounds and levels of idealism and pragmatism.

A significant portion of the book exposed the (wildly different) decision making process in Japan, which resulted in the much delayed surrender. The emperor was largely a prisoner of an increasingly fanatic military and rarely challenged their usually unanimous recommendations. Additionally, the Japanese culture at the time valued consensus and information transmission that is expected to be implicit, rather than explicit, greatly hampering any kind of rapid and rational decision making. Ultimately Emperor Hirohito did issue a proclamation of surrender, but even that was almost quashed through a last minute and desperate coup. Honestly, it reads like absolute insanity, which I’m sure it was.

I honestly couldn’t stop reading. The last paragraph summed it up nicely: “It is hard to imagine the pressure that these men faced in the spring and summer of 1945. The surrender of Japan came at a high cost. Decision makers on both sides engaged in wishful thinking and psychological denial, and peace of mind was hard for the victors to find. But Japan did surrender before hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more lives were lost. Stimson, Spaatz, and Togo gave mightily of themselves to bring peace, and at last they succeeded.”

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 May 16th, 2023

Orchid Child by Victoria Costello (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 plot: 4.5/5 characters 3.5/5

Kate is a neuroscientist, on her way to a new position in Ballymore, Ireland having been fired from her prestigious New York City based position after an ill-advised affair with her married boss. Ballymore has an historically high rate of schizophrenia, and she has been hired to work on a new followup study on the descendants of the original 1970 work. She brings along her newly adopted nephew, Teague, who is suffering from schizophrenic symptoms and whose therapeutic care is part of the new job package.

What ensues is a tangled, multi generational story (the narrative follows two timelines — Kate’s story in 2002 and the history of her family from 1920 through 1974). Between the two, we are exposed to Irish folklore, long term feuds based in the Irish “Troubles,” druids, and (most interesting to me) multiple approaches to treating and supporting schizophrenics. These approaches include support from therapists following real (I checked) research results, recommendations from “Mad Pride” activists who avoid medical intervention for mental illness, and the consideration that those who claim to hear the voices of their dead ancestors, really can.

There were enough interesting (and new to me) concepts to keep me reading to the end — I really wanted to know what happened. I thought the writing could use some editing — it was messy with a lot of rambling details and I found the dialog a bit stilted. I liked some of the characters more than others and definitely found the different attitudes towards schizophrenia fascinating. I didn’t personally like the main character, although I know I’m supposed to! Of course, I’ve never walked in her shoes (and the author’s bio suggests that she has), so I can’t really judge. My favorite part was reading about treatment modalities based on new (around the 2002 timeframe) research in neuro-epigenetics and the Orchid Child hypothesis (google it). The focus was primarily on the help people need and mostly avoided any discussion of the very real danger some mentally ill people could be to others when not adequately supervised / managed — I always wish reports and stories could be more balanced in this regard.

Some quotes, which reflect more of the plot than the writing style:

“In the parlance of researchers, they were the orchids, prone to dysfunction. When faced with the stressful choice of which lever to push to get their next drink of syrupy water, orchids sat and trembled with indecision. Their luckier peers, her control group, born with a longer form of the same gene, were hardy like dandelions — a group with which she wholly identified.”

“The Celts called it second sight. In our profession, we throw it all under the label of psychosis. Or we assigned patients different positions on a spectrum of abnormality.”

“You all suffer from the same wound, which festers as each generation fails to face it head on.”

“Let’s say you re-enter your body with the intention of telling the story of what happened to you today in whatever medium you choose. You can be sure that one of your ancestors is seeing and feeling that story in his on time as a powerful premonition.”

Thank you to Between the Lines Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be publlished on June 13th, 2023

Dreams of Arcadia by Brian Porter (Literary Fiction)

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

A gentle book about an East Texas veterinarian who leaves Houston (and the end of a disappointing marriage) for the rural lands of his father’s youth. The main character is very human and very relatable — he is supported by a whole array of well depicted and quite real people from the individuals in the small town to his many relatives, most of whom he hasn’t seen in years (or has never actually met). There is quite a bit of description of the landscape, the real (and brand new to me) day to day big (and small) animal vet cases and procedures, and his own internal thought processes. As he works to solve the little (but critical) every day mysteries that populate his profession and interpersonal engagements, he is able to find a place for himself that feels (finally) like home. I particularly liked the solution to the issue of one family’s ailing cows when no diagnostic test could turn up any problems. I won’t give it away here!

Thank you to Legacy Book Press LLC and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 27th, 2023

Harold by Steven Wright (Literary Fiction?)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters : 2/5
A deeply interior book with constantly catchy and cerebral writing. The narrative purports to be the thoughts of an obviously gifted and unusual seven-year old boy, primarily while he is sitting in a classroom absolutely not paying attention to the woman in charge. Harold has “tangent festivals in his head” — what a great way to put it! While I’ve read other interior novels, they often seem to focus on neuroses and over thinking, while this one is focussed purely on imagination.

I very much enjoyed the writing and the constant stream of bizarre and connected thoughts — my own brain works that way and it was fun experiencing someone else’s stream. Every thought in Harold’s head presents itself as a well-depicted bird flying through a rectangle in his head. I liked the imagery. However, to be honest, I did get a little bored with the book about half way through — the novelty wore off and I began to notice that Harold’s thoughts were more bitter, superior, and snide than comical (yes, I realize that that is the very definition of comedy for some people, but not me). I also started realizing that there was a fair amount of misogyny — his thoughts on his mother, the young, pretty girl he is obsessed with (Elizabeth), and his teacher are all pretty negative in stereotypical ways. For example, on Elizabeth: “Said the pretty very very smart, blonde girl who years later would send several men to their emotional deaths.”

A couple of good quotes:
“Harold loved living in the circus in his head. He saw his mind as a soup made up of a mixture of what was on the inside of his head and what was on the outside of his head. He considered himself a brain chef.”

“Harold thought that an echo was audio plagiarism.”

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 16th, 2023

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams (Historical Fiction)

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

Another book by Pip Williams — author of The Dictionary of Lost Words — about an element of The Oxford University Press (aka Clarendon Press) during the early 1900s. While Dictionary focused on those working to compile the OED, Bookbinder focuses on those working in the physical production of the books.

The eponymous bookbinder is Peggy Jones — a young woman who is working in the “Bindery” — the all-female component of the Press, which focussed on folding and preparing the pages of books. There is an absolutely fascinating 1925 silent video titled “Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book” which really helped me visualize Peggy’s work.

Peggy has been working at the Press with her neurodivergent (my term, not the way it is described in the book) twin sister since the age of 12 (they are now ~22). She has always wanted more — she longs for an education, longs to read and have opinions on the books she is folding — but feels that is impossible for someone of her background. She reads bits as she folds (watch the video — you’ll see how difficult that is), and the canal boat they live in is literally papered with scraps of books that did not meet quality requirements, but certainly meet hers.

The time period covered spans WWI — from 1914 to 1918 — with Peggy’s quest for “more” tied in with opportunities at the Press, the fight for women’s suffrage, and her volunteering with recuperating soldiers and Belgian refugees — all arisising from the upheaval of everyday life. Williams did an excellent job of bringing this time period to life, I was able to feel all the complex emotions of that insane time in a manner that felt very time appropriate.

I found the beginning a little muddy and confusing, but once I got into it, I very much enjoyed the story — particularly the vibrant and believable characters: the twin sister, some of the refugees, the canal community, and various suffragists, librarians, and female students. Every one was drawn deeply and was a person I would want to know. I also loved the details of how the Press was run, women’s colleges (which at the time were not allowed to confer degrees), access to libraries, and classical study. And of course, the ultimately successful effort of a woman from the “wrong side of the tracks” to attain an education and make more of herself.

Two interesting quotes:
“When we bound these books, I thought, they were identical. But I realised they couldn’t stay that way. As soon as someone cracks the spine, a book develops a character all its own. What impresses or concerns one reader is never the same as what impresses or concerns all others. So, each book, once read, will fall open at a different place.”

“The words used to describe us define our value to society and determine our capacity to contribute. They also … tell others how to feel about us, how to judge us.”

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 August 1st, 2023

Toward the Corner of Mercy and Peace by Tracey D. Buchanan (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Minerva Place, church organist, piano teacher, and long time resident of Paducah, Kentucky. Relatively crusty with a deeply suspicious nature and a dislike of personal interactions of any sort, Minerva does have one angle in her life which is quite engaging: she often visits the local cemetery, finds an interesting gravestone, researches the person portrayed and … is often visited by the spirit of that person who sets her story straight. Newcomers to the town — engineer Robert McAlpin and his seven year old, somewhat undisciplined son, George — appear on her doorstep requesting piano lessons. From this set of characters the story follows three separate lines simultaneously: the current day, the slow unfolding of Minerva’s person history, and the elaborations of the lives of the cemetery denizens, injected with Minerva’s imagination to fill the blank spots. There is personal growth and a real shift in Minerva’s life — however it comes rather slowly, and I admit to skimming a bit at the end. I really enjoyed Minerva’s creative stories about the historical figures interspersed in the narrative, but too much of the story focussed on shame and guilt (for my taste) and took too long to get to a (weakly) positive resolution.

Thank you to Regal House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 20th, 2023

Not the Ones Dead by Dana Stabenow (Alaskan Mystery)

Number 23 (!) in Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series. I must have gotten distracted because I missed the last two — I’ve read all the others, though.

I like this series because Stabenow invests in a deep background on all aspects of Alaska — the scenery to be sure, but also the lifestyle, politics, local industries, and the individuals who call it home — native Americans, born and breds, and recent immigrants. I love the details of a ranger’s life, the local businesses, and the Native Aunties who seem to run the show.

This particular story involved a highly stereotyped group of White Supremacists — which I could have done without — but I enjoyed every minute of the twisting plot, the investigative action, the characters, and getting to live in Shugak’s world for as long as it took me to read.

Thank you to Head of Zeus — an Aries Book and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023

About People by Juli Zeh (Literary Fiction)

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

Dora — a 36-year old advertising creative — thinks a lot. It doesn’t necessarily make her happy, but the stubborn core inside her makes her bristle at any hint of absolute truth, absolute authority, or socially enforced groupthink. Her long-term boyfriend, Robert, has become obsessed with climate change, steadily ramping up his insistence on (her) behavior modification to meet his right-thinking absolutes. When Covid hits, he retargets his laser focus on lockdown adherence and becomes unbearable in close quarters. Dora escapes to a dilapidated house in a small village for a breath of fresh air and finds herself in an AfD (right-wing German populist party) hotbed with the self-proclaimed Village Nazi as a neighbor. Thus begins an unasked for opportunity for a deeply introspective and stubbornly think-for-yourselfer to contemplate existence, humanity, and the nature of moral certitude while the world goes nuts around her.

Had I known anything about the author when I picked this book up, I wouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by how good it was — Zeh is an award winning German author and former judge. I realize that I haven’t kept up with European authors at all in the last decades. The writing / translation is excellent. Through a widely variable set of characters — her rigid climate activist boyfriend, the neo-Nazi next door, her highly confident (veering on the arrogant) neurosurgeon father, advertising colleagues, and a slew of village denizens — Zeh is able to cover a wide range of viewpoints on both specific hot topics (e.g. climate change, covid) as well as general socio-political attitudes towards life.

I loved this mildly satirical look at the way we humans cope with life — “mildly” satirical because it didn’t feel unkind to me. We all have our weaknesses, biases, rationalizations, and expectations and figuring out how to accept that ourselves and others seem like one of the more important problems to tackle. I appreciated Dora’s stubborn insistence on doing her own thinking and doing a lot of it. I loved the way explanation and depth was present in every argument, regardless of the character spouting it. It helped me to (surprisingly) be able to empathize with all of the characters, not just the ones I liked.

There were a lot of great quotes — here are a few:

“She follows the rules and regulations. But her thoughts remain free. Nobody can force her to view the beer drinkers outside the Spatis as treasonous public enemies.”

“What happened to the old certainty that there are no absolute certainties, which is why everything needs to be doubted, debated, and thought about? Dora couldn’t understand how Robert could feel so completely certain his lifestyle was so superior. She just didn’t follow.“

“The era of endless self-pity and constant complaining, JoJo will say. When everyone is always offended, afraid, and feels like they’re in the right. What a combination.”

“Take away the possibility of escape, and every refuge turns into a prison.“

“That sense of superiority is a long-acting poison that devours all humanity from the inside. “

“Then life prescribed her a neighbor. A nazi behind a wall. He was ugly and he stank. If he had been a product, he would’ve gotten only one star in the customer reviews on Amazon.”

“She’s often wondered what, exactly, lies behind this racism-triggered stiffness. Maybe a quandary. A series of impossible either-or decisions: Be a moralizer, or be a coward. Follow your convictions, or society’s expectations — or go for a third option and follow your aversion to conflict.”

“Everyone’s busy being interesting and important. And successful, of course, in both their professional and their personal lives. It’s a rat race of conformists outcompeting one another to come across as something special, someone different.”

“Of course there’s no law stating that neo-Nazis can’t appreciate hydrangeas. But it’s a jarring notion nevertheless. It poses a threat to the life-affirming yet mistaken idea that good and evil can easily be distinguished from one another.”

Thank you to World Editions and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 3rd, 2023

Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge by Helen Ellis (Memoir / Essays)

My first Helen Elllis book, though there are many. Laugh-out-loud funny “memoir” in essays written by a completely neurotic (and completely typical IMHO) New Yorker of a certain type and class. I like that all the snark is pointed (in a loving way) at herself and not at others. I also love that I get to both laugh and read about an actual happy marriage at the same time. Humor is the best lens through which to see the world if you can manage it.

Great storytelling, some insight and evolving personal understanding, but mostly just funny and not stupid. The stories do not feature lovable f-ups which is wonderful because, honestly I never find f-ups that lovable and don’t enjoy reading about them. Think of this book as a kind of more articulated and less curated instagram series. So much more depth! So many more laughs! A modern Nora Ephron.

Just a few funny quotes to give you the flavor:
“I gasped the kind of gasp that leaves your face looking like a cornhole board.”

“Papa likes to say, ‘your mother is such a good audience, she listens to a waiter list the specials like she’s in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert.’“

“My husband can’t lie. The man is less animated than a documentary on soap.”

“I wear my heart on my sleeve like a grenade. I wasn’t put on this earth to walk on eggshells. The world is my western omelette and everyone in it is diced ham.”

“I want to wear make up so heavy it exceeds JetBlue‘s carry-on limit.”

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 13th, 2023