The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Historical mystery)

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

The Bombay Prince is the third title in the Perveen Mistry series. 1920s India — Perveen is Bombay’s first female solicitor. With prestigious legal training from Oxford, as a woman she is not eligible for a degree. This particular story takes place during the 1921-22 Indian visit of Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales. With Gandhi’s call for a hartal (boycott) and others anxious to show loyalty to the crown, a great deal of violence and turmoil ensures. And in the middle of this, the body of a young female student is found on the missionary college grounds.

While the pacing is a little slow for me, the writing is good and the characters and historical situation are well described and embroidered with detail. I learned a lot from the descriptions of different religious groups, practices, and attitudes towards independence, toward the British, and toward women. Individual characters representing foreign journalists, businessmen, servants, and others were all well-done and enlightening. I’ll plan to go back and read the first two.

Thank you to Soho Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 1st, 2021.

The Tiger Mom’s Tale by Lyn Liao Butler (Fiction)

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

36-year old Alexa Thomas is hit with a double whammy when she learns that Chang Jing Tao — her Taiwanese biological father — is dead after 22 years of estrangement and that it is up to her whether or not his extended Taiwanese family will lose their homes. A personal trainer in New York City who loves her clients, Alexa was raised by her white American mother and adoptive father. Efforts to learn more about her Taiwanese family came to a screeching halt the summer she was 14 and had a lot to do with the titular Tiger Mom — Jing Tao’s second wife.

A fun book with good writing and likable characters. Butler is a great storyteller, and I confess I read this in a single sitting on one insomniac night! Taiwanese culture is explored — mostly through mouth watering food descriptions but with some customs and the tiniest bit of history added in. While hitting plenty of hot topic buttons (being bi-racial, not fitting in, family break up, and … wait for it … the exploration of one’s sexuality at an “elderly” age), they weren’t the agenda laden center of the book. Instead they were simply influencing factors of Alexa’s life. We all have individual personalities and contexts in our lives, and I like to see “hot topic” forces relegated to the background of one person’s individual story.

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 July 6th, 2021.

Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown (Non-Fiction History)

The acclaimed author of The Boys in the Boat (which I loved) tackles Japanese Americans in WWII — both those interned in camps following FDRs Executive Order 9066 and those who served in the military’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the single Japanese American unit, which also happened the most highly decorated.

While dealing with — let’s face it — some deeply depressing and disturbing topics — Brown makes it clear from the start that this is the story of Victors, not Victims. And that is how the story reads. This is the story of how a diverse group of people (not everyone in a single ethnic group is the same, even as they are treated as the same!) faced adversity and made the best of it. Through extensive research and first person interviews, Brown follows three primary characters who each ended up in the 442nd: Kats Miho from Hawaii, Rudy Tokiwa from Salinas (within California’s Exclusion Zone) and Fred Shiosaki from Hillyard, WA (outside Washington’s Exclusion Zone). An additional thread follows Gordon Hirabayashi as he makes his way through the courts protesting the unconstitutionality of interning American citizens based on their ethnicity. The character set expands to include their families, friends, and comrades-at-arms while the story extends from Pearl Harbor to incarceration to military draft to battle to returns home to legislation (finally) apologizing to the community and paying (some) restitution to survivors.

It is a massive undertaking but Brown’s style makes it appear effortless (like Fred Astaire’s dancing). He gets to the essence of every thought and action. Through personal interviews and letters, we gain access to the actual (not fictionalized) thoughts, discussions, and noticed details of those involved. Often these brought tears to my eyes. Reading first-person accounts is so very different than what I or a novelist imagines in any situation. Facts and figures, as well as historical context, are inserted at just the right moments.

I found the book fascinating from start to finish. While I was aware of the broad strokes of the treatment of Japanese Americans during the war, I was not aware of the many, many, tiny strokes that comprised it. I give this book a strong five star rating and highly recommend but if I were to point out a couple of negatives (which it appears I’m about to do) it would be that he does sometimes descend into hyperbole — for example when describing a situation, such as the conditions initial Japanese immigrants found in the late 1800s, from his own perspective rather an individual’s recollection and report. He also inserts anecdotes — all but one negative — about the treatment of Japanese Americans by neighbors without including any positive anecdotes (there must be some) or giving any kind of statistics on how broad those negative behaviors actually were.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir) — 5 stars

Tagging along on Trevor Noah’s South African childhood is quite a ride. This series of vignettes are told in Noah’s signature comic style while simultaneously offering real insight about life during and after apartheid in South Africa.

The “illegal” offspring of a black woman and a white man, Trevor is always the outcast — never fitting into any of the official segregated groups (black, white, colored, and Indian). This is the best (to me) kind of memoir — we get the stories as they felt to him as a child, laced with adult commentary on what he later came to realize about the context. I appreciate learning about a place and time through the actual experiences of a single individual living it. While historical and cultural trends are interesting at the macro level, I never feel close to understanding something until I see it through the eyes of people living it.

The adult commentary (with just the right amount of background facts (e.g. the number of official languages in South Africa, the complexities of apartheid, and specific tribal practices) gave me a radically different perspective on apartheid, different systems of oppression, and how context shapes the people who grow up within its confines. The comedy helped me read through experiences that would be too hard to read without. However, it is his insight that makes this book worth reading — insight into how we judge others. Insights such as what makes us think someone is like us or different, what assumptions we make about what people mean when they say or do something, and what really constitutes equal opportunity.

I liked some of the stories better than others, but while discussing at a book group, found that others had almost the exact opposite reaction. That in itself is just as interesting — showing how even a group of people with similar backgrounds processes information in completely different ways.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5

A hardware malfunction causes a cascade of crashing comm satellites over the Five-Hop One-Stop space station causing the quarantine of all beings present. In a story long on socio-cultural world building and short on plot, individuals from four different species are forced to spend time together while each desperately needs to get back to the life that was abruptly brought to a halt. A quarantine story for our time…

Chambers excels at building intricate and engaging cultures which makes the relatively absent plot easy to overlook. She manages to include all of the current “hot topics” camouflaged in non-humanoid skins. Roveg is the insectoid Quelin who takes in information through smells and has a completely non-emotive space; Pei the Aeluon cargo captain who loves a human against the interspecies mating taboo of her kind; Speaker is the perpetually space-suited Akarak as the only planet that could support her methane-breathing life was rendered useless in a previous war; and Ouloo and not-yet-gendered offspring Tupo are the furry Laru who host the station. Throughout their enforced stay, the four learn about each other’s cultures, opinions, and preferences in a pretty interesting set of expositions on modes of communication, mating rituals, taboos, etc.

It’s nice to read a speculative fiction story that isn’t fully dystopian. We’re not embedded in Ewoks here — there are plenty of problems and even a history of downright atrocities — but the characters are able move forward in a more positive way after their experience in a model that suggests how this might be done for any of us. A harmless and relatively uplifting book.

While this is #4 in the series, the books just share a common universe. Not necessary to read the prior novels though I confess I found the earlier books a little more interesting.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Speculative Fiction)

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

The first few chapters follow a count down to the specific time at which Nora Seed will decide to die. She is 35, has worked at a music store called String Theory for the last few years, is estranged from her only relative, recently split from her fiancee, and is now presented with the body of her dead cat. She feels as though she is a black hole — “a dying star, collapsing in on itself”. On the brink of death, she finds herself in the Midnight Library — where the infinitude of books are all instances of her own life, hinging on some decision large or small.

The book is nicely executed — plenty of philosophy, psychology, and scientific tidbits (many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, Dunbar’s number, and environmental asides). I did find it a bit disappointing — it has received such rave reviews but I feel like it has been done before and most of the “insights” were of the self-help variety. Entertaining but (for me) not terribly inspiring.

The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

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

I haven’t read any of Reichs’ previous Temperance Brennan books but I’ve seen a few seasons of the TV show so I’m familiar with the characters. In this installment, Tempe (forensic anthropologist extraordinaire) goes up against a vicious killer who appears to have struck again after a 15 year hiatus. In a timely subject, the mystery centers around vaccines and genetic engineering, including details about CRISPR gene editing (the work which netted the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry). Full of wry commentary, some romance, and plenty of forensic detail, the story is a gripper. My only complaint — and this is a spoiler alert — is that part of the story depends on using a vaccine to spread bad juju to unwitting recipients. With all the anti-vaxxers freaking out about vaccines, do we really need that in the story?

Thank you to Scribner 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.

A Cup of Silver Linings by Karen Hawkins


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

A second installment of what promises to continue the fun, lightly magical, tales of Dove Pond. This episode focuses on Ava Dove, the sixth of the seven Dove sisters, whose semi-magical herbal teas — carefully concocted for each individual client — are starting to go wonky. Meanwhile, buttoned-up grandmother Ellen is brought to town for the funeral of her long-estranged daughter Julie and runs into trouble trying to convince Julie’s daughter Kristen to leave Dove Pond for a fabulous new life in Raleigh. Sarah Dove — daughter seven — is back as well, continuing to listen (literally) to books as they tell her who needs to read them (yes, I would be so happy to pay for that talent!). Simple but appealing characters and a light touch of mostly playful magic that is more an extension of the person’s character — this feels like a combination of Alice Hoffman and Fannie Flagg to me. A nice feel good book.

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 August 1st, 2021.

The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
An unusual (and engaging) book — the narrative felt so real I had to remind myself it was fiction, not memoir.

Filipino-American writer Christina Klein (Ting) travels back to the Philippines — ostensibly to write a book about an episode in Filipino history featuring a headhunter tribe’s role in Coney Island’s “human zoo.” A short year after the election of a dictatorial leader, Ting experiences the new Manila superimposed on the remembered culture and practices of her youth, which in turn are layered on stories and experiences from a more distant past as told through her historical research and the stories of her many elderly Titas and Titos.

The writing is fluid and provides fascinating linkages over time and class — her interactions span people with varied backgrounds, living conditions, and political opinions, from her aristocratic family to earnest socialists to those in the current circles of power. The dialog perfectly distills different perspectives and her ongoing reflection gives us insight into her personal journey to understand and evolve her sense of morality in a situation where nothing at all is perfectly clear. It’s masterfully done, IMHO.

As an aside, I learned a lot about Philippine history, although it is a backdrop to the story rather than a comprehensive presentation — 7,000 islands and 182 non mutually intelligible languages!

Some good quotes:

“Morality is the spine of fiction, even if it is most often twisted and deformed.” <— my fav

“They liked microphones and Spam. America’s streets and classrooms had instilled in many a sense of inferiority and in some a seething resentment at being brown in a white world. The Fil-Ams suffered from the shame of otherness, while Filipinos born and educated in the Philippines struggled with disdain for gauche American culture. In the States, we were all seen as being of the same tribe, but it was, at times, a flawed taxonomy.”

“This was to illustrate the colorful ways of the backward Filipinos and justify American’s occupation of the islands. Why exterminate all the brutes when you could display them and make a profit?”

“Inchoy watched me watching the children, and I felt my perspective slowly shift from mine to his: from my joy at the beauty of the children to Inchoy’s perception of forced child labor. He flicked his eyebrows at me to drive home the point.”

“Tita Rosa’s ambush resolved itself quickly: this was Manila and duty presented itself in clear, direct ways. Resignation was the backbone of survival here. Resistance only created anxiety.”

“The results of Gumboc’s presidency are that the poor live in fear for their lives and with reason. Gumboc’s army of assassins operates in a price per head economy and there is no due process. These people are murdered for money as part of a government-sanctioned program.”

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E Harrow (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4 / 5 Characters: 4.5 / 5 Plot: 4.5 / 5

I had such fun reading this book — clever and funny with plenty of gender benders, surprise twists, and sass. Short, too, at only 128 pages.

Zinnia Gray of Ohio is the Dying Girl. Afflicted with GRM — a malady that always kills before its victims reach 22 — she has become obsessed with all things Sleeping Beauty (a girl with very similar problems). What follows is a funny and piercingly acute adventure through alternative narratives where an array of women try to alter the “crap” storylines they were given.

It’s a brilliant modernization, magnification, and multiplication of Sleeping Beauty stories, all come together with the spare prose and humorous asides that I love in Harrow’s writing. Some of the references to academic takes on folklore and feminism crack me up while simultaneously getting to the point of what is truly important. A favorite line referencing a female character with a sword: “I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.”

Great characters that I liked a lot, no BS, plenty of adventure, some cool self-reflection and growth (always enjoyable), and plenty of gender norm challenges that are playful rather than strident.

Harrow is right up there in my must-reads list.

A couple of other fun lines:
“My only friend in this entire backwards-ass pre-Enlightenment world is about to be married off to a sentient cleft chin.”

“We might not be able to fix our bullshit stories, but surely we can be less lonely inside them at the end.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.