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.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Memoir)

I loved this memoir — I expected the good writing, but I did not expect it to be so engaging (starting at page one and continuing throughout). I particularly liked the fact that it was a real memoir — very personal, often poignant, and focused on experiences and insight rather than a political agenda (which is what I was expecting).

Obama has a real talent for observation and introspection. She provides just enough detail and commentary to fully describe events without ever belaboring the point (or going off on unrelated tangents). She described race and gender issues from her own experiences without using them to tee up soapbox lectures. Instead, she focused on what she encountered, what impact things had on her, and what she personally tried to do (often successfully, sometimes not) to introduce more fairness in the world. She didn’t belabor the points, and I appreciated that she didn’t appear to stick to a straight party line. For example, she was part of a Gifted and Talented experiment at her elementary school — which was fantastic for her. She pointed out that people have claimed this is an undemocratic approach. With a few short sentences she managed to present both an opposition and an example of a positive personal impact without drawing conclusions or even stating an opinion on the issue.

It was fascinating to be able to share in her experiences: growing up on the South Side of Chicago, falling in love, having children, going through political campaigns, and of course being the First Lady. Never petty, never gossipy, the narrative always felt honest. Obviously, nobody writes a memoir to make themselves look bad, but I found some pretty honest analysis of why she made certain decisions, what she regretted, what she worried about.

For those who are hoping for another Obama presidency, it’s clear after reading this book that it is not to be! Michelle made it very clear that she has ideas and energy around the issues, but not around the politics in which they are embedded. I’m with her 100% on that one.

This book is inspiring and enlightening and intriguing. I’m sorry I put off reading it for so long.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals by Becky Mandelbaum (Literary Fiction)

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

After a false start I ended up loving this book — it just got better and better. Kansas. An animal sanctuary. The nature of home, love, forgiveness, and understanding.

Mona runs the “Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” in rural Kansas with a single devoted employee on a shoestring budget. Her daughter Ariel left years ago to find a life of her own but is drawn inexorably back when news reaches her of a deadly fire at the sanctuary.

I almost stopped reading after the first chapters. Trump has just been elected, and the sanctuary fire is set by what appears to be a stereotypical “bad guy” (think swastikas, racists, Fox News). Not my kind of thing. Instead, the story delves into the people and all the connections between them. It looks at how personal histories (both good and bad) shape people and how each individual has to continually work to understand their own motivations, mistakes, and desires. The writing is excellent, depicting life in a (poorly funded) animal sanctuary in vivid detail — the animals, the work, the squalor, the caring.

The plot is unpredictable, all of the characters are engaging and fully fleshed out, and the environment is intriguing and very real. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:
“…how unfortunate it was that they didn’t kiss the way humans did, how they could never really hold a loved one in their arms. So few animals even had lips.”

“…because caretaking seemed like the only reasonable occupation in a world that needed so much care.”

“She had always admired this type of woman — women like her mother, like Sunny — who naturally exuded authority. They navigated the world with confidence, looking for things to improve, whereas Ariel moved through the world on tip-toes, expecting someone to reprimand her, to tell her she was doing something wrong.”

“Out here, we have to work with nature. It’s our boss. Our livelihood. Out there, people see nature as this dying thing they need to protect — this thing totally separate from themselves, from the world of people.”

“The animals are weird at night. You’d be surprised how many of them are awake — like they’re all dressed up and ready for church.”

“Maybe that’s the ingredient they’d been missing all along — the ability to say the squishy stuff other families had no problem tossing around.”

“Even in the moments of greatest anger, behind the flames there was always love. If anything, love was the air that stoked the blaze.”

“It seemed both absurd and unjust, that murdering animals made you rich while caring for them made you poor.”

“You know, my mom used to have this saying. She’d say ‘Mona, sorry is like a sponge. You can use it to clean up your messes, but the more you use it, the dirtier it gets.’”

“Dex would catch her looking at him, a shimmer of contempt in her eyes, as if his penis alone had engineered the electoral college.”

“It was something she’d noticed since the election: everyone was eager to dole out little kindnesses wherever possible, as if, deed by deed, they might tip the scales of the world toward goodness and restore some measure of order.”

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 Oct 7th, 2020.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg (Fiction)

Thank you to Random House and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 27, 2020.

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

The ultimate feel good book, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop takes up where Fried Green Tomatoes left off, following the beloved residents of Whistle Stop, Alabama as they disperse through the South. Told vignette style, we bounce between time periods, characters, and locales — like a collection of friendly gossip between friends about people they love in common. The main narrative arc follows Buddy and his daughter, Ruth, in the present. You may remember Buddy as the six-year-old who lost his arm in a train crossing accident in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s an amazing journey.

The ending is absolutely delightful, and I won’t give it away with any hints. Let’s just say I’m in a much happier space than I was when I started. Thank you, Fannie Flagg!

Great for fans of Elizabeth Berg.

The Cousins by Karen McManus (YA / Mystery)

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Dec. 1, 2020.

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

Another excellent YA thriller / mystery by Karen McManus who seems to have an endlessly twisted repertoire of stories stored in her brain. These books are hard to put down — well-written with engaging characters and a set of twists that I never quite figure out until it is too late.

The Cousins is about three cousins who are each invited to work at the resort owned by the grandmother who cut off all ties with their parents decades ago. Secrets abound and are unraveled at just the right pace. While it is labeled as a thriller, and I was on the edge of my seat, I didn’t find it to be anxiety provoking. Thriller-lite?

As a side note, isn’t it funny that teen angst is so refreshing in a pandemic? It’s so soluble!

The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

An Isabel Dalhousie book. For those unfamiliar with McCall Smith’s less well-known protagonist (Mma Ramotswe of Number One Ladies Detective Agency is far more popular), Isabel is a philosopher of independent means. She serves as the publisher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. What an unusual character on which to base a series! These books center around questions of morality, and amidst the light plots that loosely guide each episode, we are treated to a constant stream of philosophical musings and epiphanies. I love the fact that rather than read the (probably) dry research papers that populate Isabel’s Review, we instead get to hear the intriguing summaries.

In this installment, Isabel is asked to serve as executor of a dying man’s trust while simultaneously coming to terms with her niece’s engagement to an (to Isabel) unsuitable man. These situations give rise to musings about the accidents of love, moral obligations, moral strangers, the sphere of moral proximity, and what it means to act graciously. Populated by the educational elite of Edinburgh, this series also gives rise to discussions on a wide variety of topics — this time including Himalayan languages and Scottish Country dancing.

I have a very good vocabulary and have read most of McCall Smith’s books and yet he *still* surprises me with new words. This time: Gluckschmerz and commensality. Gluckschmerz is feeling pain in the face of another’s success — the opposite of Schadenfreude. Commensality refers to the positive social interactions that are associated with people eating together.

My favorite phrase in the book: “the suppurating corruption of greed.”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday 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 28th, 2020.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

A heroic fantasy novel with a YA slant from the author of Spinning Silver and Uprooted. Think Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind.

The action takes place at Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted. Unlike Hogwarts, however, there are no kindly Dumbledores anxious to help you survive and master your skills. Indeed, there are no teachers, or adults, or even any communication with the outside. Induction into the Scholomance is sudden and permanent. The only way out is to graduate, and there a lot of malevolent beasties that will do their best to ensure you make a tasty magic meal rather than a full wizard.

El (short for Galadriel — don’t ask) has an affinity for mass destruction — not what you want if you desire to be a “good witch”! She is roundly shunned by most — but is this because of her affinity for evil or because she is rude, off putting, and endlessly defensive? And the local hero, Orion Lake, keeps saving her life. How annoying!

The world building is complete and awesome — crawling with outlandish and execrable monsters, arcane rules and physics that doesn’t work in any way that I’ve experienced. Full of action (which normally bores me but somehow the sarcasm and wit and characters that I cared about in spite of myself carried me along quickly). Some not-so-thinly disguised political commentary on the haves and have-nots, but well-done and not completely one-sided. Overall enjoyable. I admit to liking Spinning Silver and Uprooted a little bit more but found this eminently consumable. Looks like it may be a series based on the last line of this book (not a cliff hanger in any sense but a promise of more to come).

I forgot to add that our heroine comes from Cardigan, Wales. That doesn’t have a lot to do with the story but it’s a beautiful place and I was tickled to find it in the book.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 29th, 2020.

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I gulped this book down in (almost) a single sitting. Perfect for long quarantine days: part novel with great characters who have evolved over the 12 books in Griffiths’ Dr. Ruth Galloway series and part mystery with all that closure we crave in these anxious days.

Four dead woman and a convicted murderer, but do they have the right man? In this installment, Ruth has moved to Cambridge with a new partner and a new job but is drawn back to Norfolk by the prisoner offering to disclose the location of additional bodies if Ruth promises to do the excavation. An artist colony and cycling group feature prominently in the story with plenty of local history, folklore, and archeological digs. All our favorite characters are back, each slowly progressing in their own long term narrative arcs.

Now I just have to wait for the next one…

p.s. For those who are new to this series, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist who, before this book, lived in a remote area near Norfolk amidst the marshes near the sea. She works with the large and brooding but spectacularly capable Detective Chief Inspector Nelson. Another favorite character is Cathbad — part-time University employee and full-time modern druid. You can start the series anywhere, really, but the it never hurts to start at the beginning!

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 14th, 2020.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (psychology, philosophy)

This classic — first published in 1959 and claiming “more than 15 million copies in print worldwide” — was disappointing to me. Two sections: part one deals with his survival in the concentration camps of WWII; part two discusses Logotherapy — the author’s theory that our primary driver in life is a search for meaning.

My problem is that part one has very little insight. The biggest insight to me was his statement that those who survived the camps were “not the best of us.” His other insight seemed to be obvious — that those who survived had something to look forward to — someone they hoped to find alive or some work they wanted to do. Quite a bit of discussion focused on finding meaning through suffering — in your reaction to suffering and the inner decision each man makes to be the kind of person he becomes. However, quite a bit seemed to be predicated on survival of some sort, either in this world or in a religious belief in an afterlife. Primo Levi’s <i>Survival in Auschwitz</i> was a far more thorough coverage of a similar topic.

Part two on logotherapy was overly simplified and dated. It’s possible that I would have gotten more out of it had I been willing to read the 12 volumes he wrote on it rather than this simplified version. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in the late 50s. One interesting point: he compares his “will for meaning” to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power.” I don’t claim to be a psychology expert but I wouldn’t have summarized Freud and Adler in that way. In any case, surely it’s clear that different people have different motivations and personal makeups.

The good news is that it is short at 154 pages. Possibly good to read for a history of psychological thought at the time but frankly pretty dull.