The Survivors by Jane Harper (Mystery)

A small town on the Tasmanian coast. An intense storm 12 years ago that led to two deaths and a disappearance. And now — the inexplicable murder of a young, well-liked, visiting artist that is somehow connected to events of the past. With Harper’s expert pacing and character development, we witness small town life through two lenses: one where everyone seems an irreproachable member of a tight-knit community and the other where each feels like a reasonable suspect. Through a maelstrom of online community postings, we see how the anonymous amplification of suspicions and accusations can bring a community to its knees. As with all Harper’s books, it is just about impossible to put down.

Thank you to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Fiction)

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

This was a hard book to read — not because of the ugly truths it laid bare (that too) but because of the ugly truths the author calls for: black revenge in the form of “Apocalypse sweeps the South. Vengeance visits the North.”

It’s the story of two siblings. Ella has her “Thing” — a deep and growing power that she spends years learning to control: clairvoyance, astral projection, and the ability to destroy with a glance. Her younger brother Kevin was born into violence: he is “Riot Baby” — born just as the Rodney King riots sparked. Kevin’s life is supposed to represent that of a typical black urban youth. We strobe through it: a smart kid doing well in school; a kid taunting cops; a failed armed robbery attempt; 7 years in Rikers waiting for an ever-delayed trial; parole release into a “sponsored community” with a chip in his thumb to keep him both tracked and drugged as necessary (the author extrapolates seamlessly into this future vision of released prisoners). The word “n**ga” is ubiquitous in the dialog as in every single sentence.

Onyebuchi’s writing is phenomenal — he brings the people, culture, and environment to life. He illustrates societal issues via Kevin’s life while Ella serves as the symbol of black anger and black power — the former slowly coming to a boil as she learns how to control it and turn it into the latter.

Reading this book you are immersed in the author’s feeling of what life is like in this environment. And it’s horrible and depressing. He doesn’t hide the fact that individuals are contributing to their own problems: Kevin didn’t have to try to try to rob a bank, he didn’t have to harass the cops when they patrolled, he could have stayed in school and taken advantage of what appeared to have been a good brain. But Onyebuchi appears to lay the blame squarely in White America’s lap calling out (fairly) the police brutality and discriminatory justice system. Like most fiction, the information included is emotionally powerful but also anecdotal. While the studies definitely show the discriminatory patterns, is it really the case that every black urban youth is destined for this future? Is there nothing short of the revolution he calls for that would help? Is every policeman who goes into these neighborhoods an a*hole bent on harassing the residents? Could we not try to do something about the bangers who commit far more murder of black residents than any number of cops? I know these are complicated issues, and I know as a white middle class woman I can’t possibly know what it would be like to be born into this life — but I also know it is the rare revolution (I can only think of one) that doesn’t just cause a lot of murder and destruction and end up in a similar situation with just another set of people with power.

Bottom line — powerful book, worth reading but very disturbing. One pretty dark picture of modern urban black life — I hope in future books Onyebuchi can come up with some positive actions towards improving things rather than revolution and rebirth. Definitely an author to watch — I’ll have to go back and look at his young adult fiction; this is his first adult novel.

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart (Mystery/Historical Fiction)

The second book in the series and (sadly) the last one for me to read. Another exquisitely written mystery fully evoking the rhythms, culture, and political machinations of early 18th century China (1708 to be exact). In this book, our scholar and prior Imperial librarian Li Du, has stopped in a small valley on the way to Lhasa where his caravan discovers the dead body of a monk with a small white mirror painted on his chest. Thus begins a journey into artistry, beautiful descriptions of relationships of all kinds, and Tulkus — reincarnated lineages, the most powerful of which is the Dalai Lama.

I’m going to miss this series and I hope the author’s latest book (which takes place in London in 1703) does not mean that she has given up on Li Du forever!

The Gifted, The Talented, and Me by William Sutcliffe (YA / Humor)

When his dad’s invention takes off and the family suddenly finds themselves rich, 15-year old Sam finds himself in a posh home and enrolled in the North London Academy for Gifted and Talented. His mother (clearly channeling a Northern California wealthy bohemian) encourages him to find his special talent. So begins this laugh-out-loud funny coming-of-age story about an “average” kid who is forced to find a creative side that he really doesn’t want at all.

Great characters and hysterical dialog — especially the internal dialog (trialog?) between his optimistic brain, his pessimistic brain and his … dick. Amidst an array of humorously drawn characters, all subject to equal-opportunity parodying, Sam does figure out what is important in relationships with others and with yourself. A fun, fun ride. Plus … very cool ending.

Thank you to Bloomsbury YA and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley (YA)

A coming-of-age story in small town Pennsylvania with magical realism thrown in the form of crows — thousands and thousands of them.

At 17, Leighton is living two lives: one as a teenager with a best friend, an excellent GPA, and a budding love affair with the handsome, athletic, bi-racial Liam McNamara. The other life is at home trying to protect her mother and sisters from domestic abuse — the kind of simmering, mostly hidden abuse that is so easy for everyone outside to ignore.

The writing is excellent, and the author offers a nuanced and in-depth treatment of a difficult subject. The dialog — both with others and within Leighton’s head — is full of insight. The denouement is artfully done — as the crows, her family, and the citizens are captured in Leighton’s prize-winning essay for the town’s “Auburn Born, Auburn Proud” contest.

I like that the book does not dwell on victimhood, and while the father’s behavior is explained, it is never excused. I also liked the wide variety of male and female characters — none are stereotypes. And lastly, I loved the sweetness and the intentional overcoming of her family’s emotional patterns that defines the relationship between Leighton and Liam.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

Homegoing is a collection of vignettes following two half-sisters in Fanteland (Ghana) — each unaware of the other’s existence — and their descendants through seven generations. One is captured and sold into slavery; the other is sold off to the white Governor of the Cape Coast Castle and serves as his “wench” or native wife. The writing is excellent and the structure — while often confusing — does an impressive and subtle job of weaving together the cross-generational stories. Each story captures the essence or main turning point of one person’s life, but the closure on that life isn’t delivered until the next generation’s story where the impact of the generations before is felt and details recalled.

The family tree in the front pages is essential — if you’re reading an ebook, find the tree online, print it, and refer to it often. Because Gyasi alternates between the descendants of the two half-sisters, generation by generation, it is sometimes difficult to hold to the previous story of one line by the time you get to the next. Similarly, it can be difficult to know what time period you’ve come to — some stories mention a date, others mention an event whose date can be retrieved, others involve more math (it had been 16 years since my mother died).

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is well-written, the characters full of depth, the individual stories emotionally gripping. However, it reads like one long compendium of tragedy. Every storied individual — on each side of the sisterly divide — suffers the atrocities of that generation: from abduction to the slave ships to the hopelessness and cruelty of slavery and the futility of escape attempts. Later generations on the American side suffer from the Fugitive Slave Act, broken families, drug addiction, the loss of family who can pass for white. The African side suffers as well from the impacts of colonization, “well-meaning” missionaries, internecine struggles, and the guilt of their own role in slavery. It is a relentless history lesson which highlights only the troubles and oppression and little of the gains or joys. While it is at times heavy handed, it does not descend into emotional manipulation for which I was grateful.

Definitely worth reading, but keep in mind the larger context — humans of every race and ethnicity have done abhorrent things to each other since the dawn of time — as a species I like to think that we are continually working to tame ourselves and make things better for everyone, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like. While none of the white people mentioned in the book were particularly “good,” she did a good job of not casting blame on whole groups of people for what takes place in these pages.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction History)

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 October 6th, 2020.

This is a surprisingly engaging study of War as a human activity throughout history — rather than the more commonplace in-depth study of a particular conflict. With tight (read non-meandering, non-dry, non-dull) prose, MacMillan studies War from its evolution across the ages: how the ability to make war and changes in human society progress inextricably; the evolution of war across changes in society and technical advancement; the shift from King and Country to nationalism and our view of warriors; what induces people to fight, the role of civilians, and the efforts to control and regulate something as completely uncontrollable as the license to slaughter other human beings. Drawing on a wide variety of examples — from the Peloppenesian and Punic wars to more modern conflicts and everything in between — she brings this uniquely human activity into a sobering perspective.

Like most historians, MacMillan provides an impressive array of sources at the end — what I particularly appreciated is that a significant portion of those referred to individual accounts — diaries, letters, etc. This gave her narrative the perspective of the individual as well as the big picture trends. Her attention to detail pervades from the high-level machinations of governments, kings, and rebels down to the experiences of individual foot soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and diplomats.

Here are some parts that stuck with me for a variety of reasons:

• For much of history the records were made and kept by that minority who could read and write. WWI was groundbreaking in that the majority of combatants were literate.
• We have an antipathy to war that makes us avoid its study and understanding.
• A paradox of war: growing state power and the emergence of larger states are the result of war but can also then bring peace. A strong state keeps a monopoly on force and violence but keeps things peaceful within. For example, Tito kept Yugoslavia together — once he toppled all the ethnic groups within started killing each other. Similarly, the Chinese Qin empire in 221 BC was run by a ruthless tyrant but was remembered with gratitude as the ruler who brought peace and order to China.
• After Waterloo, the British proudly wore dentures made from battlefield dead and used their skeletons as fertilizer.
• Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to — many came to war to avoid shame, not for glory or duty.
• People at home hate the enemy more than the fighters do. The fighters have pity for each other and understand how similar they are. Those at home see the enemy as one anonymous “they”.
• The longer or costlier the siege, the worse the treatment of the citizens afterwards.
• In WWII, Germany followed International prisoner protocols as long as they considered the prisoners their racial equals — the French and British, not the Poles or Russians.
• The state of the British soldiers during the Boer war was so poor that society started a whole program to improve health of citizenry in order to have more fit soldiers.

While I thought I preferred her deep-dive books to this thematic one, I’ve found these concepts keep coming back into my brain. I’m realizing that it has shifted my way of thinking on the topic — which is exactly what happened to me with her book The War That Ended Peace (highly recommended — all about what led up to WWI). She has an ability to get to the heart of subjects, and her examples are illuminating because while I was aware of some before, I had not been aware of how they exemplified the theme.

Reading this book was both fascinating and depressing, though not in an emotionally wrenching way. While I was aware of all the conflicts she mentioned, the aggregation of violence and mass destruction through the ages makes it harder to ignore. Her concluding point is that we must keep thinking about War, despite our innate abhorrence of the topic, because it has reached a point (Total War, Modern War, high-tech weaponry) where we are threatening all of humanity.

A single quote: “War is a mystery both to those who fight and those of us who are on the sidelines. And it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive. It promises glory and offers suffering and death. We who are non-combatants may fear the warriors, but we also admire, even love, them. And we cannot pretend we are not party of the same family, with the same potential for fighting.”

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart (Mystery / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
I am loving these Chinese mysteries by Elsa Hart. They go far beyond genre fiction with beautiful language that brings China in the early 18th century to life — detailed descriptions of history and culture embedded in the story rather than a dry droning.

Li Du was a scholar and a librarian in the Forbidden City before events five years past saw him exiled for his friendship with a man found to be a traitor. In his new life as a “scholar recluse,” Du finds himself in the far corner of China near the Tibetan planes just before the Emperor is due to arrive to predict a solar eclipse and strengthen his divine hold on this remote region. When a Jesuit priest turns up dead, Du feels compelled to learn the truth. The story progresses through the six days preceding the eclipse.

That’s the description, but the story is so much more. I was completely drawn to Li Du — a thoughtful, deliberate and highly moral man with a drive for the truth. I was also drawn to the idea of his quiet scholar’s life with quiet, beautiful physical books, and few people. Hart’s powers of description made me slow down and pay attention (I’m not a description person — I usually skim description in favor of dialog, action, or reflection).

This is the first of a three book series — I’ve already read (and loved) the third. I’m sad that I have just the second to go. I really think the BBC should do a mini-series!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (Non-fiction)

This book was a real treasure trove of information, and I consider myself an introvert who should have known it all already! Filled with research summaries, statistics, and case studies, it opened my eyes to aspects of our culture (and of myself) that I hadn’t previously considered.

Cain points out that “our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race.” She presents the American “extroversion ideal” — discussing its evolution and whether or not it is subscribed to by all cultures (it isn’t). Her case studies range from the bible (Moses was an introvert — God told him to have Aaron do all the talking) to CEOs to Tech companies (Woz vs Steve Jobs) to political figures (Al Gore).

Section 2 is all about the physiological basis of introversion which I found absolutely fascinating, and Section 3 compares cultures.

The last section of the book goes into tips for introverts who must live in this world: an entire chapter devoted to an illuminating Mars and Venus style dissertation on the communication challenges facing introverts and extroverts and strategies for schools, parents, and introverted kids (there is even a YA version of this book called Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids).

I was particularly stunned by her report on Elaine Aron’s research into “Highly Sensitive People,” of whom 70% are introverts. She describes 27 attributes ranging from sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, pain, and coffee to their difficulty when being observed, difficulty with being judged for general worthiness, their dislike of small talk, feeling exceptionally strong emotions, processing information about their environments unusually deeply, and unusually strong consciences. Is it obvious that I resonated strongly with this? I always just thought I was a pain to travel with 😉

A well structured book with accessible writing — peppered with fun fact implications (did you know that people getting Botox injections are less anger prone because the very act of frowning — which Botox prevents — actually triggers the amygdala to process negative emotions?). I really enjoyed it and am sorry it took me this long to get around to it. I particularly urge all of you extroverts out there to give it a read!