Flight by Lynn Steger Strong (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A family drama focussed on three siblings and their families on the first Christmas after their mother’s death. Each is experiencing some disappointment / pressure in life and each twirls within their own constant inner monologue while engaging with each other in a kind of complex dance with needs, desires, and irritations constantly up for rebalancing. Martin, the eldest, is on temporary leave after having made some ill-advised statements to the wrong people at his educational institution; his wife Tess is the practical one, a lawyer who is in a constant state of worry and irritation; Kate is a housewife and mother, married to Josh who has managed to run through the inheritance they were living on; Henry is an artist obsessed with the climate, and his wife Alice somehow shifted from artist to social worker and now finds herself over-attached to one of her charges. When that particular charge disappears on Christmas Eve, each individual gets a jolt that drives him or her to a deeper understanding of his or her own life.

While slow at times, the book contains a lot of insight through each person’s reflections coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and situations. An enjoyable read.

Thank you to Mariner Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 8th, 2022.

Other People’s Houses by Abbi Waxman (Literary Fiction)

My third Waxman book — I love her combination of humor, reflection, and relatable characters. She reminds me of Anne Lamott (in her earlier, less spiritual days). Other People’s Houses focuses on a Los Angeles neighborhood — a block really — with a set of families and children brought together through proximity and friendship. Frances has become the group “designated driver” with everyone agreeing that it just makes more sense for Frances to drive the 7 kids to the various schools every morning and home in the afternoon. One fateful day when a neighbor’s child is delivered to school sans the essential toilet paper roll required for the day’s craft project, Frances drops by the house to pick it up and sees … something she really, really, wishes she hadn’t seen.

An exploration of different lifestyles brought together by the social glue of gossip, the writing is good, the characters engaging, and the dialog and reflections do a good job of presenting different viewpoints (although I can’t help feel that the author’s own viewpoint is heavily represented by Frances, and I don’t totally agree with it but… fun to think about.

I also liked the neologism (to me) of youthsplaining as in “Frances hated it when neonates lectured her about things she already understood — Youthsplaining.”

A few more fun quotes:
“The dogs followed her, wondering if this morning they would get fed in the bathroom; it paid to keep an open mind.”

“You might think that cotillion, which is basically a class where kids learn to be overly polite, to use the right fork, and where boys learn to open doors for girls, is a trivial offering, but you would be wrong. It is a fulcrum of dispute between parenting paradigms, at least in Los Angeles.”

“She pulled on the same pair of jeans she’d had on the day before and the hooded sweatshirt she found under them. Look, if they hadn’t wanted to be worn a second day they could have run away, but instead they just lay there overnight, asking for it.”

Suspect by Scott Turow (legal thriller / audio book)

Great audio book! Action both in and behind the courtroom. It’s no secret who the bad guy is but figuring out the game and finding the evidence is a whole other story (the story of this book in fact!). I was also very impressed with the fully integrated roles for women, different ethnic groups, and those with varied sexual preferences without making that the point of the book (I’m getting very tired of the heavy handed agendas of current literature!). Each character is a character with his/her own personality, flaws, interests, etc. in addition to his/her various hashtag-identifiers.

Lucia Gomez is the police chief of Highland Isle and has managed a good balancing act between authority and camaraderie until she is accused of exchanging promotions for sexual favors. Talk about a gender bender! The accusations are false, of course, but there is enough “activity” to make the accusations at least plausible. It’s fun to imagine the story where the genders were switched. Hired by her lawyer to uncover the truth is PI Pinky Granum — she of the misspent youth. As an aside, Pinky is somewhat obsessed with her new and mysterious neighbor whom she suspects of being up to something. Or is it an aside? Maybe there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

Excellent reader, twisted plot, and really interesting characters. Turow writes really good female characters. He writes good male characters, too (obviously) but it’s honestly rare for me to like female characters written by most men. So Bravo! At any rate, this book kept me entertained and thinking for a good 12 hours of driving. Much obliged!

Thank you to Hachette Audio 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.

The Ink Black Heart by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith (Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
I’ve been a JK Rowling fan since I bought the first Harry Potter book in England before it was released in the US. She is just a fantastic writer. This book was over 1,000 pages, and I got through it in three days because I could not stop reading, much to the irritation of family and friends whom I was supposed to be paying attention to!

The Ink Black Heart is the sixth book in the Cormorant Strike series. Best one yet. This one tackles murder both spawned and executed within the anonymity of social media with the convoluted detection progressing simultaneously in both online and real life. Edie Ledwell, the now successful author of a surprise hit cartoon, approaches the agency begging them to help her uncover the identity of an online figure who has been publicly tormenting her for years, almost driving her to suicide. With the agency already overloaded and no real skillset in cybercrime, Robin rejects the request, only to be shocked days later when Edie is found brutally murdered.

The ensuing puzzle to identify Anomie — the anonymous tormentor — is muddied by an incredibly complex web of characters — both online and in real life. Reminded me of the old logic puzzles I used to love where you have to match which person goes with which car which goes with which dessert etc. While I’ve been “aware” of some of the nastiness that happens online, the progressing story included plenty of excerpts that brought the nastiness to life in a way that made it finally real for me. From incels (involuntary celibates) to alt-right nasties to pedophiles to naive victims, it was a whole unsavory world I’m glad I have no contact with. And it’s a world that I’m guessing Rowling knows first hand as she has been targeted by various “unhappys” in some very aggressive and loathsome ways. As an aside, I always search out the original comment or event that gets people riled and rarely find anything worthy of the reaction. Certainly not in Rowling’s case. I sure wish people would think and investigate before they jump on the vicious attack bandwagon.

So why are these books so good? Firstly, Rowling has a writing style that I just love — it’s so clean that you completely forget that you’re reading and yet she manages to reduce very complex topics and events to easily comprehensible dialog and action. Yet the complexity is not oversimplified, it’s just explained clearly. Maybe she should run for office. The plots mimic the cacophony of real life — lots going on, plenty of opinions, multiple opportunities for internal biases to raise their ugly heads, and tedious and slow moving mechanisms for verification. Rowling has an incredible ability to juggle multiple complex plot lines into a cohesive whole. Plenty of philosophic commentary on people, the internet, and the inability to think for themselves. Nothing she writes about fits neatly into a “type,” an “identity,” or a “role.” I love it.

I also like the characters a lot — while they are flawed (as is the preference these days in crime fiction) — they have characteristics and values that are important to me — they care about right and wrong, they are intelligent, they understand their flaws and actually work to improve themselves. I would be very happy to spend time with these people were they so inclined!

The Tick and Tock of the Crocodile Clock by Kenny Boyle (Literary Fiction)

It’s all about words. That theme comes up often in this earnest, confusing, and genuine book about Wendy, a young would-be poet who exists fully in the world of her imagination and is simply lost in the world in which we are all forced to reside.

The book is a gem. Starting with our narrator hiding (terrified) in her gran’s attic with a stolen painting at her side, the story backtracks to an explanation of how she got there, beginning with her short tenure at a Glasgow call center where her daily game is to sneak as many unusual words as possible into her calls. Wendy loves language and weaves wishful fiction into her own backstory (always confessing and eventually letting the truth out). When she quits the call center, she is surprised when several others accompany her in the walk out. One fellow decamper is Catriona, an artist who is wild, wonderful, and has (it becomes clear) been struggling with mental illness for some time.

The story is humorous, surprising, sad, and deeply insightful. I admit to almost closing the book because I got frustrated with the way Wendy could not handle her life the way I thought she should — a good lesson for me about the (should be obvious) fact that my way is not what is best for everyone! I was afraid the book was about self-destructive tendencies which I have little patience with, but it actually was not. I loved her interior monologue that laid bare her development into a whole person making decisions that were right for her.

Lots of great use of language including some truly “new” (to me) words such as curglaffic; ultracrepudarian; lexiphanicism. Seriously, they don’t even begin to sound familiar to me, never mind managing to use them in a call center dialog sentence!

Not surprisingly, there are some great quotes. Here are a few:
“Honestly, I don’t think call centres have the strength of character to be hell. In call centres even bright things or bright people get washed out and individuality is smothered by customer service.”

“Thank you for calling Chay Turley Telephone Banking. How may I dissuade you from truculence?”

“They’re mostly useless in conversation, because people look at you like you’ve just flown in from some fantasy land if you say them. Having to explain the meaning of a word every time you use it goes against the whole point of having words in the first place. I like them anyway; their uselessness adds to their mystique.”

“Her mind is ponderous, like an iguana. When you say something to her it takes a good two seconds to process it — two whole seconds of silent glaring as the words take root. When someone like that meets someone like me it doesn’t ever turn out well. I can’t bear those two seconds of silence, so I have to fill the gap. A lot of the time I fill it with incriminating evidence to my detriment.”

“She’s beginning to pick up speed, like a juggernaut of discipline ready to smash through me with sheer momentum.”

“There’s no amount of shyness that will diminish the West of Scotland impulse to respond to compliments with aggression — it would be weird not to.”

“I wish I weren’t so afraid of words in the real world, I wish they didn’t turn into glue in my mouth so often. Life is an unlimited cascade of parallel possibilities and every single word alters the path. That’s petrifying; it’s fossilising. How can people handle that responsibility?”

“There’s a miniature sun made of gratitude right in the centre of my rib cage and its beams are tearing out of me, but, because we’re in the real world where words can’t be retrieved once they leave your mouth, I don’t know how to tell her how much it means to me.”

“…but even when his expression was flat, the lines of it were an origami template for a smile.”

The Devil You Know by PJ Tracy (Mystery)

Book number three in the Margaret Nolan series (I still haven’t gotten around to reading number one but I really liked number two). This one has all the glitz, glamour, and ultimately scumminess of Hollywood. A beloved celebrity is found dead — accident, suicide, or murder unclear — days after a nasty-nasty (but deepfaked) video of him sped out over social media. Nolan and partner Crawford have a more difficult time “reading” the persons of interest as they are all actors and good ones at that.
Very good writing (see a couple of quotes below) and I like the regular characters who have depth and develop with each book. I didn’t love the “bad guy” characters as much as last time — they seemed more shallow and two dimensional — but it’s Hollywood and I expect that comes with the territory!
A fun read, and I’ll be happy to check out book four when it comes!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 17th, 2023.

Exiles by Jane Harper (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
Aaron Falk from Harper’s The Dry reappears with previous partner Greg Raco in this suspenseful story of a once local woman who disappears at the town’s annual Festival, leaving her six week old baby and purse in a stroller on the grounds. As always, Harper is a master of suspense, painting the every day lives of a rural Australian community amidst the slow understanding that not all was what it seemed. I can never stop reading any of Harper’s books once I’ve started them. Well written, characters that I would love to spend time with, and some well done detailed reflection on what a policeman sees, thinks, and handles that little niggling in the back of a trained mind that whispers “you’re missing something.”

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 January 31st, 2023.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett (Mystery / Fiction)

The first of the Amy Gallup series. Unfortunately I read book three first so I already knew the resolution of this one. Still liked it but it is very strange knowing “whodunit” from the beginning!

This is the story of a writing class, taught by the anti-social and acerbic Amy Gallup — who appears to have a “sniper” member. This member leaves nasty grams for students, which is bad enough, but when two members suddenly drop dead, things get a little … tense.

The writing is excellent — at least three cuts above your typical genre fiction. She loves to make lists. My favorite — her list of “funny looking words.” This included prepuce, piebald, knothole and obnubilate. She’s right — they do look funny! And I hadn’t really ever considered how words could look funny as I’m too busy absorbing them at max rate. She includes brilliant commentary on writers, readers, and the writing process.

Stay tuned for book two which I’ll be reading next…

They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey (Literary Fiction)

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

This is the story of Carlisle — the ballet-obsessed daughter of dancers whose perfectly tuned body is too tall (at 6’1”) for most companies. The story follows her life from a ten-year old finally reunited with her father and his new (male) partner, both at the absolute center of the dance world, to her pursuit of performance, to the eventual shift in focus of the creative urges towards classical ballet choreography (a field not only dominated by men but with no women whatsoever). We alternate between two time lines — the present day where she learns that her long-estranged father is dying; and the time 19 years past wherein the estrangement began.

The tone is intimate — we are privy to all of Carlisle’s thoughts and confusions — the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is a book of real depth, with a comprehensive view of Carlisle’s rich and complex inner life and a profound and meticulous description of the passions, drive, and motivations of both a dancer and a creator of dances. A rarity. I happen to love ballet but even if you don’t, I think you will love this story of artistic striving. Rather than just a peek, I felt as though I lived within the soul of the artist as I read this book.

Beautiful characters and a real view into a life that is certainly very different than my own. For the balletically minded, I loved the (accurate) references to Mr. B (Balanchine) and the peek into the world of New York City ballet.

The book is filled with beautifully written and insightful phrases — here are a few:

“ ‘What if you weren’t always so hard on yourself?’ a boyfriend once asked me. I agreed my being self-critical had not made me a better person, which was a clever way of being hard on myself about being hard on myself.”

“…Isabel lives for her art, and as far as she’s concerned, what makes an artist is what makes a woman: suffering, devotion, endurance. It’s more fun than it sounds. It’s safer than it sounds. Her world has rules and codes and structure. It has rewards. There are costumes and flowers. There’s a god, George Balanchine, who loves them all and gives them miraculous ballets to dance.”

“Emotions have a way of collecting and hardening inside us, like neglected grease. We are all smoking stoves.”

“Balanchine famously said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. Meaning, it’s not an art form suited for portraying complicated family relationships, or psychological subtleties. It’s a place to get away from them, into a purer realm.”

“It’s not hard to feel you’re a good person if you ignore any semblance of an inner life.”

“In the classical repertoire, there’s a motif of large groups of women, often dressed in white, but they represent a kind of moral authority, beautiful or terrible, but not personal. You see the friendship between women only in the rehearsal room or the wings, when women are chatting or laughing or checking in with each other, released from the obligation of being divine representatives.”

“The body, which doesn’t understand time, remembers movement. Once class starts, my body falls into positions like batter filling a pan.”

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 November 15th, 2023.

Hang the Moon by Jeanette Walls (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

Sallie Kincaid — a larger than life heroine if I’ve ever read one — comes of age in hillbilly country during Prohibition. Daughter of “the Duke,” who runs the county, she eventually inherits all that was his — the power and the immense responsibility. Unwilling to marry (having seen how badly women fare in the imbalance between the sexes), she is going it alone.

Inspired by the Tudor dynasty, specifically Elizabeth I, this story is a fascinating and seamless transposition of that singular journey — a female growing from child banishment to the leadership of a patriarchal empire — from the Elizabethan Era (late 1500s) to the Prohibition Era (1920s). With outstanding writing, Walls brings to life a set of utterly believable characters with bold depictions of their inner and outer lives. Character interactions bring out both the individual striving and the (usually invisible) impact across other lives. Plenty of every day philosophy and thinking. Impossible to put down.

Some great quotes:
“I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave. Plenty of them still around. Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”

“This man whose approval I so craved. He loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.”

(She got what she deserved…) “That’s what some people said when Mama was killed. It is what you tell yourself sometimes, a way to make sense of things, a way to make you feel safer, that people who get hurt bring it on themselves. But it’s such a lie. Lots of folks don’t deserve what they get.”

“I’m not sure if I’m remembering what happened or just finally understanding it, but all these years, I’ve been hearing stories about Mama as told by others, and now, I finally understand the story as Mama would have told it.”

“What else are you going to do? You can get married or you can become a schoolteacher or a nurse. Other than that, it’s slim pickings — a nun or a whore or a spinster peeling potatoes in the corner of some relation’s kitchen.”

“If a woman wants to get ahead in this world, she marries well and mark my words, Sallie, no man worth the clothes on his back is going to let a woman outshine him.”

“A handout. You think you’re being all generous, but what you’re also saying is you got what the other person doesn’t — so much of it you’re giving it away.”

“It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.”

“There are two kinds of brave people in this world, it hits me, those who fight and those who protect the ones who can’t fight.”

“I thought being in charge meant I was beholden to no one. What it truly means is that I am beholden to everyone.”

“He’s going on about how, back in Scotland, we Kincaids fought the highlanders who tried to rustle our cattle and the English who tried to take our land, then we fought the Irish when they wouldn’t let us take theirs, and when we came to Virginia, we fought the Indians for the same reason, then the English again with a lot of talk about defending freedom, then the Yankees with a lot of talk about defending slavery. When we were defeated, we still declared victory but we also swore revenge. I wish I could say we were always on the side of right, but that would be a lie. We fought people for doing to us exactly what we did to others, fought for them wanting the same rights we had.”

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 March 28th, 2023.