Under the Golden Sun by Jenny Ashcroft (Historical Fiction)

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

It is 1941 . Rose Hamilton answers an ad to accompany Walter — a young, newly orphaned boy — to his distant family on an Australian cattle station. But Walter is not an ordinary boy, and the cattle station is not what they were led to expect. About a third of this book was a very appealing romance. The rest was fiction that depicted life during wartime — in England, during the months long journey on a not-exactly-elegant ship, and in the remote areas of Australia, a few hours from Brisbane. I learned more than I knew about Australian history — particularly about the White Australia Laws and the Chief Protector of Aborigines (FYI he was not very protective). Plenty of surprises in the plot as past events come to light, and current events continue to unfold.

This was a happy book for me — in truth it was somewhat formulaic but it was executed so beautifully and with such appealing characters and well-researched history that I didn’t mind a bit. I liked the fact that the drama was not overstated, that moral commentary was pervasive but not overwhelming, and that the main characters had far more to them than their tropes (e.g. vulnerable hero) would require.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

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

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

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 January 18th, 2022.

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin (Multi cultural / Literary Fiction)

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

A beautifully understated and surprisingly engaging book about a Chinese tenor struggling to make it on his own in the US after finding himself on the wrong side of the Chinese party. I appreciated the picture of modern China and an individual Chinese artist through Tian’s experiences with the Chinese government, friends, and family as he is bribed, blacklisted, and receives appeals to his love of and duty towards his country. Where some of the government techniques were things I had heard of, many were not, and I was surprised at the insidious nature of government manipulations outside of China through local operatives, foreign newspapers, etc. Tender and reflective, this is the story of Tian’s life, not a political treatise or call to arms. Tian in some ways is a bit of an innocent — decidedly apolitical and consistently working to maintain artistic integrity and personal principles. I learned a lot and was surprised that the book kept pulling at me as it isn’t my typical fare. Definitely worth reading.

A few quotes:

“This new understanding threw him into a peculiar kind of excitement, because it indicated that the citizens and the country were equal partners in an agreement. Tian gathered that this equality must be the basis of democracy. Now he could see why the Constitution meant so much to the United States. It was the foundation of the nation. With such a realization he became willing to defend the Constitution, even to bear arms if he was called upon, simply because he believed in noble ideas and was willing to sacrifice …”

“He realized many immigrants were in varying degrees of the same situation: They were attempting to break loose from the grip of the past and to start over in a faraway place, but few of them could foresee the price for that new beginning, or the pain and the hardship that came after.”

“In the context of the Tiananmen massacre, China seemed to him more like an old hag, so senile and so ailing that she had to eat the flesh and blood of her children to sustain herself. In the back of his mind lingered a question to which he didn’t yet know the answer: If a country has betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
In this latest book in the (now named) Brighton Mysteries, the newly formed partnership of Emma Holmes (prior WDC and now wife of police chief) and Sam Collins (prior journalist) tackles the murder of 90-year old Bert Billingham, theater impresario and wild womanizer. They were brought into the case by his wife, the unsuitable grandma Verity Malone and star variety performer who had plenty of reasons to kill him herself. Taking place in the 60s, there are many opportunities for inserting the feminist angle — it’s only been 60 years but it’s a bit shocking to remember how things were in those days for women: Emma Holmes was forced to leave the police force when she married; women police officers (WDCs) were not allowed to drive police cars; and God forbid any male made the coffee when needed. Plenty of twists and turns, some fun characters, and a fast, fun read. I still like the Ruth Gallagher series better, but these are definitely worth reading.

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 December 7th, 2021.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Drama/depression index: too high!

Greek classics, a love of books and literature, and the twin pillars of human suffering and hope pervade this broad, sweeping story which spans interstellar travel, the siege of Constantinople, and eco-terrorism in an Idaho library. The published book description is actually very good, so I encourage you to read it directly rather than my trying to do an inadequate recap.

This is a beautifully written, deeply researched, cleverly interconnected story and by the end I was enjoying it a great deal. The characters are intricately done with their memories, desires, and deep need to survive, understand, and have agency in their lives. However, there is an awful lot of pathos for my taste. Before each character can succeed, there is an incredible amount of (too well) described suffering. This is not surprising — the siege of Constantinople is not a great place to be an orphaned girl with an antipathy for embroidery or a hare-lipped boy considered a demon by the greater population. But I clocked 65% through my kindle version before things stopped being utterly depressing. I did love the way literature and the classics were woven throughout, and I found the interstellar generation ship running away from a dying Earth thread quite interesting. The slowly emerging resolution of these independent threads was remarkably well done giving me an overall positive view of the book.

This is a strong and brilliantly executed book. If you loved his Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light You Cannot See, you will likely love this as well.

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 September 28th, 2021.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarity (Australian Fiction)

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

Impossible to put down, this is a twisted, gripping, family drama / mystery that explores the violence and cruelty as well as the compassion, kindness, and personal development of ordinary people.

Stan and Joy Delaney are tennis obsessed — champs in their youth, they ran a successful school for training and coaching tennis players, including their four tall, talented, (and now adult) tennis offspring. All appears well until one day Joy Delaney disappears, and the police turn their (frankly not so laser focused) gaze on Stan.

Let me hasten to say that this is NOT one of those tense books about false accusations and a man desperate to prove his innocence. What I just described is the structure of the story but not at all the point. The story alternates between the present day and clearly labeled time periods in the past. In Moriarity’s signature style, the plot keeps twisting, the people get more interesting, and sleep becomes impossible as you have to race to the finish. I’ve read many (most?) of Moriarity’s books. Some I like better than others — this is now one of my favorites.

Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi cultural)

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

I’m grasping for words to express how much I loved this book but all the good words — profound, brilliant, amazing, etc. — have been rendered meaningless through overuse. So just think about what they used to mean and apply here.

The novel is based on the experiences of Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, in his determined fight against the proposed termination of his Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa named in House Concurrent Resolution 108 passed in August of 1953. Gourneau is fictionalized as Thomas Wazhashk.

While that is the overarching plot line, the story is told as a set of short chapters from various character viewpoints. While the termination fight touches everyone, much of the content covers the progression of individual lives in the community. Pixie Paranteau supports her family with earnings from a job at the new jewel bearing plant; her sister, Vera, has disappeared in the Cities and has been caught in the underbelly of the beast; Wood Mountain is becoming a top boxer, training with Barnes, a local white coach with eyes glued on Pixie; Millie Cloud is in Minneapolis and has authored a study of her father’s reservation which will be useful in the fight against termination; and Thomas spends his nights as the Night Watchman at the plant — struggling to stay awake by writing letters using the Palmer Method ingrained in him at the Indian boarding school. Other characters are ghostly visitors, Mormon missionaries, and various officials from the BIA, congress, and tribal councils.

Erdrich’s characters are wonderful — each one an individual that defies stereotype; each one full of complexities that never descend into entertaining “quirks.” In contrast, we do see the usual stereotypes through the perspective of others — in Barne’s memory of the “luscious” Indian girls depicted in ads and earnest lectures given by the missionaries, for example.

What I love most about this book is Erdrich’s articulation of the feelings, perspectives, and philosophies of the various characters. Thomas, in his desperation to leverage every possible angle available to him reads the Book of Mormon to better understand the bill’s author — Arthur V. Watkins — a staunch Mormon. He has discussions with Barnes about why Indians can’t / don’t want to become “regular” Americans and why Barnes could never “become” an Indian. He is immensely philosophical, and we are treated to his thinking, his process, and his growing understanding of life and his part of this world. Every chapter is full of enlightening description and presence.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time and by far my favorite Erdrich book. The Pulitzer committee definitely got it right this time.

Some quotes:
“This termination bill. Arthur V. Watkins believed it was for the best. To uplift them. Even open the gates of heaven. How could Indians hold themselves apart, when the vanquishers sometimes held their arms out, to crush them to their hearts, with something like love?”

“Thomas was convinced that he’d destroyed their chances. He couldn’t point out exactly how he’d done it, but he knew. And the other thing. The senator had also asked every single Indian person who testified about their degree of Indian blood. The funny thing was, nobody knew exactly.”

“Especially Senator Watkins. The word supercilious. That was the word for every detail. Watkins’ coin-purse mouth. His self-righteous ease. The way he held himself, giving off that vibration. Filling the air with sanctimony. Another word that flung itself into her mind.”

“She was inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit. The same spirit had hatched the bird that pecked Bucky’s face. When she got home, she’d clean up the sweat lodge and ask her mother to help her get rid of these thoughts.”

“All were cast together onto allotments, to break apart the earth, to learn the value of a dollar, and then how to make one dollar into many dollars and cultivate the dollar into a way of life.”

“His father was so very old now that he slept most of the day. He was ninety-four. When Thomas thought of his father, peace stole across his chest and covered him like sunlight.”

“To most of their neighbors, Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness and shame. Except the good ones. There was always “a good Indian” that someone knew.”

“For days. he’d tried to make sense of the papers, to absorb their meaning. To define their unbelievable intent. Unbelievable because the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language. Unbelievable because the intent was, finally, to unmake, to unrecognize. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.”

“Emancipation. This word would not stop banging around in his head. Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.”

“He wasn’t one for giving names to things. Or finding their basis. His feelings were like weather. He just suffered or enjoyed them.”

“He felt it coming. Wanted to duck. Winced. A sensation like when he was chastised at school gripped him. Like when he went into a bank or bought something expensive in an off-reservation town. Their looks pressing down on him. Their words flattening him. Their eyes squeezing him. Isey, for shame. As his mother used to say. But it was so much worse in English, the word shame.” It made him curdle inside. And the curdling became something hard in his stomach. Or a thought that stabbed so hard he might cast it out in a flare of anger. Or it might stay in there hardening even further until it flew up to his brain and killed him.”

Boy by Roald Dahl (Autobiography sort of…)

Penguin Books is reissuing Roald Dahl’s “not an autobiography” memories of youth. It reads exactly like one of his fantastic children’s books, and in particular it is easy to see the inspiration for my favorite — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — in many of the stories. It is consistently funny and engaging and fascinating in its ability to demonstrate the development of one of my favorite childhood authors. Since his childhood began in 1916, the descriptions of what life was like (operations without much anesthetic, the typical (and ridiculously cruel IMHO) boarding school experience, and complications of international travel) are plentiful and eye-opening. All in all a very fun (and fast) read.

Looking at some background on Dahl, I’m surprised at all the vitriole — he’s been accused of racism, profanity, and sexual innuendo. The examples given were ridiculous. I despair.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 (for me)

Colson Whitehead is a master of bringing a place and time to life. Harlem in the 60s — this is the story of a man who came from nothing and relentlessly made something of himself. But it’s not the typical rags to riches story with people “managing” to do this and that. This includes all the details of just what he had to do to make it in the world as it was — the pay offs (to gangsters and the police), the loyalties and trust, the “deals” made, the heists, and the constant jockeying for power, influence, and importance by the big shots while everyone else struggles to get by.

Carney is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. He has principles but suspends them as necessary with full awareness. He runs a furniture store with a secret side line in low level fencing of stolen goods. He primarily manages to stay out of trouble except when his cousin Freddie pops up (Freddie’s most constant refrain — “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble”).

Fantastic scenes in Harlem — The Theresa Hotel, known as the “Waldorf of Harlem,” Striver’s Row for the African-American elite, Black Star Travel agency to help black travelers at the time make their way through parts of the US without getting lynched. Some vivid scenes from the 1964 Harlem riots, resulting from the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman. All narrated by Carney with his somewhat cynical (and pretty realistic) worldview.

Whitehead is a fantastic writer — this had a little more focus on unsavory elements for my taste but it was very hard to put down.

A few quotes (out of many):

“Carney took the previous tenants’ busted schemes and failed dreams as a kind of fertilizer that helped his own ambitions prosper, the same way a fallen oak in its decomposition nourishes the acorn.”

“There was a hole in the air where the Ninth Avenue el used to run. That disappeared thing.”

“He reconsidered: The consequences remained, but the reasons had turned spectral, insubstantial. Harlem had rioted — for what? The boy was still dead, the grand jury cleared Lieutenant Gilligan, and black boys and girls continued to fall before the nightsticks and pistols of racist white cops. Freddie and Linus were gone, their heist unwound as if it had never happened, and Van Wyck kept throwing up buildings.”

“Death took Freddie from Carney and mourning returned to him a visitation, an invisible companion who shadowed him everywhere, tugging at his sleeve and interrupting when he least expected: Remember what my smile looked like, Remember when, remember me. Its voice grew quiet and Carney didn’t hear it for a while and then it was loud again: Remember me, This is your job now, Remember me or no one else will.”

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 Sept. 14, 2021.

The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

Another happy charmer from Jenny Colgan. Taking place in a dusty, largely unvisited, book store in Edinburgh, this story brings a sparkling array of oddball (not super realistic but very lovable) characters including a Quaker dendrologist from Brazil, a self-important and extremely handsome self-help author, an all-too-perfect sister (complete with unfortunately charming offspring) and an old recluse with potentially shameful secrets. Add a magic shop, the Ormiston Yew, and a terribly annoying yoga slinging blonde nanny with a nasty streak, and you have the perfect recipe for a light, fun, heartwarming read.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 26, 2021.