Yoga Pant Nation by Laurie Gelman (Humor)

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

Always hysterical, this is the third in Gelman’s “Class Mom” series. Jennifer Dixon is the ever-wry, always-irreverent class mom for her 5th grade son in Overland Park, Kansas. This year she gets coerced into leading the biggest fundraiser ever (she calls her team the “We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team” or WeFUKCT); gets startlingly accurate messages from her friend’s crazy mother-in-law (or rather her two ever-present spirit guides); fights off a surprising custody battle; and deals with what appears to be the simultaneous rapid decline of both parents who see “little people” in the basement. This is a comedy, so OF COURSE everything works out just fine and with plenty of laughs on the way.

This is number three in the series — it can certainly be read on its own but why not start with number one (Class Mom) and/or number two (You’ve Been Volunteered) while you’re waiting for Yoga Pant’s July release?

Just a few fun lines — I should have highlighted more but I was too busy laughing:
“Yes, I’m hilarious. In fact, these past two years have been a yuck a minute as I have endeavored to understand Viv’s unique parenting style that can best be described as a cross between Mary Poppins and the surgeon general.”

“Ah yes, “that baby” — also known as the light of my life and the bane of my existence, all rolled into one perfect almost-two-year-old package.”

“In my mind I wonder just how far this PC thing is going to go before we all just give up talking.”

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray (Literary Fiction)

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

Beautifully written story about five members of a strict Mormon family as they struggle with the death of the four-year old daughter, Issy. Extending far beyond your typical grief story, each family member wrestles with competing urges and goals — what it means to be a good person, the boundary between faith and thinking for themselves, and their relationships with each other, the community, and the church.

Ian is a bishop within the church. While I personally found him too sanctimonious for my taste, he (like most humans on this planet) is a complicated man trying to do his best — based on a firm belief in the foundations and practices of the church. Claire is a willing convert to Mormonism but is angry at God and is simply unable to keep going. Zippy (16) struggles with her attraction to a boy in light of the very strict teachings on the role for women; Alma (14) grapples with his belief and guilt over an (as yet to be detected) infraction; Jacob (7) just misses Issy and is working on using the Church’s teachings to resurrect her — confused between what is possible in religious stories and what is possible in everyday life.

For me it was not an attractive view of Mormonism, but then I am not very religious and am unhappy about people telling me what to do based on my gender :-). The characters are presented realistically, some offering comfort based on faith and others offering censure, and while I would bristle on the constraints on women, many of the characters appeared perfectly happy in their lives. Like one of my favorite books — A Place For Us — this book offers an inside view of another culture.

Some good quotes:
“I know something about being good. If you’re good and you get lost, someone you love comes and finds you.”

“It feels as if her hopes are leaking from a small perforation between her lungs, and although each escaping wish is small and ordinary — for Dad to think before he speaks, for Mum to get out of bed in the mornings, for Adam to serve a mission — the hurt as they trickle away is considerable.”

“Dad stops and she thinks she’s done enough, but he’s too wound up so intent on being right, that he’s forgetting to be kind.”

“Girls need to be careful — you like him; you love him; you let him; you lose him — that’s what happens.”

“He keeps talking but Claire can’t keep up with his words, she can’t catch them, they’re flying past her ears like tiny birds, fluttering to the open door and out into the hospital corridor. He has made Issy’s recovery contingent on her faith and she doesn’t know how she will ever forgive him.”

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (YA / Mystery / Thriller / Romance)

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

I loved this book! Daunis Fontaine is 18 years old, 6 feet tall, an ice hockey ace, and a science whiz. While she grows up in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan with her white mother and grandparents she is also deeply ingrained in the local Ojibwa community of her father. What starts off looking like an upbeat teen romance takes a sharp left turn and becomes mystery, intrigue, and thriller (romance takes a back seat — pun intended). The plot keeps swerving — surprise after surprise after surprise — with Daunis giving us an intelligent and fiercely community oriented view of the ride. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll give you a hint — Daunis ends up being a Confidential Informer (she calls it being a Secret Squirrel) for law enforcement.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way the many characters in the Ojibwa community are portrayed. While references to past injustices are present and individual incidents of prejudice occur (Daunis and her friend like to play Bigotry Bingo — see quote below), they are not front and center. This is a novel of today — various members of the community are successful (by personal definitions of the word) while others are not; some are greedy and conniving while others are supportive and helpful; some have drug and alcohol problems while others have steered clear. In other words, no group stereotypes and no group victimhood. An array of well-drawn individual characters.

Daunis is a great character — I love her scientific approach to life, her fearless and unconcerned approach to typically male endeavors, and her deep involvement with the tribal culture and people. Great themes, great unfolding of the many mysteries past and present, and an absorbing view into a culture unlike my own. Ojibwa is a matriarchal society, and the story includes many strong women characters of all ages. I enjoyed the embedded language and cultural practice tutorials.

A couple of quotes:
“When Lily and I were on Tribal Youth Council, we all played a game called Bigotry Bingo. When we heard a comment that fed into stereotypes, we’d call it out. Dream catchers were the free space. Too easy. There are so many others though. ‘You don’t look Native.’ ‘Must be nice to get free college.’ ‘Can you give me an Indian name for my dog?’ ”

“My mother’s superpower is turning my ordinary worries into monsters so huge and pervasive that her distress and heartache become almost debilitating.”

“When you love someone, but don’t like parts of them, it complicates your memories of them when they’re gone.”

Thank you to Henry Hold & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 2nd, 2021.

Unexpected Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson (Non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5

A compendium of the major advances in life expectancy throughout human history. With an engaging, story-mixed-with-research style, Johnson devotes a chapter to each of the major contributions: Vaccines; Data and Epidemiology; Pasteurization and Chlorination; Regulations and Testing; Antibiotics; Safety Technology and Regulations; and Anti-Famine Interventions. While some of the stories were familiar to me, many of them were brand new. Even those I was familiar with were actually new to me: I hadn’t been aware of quite how devastating the problems were or all the tangled issues that snaked their way through solution adoption on a widespread scale.

The introduction states that the book is “a study in how meaningful change happens in society.” The ongoing theme is that it is the network of people and not just the genius that makes these massive changes possible — the journalists, activists, reformers, and amplifiers. He hammers this point frequently, accusing society of “… condensing a complex network of agents into a single heroic scientist.” And it is interesting in every case — how long it took and how hard people worked to get a solution to a horrific problem actually adopted.

The last chapter focuses on the future — AI drug design; a cure for malaria; syndromic surveillance; animal surveillance to stop virus jumping; and immunotherapies for cancers. There is some discussion of the negative impact on the planet of all these extra bodies but not much. I would have liked at least a little discussion on the need for additional birth control giving the teeming state of the world’s population.

The book makes for easy and engrossing reading. The numbers involved are astonishing, and the stories from discovery to scale to distribution eye opening. More intriguing than most fiction!

Thank you to Riverhead Books 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.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

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

A heartwarming piece of historically accurate fiction. Grace Bennet — 23 — heads to London just in time for Britain to enter the war and the Blitz to begin. Without any kind of reference, she is lucky to get a job at Primrose Hill Books, complete with the requisite curmudgeonly owner, Mr. Evans.

This is the story of Grace’s growth into a stellar human being and unassuming pillar of the community. We share her experiences as a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, her discovery of books and reading, and her ability to find ways to bring some light into people’s lives.

While similar stories have been told before, Martin’s depictions of the British spirit and the way the community comes together in the face of terrible adversity were completely inspiring. I was also, of course, enraptured by her transformation into a bonafide Reader of Books.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 20th, 2021.

The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield (Literary Fiction)

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

A raucous novel about redemption, forgiveness, and tolerance (or lack thereof). Rachel Flood returns to Quinn, Montana (population 956) to make amends (AA — step 9) to the entire town — all of whom (especially her mother) hate her (and with good reason). She befriends the flamboyant 12-year old boy next door, is forced to join the local softball team (The Flood Girls) who are … not the best, and is coerced into tending her mother’s bar — The Dirty Shame.

The novel is full of outlandish characters — the large, scary, and violent Red Mabel who is also a most loyal friend, Black Mabel the local drug dealer, a bar full of lesbian silver miners, an array of religious characters with varying degrees of religiosity and forbearance, the local AA group (composed of older men from Rachel’s past), and the wildly diverse softball team. It’s also full of casual violence, stupidity, and intolerance as well as perseverance, kindness, and endurance. The style reminds me of John Irving’s books, with a little of Tom Wolfe’s “equal opportunity sneering” style mixed in. It is a detailed, engrossing, full picture of a (fictional) town, though definitely painted by an outsider looking in (and possibly reinforcing negative stereotypes of rural areas).

Despite the fact that the characters are probably not people I would befriend in real life, I loved them on the page. Now that the book is over, I miss them.

Thin Ice by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

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

I’m loving this new (to me) mystery series. Thin Ice is book one which I’m reading out of order after enjoying the pre-release of book two (Cold Wind). Beth Rivers has run away to the small (fictional) town of Benedict, Alaska to hide from her still-on-the-loose kidnapper. Growing up with the local police chief (her grandfather), she has a talent for crime scene measurement and an education in deduction. She is also a well-known (by pseudonym) crime novelist. All make her useful in helping solve cases in her new (temporary?) home. The plots of both books blend the solving of a current murder with Beth’s slow memory recall of her harrowing kidnapping experience and the search for the perpetrator.

So what attracts me to this series? I love the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness; I love the lack of filler and just-the-right-level and not over-the-top amount of tension; but mostly I love the characters who populate the town: Viola, the tough-as-nails manager of the halfway house; Orin, the peace-sign flashing librarian and computer genius; Gril, the relocated Chicagoan grizzled police chief; and others. This reminds me of what I originally loved about the Louise Penny novels — characters that I can both admire and like!

The writing is decent — clear, not full of fluff, moves along. I like the straightforward, first person tone — as she is telling the story Beth admits to her ignorance, reflects on how she is handling things and what she needs to do to improve, and what she is thinking when she moves forward with “stupid” decisions.

I haven’t tried her other series but I’ll probably give them a try!

The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (Fiction)

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

A heartwarming story of three lost souls who come together in a small farming community (Hood River, Oregon) to find their place in life — one with purpose and people to care about. Alice Holtzman has worked in the County Planning Office for twenty years but her passion is beekeeping and the dream of one day running her own orchard. Jake Stevenson is eighteen and trapped in a wheelchair after a stupid stunt at a high school party. His proudest achievement? The world’s tallest Mohawk (at 16.5 inches). Other than hair maintenance, however, he is just killing time and soaking in regret. Harry Stokes is a “passenger in his own life” — desperate for a job with a criminal history and a now-condemned trailer as a living space.

I loved the main characters and the manner in which the author describes the way they each find each other and a solid, “feels right” path moving forward. There is a relatively simplistic overlay plot concerning the evil Supragro company that is pushing a toxic pesticide spray that is lethal to bees — and how the community comes together to successfully fight it. The “bad” guys are fairly two-dimensional — stereotypical greedy, powerful, and corrupt men — but I did like the way social media and video was used to expose what was happening. I also very much enjoyed the descriptions of Hood River and rural life.

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

Relish by Lucy Knisly

A fun foodie memoir by gastronome cartoonist Lucy Knisly. The story takes us from a childhood in New York City through her parent’s divorce and a move to upstate New York farm country through art school in Chicago — all the while documenting her experiences which primarily seem to revolve around food! I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I did enjoy this one. It was more experience oriented than insightful (as compared to Mira Jacob’s “Good Talk”, for example). It was cheerful, made me hungry in a good way, and did a good job of distilling a story into captions and art. An example from a trip to Japan taken with her father: “I ate weirdness and drank strange. Like learning to eat all over again.”

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (YA / African Futurism)

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

A coming-of-age story set in a future Northern Ghana. Sankofa is only five when her favorite tree pushes up a strange seed after a meteor shower brought sparkling bits of green to the Earth. Before she has any clue as to what is happening, she has been “gifted” with a terrible power which continues to bring tragedy even as she struggles to control it.

A combination of myth, juju, and technology populate this picture of future Ghana. The “bad guy” is LifeGen — a “big American corporation that’s probably going to eventually destroy the world.” But Sankofa is a child, and we watch as she absorbs information and tries to understand what has happened to her, why, and what she can possibly do with it. This is not your typical, action-oriented, one man against a giant, evil machine.

Okarafor labels her work a combination of “African Futurism” and “African Jujuism” — terms she coined — to reflect its African-centricity. I like her definition: “I am an African futurist and an African jujuist. African futurism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.”

I enjoyed the writing and the characters and the imagery of a blended future — but I did find the plot a little weak.

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 January 19th, 2021.