The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith (literary fiction)

Another nice installment of the 44 Scotland Street series — number 13. I enjoy every one of the books in McCall Smith’s series — I look forward to them as a treat.  McCall Smith is the master of exquisite usage of an enormous vocabulary. His writing is precise and insightful, and he wields his vocabulary in such a way as to make the nuance between words of similar meaning obvious.

His characters opine on subjects of private and public matters, and some of his “rants” are masterfully done. The paragraph on reading the news of the world on page 195 was worth the whole price of the book. I also loved his short treatise on “hold music” including this: “…although extensive research has revealed that the Flower Duet from Lakme is not only capable of soothing callers through delays of up to twenty minutes, but also has remarkable qualities in combating airsickness. That piece of music, purloined by British Airways as its theme tune, is suggestive of the soaring of both the human spirit and of aircraft — a happy coincidence for the airline with which it is identified.”

The Editor by Steven Rowley (Literary Fiction)

An incredibly touching novel about motherhood, life, and forgiveness. Masterfully crafted, the plot weaves together author James Smale’s effort to publish his first novel and his own personal growth through the process. The surprise yoda-like catalyst for this — wait for it — is his editor: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I admit to fearing the book would be a fictionalized history of Jackie and her glamorous life; however it was anything but. This book celebrates Jackie’s work as an editor, and while James is the main character, Jackie provides the stimulus, advice, and motivation to make his work great.

As The Editor winds through the editing process of James’ Ithaka — a loosely fictionalized story about James and his mother — the interplay between author and editor, fiction and life is brilliantly done. With clear, concise, and humorous writing, carefully crafted sentences, and excellent, in-depth characters, it was a real pleasure to read.

As an interesting aside in these virus-infested times — while we don’t get treated to any excerpts from Ithaka, we do know that the action occurs during a 40-day quarantine (!) that forces mother and son to confront all of their issues. So perhaps we can look forward to some valuable personal and relationship insights from our own shelter-in-place experiences 🙂

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam 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.

One Fatal Flaw by Anne Perry (Mystery)

Like many people, I’m sticking to light and entertaining books these days.  Although I’m not posting a review of it (because I’ve already read it 4 times and multiple reviews is CHEATING) my favorite go-to destresser book is Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins.  Just in case you need it!

And now for this latest mystery from Anne Perry…

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The third book of Perry’s new series starring twenty five year-old Daniel Pitt (Inspector Thomas Pitt’s now grown son pursuing a legal profession). It’s the first of this series that I have read — decent, twisted, plot; some good characters including Daniel himself and and 40-year old Miriam fforde Croft — a talented scientist who has been denied entrance to an all-male profession. The plot of this novel hinges on the expert testimony of a most unpleasant man who argues that a cracked skull is the result of a fire’s high heat and not a bludgeoning. Strong themes of the importance of justice and proof, and the lengths to which some will go to maintain their (unearned) high reputation.

I liked the themes and the characters — I found the whole thing a little repetitive but overall entertaining.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Non-fiction)

A fascinating (but somewhat uneven) book that looks at the way the needs of half of the world’s population (women) are ignored in the design of almost every system and object on the planet. From transportation systems, to medicine, to the sizes of tools, cars, and piano keyboards, Perez points out the insidious way that women’s needs aren’t considered unless they perfectly align with men’s. She divides the book into three themes: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. It’s a mixed bag — a huge pile of information (with references) — some of which is deeply insightful, some politically motivated, and some really about the needs of groups which may be predominantly women but are not necessarily problems of women because they are women.

The best parts (for me) focused on the (ignored) biological differences in the female body. Examples include different heart attack signs, incorrect medication dosages, and pacemaker thresholds. What amazed me was that some studies have shown different medication efficacy at different stages of the menstrual cycle — and yet no pharmaceutical trials ever even consider that. Why? As one researcher said — it’s just too hard! Other aspects of the “female body” theme are a little less cut and dried. Many, many, things from tools, to voice recognition systems, to pianos, to car seats, to the temperature in offices are designed for “the average man.” I always have trouble with averages because that means that many men — who are not average size — will also have trouble with these things depending on the shape of the curve and the spread in sizes. Still — I found all of these stories to be fascinating and primarily things I had never considered. I had some issues with the other two themes — the assumptions and calculations didn’t always make sense to me — though they did give me something to think about.

Overall this is a really fascinating collection of data (or lack of data) about how the world that we live in considers women to be the “exception to the norm.” While I found that some of the examples strain the point — really belonging to other groups, many of whom happen to be women; calculations of economic productivity that leave out factors not supporting her conclusion; items based on averages that are not working for non-average men as well as women, etc — there are an equal number of truly fascinating studies and examples that completely shifted the way I thought about things.

Recommended, but keep your own thinking cap on before blindly accepting all of her conclusions….

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.

I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Character: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A fun new offering from the author of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. LA lawyer and single mom Jessica and her 16-year old total-teenager Emily tour East Coast colleges. Along the way they connect with old friends, colleagues, and a personality-ridden tour group. Plenty of great banter (both live and text based), likable characters, and some quite decent insight. Amidst the lightness are serious themes around getting into college: pressure, competition, how far parents are willing to go to give their offspring a boost. There is a lot of focus on how to know what the “right thing” is and how to make sure you are doing it. Nicely drawn relationships — mostly female but without (too much) male bashing.

I put this in the category of “hanging out with friends” books — meaning that while I’m reading it, that’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing. While some of the events towards the end veered off the credible scale, they really didn’t affect the main themes or take up too many pages so I found them easy to forgive.

Just a couple of fun quotes:

“I know a lot about philosophy, and people say it’s a pointless subject, but I swear I see human thought changing in front of my eyes every day. In the two decades I’ve been teaching, opinions and attitudes have evolved and altered and swung back and forth, and I have a ringside seat.”

“It’s not a constant interview which is what seems to happen when two adults get together. What do you do for a living? where did you go to school? What does your wife do?” She looked out the window. “You guys are weird, you don’t know how to communicate, you’re too busy stratifying.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 16th, 2020.

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

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

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

The story of a lifelong friendship between two women who first meet at Lovegood College in 1958. Feron comes from a terrible, dark, background and has trouble connecting with people in any meaningful way; complacent and composed, Merry comes from a happy background and yet suffers a tragedy that forces her to withdraw from school after only one semester. Both develop literary interests and talents which feature in the story.

It’s an odd (to me) friendship and an odder narrative. After bonding immediately as freshman roommates, their next contact isn’t for ten years and remains sporadic after that. The narrative plays off this strange relationship by leaping from contact to contact and filling in the (event rich) intervening years via memories and asides. Thus whole marriages are relegated to a sad memory summarized in a couple of lines.

In some ways the book is written well — the language is good, the characters interesting, the dialog decent. However, it was difficult to get invested in the characters and this central relationship when there was so little to it. The author does convey the closeness each feels to the other, in spite of the fact that neither seems to make much effort to connect more often. It’s possible that these are just not people or modes of interaction that would work for me — I didn’t particularly like either of the main characters. I could not manage to find empathy for Feron, despite knowing her background and being privy to her inner thoughts. Merry was less well developed and while likable, she was far too passive for my taste. I feel like a real friendship would have brought out more in the other — the fact that these two felt close, despite rarely seeing or talking to each other, wasn’t much of a story.

While there was a lot in the book I liked — the (very different) literary aspirations, motivations, and processes for the two; the full depictions of Merry’s tobacco farm, Feron’s New York City life, Lovegood college, and the other characters — overall I found it rather depressing. Nobody in the book has a particularly happy life, and while the tone is not overly dramatic (the action is removed since it’s all in history), I felt dragged into an emotional pall. While each character seemed to have found some happiness or sense of accomplishment in their life, we don’t get to experience that directly. Overall I found the book mildly interesting from an intellectual perspective and mildly depressing from the emotional.