A World of Curiosities by Louis Penny (Literary Mystery)

Number 18 in the extremely (and understandably) popular Inspector Gamache from Louise Penny. An absolute page turner; I read it in just a couple of sittings (was preparing to host a party — had to take some breaks to cook and clean!).

In addition to the actual who-done-it or who-is-about-to-do-it plot line, I found it full of scenarios that triggered thought about when to trust your instincts and how even well-trained professionals can be subject to bias and manipulation. Also — despite Gamache’s overwhelming kindness and ability to see potential in people who have been tossed aside by the rest of humanity — the book appears to admit to some people being beyond redemption, broken to the point of no return, even hinting at some genetic predisposition to “badness.”

As always, the book is full of interesting arcana — literary references, historical notes, and art commentary, including a full description of an enormous (and unfortunately fictional as I would love to see it) painting called “A World of Curiosities.”

I can definitely pick a few holes of the “why wouldn’t he have thought of that” variety, but why bother? Completely gripping.

Poster Girl by Veronica Roth (Speculative Fiction)

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

This concise description of the plot comes from Goodreads: Poster Girl is an adult dystopian and mystery novel about the imprisoned former face of a strict government regime and the task she’s given to buy her freedom. I’ll add to this that I don’t really think it is any more dystopian than our modern life is today and I wouldn’t call it a typical mystery per se, but the plot summary is accurate if not inspiring. Just read the book — it’s good!

Roth seems to have been born a skilled writer — she penned her first novel (Divergent) at 22 over her senior year winter break and in addition to be a runaway best seller, it was actually good (I read it)! Poster Girl is — as expected — completely gripping from start to finish. No tangents, no filler, perfectly structured plot. What I really liked was the major shift in the reader’s understanding of the situation that paralleled the (equally major) shift in the main character’s understanding. And in this particular case, that shift brings up an essential (to me) issue: at what point in someone’s life do they reach an understanding of their own sense of morality? And when should they be held accountable for that? We all go through a kind of conditioning (or brainwashing) when we are young — it’s called being raised and your parents, schools, and community all take part. What does it take to question and possibly overcome your conditioning? Why is it easier for some people than others?

A fast, engaging read with plenty of thought provocation and no long battle or chase scenes (those are so tedious!)

The Archivists by Daphne Kalotay (Short Stories)

A collection of stories taking place in Charlottesville, Virginia, spanning a wide array of people who all seem to be somewhat lost in their own lives (as anyone who spends time thinking about larger issues often will be). Some good reflections on self with respect to those larger issues. My favorite story was the eponymous The Archivists which introduced the concept of possible epigenetic manifestations throughout generations from an initial extreme trauma (in this case the Holocaust). One phrase really stuck with me: heart-scalded — meaning “an anguished, active, grief.” Not just grief at the loss, but “the ongoing torment of her regret.”

I admit I found many of the stories mildly depressing, though all were thoughtful and piqued my interest in some way. One made me laugh while simultaneously despair: Guide to Lesser Divinities — wherein an adjunct professor of English lectures her class on the subtle difference between similar meaning words:

“To deny the accuracy of one versus the other, I explained, was a first step toward moral corrosion. I told them how the degradation of language set the stage for ethical misjudgment, that our careful parsing of word choice and allusion were skills to combat despots and charlatans. That the semicolons they so blithely misused might be the last feeble shims propping up our teetering republic.”

And later in the same story: “To be imprecise is moral laziness. Not idleness. Not sloth. Moral laziness. It’s a matter of morality because to knowingly misuse a word is a way of lying. And deception is, of course, immoral.”

I’m not a big short story person, but I like Kalotay’s writing and each of the stories did provide insight into experiences outside of my own.

Thank you to Northwestern University Press, TriQuarterly and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 15th, 2023

The Trackers by Charles Frazier (Literary Historical Fiction)

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

Works Progress Administration (WPA) painter, Val Welch, heads West for an enviable New Deal commission in small town Dawes, Wyoming. His remit: to paint a mural in the town Post Office that represents the region. His chosen topic: “The Energy of America or the natural and human history of this place.” He is offered free lodgings at the ranch of the wealthy John Long and his wife, Eve, a former honky tonk singer with her own troubled past. Faro, a rather iconic tough cowboy (and complete horse whisperer) is one of those mysterious characters who draws you in against your conscious inclination.

When Eve runs off, Val takes a break from painting to moonlight as a tracker, criss-crossing the Depression riddled country in search of her. It’s a rich narrative, teeming with individual stories and told from a young (and somewhat embittered) painter’s eye. His search takes him from Wyoming to Seattle to San Francisco to Florida — each location suffering from the Depression in its own Hellish way. Each character — from the four leads to the many supporting — is both an individual and an obvious product of his or her history in these troubled times. We are treated to Val’s narrative commentary on the way, ranging from his own hopes and desires to his surprises to his inner rantings on subjects of government, greed, and some (previously unknown to me) dispiriting Supreme Court Decisions.

The deep dives (scattered throughout the story) on how the mural was conceived and executed were engrossing. It was to be done in “roughly the ancient way” and I enjoyed learning about how to make, tint, and use tempera paint, build scaffolding, and simply look at the world in a different (artistic) way.


The story is bold, expansive, and yet also intricately detailed. Excellent writing — see some of my favorite quotes below. I liked the balance between action and introspection, and I loved the description of the physical surroundings integrated with internal landscape of Val’s thoughts.

Highly recommended.

Some great quotes:
“Looking now, the missing element — and it was down in a deep crater — was the violence of the West. Not so much the physical geography, but the violence inherent in the concept of the West, the politically and culturally and religiously ordained rapacity smearing blood all over the fresh beauty.”

“Traveling the country, town by town, I felt a heady drift of grief and sometimes a breakthrough of optimism from the long Depression.”

“So the mural’s main argument, however it was shaped, was that this particular place held importance and was not forgotten after all.”

“The look seemed inhuman until I realized that just because I might never have felt or thought whatever passed through Faro’s mind and body in that flicker of time did not mean it wasn’t human.”

“Which struck me, a childless man with the first number in his age still two, as a better position on childrearing if you meant it metaphorically and if the floor wasn’t rock-hard hexagonal tile laid over a slab of concrete.”

“The higher the elevation, the more I felt like I was being rendered transparent by X-rays or gamma rays or whatever.”

“After all, the ultimate expression of Capitalism is not democracy. It’s a dictatorship not of individual men but of corporations with interchangeable leaders. I wasn’t sure if the Depression was straining the structural limits of our Constitution or simply revealing that its fundamental idea were faulty.”

“After Florida — a state equivalent to a hotel towel from somebody else’s bath flung sopping across your face — Wyoming felt clean and brittle, the light fragile as a flake of mica, the high air rare enough to be measured in the lungs and appreciated in its thinness, it’s lack of substance.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023

In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5
A small and definitely diverse family (consisting as it does of three robots and a small human) lives happily in a dense forrest finding discarded electronic treasures in the local (and wildly gigantic) scrap heap and refurbishing them. Two successful refurbishments are now part of the family: Rambo — the ultra-loquacious, ultra-needy, and anxiety plagued vacuum robot; and the truly twisted and psychopathic Nurse Ratched (Registered Automaton To Care, Heal, Educate and Drill) — possessed of a dry wit and an “Empathy Protocol” she engages to hysterical effect.

When they find a damaged (and very handsome) robot in the scrap and manage to bring him back to “life,” it unleashes the force of the Robot Authority — the same group that wiped out all humans because they were busily destroying each other and the Earth. A rescue mission into the City of Electric Dreams with the “help” of a wild cast of characters along the way and a gay, interspecies romance (if you count advanced robots as a species) round out the tale.

I liked the characters and the humor — laughed out loud many times. I really liked the ongoing philosophical discussions and thoughts — plenty of existential considerations and an exploration of what it means to human, sentient, and / or conscious. Guilt, forgiveness, grief, and joy and what it means to experience those emotions. A scrutiny of Morality in a wide gamut of situations. And lastly, what does it means for a species to evolve? I also loved the well-integrated cultural references, especially to one of my all time favorite movies (Top Hat — yes!). The adventure sequences went on a bit too long for my taste, though I admit they included some pretty creative beings and mechanisms and I’m not really into ANY adventure sequences, so …

Thank you to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 25th, 2023

A Most Intriguing Lady by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
Not at all my typical read but I confess I did find it entertaining. A “Novel of the Victorian era,” it reads like a (much) steamier Jane Austen style novel (and yes, I know that Austen was Georgian period, not Victorian, but it still has lifestyle similarities in my mind). In Ferguson’s novel, there is a stronger (and more interesting) theme of well-born women wanting more from their life than obedience to husband, mother to children, and gardening. They want to be useful. At least our heroine, Lady Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, daughter of Queen Victoria’s good friends, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, wants that and wants it very much indeed. Intelligent and determined, she becomes a kind of (unpaid) lady detective, focussing on issues that call for a knowledge of society and utter discretion. There is also a non-traditional romance fluttering through the pages as Lady Mary struggles to integrate her strong attraction (both physical and mental) to a Darcy-style Colonel Trefusis with her desires to have a full life that does not involve subservience to another being.

Most of the characters in the novel were real people and the authors (in small print it does say “with Marguerite Kaye”) go into the historical detail about their real lives as well as the history of women detectives which I found quite interesting. One expects that by her rank and previous membership in the Royal Family, Ferguson has a kind of “in” when it comes to the kind of house parties, hunts, and what not that populate a novel of this sort. I can’t verify any of it but I enjoyed reading it and am now extra thankful that a) I live in an era where being a woman did not limit me in any way and b) that I do not ever have to attend any of what appears to be the most tedious gatherings on Earth!

I enjoyed the more modern take on an historic period. While the time period is not necessarily known (to me) for women empowerment or feminist leanings, Lady Mary’s feelings and worries did not feel at all anachronistic, and I could readily identify with her. I liked the balance between the description of time and place, the types of mysteries, the romance, and Lady Mary’s inner thoughts and motivations. Again, not my typical book but I did quite enjoy it!

Thank you to Avon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 7th, 2023

The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
Margaret Small is not your typical protagonist. Seven year-old Margaret was “Vanished” (her words) in 1947 — left at St. Mary’s Hospital in Canterbury by her grandmother who never saw her again. St. Mary’s was an institution for people who were unwanted — those with disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, polio, or “moral imbecility.” Though we never get a stated diagnosis for Margaret, she appears to have been “slow” or “simple minded.” When we meet her in 2015 at the age of 75, she is (still) unable to read or write.

In a dual timeline, the 75-year old Margaret recalls her past in a set of chunks: the sudden drop off at seven — scared, and confused; a confusing sexual experience when she is 22; sudden (scary) freedom at 32 when she is told she can leave the hospital and live in a small group home with the help of a Social worker / carer. As her social worker helps her come to terms with her life, he draws an analogy between people with disabilities and people who are gay 50 years before when that was illegal. There are several long lectures about how people with disabilities were seen as having illnesses (like being gay) and how they were put away for that reason.

While the end is ultimately uplifting, I found the (longish) story somewhat depressing and a little simplistic in terms of how her life could have easily been much better. The story did highlight how people were shunted to these institutions with no hope of “release” and no effort made to help them overcome whatever difficulties they had. While the story is not new to me, it was particularly upsetting to lump in people who literally could not care for themselves (severe mental retardation or extreme physical disabilities) with people who simply did not confirm to social norms at the time (usually due to some kind of sexual preference or action that upset someone else).

Thank you to Embla Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 16th, 2022

The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Elinor White has been trained to be a predator rather than prey which served her well during WWI when her home in Brussels was occupied by Nazis. It also served her well during WWII as she worked to protect her adopted country (England). But exercising those skills left their mark, and she finds herself torn between protecting those who can’t protect themselves and letting go of the violence that continues to haunt her.

A standalone (or possible new series beginning?) from the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, this book is kind of a mix between an historical novel and a mystery, with an emphasis on the former. It had a bit of a slow start but I was drawn in and found myself caring very much about the characters. I’m a big Winspear / Maisie Dobbs fan. I wouldn’t mind finding out more about Elinor White if this turns into a series…

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 21st, 2023

Holmes Coming by Kenneth Johnson (Audio book)

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

Pretty entertaining audio book with a fantastic radio-style cast of readers (including the author) who make it a very entertaining background for driving or long, solo walks. Part speculative fiction, part crime novel, and part literary novel, the premise is that Hubert Holmes (the real man behind Sherlock) put himself into a cryogenic hibernation and woke up a few years early in 2022 in a Marin based manor home maintained faithfully through the years by successive generations of Hudsons. With the help of Dr. Winslow (a female pediatrician who happened to be visiting the house when Holmes “woke up”), Holmes discovers not only a fresh but a world with decidedly different moral tenets, attitudes towards women, and delightful sources of data (think — Internet).

Nicely convoluted plot, some very good characters, fantastic readers (loved all of the accents), and some fun and thought tweaking contrasts between the world of 1899 and 2022 as seen through the eyes of someone who “popped” quickly from one to the other. Personally, I had a little trouble with the superior attitude of Dr. Winslow who continually pointed out Holmes’ inferior empathy / emotional engagement attributes (but oddly enough I had no problems with his superior attitude towards … everything else. Go figure!). She was actually my least favorite character but perhaps that says more about me than the book. I happen to love know-it-alls (men or women) who actually do know-it-all and don’t always like others putting them in their place for not “playing well with others.” As I said … more about me than the book!

The Bohemians by Jazmin Darznik (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
This is ostensibly a fictionalized history of Dorothea Lange — world renowned photographer known for her Depression era work (see photo below). It primarily focuses on her early years in San Francisco from from her penniless arrival in 1918 through to her success as a photographer. It incorporates much of the interesting cultural history of the time — immigration policies and fears, polio, the 1918 flu, the aftermath and impact of the San Francisco earthquake, Orientalist fever, human trafficking, the Mission home for girls, and the group of Bohemian artists living inexpensively in the Monkey Block (an iconic SF building on Montgomery). Except for Lange’s feelings during the events in the story, everything described is documented history (and vividly portrayed).

The real story in the book has only a tenuous link to reality. It is the colorful fiction built around Lange’s Chinese assistant known in history as “Ah Yee” or “the Chinese Girl.” Nothing but these thin labels has been documented, but in Darznik’s book, Caroline Lee (the real name of Ah Yee) is fully fleshed out in a way that takes an historical footnote and blossoms it into a full, vibrant, and essential human being. Lee’s backstory, her talent for fashion and design, and the intolerance she faces (from minimal snubs to outright violence) is the real story here. Oddly enough, the elements of Lange’s story — her volatile marriage to artist Maynard Dixon, the photographic topics she eventually took on, and her backstory (replete with childhood difficulties such as polio) is nowhere near as fleshed out as the story of her relationship with Caroline Lee, allowing the book to make a larger social justice statement.

Excellent descriptions of San Francisco as it was — both physically and culturally — with plenty of small details to remind us of elemental differences (such as having to take the ferry to Oakland because there was no bridge!). Solid Historical Fiction.