Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (Women’s Fiction)

A feel-good, heartwarming, story about the unlikely relationship between a woman whose husband died just as she was (literally) leaving him and a star Yankee pitcher who “loses his stuff” in a spectacularly public way.

Well-written with great banter, an array of likable characters, and plenty of humor. The premise is plausible enough and I enjoyed the social commentary and details of every day life in this small town on the mid-Coast of Maine. There is a lot more depth to the characters than is usual for a women’s fiction offering of this sort.

The author is the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast — I haven’t heard of this (I’m not a big podcast person), but I like the title, and I can guess that this explains a lot about the great character interactions!) Interesting to note that in two of the primary families, it is the mother that left, leaving the father to raise the children alone. I’m noticing a trend of this kind of gender role swapping which is always interesting!

One small annoyance for me personally — a (pretty humorous) diatribe on the part of one character about a woman who was destroying their book club because she wanted people to actually read the books and didn’t accept that book clubs were just for socializing. I am that woman, and I stand by my demands!!

Great for fans of Kristan Higgins.

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 June 25th, 2019.

Terminal by Marshall Karp (Police Procedural)

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

There are some book series that you keep reading simply because you have already invested so much time in them you just feel you have to keep going — this is NOT one of those series. Every single one of Marshall Karp’s Lomax & Biggs mysteries fall in the standalone, great entertainment category. Half-comedy (laugh-out-louds on every page), half-mystery (complete curve balls every couple of chapters), and half-character driven novel (yes, I’m aware my math skills look sketchy here but just go with it), these are my go-to “let me have an entertaining and engaging read” books.

Opening with an hysterical scene where Mike Lomax dressed (sort of) in a hospital gown gaping open at the back while he chases a shooter in a medical complex, this fifth installment of Lomax & Biggs tackles Big Pharma. Someone is recruiting terminally ill patients to knock off specific Big Pharma execs as their final act and it’s up to Lomax & Biggs to figure out the why.

In addition to the regular cast of wise-cracking characters (all of whom I’d be happy to have in my life), we have a couple of new additions. My favorite: Eli Hand, recovering rabbi who chose the medical field least likely to have complaining patients (pathology) — after his experience at the synagogue he referred to as “Temple Beth Oy, Do I Have a Problem.” I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

You can start this series anywhere, but I’d start with number one — The Rabbit Factory.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (Crime / Mystery)

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

An unusual crime drama — Atkinson’s fifth about Jackson Brodie, former policeman and soldier turned Private Investigator in Yorkshire. Brodie has your typical gruff exterior, and his personal life is in a perpetual, confusing, shambles, but he is a self-appointed White Knight. He has an eye for the predators in the world (and his world is full of them), and he feels a responsibility to potential victims everywhere. He will not rest — paid or not — until he is sure that everyone is safe.

The story is dark — as are all of Atkinson’s stories. This one revolves around human trafficking in myriad forms. The style is interesting — while Jackson is a familiar (to us) character, he is not the center of a single investigation. Instead, he is a player in a tangled web that includes various past and present strands of a set of ongoing and horrific crimes that eventually come together and are resolved (in a very satisfying way). While not in any sense a cozy, neither is it a nail-biter (important to me as I don’t like to purposely stress myself). The writing style is interesting. It appears muddy — with constant tangents and sardonic asides — but really is just a true-to-life depiction of the way people think. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective (all third person omniscient) so we are treated to an inside, tangled, look at what they are thinking, obsessing over, worrying about, hoping for, leering at, and feeling guilty about, simultaneous with what is actually happening in the scene. We get real insight to so many of the characters in this fashion. Oddly enough, my favorite character is Crystal, the clean eating, “trophy wife” of a husband she really doesn’t know that well, with a hefty (secret) past of her own.

Lots of plot lines that tie together (perhaps a little too neatly) at the end. What appears chaotic and confusing at the beginning comes together in just the way it would if you were dropped in to the story with an apparently small job on the periphery (as Jackson himself was). It did feel like the rapid closure of the many wiggling parts was a tad too hasty. This was an early access copy so perhaps that will be evened out before publication.

Thank you to Little, brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 25th, 2019.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

I loved this book — far more than I expected to. It’s an intimate story about the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of an Indian-American, Muslim family living in Northern California. It opens at the wedding of the eldest daughter to a man she has picked for herself. In attendance, her brother is clearly estranged from the family. From there the narrative is subsumed by a sea of unordered memory snapshots that help establish how the family arrived at this place. I liked the collection of non-linear memories — far from being confusing, it felt the way memories of life always feel — holistic and relevant to the current thought or moment.

The prose is beautiful and the self awareness of the characters and relationships between them are complex, subtle, and both well observed and absorbing. While I’m not religious and generally don’t enjoy reading religious novels (and really have very little exposure to the Muslim religion in particular), I found the descriptions of the role of Islam in each of their lives to be pure poetry. I appreciated the thoughtful descriptions of the different characters’ choices with respect to their religion — what restrictions they perceived, what remained important to them, and how their choices changed the relationships they had with each other and the community. The multi-perspective insights were incredibly valuable to me.

The deep connection I felt to the characters and the poignancy of their thoughts and actions brought me to tears several times. The novel was an honest portrait of an actual family — it’s rare that a set of characters feels this real to me. If this continues to be the quality of book from SJP for Hogarth (this is the first book from that imprint), I will be a huge and loyal fan 🙂

One note: For some reason, the opening pages of this book just didn’t do it for me. I kept starting it and putting it back down. There was nothing wrong or poorly done with the opening, it simply didn’t grab my interest. If you have the same initial reaction, please keep reading! It doesn’t take long before you’ll be swept in.

Some great quotes:

“It was a strange time in their lives: the children like paper boats they were releasing into the water and watching float away.”

“Asfoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret — not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been a different way.”

“It was an absurd expectation placed on women: that they agree to marriage without appearing as though they wanted it. That they at least display innocence.”

“Loving Amira was not just loving a young woman. It was loving a whole world. She was of the same world he had been born into but had only ever felt himself outside of, and sitting by her was the closest he came to feeling harmony with his own home.”

“Right and wrong, halal and haram — it was her father’s only way of experiencing the world.”

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction)

I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’m a fiction reader and get easily bored (or horrified) by drawn out descriptions of battles, strategies, and political maneuvers. This book was fantastic because it focused on the “why.” The eponymous war (World War I) is literally the epilogue of this book. The first 600+ pages is on what happened in the 30+ years before that made the war possible … though not inevitable.

That is what really fascinated me about the story. MacMillan brings out the details of the individuals involved, the context of the time, the recent events, and the crises averted, to show that so many small things — had they gone just a little differently — might have averted the war that cost 8.5 million lives, with 8 million others missing, and 21 million wounded. Her style is ideal — every detail relevant, a cohesive structure that brings elements to light at the right time and a narrative style that brings the details together to make a coherent story. And no rambling! I don’t know why, but so many non-fiction writers seem to ramble endlessly!

In many places, the book read like a giant game of Risk. Large empires — some new (e.g. Germany had just unified in 1871), some dying (e.g. the Ottoman empire), some struggling to maintain the status quo (e.g. Austria Hungary) — each vying for status in the International community (largely by bickering over colonies and building up impressive militaries) while simultaneously dealing with internal strife in the form of nationalist movements from conquered peoples and new socialist / workers parties demanding rights. Philosophically, social Darwinism concepts had been introduced. Conrad, Austria Hungary’s chief of staff had the core belief (as did many others) that “existence was about struggle and that nations rose and fell depending on their ability to adapt.” MacMillan presents in-depth and well-documented character studies of all the players from the volatile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II, to his cousins, Britain’s Edward VII and the weak and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra — “a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge”) to the spartan Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary as well as a panoply of prime ministers, ambassadors, military personnel and socialist leaders.

But my favorite line of all: “Finally…we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddles, or simply poor timing.”

As I read I kept having what I call my Gone With the Wind moments — I knew what was going to happen but I somehow kept hoping it would work out differently. With only verified quotes and actual events as material, MacMillan manages to convey the absolute desperation of many as the world drew closer and closer to war and the slow unraveling of the Concert of Europe. The description of this was chilling — rail and telegraph lines were cut, bank reserves were frozen, currency exchange stopped, trade stopped. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” (attributed to Sir Edward Grey, Britain Foreign Secretary in 1914). Although written in 2013 (pre-Trump), she often draws unnerving parallels between the situations in 1914 and those of our current time.

Some advice for reading — if you’re like me and find 600 pages of dense history overwhelming and off putting — read one chapter at a time and take as long as you like. The contents are so memorable that you can pick it up days later and not have forgotten a thing.

Blue Hours by Daphne Kalotay (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 3

How far would you go for a friend? Successful author Mim Woodruff faces this question when a call reveals that a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan has gone missing. Once an intensely close friend, Mim has not spoken to Kyra in twenty years.

The novel is composed of two major parts: the first takes place in Manhattan twenty years before the phone call. Mim and Kyra, fresh out of school, finding their way in the world. Kyra stylish, pushing away the wealth that is her birthright, and possessed of a deep, almost painful, awareness of the distress around her; Mim, dreaming of being a writer but instead folding sweaters at Benetton, observing the world around her but always at a remove. A youthful but intense love affair, a shattering experience, and an almost surgical split lays the foundation for events twenty years later.

Part two follows the journey Mim takes into ever-more remote Afghanistan in the search for the missing Kyra. Beautiful descriptions of the physical environment and the people. Well-researched portrayals of the organization of and interplay between the various factions, the military, the aid organizations, and those in remote villages. Stunning portraits of the individuals involved and those they avoid, warily approach, or engage.

The story feels real — messy, inescapable, and somewhat hopeless — and yet giving up really can’t be an option. The tone is emotionally removed, like our central character. While I found the detail and depth of the story engaging, I did not resonate with the characters at all — in fact I really didn’t like Mim very much. As an author describing her observations from an objective viewpoint, she works; As an individual going through deeply personal experiences, not so much. Possibly this says more about me than her!

Thank you to Northwestern University Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 15th, 2019.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Fiction / YA)

This is an unusual book for me — I couldn’t put it down, became completely involved with the characters, and yet I’m having a very hard time describing it. The “plot” doesn’t half cover what the reading experience is actually like.

It’s about the Dunbar boys — the five sons of Michael and Penny Dunbar. As the novel opens, they are living alone in chaos — their mother having died and their father having absconded shortly thereafter. Written in the first-person by the oldest son, Matthew, they are self described as “a family of ramshackle tragedy.” The primary timeline follows the events of eleven years before, when Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay, and Tommy were 20, 18, 17, 16 and 13 respectively.

The center of the story is the fourth boy — Clay. Clay is a wonderful character — sweet and caring, deep and loving, vulnerable yet strong, and almost completely internal — he doesn’t say much and rarely laughs.  He’s also amazingly fast.  Clay is the holder of all the family’s stories — the real stories — and while the book moves forward linearly through the events of that time, narrative streams from the present and past are woven throughout, with these stories — and secrets — slowly exposed. The writing is thoroughly engaging. The language is poetic — not in the sense of beautiful language for its own sake, but in the sense of distilling experience and emotion into a single phrase that evokes more than straight words can convey. While I would never say it was a happy book, neither was it depressing, though I did find myself wanting to leap into the story to help.

I was surprised to find this categorized as YA — it reads very well as adult fiction. I love the fact that it is unashamedly focused on boys — how they love, how they cope, how they grow, and how they survive. I tend to read female authors (not intentionally but it works out that way) and I find the descriptions of this family different from what I usually read. Obviously, not all men (or all women) are the same, but I did feel a different perspective emerging from these pages. There is a lot of fighting, roughhousing, work intensity and focus, and physical extremism. Much behavior is explained with “just knew” or “had to be that way” without the associated exploration and understanding of “why.” Each of the five boys (and their father) have distinct personalities, but their very maleness pervades the narrative and is both unfamiliar and appealing to me.

This book is not like any other I’ve read, but aspects of it did remind me of John Irving and the setting evoked the feel of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders.