House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly (Historical Fiction / Mystery)

Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.

In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.

Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.

Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.

No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.

Thank you to Severn House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 5th, 2021.

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

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 February 2nd, 2021.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Soloman (Speculative Fiction)

World building: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Writing: 4/5

This is a decently written speculative fiction novel that “explores structural racism and generation ships.” Aster is a brilliant neuro-divergent female living on the lower decks of the spaceship Matilda — three centuries into a voyage away from a dying planet. The ship is run by a ruthless sovereign and populated with cruel guards who keep the lower levels of the deck system (a mirror of racial lines) in order. While suffering constant persecution, Aster manages to untangle the secrets of her dead mother’s coded journals to discover a massive secret that impacts the lives of everyone on board.

The story was engaging but overall unsatisfying. The tropes of oppression and persecution are well expressed but quite two-dimensional. There was a lot of action, but very few surprises, and the end lacked clarity. I did find the main characters to be an interesting collection of stereotypes: Aster — the brilliant scientist who insistently pursues her goals despite beatings and directed torment; Giselle — the angry black woman who finds herself so enraged she is destructive towards everyone, including those she loves most; Melusine — the caretaker figure who favors stability and caution over outright rebellion; and Theo — the privileged and talented mixed race man who is driven by guilt and a strong desire to do the right thing and yet cannot bring himself to the violence necessitated by the situation.

The story and characters are a real mishmash of “unheard voices.” Plenty of gender noncomformity, intense class and race clashes, and religion-based oppression. Lots of things didn’t quite make sense — a generation ship capable of traveling for centuries would have a large population and yet the same people seem to consistently run into each other, and the sovereign has a particular hatred for a low-born slave. The scientific explanations for plot points were also weak and understated.

Overall, a decent adventure story but an unsatisfying exploration of her themes of oppression because everything was so heavy-handed.

The Survivors by Jane Harper (Mystery)

A small town on the Tasmanian coast. An intense storm 12 years ago that led to two deaths and a disappearance. And now — the inexplicable murder of a young, well-liked, visiting artist that is somehow connected to events of the past. With Harper’s expert pacing and character development, we witness small town life through two lenses: one where everyone seems an irreproachable member of a tight-knit community and the other where each feels like a reasonable suspect. Through a maelstrom of online community postings, we see how the anonymous amplification of suspicions and accusations can bring a community to its knees. As with all Harper’s books, it is just about impossible to put down.

Thank you to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Fiction)

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

This was a hard book to read — not because of the ugly truths it laid bare (that too) but because of the ugly truths the author calls for: black revenge in the form of “Apocalypse sweeps the South. Vengeance visits the North.”

It’s the story of two siblings. Ella has her “Thing” — a deep and growing power that she spends years learning to control: clairvoyance, astral projection, and the ability to destroy with a glance. Her younger brother Kevin was born into violence: he is “Riot Baby” — born just as the Rodney King riots sparked. Kevin’s life is supposed to represent that of a typical black urban youth. We strobe through it: a smart kid doing well in school; a kid taunting cops; a failed armed robbery attempt; 7 years in Rikers waiting for an ever-delayed trial; parole release into a “sponsored community” with a chip in his thumb to keep him both tracked and drugged as necessary (the author extrapolates seamlessly into this future vision of released prisoners). The word “n**ga” is ubiquitous in the dialog as in every single sentence.

Onyebuchi’s writing is phenomenal — he brings the people, culture, and environment to life. He illustrates societal issues via Kevin’s life while Ella serves as the symbol of black anger and black power — the former slowly coming to a boil as she learns how to control it and turn it into the latter.

Reading this book you are immersed in the author’s feeling of what life is like in this environment. And it’s horrible and depressing. He doesn’t hide the fact that individuals are contributing to their own problems: Kevin didn’t have to try to try to rob a bank, he didn’t have to harass the cops when they patrolled, he could have stayed in school and taken advantage of what appeared to have been a good brain. But Onyebuchi appears to lay the blame squarely in White America’s lap calling out (fairly) the police brutality and discriminatory justice system. Like most fiction, the information included is emotionally powerful but also anecdotal. While the studies definitely show the discriminatory patterns, is it really the case that every black urban youth is destined for this future? Is there nothing short of the revolution he calls for that would help? Is every policeman who goes into these neighborhoods an a*hole bent on harassing the residents? Could we not try to do something about the bangers who commit far more murder of black residents than any number of cops? I know these are complicated issues, and I know as a white middle class woman I can’t possibly know what it would be like to be born into this life — but I also know it is the rare revolution (I can only think of one) that doesn’t just cause a lot of murder and destruction and end up in a similar situation with just another set of people with power.

Bottom line — powerful book, worth reading but very disturbing. One pretty dark picture of modern urban black life — I hope in future books Onyebuchi can come up with some positive actions towards improving things rather than revolution and rebirth. Definitely an author to watch — I’ll have to go back and look at his young adult fiction; this is his first adult novel.

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart (Mystery/Historical Fiction)

The second book in the series and (sadly) the last one for me to read. Another exquisitely written mystery fully evoking the rhythms, culture, and political machinations of early 18th century China (1708 to be exact). In this book, our scholar and prior Imperial librarian Li Du, has stopped in a small valley on the way to Lhasa where his caravan discovers the dead body of a monk with a small white mirror painted on his chest. Thus begins a journey into artistry, beautiful descriptions of relationships of all kinds, and Tulkus — reincarnated lineages, the most powerful of which is the Dalai Lama.

I’m going to miss this series and I hope the author’s latest book (which takes place in London in 1703) does not mean that she has given up on Li Du forever!

The Gifted, The Talented, and Me by William Sutcliffe (YA / Humor)

When his dad’s invention takes off and the family suddenly finds themselves rich, 15-year old Sam finds himself in a posh home and enrolled in the North London Academy for Gifted and Talented. His mother (clearly channeling a Northern California wealthy bohemian) encourages him to find his special talent. So begins this laugh-out-loud funny coming-of-age story about an “average” kid who is forced to find a creative side that he really doesn’t want at all.

Great characters and hysterical dialog — especially the internal dialog (trialog?) between his optimistic brain, his pessimistic brain and his … dick. Amidst an array of humorously drawn characters, all subject to equal-opportunity parodying, Sam does figure out what is important in relationships with others and with yourself. A fun, fun ride. Plus … very cool ending.

Thank you to Bloomsbury YA and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley (YA)

A coming-of-age story in small town Pennsylvania with magical realism thrown in the form of crows — thousands and thousands of them.

At 17, Leighton is living two lives: one as a teenager with a best friend, an excellent GPA, and a budding love affair with the handsome, athletic, bi-racial Liam McNamara. The other life is at home trying to protect her mother and sisters from domestic abuse — the kind of simmering, mostly hidden abuse that is so easy for everyone outside to ignore.

The writing is excellent, and the author offers a nuanced and in-depth treatment of a difficult subject. The dialog — both with others and within Leighton’s head — is full of insight. The denouement is artfully done — as the crows, her family, and the citizens are captured in Leighton’s prize-winning essay for the town’s “Auburn Born, Auburn Proud” contest.

I like that the book does not dwell on victimhood, and while the father’s behavior is explained, it is never excused. I also liked the wide variety of male and female characters — none are stereotypes. And lastly, I loved the sweetness and the intentional overcoming of her family’s emotional patterns that defines the relationship between Leighton and Liam.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

Homegoing is a collection of vignettes following two half-sisters in Fanteland (Ghana) — each unaware of the other’s existence — and their descendants through seven generations. One is captured and sold into slavery; the other is sold off to the white Governor of the Cape Coast Castle and serves as his “wench” or native wife. The writing is excellent and the structure — while often confusing — does an impressive and subtle job of weaving together the cross-generational stories. Each story captures the essence or main turning point of one person’s life, but the closure on that life isn’t delivered until the next generation’s story where the impact of the generations before is felt and details recalled.

The family tree in the front pages is essential — if you’re reading an ebook, find the tree online, print it, and refer to it often. Because Gyasi alternates between the descendants of the two half-sisters, generation by generation, it is sometimes difficult to hold to the previous story of one line by the time you get to the next. Similarly, it can be difficult to know what time period you’ve come to — some stories mention a date, others mention an event whose date can be retrieved, others involve more math (it had been 16 years since my mother died).

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is well-written, the characters full of depth, the individual stories emotionally gripping. However, it reads like one long compendium of tragedy. Every storied individual — on each side of the sisterly divide — suffers the atrocities of that generation: from abduction to the slave ships to the hopelessness and cruelty of slavery and the futility of escape attempts. Later generations on the American side suffer from the Fugitive Slave Act, broken families, drug addiction, the loss of family who can pass for white. The African side suffers as well from the impacts of colonization, “well-meaning” missionaries, internecine struggles, and the guilt of their own role in slavery. It is a relentless history lesson which highlights only the troubles and oppression and little of the gains or joys. While it is at times heavy handed, it does not descend into emotional manipulation for which I was grateful.

Definitely worth reading, but keep in mind the larger context — humans of every race and ethnicity have done abhorrent things to each other since the dawn of time — as a species I like to think that we are continually working to tame ourselves and make things better for everyone, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like. While none of the white people mentioned in the book were particularly “good,” she did a good job of not casting blame on whole groups of people for what takes place in these pages.