The Cliff’s Edge by Charles Todd (Historical Mystery)

Number 13 in the Bess Crawford series. Bess served as a nursing sister on the battlefields of WWI in France. Now it is 1919 and the war has ended. Bess is asked to nurse a formidable (and delightful) Countess Dowager through a gall bladder surgery in Yorkshire. But when the Dowager’s godson is gravely injured and another man killed during a terrible accident, Bess goes to help and becomes enmeshed in a bitter feud.

Oddly enough I find this series very calming (for me, not the characters!). The pace of life was slower at that time, and the authors (a mother and son team who go by the pseudonym “Charles Todd”) do an excellent job of blending action, context, interactions, and scene setting to keep the interest of different types of readers. This particular story was more gripping than usual, and I found myself wildly swiping my kindle pages to get to the end. Complete closure on the mystery but an additional little cliffhanger about the personal background of one of the series’ main characters has me wriggling with anticipation.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 14th, 2022.

Maame by Jessica George (Literary Fiction)

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

In Twi (one of the languages spoken in Southern and Central Ghana), Maame means “woman” or “mother” or “Responsible One.” And that is the name by which Maddie is known (and treated) within her (somewhat dysfunctional by many standards) family. This story of the 25 year old dutiful daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in London is beautiful, insightful, humorous, and utterly engaging. Maddie is finally ready to strike out on her own after several years of caring for her Parkinson’s debilitated father whilst her brother and mother have managed to find urgent excuses to be elsewhere. With a new job, a new apartment (with new flatmates), and a few boyfriend experiments, Maddie feels ready to transpose herself into “fun” Maddie and “happy” Maddie, though her true (intentionally stifled) feelings always manage to seep through. With deft and spare prose, the book delves into deep issues of how we become the selves we want to be, rather than the selves that have unintentionally emerged while we were making other plans.

The story explores the roots of Maddie’s desires and unhappiness — seen through the lens of multiple cultures, friends, family, religion, and … the ultimate source of all knowledge … Google. Some honest and new (to me) discussions of racism, from a personal point of view rather than a strident, social justice approach. I loved the first lines: “In African culture — Wait, no, I don’t want to be presumptuous or in any way nationalistic enough to assume certain Ghanaian customs run true in other African countries. I might in fact just be speaking of what passes as practice in my family, but regardless of who the mores belong to, I was raised to keep family matters private.” In one fell swoop George outlined Maddie’s personal context in the many layers of identity to which she belonged.

I absolutely love George’s writing. Great structure with most of the content deriving from interactions (in-person, text), reflections (including some great conversations with “subconscious Maddie” who can be quite flippant bordering on rude), and extensive (and intriguing) “conversations” with Google. I love her use of vocabulary — the exact right word at the exact right spot in the prose. I love that Maddie’s flirtation with one man made extensive use of accurately placed semicolons. I loved Maddie’s Voice — so real and so individual. The language conveys essence and experience skillfully, without resorting to tricks of plots and constant emotional tugging. It feels genuine — that rarest of literary attributes.

So many excellent quotes — here are just a few:

“When Waterloo station approaches, I brace myself for another day at a job Google itself has deemed deserving of a bronze medal in the race to unhappiness.”

“We were friendlier at first, joked around a bit more, but that dried up like the arse of a prune on a date and time I still can’t stick a definitive pin in.”

“For some reason, at night, when you’re meant to be sleeping, your brain wants answers to everything.”

“It’s mentally exhausting trying to figure out if I’m taking that comment on my hair or lunch too seriously. It’s isolating when no one I know here is reading the Black authors I am or watching the same TV shows.”

“Still, that doesn’t change the fact that although I didn’t think I’d be rich I expected to be happy and the failure to do so has left me gasping for air most of the day.”

“I only suffer a few hiccups, mainly with the printer because they’re all bastards and will likely lead the technological charge in the eventual war against humans, but I’ve finished everything before Penny returns from her last meeting of the day.”

“I’d googled what to do when your flatmate is dumped by someone they’re casually seeing, but Google seemed very confused with at least two parts of the sentence.”

“I know what to do, how not to bring attention to myself. I’m skilled in assimilation, though my subconscious is quick to remind me that it’s nothing to be proud of. I have spent the entirety of my professional life in predominantly white spaces. As a bookseller, a receptionist, at the theater, and now a publishing house. Over the years, my instinct has been to shrink myself, to make sure I’m not too loud, to talk only about subjects I feel well versed in.”

“She frowns. ‘I don’t know why you’re offended. Gold-diggers are our nation’s hardest workers; do you know how much effort goes into pretending to give a shit about some guy for his money? A lot. Hoes are Britain’s unsung heroes.”

“It’s about what love is. Which is trust, commitment, empathy, and respect. It means really giving a shit about the other person.”

“I’m late, arriving halfway through, and he’s speaking Fante, which when spoken quickly is like trying to catch bubbles before they pop.”

“I cut the conversation off there because the way I see it, apologies only benefit the beggar. They get a clear conscience, and I get a sequence of hollow words incapable of changing anything.”

“Okay,” she says, and for a word that is often spelled with only two letters, she makes each syllable work hard. I slightly hate her.”

“I think when working in white spaces we can feel programmed to not rock the boat; like, we got a foot in the door and we should try to keep that door closed behind us. Which means you begin assigning any and all problematic issues to just being a part of the job….”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 7th, 2023.

The Invincible Miss Cust by Penny Haw (Fictionalized History)

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

This is the fictionalized story of Miss Aleen Cust, a minor English aristocratic in the 1880s who desperately wanted to be a veterinary surgeon at a time when that (and many other things) were forbidden to women (particularly of her class). She did, in fact, become the first female vet in Britain, and the description of the process was well documented and engaging. The story features great characters who were either those who encouraged and helped her along the way as well as those who did everything in their power to stop her (this category included most of her family who were aghast at the thought of a woman wanting to work!). I loved the details about the work itself and the arguments made by those horrified at the thought of a woman vet. Many felt that a woman castrating bulls was immoral. Not that it would be difficult or off putting, but immoral! That gave me pause as I considered a definition of morality that was so focused on women not having any exposure to (and definitely no enjoyment of) sex.

The story was interesting enough on its own, and I was pleased that the author didn’t add a lot of melodrama where it wasn’t needed. It followed the facts pretty well — I looked them up on Wikipedia earlier than I should have — don’t do that as it spoils the story when you know what is coming! The author is very clear on the few places where she allowed her imagination to fill in information that was based on unverified rumor. I will say that I personally did not feel those were the best parts of the story. I’m not generally a fan of fictionalized history — where the story of real people is fictionalized (as opposed to historical fiction where fictional characters are placed into real historical contexts). It seems somehow unfair to assign thoughts and words and actions to a person who doesn’t get to correct or object, but I did very much enjoy this subject, this characterization, and this book.

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 4th, 2022

Sam by Allegra Goodman (Young Adult)

A story about a young girl who sinks into despondency and manages to (literally) claw herself up through rock climbing, her perseverance and stubbornness when faced with impossible climbing challenges mirroring the way she finally finds a path that works for her. The six parts of the novel take us from seven to eighteen — dealing with a beloved father who, fighting addiction, disappears for long periods of time; a (temporary) step father with no fondness for her and a somewhat violent temperament; a (most of the time) single mother pushing her children to not miss the opportunities she herself had missed; a half brother who needs constant management to get even the smallest thing done; and many others on varying sides of (my) moral boundaries.

The writing is good and I appreciated the thoughtful characterizations. While she finds her way at the end, I found reading the book to be a little depressing. While there were many good characters, I found myself wishing that people had just made better choices up front. It’s always painful for me to think about how many screwed up people there are and how their mistakes cause such pain for others. I’m aware that I’m completely missing the actual point of the story which is about how someone overcomes the problems of their childhood, but I find myself unhappy that they ever had to face those problems to begin with.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group, The Dial Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 3rd, 2023.

Where Coyotes Howl by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas does a stellar job at evoking the historical West — in this case a small town on the prairies of Wyoming in the early 1900s. This is the story of two “ordinary” people of time — an imported schoolteacher and the cowboy she falls in love with. It’s a hard life and frankly that makes for a hard read. The tight friendships and support structure formed by the women who often live up to an hour by horse from each other can help but not quite overcome the relentless tragedies that occur — from weather, illness, starvation, and from (some) husbands that are just plain bad. Dallas never resorts to melodrama but then she doesn’t have to — the real life stories are (mostly) pretty awful. I’ve read every book that Dallas has written and will continue to do so, but I admit that this book left me pretty depressed — her depictions so vivid that (being the emotional sponge that I am) I couldn’t help but feel sad for all my new found fictional friends.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 18th, 2022.

The Sweet Remnants of Summer by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

Number 14 in my favorite McCall Smith series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, moral philosopher extraordinaire. While the narrative in these novels feature every day troubles such as family disagreements, child rearing, and interpersonal … irritations, the real story is the deep and well-expressed thoughts they trigger in our editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. The musings of her “tangential mental life” are endlessly intriguing, insightful, and thought provoking. Her brand of philosophy is never dry — it is philosophy as applied to actual human lives.

I love McCall Smith’s writing — it consistently reminds me of the beauty of the English language and embeds new (to me) or rarely used words that I find absolutely stimulating. Well, I never said I wasn’t a weirdo! Two of my favorites from this volume: adumbration and purlieus (if you like words, look them up!)

He always tackles topics of current concern, and no topic is left un-thoroughly discussed. No slogans, no strict identification with any party line. Characters get to examine and evolve their own thoughts and principles (sometimes with a little gentle help) into something that better adapts to their current situation.

I always feel calmer after reading one of these books.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.

Secret lives by Mark de Castrique (Thriller / Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 story: 4/5 characters: 3/5

75-year old Ethel Crestwater runs a boarding house for government agents and has the heads of the FBI and Secret Service on speed-dial. When one of her boarders is killed and a bag full of counterfeit money is found in his room, Ethel and her double-first-cousin-twice-removed take matters into their own hands staying just a step or two ahead of several agencies and agents who all have their own agendas and possibly something to hide.

This was entertaining and had some (obviously) quirky characters that I enjoyed. I know very little about how the FBI and Secret Service work but I can’t say I found this depiction in any way believable. Some clever hiding places and just the right amount of background information on cryptocurrency.

Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 11th, 2022.

Out of Patients by Sandra Cavallo Miller (Fiction)

Story: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

Norah is the tending-toward-cynical but unfailingly caring and dedicated family practice doctor in the Arizona desert. In her 50s, she thinks of retirement almost every day, but can’t get herself to pull the trigger.

With a jaded but humorous and never bitter tone, Miller brings to life the modern family doctor. Forget Marcus Welby, Norah and her colleagues are beset with endless regulations, condescending specialists, arrogant medical students, health insurance battles, and a plethora of patients who don’t always (ie hardly ever) advance their own cause. On top of this, the practice seems to be losing money despite a full waiting room, and someone is leaving nasty-notes on car windshields. Norah had to kick her do-nothing boyfriend of three years out of the house for … continuing to do nothing, and she has nearly daily calls with (possibly my favorite character) her 86-year old mother who has a crush on the elderly, but well-built mailman and gives detailed instructions on what to do if she doesn’t answer the phone (wait several days to make sure she is dead!). While too grumpy to even consider dating, Norah does come across some potential love interests — an even grumpier vet and a shy radiologist who suffers at her side during endless student admissions committee meetings .

I loved the tone, loved the characters, and appreciated the peek into a real doctor’s life by someone who a) has lived through it themselves and b) translates her knowledge into a highly self-aware and comical story. Some very interesting medical tidbits and asides as well…

Some good quotes:
“To give your life more purpose, for what that’s worth. I’m not sure anyone has ever convincingly proved that human life actually has a purpose. Evolution just does its thing. Sunrise, sunset.”

“I guess when your spirit pales to a washed-out shadow, you grow tentative.”

“Once upon a time we became physicians, but now we also must perform as secretaries and transcriptionists and file clerks and coding authorities and billing experts ad regulations enforcers.”

“And I wondered how anyone can eat baloney, that mash of pig snouts and ears and genitals. You can feel gritty little bits of bone.”

“That made me sad, but why should it? Why should I impose my arduous overdrive, my endless quests, on a quietly contented person?”

“No, apparently my ego needed to analyze and try to fix them. Make a difference in their lives. Maybe I worried that my failure with Grace, a previous student, might repeat itself. I may have mentioned how doctors often obsess about doing things right.”

“Nobody listens. Sometimes I feel like a tiny squeaky voice in a wind tunnel, about to be blown away.”

“And even before I say this next sentence, I’m aware it isn’t fair, because I know tons of great physician men, smart and intuitive, generous and wise. But between Jeremy Newell and Carter Billings, I’d drink my fill of medical males that day.”

“A long afternoon, but mostly rewarding. Nothing easy, nothing cut and dried. Everyone needed to talk. Mostly good patients, all with real problems. No one surly or defiant, no one acting like I owed them good health because they demanded it, no matter how unwilling they might be to earn it. Every now and then those petulant people stayed home and I felt in my element, listening, sorting, treating. Come on, Norah, I told myself, settling in with my charts after everyone had gone.”

“What would fix me would be better healthcare systems, not spending hours grappling with a convoluted computer program. Where I got more than ten minutes with an addict. Consistent medical billing and affordable insulin. Free insulin, Where medical students didn’t lose their glittering idealism in a few short years, while a handful of ego-besotted attending physicians badgered them into despondency. Until some students lost themselves under the crushing demise of their dream. The statistics on physician suicide are dreadful — every day, at least one physician or medical student is lost forever. What an unforgivable waste.”

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

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown (Historical / Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

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

In 1928, Harlem librarian Cora James writes a letter to Langston Hughes whose poetry has inspired her. In ongoing correspondence, he supports her confessed desire to write and offers advice and commentary on her writing attempts.

There are more story elements including a surprising friendship with a white woman and a dangerous encounter, but for me the real story is about Cora’s awakening to the concept of having her own dreams and desires — beyond the expectations of being a wife and mother, a Black woman, and a good Christian. I absolutely loved and was startled by her own recognition of the limitations placed on her by societal and familial norms that she hadn’t even been aware of herself.

As part of the story she reads literature — Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Miss Esale Fauset’s There is Confusion, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand — and each informs her developing desire to express more than she knew she had in her to express. It is thoughtful, inspiring, and fascinating. Her reactions to works of literature are individual. She doesn’t like Amos and Andy or the characters in a prize winning Zora Neale Hurston story because she feels they make colored people look like fools. And she doesn’t want to write the standard colored woman story — growing up poor and oppressed in the South etc. She says, “We have been through so much as a people, but we have endured. I guess that’s why I think racism and oppression shouldn’t be our only focus. There are other stories to tell.” And in the end, when forced to choose, she makes what I found to be a surprising (and I was surprised that I was surprised by this) choice to identify more with the womanhood of her characters, rather than their Blackness). She explains it much better than I can, so I’ll let you read the story.

I loved this book and read it in a single sitting (OK — I was on a long plane flight BUT I had plenty of other books available on the kindle!).

Just a couple of quotes to let you see how Cora’s mind works:
“But most books written by colored authors are about race one way or another. And though I know it’s important to talk about, I’m tired of that being the focus all the time. There are other things in life that are just as important. Dreams. Desires. But maybe that’s too much to ask of a book.”

“But I wish Miss Larsen spent more time exploring Helga Crane’s desire for individuality and beauty, rather than her struggle as a mulatto woman trying to figure out where she belongs. Then maybe the novel would have spoken more to the workings of a colored woman’s mind.”

Thank you to Inanna Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 20th, 2022.

In the Shadow of Humanity by N. John Williams (literary science fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Overall Enjoyment: 5/5

What it means to be human is the theme driving this story of two brothers — one alive and one long dead (but faithfully rendered as an AI in the metaverse and allowed to age) — who each long for the other’s existence. One longs for the immortality and eternal healthy youth while the other longs for the rights and respect kept from him by dint of not being fully human despite his ability to think, feel, create, and perceive pain.

This is technology driven science fiction — my favorite kind, reminiscent of the “old days.” It made me realize how much better this kind of SF is when written by an author with actual experience in the technical areas s/he is extrapolating from. In this case, the author is well versed in Computer Science, Linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence, and it shows in his fully fleshed out cultures evolving from a thoroughly described metaverse (the metaverse is the blending of physical and virtual worlds, not to be confused with the multiverse which is the theoretical existence of multiple physical universes). There are power struggles (the Administration powered by Technologists; transhumanist activists; and an evolving superintelligence) with equal word count given to the abundant (and to me more interesting) ethical / political issues.

I’ve thought about the ending for some time — I’m not sure I like the conclusion but I do think I understand it, and it was quite thought provoking (a top criterion for me). One of the better SF books I’ve read in the past few years.

Thank you to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2022.