Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny (Literary Fiction)

Jane is a second grade school teacher in Boyne City, Michigan. In chapter one she falls in love with Duncan — the town playboy — and spends the rest of the book following an unexpected path through her own life. Each chapter (carefully labeled with the year — thank you!) is a mini-story that captures the essence of Jane’s personal story in that time frame. Story and personal evolution proceed apace with humor, insight, and poignancy as she becomes deeply involved with a set of characters she might not have voluntarily sought out: Jimmy, Duncan’s sweet and intellectually slow colleague; Aggie, Duncan’s bossy ex-wife; and Aggie’s flat out strange husband Gary.

I love Heiny’s writing style — her precise language perfectly captures internal thoughts and external behaviors. Jane possesses a biting interior commentary and the descriptions of second grade classroom life are pointed and hysterical. The characters are real — some times you love them and sometimes they irritate you completely. Good for fans of Anne Lamott.

Some random quotes:

“In fact, she had not only stopped being the maid of honor, she nearly stopped being human and became just a help desk in a giant green dress. She had to tell the caterers to start serving, and direct the florist on where to put the arrangements and the staff which table to designate for gifts.”

“It all reminded Jane that having a baby was not that miraculous. Any two fools could do it.”

“Worst of all were the mood swings. Although, actually, could it be considered a mood swing if it only swung one direction? Maybe it was more like a mood acceleration. Like the needle on a speedometer that whipped straight from ZERO to ANNOYED and stayed there. Because it seemed like the world was in an unkindly conspiracy to irritate Jane.”

“Endless rolling nausea without vomiting, nausea that spun out before Jane like a curving country lane meandering through a hilly green landscape, the end always just out of sight.”

“Jimmy was always there. He lived with them, and sometimes Jane thought that spontaneous adult conversation had fled her life forever.”

“Little insights into the murky liquid that sloshed around in the fishbowl of Gary’s mind.”

“She felt a sort of cellular-level sorrow and wondered if she loved more deeply than other people. Or was everyone else just more mature, more rational? More realistic?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 13th, 2021.

All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss (Literary Fiction / YA)

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

All the Little Hopes is a double coming-of-age story set in a North Carolina tobacco farming community from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Thirteen-year old Lucy Brown lives with her family on a tobacco and honey producing farm when she meets Allie Bert Tucker (Bert) who was shipped away from her Asheville mountain home when her mother died. The story alternates between their voices as they rapidly move from strangers to best friends to family. Lucy worships Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective; Bert wants more than the “puny life” she was headed towards back home. They both get what they want when a German POW camp provides labor nearby and men — not the nicest of men — start disappearing.

The story is firmly embedded in factual events and surroundings — WWII on the home front with a beeswax contract with the government; cheap labor from a nearby POW camp and community misgivings; an entire world of German glass marbles and the ubiquity of earned marble skills; purple honey with potentially healing properties; and Shape Note Singing (look it up — it’s cool) as examples. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, segregation, and attitudes are matter-of-factly included without being the focus on the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is billed as Literary Fiction but could easily serve as YA. It’s a small and local story painted on a big and global canvas that gives insight into young lives maturing under the auspices of war, propaganda, and local culture. Great characters and an intriguing plot as told from the perspective of youngsters who were forced to gather information piecemeal and fit it into their own emerging mesh of internal knowledge.

Some good quotes:

“I don’t tell Bert that sometimes I wonder if Irene’s heart is too small. She isn’t very amiable, and she’s stingy with kind words, like she’s scared she’s going to run out. It must be tiresome being Irene.”

“It’s got bits and pieces that glue me together when I’m coming apart.”

“It ain’t nice to shine a light on the ugly, but the ugly came home with Whiz and sits in our front yard.”

“We’ve crossed some invisible line into the land of beguile, and I feel a power I never knew before.”

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 July 27th, 2021.

Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction)

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

A wild coming-of-age story — Vera is the daughter of the Barbary Coast’s most successful (and infamous) Madam (Rose) and is raised by a “proper” Swedish widow (Morie) who lives on that income. At 15 Vera is a “scrawny and sharp-tongued girl” seething with a fervent desire for more: more time with her real mother, more options, more life. And then the 1906 San Francisco quake hits.

With a cast of unforgettable characters deployed across unforgettable scenes, we follow Vera through adventures during and after the quake and resulting fire (which burned 28,000 buildings and 500 city blocks). From Rose’s “gold house” on Lafayette Square to Chinatown to the many encampments for the suddenly homeless (400,000 people), the novel depicts the new mixtures of uppercrusters, corrupt politicians, wandering orphans, and the military with their overrun field hospitals — all adhering to their own sense of morality, loyalty, and their survival instinct.

Real life personalities Alma Spreckles, Abe Ruef, Caruso, and Mayor Eugene Schmitz (the quake occurring on the eve of his arrest on corruption charges) all play parts. The writing is full of details such as the ingredients in Dills cough medicine (chloroform and a heroin derivative). Completely brings to life the time and the place for a variety of characters with different backgrounds. Could not put it down.

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

China by Edward Rutherfurd (Historical Fiction)

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

A sweeping novel of China from 1839 – 1900, from the Opium Wars through China’s Century of Humiliation to the suppression of the Boxer rebellion. It’s the story of the conflicts surrounding the forced opening of China to Western trade, customs, and religion. The story is told through a variety of characters who span cultures, classes, backgrounds, and professions (including plenty of women characters with different roles, abilities and agendas). Multiple generations of characters such as a young English merchant trying to make his fortune (through opium), an upright Mandarin charged with enforcing the emperor’s ban of opium, a palace eunuch, a peasant girl, a mercenary pirate, a missionary, a Manchu bannerman, the emperor and various concubines and princes, and some craftsmen. The characters have depth, too. They reflect on what is happening, how they feel about their own role, and how to achieve their goals while maintaining their values (or how to shift their values to attain their goals).

I love that history itself is the protagonist in this novel, rather than the background setting for individual stories. Everything is told through the personal stories of the characters — either through participation in the action or through conversations between neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Even past history is exemplified in ritual and description of the origin of individual morality. This approach brings to the fore what it was like to live through these times with only direct observations and rumors as sources of information. And how very different that information was depending on your location, background, profession, culture and connections. Additionally, there were so many fascinating descriptions of various ways of life — all told in a style that was interesting because someone was learning it (e.g. a craft) or going through it — so always real and never dry. This was a long book, and I literally had trouble putting it down. (As a warning, one of these “fascinating” descriptions was about foot binding, and I skimmed through trying not to read that at all. Of all the atrocities visited upon humans, this is the one I find most horrific and barbaric (yes, even more than female circumcision which comes in a close second).

This is my first Rutherfurd and I’m now going back to read more. Meticulously researched, personal and accurate — a kind of modern day Michener for those old enough to remember classics like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Source, or Caravans. After reading this, I have a far more in-depth understanding about the relationship between China and the West and of life in the 19th century.

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Alcevedo (Young adult)

Spectacular book — possibly one of the best I’ve read this last year. Made me really “get” some concepts that I knew only peripherally.

This is a coming-of-age story about Xiomara — an Afro-Latina teenager with an intensely religious immigrant mother and a father who is absent even in his presence. She is “unhideable” with “too much body for such a young girl.” And she is a secret poet who puts her thoughts about family, religion, boys, and the place for girls into her poetry.

The story is a novel-in-verse — told in poetry with an overall narrative arc. I was hesitant because I don’t typically enjoy poetry but this was utterly engrossing. The author was able to consistently distill complex thoughts, feelings, and narrative into a concise set of stanzas of great profundity. Told from Xiomara’s point of view, we see depth in the characters — her mami, papi, twin brother, best friend, potential boyfriend, priest, and the teacher who convinced her to join Poetry Club — through their relationship with her. Incredibly engaging and incredibly well-executed. No stereotypes in this book — Xiomara is anything but — she is always “working to be the warrior she wanted to be.” I was surprised to find that I really liked the character of the priest who was culturally bilingual (able to deal simultaneously with Mami’s deeply religious life and Xiomara’s search for her own way) and thus was able to help Xiomara and her mother come to terms with their different priorities and goals.

I’ve put some of my favorite quotes below — additionally, I absolutely loved the whole of the “Church Mass” poem on page 58-59.

“The world is almost peaceful
when you stop trying
to understand it.”

“But everyone else just wants me to do:
Mami wants me to be her proper young lady.
Papi wants me to be ignorable and silent.
Twin and Caridad want me to be good so I don’t attract attention.
God just wants me to behave so I can earn being alive.”

“How your lips are staples that pierce me quick and hard.”

Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson

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

A collection of (somewhat) interconnected short stories that revolve around life in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on the 25-year employment experience of the author (and her very active imagination). The stories range from the surreal (art coming alive, ghosts swirling about, people slowly disappearing) to the real (experiences of interns, neurotic but talented curators, donors, Lampers, and night guards). Coulson experiments with different POVs — first person “chair,” plural first person, third person omniscient, etc.

From the description I really should have liked this book but I didn’t. For me, the writing got in the way — I found it overwrought and pretentious. Lots of obviously carefully crafted metaphors and similes (LOTS) that felt more self-indulgent than communicative to me. I love writing that can distill insight into a few carefully chosen words — this felt like the opposite — more stream of consciousness chock full of impressions and feelings but (to me) utterly lacking in insight. I can see that many people would really enjoy this open, imaginative gush of sentences but it’s not a style that works for me. My favorite stories were those focussed on real people told in a 3rd person style — the characters had more depth, the writing was more spare. I should point out that I’m a huge speculative fiction fan; my issue with the more fantastical stories here was the writing, not the subject matter.

I did like this particular line: “He shoves his anxiety into every second of every minute, like jamming extra socks into an overstuffed suitcase.”

Almost Human by HC Denham (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 2/5
A cautionary tale of a future where AI based humanoid robots may be slowly taking over the planet while the human population they are intended to serve remains blissfully unaware. All but one — the utterly competent, perfectly empathic, friendly humanoid robots just give Stella Mayfield the creeps.

While the plot had potential, I really didn’t enjoy this book. The characters were extremely stereotyped (and really, although Stella was a Biologist with a PhD, she behaved like the stereotypical neurotic woman while the men behaved like stereotypical men — completely out of touch with their feelings blah blah blah. The techie robot engineer was the biggest stereotype of all (and spoke some weird dialect that didn’t match anything I’m familiar with and I live and work in Silicon Valley!). There is very little science and very little plot — instead it includes lots of filler encompassing a lot of clichéd relationship stuff that had little to do with the plot. Writing is decent enough that I finished the book, but nothing special, and the end was completely predictable. Could have made a decent short story with better characters and more philosophic depth.

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Keep writing, Elly! I always look forward to a new Ruth Galloway book and it never disappoints. I’m so glad Ms. Griffiths is making good use of her pandemic time to up her (already high) prolificity (I may have made that word up — not sure).

These books are a great mix of mystery and novel — full of Norfolk folk lore and history with plenty of archeology — with no repeats so far. In this novel we also get a group of Detectorists (defined as a person whose hobby is using a metal detector); an interesting (fictional but plausible) theory about the Beaker people who came to Britain about 4400 years ago and left only 10% of the native population after 200 years; and a timely plot line around dangerous and illegal vaccine trials. A high body count, some progression in the Nelson / Ruth saga, and a variety of eccentric and interconnected characters make this a real page-turner. Enjoy!

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 29th, 2021.

The Half-Orphan’s Handbook by Joan F Smith (Young Adult)

A well-written book about a young girl going through the grief of her father’s recent suicide. Lila is 16 and has been reluctantly cajoled into attending a grief camp for the summer. This is the story of her slow journey towards healing, including a healthy amount of new friends, a budding love interest, and that irreverent teen style that helps makes the unbearable, bearable.

The author, who went through a similar experience, does an excellent job at describing the confusion of competing feelings, the different ways grief hits you at different times, and the eventual return to the three Ls: laughing, loving, and living without guilt. I really liked all the characters, and I want to emphasize that this was not at all a depressing book — there was a lot of honest reflection, observation, and fun. Plenty of racial and sexual diversity as well as discussions of addiction, suicide, and first love.

Thank you to Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 6th, 2021.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Literary Fiction)

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

The sweeping story of a daring aviatrix (Marian Graves) who is determined to be the first to fly around the globe longitudinally and the self-destructive actress (Hadley Baxter) who will play her in a movie 60 years later. Their somewhat parallel stories (orphaned young, raised by benignly neglectful uncles) and innate curiosity help Hadley delve into the character more than the screen-writer had.

This book was interesting on so many levels. Stunning descriptions of gorgeous locales — Montana, Alaska, and Antarctica between 1920 and 1950 — spread throughout. In-depth discussions of aviation and art, as well as philosophical dives into isolation, the lure of solitude, the impact of war, and the evolution of personal identity are also ubiquitous. Shipstead really gets inside a subject, presenting it not as a separate entity but through the character’s perception of it. We see Antarctica not as a dry description of mountains and snow, but through Marian’s perspective, and it feels as though her soul is exposed through the beautiful language of what she sees and feels. Similarly, while aviation has no appeal for me, Shipstead describes Marian’s intellectual and emotional engagement with it, and I can feel the (unnatural for me) attraction. It’s a rare author who can transmute a dry topic into fascination through the mind of an obsessed character. Even the Hollywood bits feel real through character insight, rather than splashy opulence and name dropping.

Plenty of historical context is introduced via short tidbits from the news (flights from other aviatrices, difficulties for women in trying to achieve in male-dominated worlds, etc.). As always, I like the fact that the author just wrote the story, with realistic reactions and approaches of her characters and didn’t spend time pontificating on the obvious. Yes, life was much harder for women who wanted to pursue the unorthodox, but this story is about what they did anyhow, not what they were prevented from doing. Her writing style is also not overly dramatic — no heart wrenching prose — though the tale abounds with angsty opportunities.

I’d forgotten that I’d read one of Shipstead’s earlier works — Astonish Me —about ballet dancing and defection. She reminds me of Jennifer Egan a bit (I’m a big Egan fan) in the way she can bring clarity to complex topics in a variety of subjects.

A quick warning — I found the first two chapters a little dry — it gets much, much, better. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:

“…how best to squeeze Marian’s completely unknowable existence into a neat pellet of entertainment…”

“…and out over the loose northern jigsaw of spring ice that the planet wears like a skullcap, …”

“There should be an Antiques Roadshow for memories, and I would sit behind a desk and explain that while your memory might be lovely and have tremendous sentimental value, it was worth nothing to anyone but you.”

“The landscape is secretive and harsh and impossibly immense, and she borrows some of its inscrutability for herself, its disinterest in human goings-on. Unfriendliness is another form of camouflage.”

“Mountain everywhere: monstrous, ice-choked cousins of the forested peaks that had encircled her as she looped and spun over Missoula.”

“Was this what her father had done after he left Missoula? Slung his skills over his shoulder and set out?”

“Does that mean I wish to die? I don’t think I do. But the pure and absolute solitude in which we leave the world exerts a pull.”

“She thinks he means that no matter what earnest promises of peace are made, what fragments are hauled up and glued back together, the dead will not return. A return to the world as it was is impossible; the only choice is to make a new world. But making a new world seems dreary and exhausting.”

Thank you to Knopf and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 4th, 2021.