The Dispatcher: Travel By Bullet by John Scalzi (Sci Fi)

Scalzi always has a Big Idea behind each one of his books, which he then wraps with action, humor and some world class banter. His characters are always smart asses — the kind I’d like to hang out with, not the adolescent smirking types that I’m utterly sick of. And he always draws me in with the very first line — in this case: “It was 2:48 PM on a Tuesday, and I was about to do the same thing for the third time since I began work at noon: convince some distraught people that I shouldn’t, in fact, kill their loved one.”

The premise of The Dispatcher: for reasons no one understands, if someone intentionally kills someone else, that person will come back to life 999/1000 times — buck naked and in a place they consider safe, with a body in the state it was in about a day earlier. The new Family Compassion Act gives families the right to request dispatch.

Toss in cryptocurrency, some very rich people with their own twisted philosophy about what makes life worthwhile, and a loner hero with strong ideas about friendship and you have a very entertaining Scalzi ride.

Thank you to Subterranean Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 30th, 2023

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (Historical Fiction)

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

Powerful historical fiction around the women involved in Bletchley Park (the British code breaking center during WWII). Absolutely gripping and completely brought to life the absolute intensity of the time, environment, and activities of the place that many have credited with shortening the war by 2-4 years.

Quinn used three female characters to tell the story: Osla Kendall, an intelligent socialite who constantly fights against the label of “Dizzy Deb”; 6-foot tall Mab Churt, a working class girl from Shoreditch who strove to make a better life for herself; and Beth Finch, a complete mouse of a girl who had been told she was stupid her whole life, but who became one of the leading cryptanalysts at Bletchley. All three find that the work they end up doing is not only essential to the country and the war effort, but essential to their own sense of self and worth.

The story is told in a dual timeline: In 1940, each of the three finds herself at Bletchley and an entirely new world of code breaking, secrecy, independence and intense pressure opens up to them. In 1947 — two years after the war ended — the three women are not speaking to each other, one of them has been involuntarily committed to an institution, the Royal Wedding is afoot, and there is a dangerous traitor from the Bletchley time that has never been caught. I was fascinated by every part of the 1940 timeline though it ran me through the wringer in terms of emotion, stress, and an all too real depiction of life during wartime. Quinn did a fantastic job of illustrating all the different work in Bletchley from breaking the codes, to running the (massive and complicated) machinery, to simply administrating the communication needs of a bustling, yet intensely secretive, organization. It’s a good reminder of what life was like before computers and smart phones! I loved the detail, both of the mechanisms and how the women coped with challenges they had never been expected to face before. Plenty of sexism, as one might expect, but also plenty of opportunity for women to shine due to both the need and the utter unorthodoxy of the place, teeming, as it was, with “weirdos” and “nerds” who had the right kind of brains for this odd work. In her afterward, Quinn describes the real-life models for her characters and for the events and plot points she included. Although I found some of the story to be more dramatic than I like, she convinced me that everything included could and did happen. Make sure you read the afterword!

Kunstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine (Literary Fiction / Audio book)

Twenty-something Julian Kunstler — somewhat ineffective in his attempt at adulting — is sent to care for his ninety-something grandmother Mamie and her elderly dogsbody of unknown origin, Agatha, during Covid. Venice, California is a lovely place to wait out a pandemic — almost too lovely as Julian feels guilt at his own safety while others dwell in fear and panic. They pass the time with Mamie’s stories — of her own times of isolation, fear, and survivor guilt as an 11-year old Jewish emigre from Vienna who lucked into safety through the intense efforts of Hollywood’s artistic community to extract as many Jews as possible from Germany in 1939.
This was truly a wonderful book — full of stories suffused with reality and a painstakingly reconstructed sense of time and place. We hear the stories as well as the inner thoughts / reactions of both of them, giving an evolving insight into two distinct characters with wildly different contexts taking in the same information. Spectacularly presented.
With these stories, Schine manages to evoke not just the physical space of Venice Beach / Hollywood in the 40s, but the mental and cultural space as well. Music, language, philosophy, meaning, existence, and the nature of memory pervade conversations and thoughts. Music in particular suffused everything — Mamie came from the most cultured of Viennese Jews, her father a composer and mother a writer. She supported herself as a violinist, and I loved the way she took up violin as a youngster because she found the piano an oppressive instrument — as it missed all the notes in between while the violin could get them all. Many Hollywood stars of that era (mostly emigres like Mamie) feature in the stories: Greta Garbo, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and others. Her discussions with Schoenberg are priceless — they discuss the “emancipation of the dissonance.” (I can’t stand dissonance in my music but I sure enjoyed reading about the Schoenberg’s thoughts on the subject!). There are parallels between Mamie and Julian — the guilt of being safe while their friends and family are decidedly not, the isolation, the feeling that the world they know is collapsing — and Mamie wants to help Julian make spiritual and ethical progress in his life. To understand the need for joy and to be able to live fully.
Listening to the audio book while walking I had to stop every five minutes to write something down — I was so afraid of losing it (unfortunately, I have a crap memory). I felt like every page had a life lesson available to anyone who wanted to catch it. I would have had a lot of quotes, but could not capture them in time with the audio format. I did manage to remember one: “ Ones trauma becomes banal when it is trotted out too many times.”
Hard to believe I hadn’t heard of Catherine Schine before this. I read so much that I am literally shocked to find such an excellent writer with plenty of previous work that I don’t know. I listened to this on audio and loved it. The reader did an excellent job of portraying the voices — I sometimes found the “elderly” voice she used for Mamie to be a bit difficult to hear but I adapted.

The Dane of My Existence by Jessica Martin (Chick Lit)

Book two in the Shakespeare drenched Rom Com series from Jessica Martin. While the first book (For the Love of the Bard) focused on one Barnes daughter ( the Barnes family being a kind of First Family of the Bard’s Rest Shakespeare Festival), this book centered on the eldest daughter — Portia — the uber driven, germaphobic, corporate lawyer who does not get the hype about Shakespeare (grumble grumble). Forced into a summer sabbatical prior to a big promotion, Portia gets a real chance for something different when she meets Ben Dane — a genuine good (and smart and gorgeous etc.) guy in the guise of an evil developer who wants to turn the local island / festival outdoor stage into — gasp — condos!

Honesty, ethics, and truth in relationships trump all — great banter and wonderful (completely unrealistic but absolutely fun to read about) characters make this very entertaining and great alternative to reading the daily news. Medium-high on the Steamy Scale. Plenty of fun around the Shakespeare themed town with merchants such as: the Merry Wines of Windsor, The Taming of the Shoe, and Parting is Such Sweet Gelato including the flavor “Et Tu, Brûlée.” I admit it — I would totally book a place for the weekend.

A few fun quotes to give you an idea of her comic and irreverent writing style:

“Selfishly, I rooted against the baby thing. Babies were gross, and I was really bad at faking any enthusiasm for them.”

“Dan’ face twisted into somewhere between ‘accidentally licked a persimmon’ and ‘received undesirable correspondence from the IRS.’”

“Candace is the total package: smart, creative, caring. And in a zombie apocalypse scenario, she’d be the last one standing atop a pile of rotting undead carcasses.”

“I was committing a felony with people who weren’t smart enough to wear non-identifiable gear. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.”

Thank you to Berkley and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 4th, 2023

A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly (Historical Mystery)

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

The start of a new mystery series (and her first stab at the mystery genre, no pun intended) by one of my favorite historical fiction writers — Julia Kelly. WWII – London – 1940. There is a body, there is a mole in Whitehall, and there is a smart, sharp heroine who insists on equal billing with the agent assigned to ferret out the answers. Best of all — the action takes place in the Churchill War Rooms with a detailed and accurate (as far as my two fascinating visits to the place informs) depiction of the environment and activities within. As always, she really brings it all to life! A nice complicated plot, characters with good backstories, and of course, a time period and place that is rife with opportunities for mystery.

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

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna (Speculative Fiction)

This book is Delightful — light, funny, and well written. It’s sometimes startling what the quality of writing brings to a book. This story about the isolation, loneliness, and fear of prejudice of … Witches — could have wandered into trashy territory but instead it becomes meaningful, heart warming, and happy-making in Mandanna’s skilled hands.

Mika Moon is a Witch. Through an old curse (we learn more about this later) all Witches find themselves orphaned early in life, and Mika has been raised (by a series of nannies) to hide what she is out of fear. When she finds herself in a quirky (to say the least) group of people, hired to tutor not one but three young Witches, she struggles with understanding what it means to become part of real family. Just reading this story will relieve the reader of any remnants of loneliness s/he might feel — at least for the time it takes to get through the story.

Translation State by Ann Leckie (Science Fiction)

Translation State is a standalone story in the (beloved) universe of the Ancillary Justice series. You don’t need to have read those first, but they are wonderful, so if you haven’t — do so now! Leckie’s universe is populated by any number of richly delineated alien species along with numerous human based cultures, far flung across the universe. In this story, three completely unrelated characters are drawn together through a bizarre set of circumstances and manage to have an impact on the way things have always been done. Enae — the reluctant diplomat tasked with tracking down a fugitive from 200 years ago; Reet, an adopted mechanic who struggles with intense (and definitely unacceptable) urges that he doesn’t understand; and Qven, a juvenile form of a manufactured species designed to translate between humans and the mysterious Presgers — absolutely necessary to preserving the fragile peace between the two races.

I love the way Leckie writes rich interior (alien) lives while simultaneously illustrating the complexity of multiple, variegated, worlds. I loved her description of the process for “raising” the translators — as alien as you can get and described from Qven’s very nuanced and real perspective. This story includes a fully fleshed out description of how to challenge cultural expectations when some aspects of the problem are (currently) immutable while others are simply rigidly accepted ways of doing things. The teasing apart of the situation and dawning awareness of what solutions are possible is brilliant and a skill that I wish would be more developed in us all.

As an aside, Leckie has a great time playing with pronouns. While occasionally single characters are referred to as “they” (which I hate), there are several other labels (sie, e, he, she) which I admit I couldn’t always differentiate but were meaningful to the characters — more importantly though, there was a wide range of pronouns which people sometimes had to correct but never got strident about.

Ann Leckie may well be my favorite current science fiction writer — in addition to writing engaging stories populated with realistic and diverse characters, she doesn’t insist on dwelling in constant dystopia and darkness as so many of today’s SF writers do.

Thank you to Orbit Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

The Last Remains by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Thank you to Mariner 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

Number 15 in the Norfolk based, archeologist Ruth Galloway series. I’ve read every single one so obviously think it’s a great series! This one takes place in mid-2021, smack dab in the middle of Covid lock downs / ease ups, etc. In this story, a body is found bricked up in the wall of a local cafe during remodeling which is quickly identified as the body of a young student who had gone missing in 2002. The regulars are all back: single-mom forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, the gruff and somewhat tormented DCI Nelson, and the intuitive Druid Cathbad. As always, plenty of history — both bone and myth related. One character suffers from Long Covid, declining enrollments threaten to shut down the archeology department of the University of North Nofolk, and — for those who have been following the series — I will say (with no spoilers) that there is some real closure on one aspect of the long range storyline. Also, a delightful surprise near the end of the book.

Always enjoyable — read in a day.

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

I am so NOT into essay collections, so when my friend loaned me this book several months ago, I read a couple of essays and then lost interest. However, when one of my (many) book clubs insisted on reading it, I picked it up again and had an epiphany: I didn’t have to read every essay! I could pick and choose and just read the ones that appealed to me. And with this new approach I discovered … that I REALLY liked a whole bunch of them. Actually, they were spectacular. Not a surprise — Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. I’ve seen her speak and have read all of her novels. It’s just that some topics are more interesting (to me) than others — I’m sure your experience will vary from mine. I haven’t come across another author who is as articulate when expressing absolutely relatable (to me) thoughts and feelings — her own and her characters’. There is nothing like that responding spark of whole hearted recognition / identification I get when she summarizes an entire state of being in just a line or two. As an aside, almost every one of these essays ends with the perfect line.

Some of my favorite essays from this collection: The Fathers — a memoir about marriages and the abundance of family that comes from multiple attempts ; My Year of No Shopping — a brilliant depiction of understanding her own motivations to shop far beyond what she needed; To The Doghouse — I won’t summarize, suffice it to say that Snoopy has a surprising and wonderful part to play; There Are No Children Here — one of my favorites — an ingenious, insightful, and surprising diatribe on society’s reaction to women who do not want to have children; Reading Kate Di Camillo — just wow! Last but certainly not least, the titular These Precious Days — heartbreaking, beautiful, and simultaneously full of joy.

The Bones of the Story by Carol Goodman (Thriller)

A highly selective literary honor society at the Briarwood school in upstate New York. An even more selective senior writing seminar with a famous writer. A group of students who would do anything to get into both. What happened then? What is happening now, 25 years years later? In this eerie, academically oriented, psychological thriller, Carol Goodman explores themes of vengeance, retribution, guilt, and the impact of one’s “minor” misdeed on the person who feels wronged. Lots of literary references for me, plenty of action and Agatha Christie style “pop em off one by one until you suspect absolutely everybody,” and a surprise ending. I did have a little trouble keeping track of all the characters — my advice is just to write down the names as they are introduced so you don’t forget any 🙂

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