Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

Jared is a bot. Engineered from human DNA, he lives a productive life as a dentist in Ypsilanti, Michigan and is deeply programmed to serve humans. Until one day … he starts to have feelings. Thus begin his simultaneously hilarious and yet poignant adventures as he heads to Hollywood to write a screenplay daring to portray bots as beings deserving humane treatment and not the “killer bots” that comprise the bulk of modern cinema.

The social commentary is priceless as Jared struggles to make rational sense of human behavior. Jared’s “voice” as a developing character is so appealing — his way of expressing surprise, disbelief, and acceptance is incomparable. He refers to himself as a “toaster with a heart.” Bots are the new underclass in this world because after all — they aren’t even human. While the journey is comic (laugh out loud funny much of the time), there are plenty of deep things to think about: What makes us human? What should our relationship with other beings be? What kind of “programming” do we humans have of which we are not explicitly aware?

In some ways this reminded me of Vonnegut — the speculative and humorous extrapolation of today’s social mores — but with a little more depth in terms of human (or bot) experience and how we treat others. As fun additions, there are some great descriptions of classic movies (without titles) that are fun to see through Jared’s eyes (and try to make the identification), some fun screen-writing tips, and all the details of a futuristic road trip adventure.

I won’t give away the ending but I loved the way the author embedded an intricately layered set of foreshadowing and self-referential plot twists.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 1st, 2020.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (Fiction)

A sweet story of compassion and benevolence. The style starts in a tongue-in-cheek, paternalistic manner and transitions to a kindness-conquers-all happy finish. It’s a bit of a fairy tale — both in terms of the happy ending and the oversimplified set of troubles with which the story begins — but it is uplifting and poignant and brought me to tears several times with the beauty of specific human moments.

The (self-stated absolutely ridiculous) story is about a bank robber. Sort of. Said robber only asks for 6,500 kroner but makes the mistake of going to a cashless bank … and somehow escapes into an apartment viewing, inadvertently taking hostages. Lots of things tie together in a twisted but essential way as we get to know all the characters, how they evolved into the state they are in, and how they will continue to evolve (more sanely) in the aftermath.

Some very interesting twists of gender expectations which I both enjoyed and found fascinating.

I found the initial chapters depressing and was irritated with the avuncular (and often second person) style. A very clear ultra-liberal message — everybody makes mistakes, it’s OK to blame society (and especially the money-grubbing banks) for everything that is wrong in your life, and if everyone is simply kind to each other, all our problems will be solved. There is one character — an economist / senior bank official — who spouts a defense of capitalism and responsibility, but it turns out that she is suffering from a trauma that has led her to withdraw into that opinion, and she “sees the light” by the end of the book. I find that kind of annoying and oversimplified, but I admit to really enjoying the book!

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 8th, 2020.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (Fiction / Speculative Fiction)

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 July 14th, 2020.

Writing: 3.5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4/5

A gritty, detailed and yet expansive, story about the evolution of a top (fictional) pop band (Utopia Avenue) in late sixties London. From obscurity to fame — raw talent discovered, initial deals, touring, and the bribery / flirtation / whatever-it-takes approach to getting the music played. The four main band members come from different backgrounds and blend different musical strengths: Dean — an “angry young bassist” specializing in R&B; Elf — a “folk-scene doyenne”; Jasper — a half Dutch “stratocaster demi-god”; and Griff — a Yorkshire jazz drummer.

A lot of dialog and description is devoted to describing the music itself and the music business. For me personally that was less interesting — I love listening to music but don’t translate writing about music to music itself well — but for those who do enjoy discussing and thinking about those topics there is plenty available.

He did a good job of bringing that musical time to life. Many famous musicians pass through these pages with mini appearances that appear true to recorded history: David Bowie, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa all make realistic cameo appearances. We spend time with the band at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. All the aspects of their world comes out — family issues, possible mental illness, drug use, the “offsprings” of philandering, and philosophies.

Mitchell’s books are sometimes hard to read. They all develop slowly and the writing style is a little more stream of consciousness than I like, but somehow I’m drawn in, and by the end I’m completely in the grip and continue to think about the emerging holistic picture afterwards. As an aside — and it’s a weird aside — one thread of this novel ties in with characters (beings?) that are elements of at least two of his previous works. It’s really just a thread here but this book fits squarely within the Mitchell universe which is not completely founded on the reality most of us share.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Fiction)

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 June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons (Fiction)

Plot: 2 Writing: 3 Characters: 3

This is a new entry into the recent spate of novels which begin with a cranky, bitter, oldster and end with a heartwarming celebration of life.

Eudora Honeycutt is 85 and is planning to end her life with the aid of a Swiss clinic. In alternating chapters we witness her life’s transformation into one worth living and the historical events that brought her to the situation: alone and calmly planning to end her life.

The best character in the present story is the irrepressible 10-year old girl who moves in next door and befriends Eudora. That character draws the reader in and makes the book worth reading. The other characters are friendly and pleasant but not (for me) very believable. I had more trouble with the historical sections — it’s a long, sad story that is told without nuance so that it is too easy to think of obvious alternative choices Eudora should have made.

It’s a feel-good book with a strong pro-people, pro-friends, pro-life message full of caring neighbors and social workers.  For me it crossed the border into saccharine and cliche but it was an easy, light, read with some funny and poignant bits.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 8th, 2020.

The Cousins by Karen McManus (YA / Mystery)

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Dec. 1, 2020.

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

Another excellent YA thriller / mystery by Karen McManus who seems to have an endlessly twisted repertoire of stories stored in her brain. These books are hard to put down — well-written with engaging characters and a set of twists that I never quite figure out until it is too late.

The Cousins is about three cousins who are each invited to work at the resort owned by the grandmother who cut off all ties with their parents decades ago. Secrets abound and are unraveled at just the right pace. While it is labeled as a thriller, and I was on the edge of my seat, I didn’t find it to be anxiety provoking. Thriller-lite?

As a side note, isn’t it funny that teen angst is so refreshing in a pandemic? It’s so soluble!

The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

An Isabel Dalhousie book. For those unfamiliar with McCall Smith’s less well-known protagonist (Mma Ramotswe of Number One Ladies Detective Agency is far more popular), Isabel is a philosopher of independent means. She serves as the publisher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. What an unusual character on which to base a series! These books center around questions of morality, and amidst the light plots that loosely guide each episode, we are treated to a constant stream of philosophical musings and epiphanies. I love the fact that rather than read the (probably) dry research papers that populate Isabel’s Review, we instead get to hear the intriguing summaries.

In this installment, Isabel is asked to serve as executor of a dying man’s trust while simultaneously coming to terms with her niece’s engagement to an (to Isabel) unsuitable man. These situations give rise to musings about the accidents of love, moral obligations, moral strangers, the sphere of moral proximity, and what it means to act graciously. Populated by the educational elite of Edinburgh, this series also gives rise to discussions on a wide variety of topics — this time including Himalayan languages and Scottish Country dancing.

I have a very good vocabulary and have read most of McCall Smith’s books and yet he *still* surprises me with new words. This time: Gluckschmerz and commensality. Gluckschmerz is feeling pain in the face of another’s success — the opposite of Schadenfreude. Commensality refers to the positive social interactions that are associated with people eating together.

My favorite phrase in the book: “the suppurating corruption of greed.”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 28th, 2020.

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I gulped this book down in (almost) a single sitting. Perfect for long quarantine days: part novel with great characters who have evolved over the 12 books in Griffiths’ Dr. Ruth Galloway series and part mystery with all that closure we crave in these anxious days.

Four dead woman and a convicted murderer, but do they have the right man? In this installment, Ruth has moved to Cambridge with a new partner and a new job but is drawn back to Norfolk by the prisoner offering to disclose the location of additional bodies if Ruth promises to do the excavation. An artist colony and cycling group feature prominently in the story with plenty of local history, folklore, and archeological digs. All our favorite characters are back, each slowly progressing in their own long term narrative arcs.

Now I just have to wait for the next one…

p.s. For those who are new to this series, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist who, before this book, lived in a remote area near Norfolk amidst the marshes near the sea. She works with the large and brooding but spectacularly capable Detective Chief Inspector Nelson. Another favorite character is Cathbad — part-time University employee and full-time modern druid. You can start the series anywhere, really, but the it never hurts to start at the beginning!

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 July 14th, 2020.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (psychology, philosophy)

This classic — first published in 1959 and claiming “more than 15 million copies in print worldwide” — was disappointing to me. Two sections: part one deals with his survival in the concentration camps of WWII; part two discusses Logotherapy — the author’s theory that our primary driver in life is a search for meaning.

My problem is that part one has very little insight. The biggest insight to me was his statement that those who survived the camps were “not the best of us.” His other insight seemed to be obvious — that those who survived had something to look forward to — someone they hoped to find alive or some work they wanted to do. Quite a bit of discussion focused on finding meaning through suffering — in your reaction to suffering and the inner decision each man makes to be the kind of person he becomes. However, quite a bit seemed to be predicated on survival of some sort, either in this world or in a religious belief in an afterlife. Primo Levi’s <i>Survival in Auschwitz</i> was a far more thorough coverage of a similar topic.

Part two on logotherapy was overly simplified and dated. It’s possible that I would have gotten more out of it had I been willing to read the 12 volumes he wrote on it rather than this simplified version. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in the late 50s. One interesting point: he compares his “will for meaning” to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power.” I don’t claim to be a psychology expert but I wouldn’t have summarized Freud and Adler in that way. In any case, surely it’s clear that different people have different motivations and personal makeups.

The good news is that it is short at 154 pages. Possibly good to read for a history of psychological thought at the time but frankly pretty dull.