The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew (Historical Fiction)

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

A coming of age story in a racially divided South. Told from 13-year old Jubie Watts’ perspective, the story follows the Watts family as they travel with their “girl” (their 48-year old negro maid) through the South in August, 1954. From anti-integration signs to a lack of motels and bathrooms willing to accept Mary to downright nastiness and hostility, the narrative heads towards the bad end hinted at in the very first paragraph of the book.

The real story, however, is not about this “bad end.” It’s about Jubie trying to understand how and why different people are treated so very differently. To her, Mary is someone she loves, someone who is the “heart” of their family — but her family, friends, and the white world at large, at best, treat Mary as a useful piece of furniture.

The narrative alternates between the events of August 1954 and the previous eight years with Mary in the household. In some ways, the story feels like a jumble of experiences, without the synthesis and understanding that might come to the narrator later in life. The characters (other than Jubie) are a little two-dimensional and several story elements are left unresolved. In this, the tale is a realistic depiction of the world as seen through the eyes of a 13-year old.

The book includes a lot of historically accurate detail about the time, and the story is compelling — but it felt a bit too long and somewhat oversimplified.

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan. 29, 2019.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Lit Fiction)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on July 9, 2019.

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Fun book with a capital F!

Nina Lee Hill is introduced to us as the “spinster of this parish and heroine both of her own life and the book you’re holding in your hand.” The parish in question is Knights — an independent bookstore in Larchmont Village (a quaint neighborhood in central Los Angeles) and her place of employment. She is a delightfully interesting character — an anxiety-ridden Millenial with a super-active brain who thinks of books as “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things.” A surprise bequest from a father she didn’t know she had coupled with an obnoxious but attractive trivia competitor form the scaffolding of the simultaneously modern and Edwardian plot of this ultra-literary, romp through a central LA I never knew existed.

Funny, intelligent, and clever writing coupled with an array of engaging and quirky characters make this book what it is. Great dialog and banter and even … grammar jokes! The literary references range from Harry Potter to Chinua Achebe, Dickens and Austen to SF biggies Gaiman and Stephenson, Star Wars to Flowers for Algernon. I even discovered some new “classics” — a rare occurrence for me. Part Eleanor Oliphant, part Jane Austen, a great, fun, read that will leave you gasping on the floor from too much lol-ing.

Delightful Quotes:
“Grilled cheese in any form was her spirit animal.”

“Nina might battle crippling anxiety once or twice a week, but she also worked in retail, and rudeness is the special sauce on the burger that is the Los Angeles shopping public.”

After sputtering the phrase “Cool Beans” at the object of her affection … “At this her brain threw up its metaphorical hands and curled upon its stem like a pissed off hen.”

Quotes about Los Angeles:
“Whenever Nina was stuck there, which was rarely, because she would rather have filled her ears with flaming dog turds than go to the West side…”

“Sartre said hell was other people, but that was only because the 405 hadn’t been built yet.” <— my favorite!

New (to me) words / concepts:
– bullet journaling – https://bulletjournal.com/
– vampiring other people’s feelings
– quisling – a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.

 

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series — the 14th)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Overall reading pleasure: 5/5

I’m (very, very) happy to say that this latest Inspector Gamache mystery is back to the high standards of the first 12. I thought the last book — Glass Houses — was incredibly disappointing.

This installment merges two stories: Gamache, Myrna, and a Dr. Seussian builder named Benedict are named as liquidators (think executors) of Bertha Baumgartner’s estate — a woman none of them knows. The will is odd, to say the least, and the almost immediate murder of one of the beneficiaries adds some definite tension! At the same time, a temporarily suspended Gamache is desperately trying to track down the last bit of carfentanil that he had to let slip in order to bust the drug ring in the last book. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than Fentanyl, itself 100 times more potent than Heroin.

This is not your typical mystery series — it’s character driven but they aren’t just any characters. They are the idealized versions of the people you wish would populate your life. None of them are average or really have any annoying faults at all (though some do pretend). They are smart, capable, witty, loving, interesting, and always do and say the exact right things at the right time. In these books, kindness, friendship, love, and hope manage to take on the grit and grime of crime on a massive scale and actually win. Sure, it’s just a fairy tale … but such a nice one!

While I have a few issues with the plot, this is simply a book that is impossible to put down. The writing is succinct with great dialog and beautifully distilled principles, descriptions, and action. Character driven with lots of intriguing psychological and philosophical driving forces.

As an aside, Ruth, the longstanding and crotchety old poet, has been getting the credit for the acronym FINE (“F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”) — I just realized that the true credit goes to an Aerosmith song from 1989!

A few quotes I liked:
About a man with dementia: “For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart”

“Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.”

“Four statements lead to wisdom: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” (Gamache’s favorite — repeated in most of the books)

Poetry line: “Who hurt you once so far beyond repair / that you would greet each overture with curling lip.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Overall personal enjoyment: 3.5/5

A beautifully done fantasy novel that (as an aside) turns gender stereotyping on its head. It’s a merge of fairy tales, with a well-blurred line between the magical and the familiar and an unparalleled evocation of place — with plenty of descriptions of ice, cold, and snow. In what I was surprised to realize was an unusual choice, there was a wide thread of Judaism throughout — the culture, the community, and the place within a non-Jewish community.

Told in alternating voices, we follow the storylines of three women: Miryem, who takes over the moneylending business of her too kind father and thereby attracts the unwanted attentions of the Staryk by appearing to turn silver into gold; Wanda, whose services are given to Miryem by her drunken brute of a father in payment of his debt; and Irina, the very plain daughter of a scheming duke, wed to the cruel tsar through magical trickery.

The common thread amongst these unlikely heroines is that while they begin their story with the common fairytale happy ending (being married to wealthy royalty), they end up rescuing themselves, and the world, from several layers of bitter fate.

The plot is delightfully twisted, and I enjoyed the line between recognizable reality and the fantasy. Magic in multiple forms — from the fairytale style magic of the Staryk and his realm to the magic Wanda feels when she is taught how to read to the “high magic” — “magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it.”

A little long for me at 430 pages, but masterfully done.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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

Sweet, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny — and this is a book about Alzheimers. I didn’t think that sentence was even possible!

30-year old Ruth quits her job in San Francisco to move back home (Southern California) to help with father —a prominent history professor father (Howard) who is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimers. Written in a journal style (short, dated, segments over a year), the entries slowly morph into a set of notes addressed to her father describing their days together — a mirror of the delightful notes he had addressed to her about their time together during her childhood.
Ruth, her brother, and her mother all have their own issues to deal with — breakups, infidelity, betrayal — but the focus on helping Howard helps them in unexpected ways: Ruth finds herself more forgiving, and more understanding of the frailties of the people around her. The story abounds in kindnesses, both large and small. Instead of focusing on the loss, they are able to reestablish the love and connections that bind them into a family, with this new (or old) version of their father. A beautiful, and insightful, line: “Sharing things is how things gets started, and not sharing things is how they end.”
Well-written, fun to read, full of odd factoids and observations, and really touching insights into what relationships (of any kind) are really about.
Great for fans of Weike Wang.

(SF) Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group — Ace through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on April 16, 2019.
Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Elite gamer Dee Whittaker is 43 years old when she finds herself on a ship headed to the outer galaxies on a 20 year trip. She and the other 10,000 people on board are probably all that’s left of humanity as a nuclear war was launched by someone on the ship as a parting gift. Now she has just one mission left — find out who launched that strike. She gets help from an unexpected place…

The novel is for gamers — most of the action transpires under the guise of mysterious games she plays on board at the invitation of “a friend.” The games are very personalized — too personalized. She finds herself in game situations that are far too close to her own traumatic past. Our first-person narrative heroine has some real trust issues — her line: “I smirk at the way life always finds a way to remind me that I am fucked” says it all. As we play the games with her and are treated to scenes from her past, we come to understand this sentiment.

Triggered by these unwelcome reminders of where she came from, she works towards her goal of identification and retribution while simultaneously and studiously *not* dealing with the emotional detritus of her experiences. The ending is a big surprise (at least I didn’t see it coming) and there are some interesting themes of sentience vs programming for both AIs and human beings.

From a literary perspective, this is a good book. Great pacing, a Heinlein-style straightforward writing style and story elements that remind me of Wool, Neuromancer, and Diamond Age. From a “mood enhancing” perspective, it’s pretty sucky. The author makes no bones about writing “dark” fiction, and this book is plenty dark. There is more negative stereotyping than I like — Americans are all tarred with the religious nut brush: “To be American is to be openly, passionately, religious” and “What exactly do they mean by the American way of life? Hypocrisy? Lack of respect for anyone or anything that refuses to adopt its culture? Institutional racism and misogyny? Which Christian values exactly? What sort of religious observance?” To be fair, I realized that if the “bad guys” had been Muslim fanatics I probably wouldn’t have noticed so that was an eye-opener for me.

Bottom line — a fast, engaging read. Mostly action with threads of exploration of sentience, morality and ethics, and self-exploration.

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 12, 2019.

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

The fictionalized history of the creation of The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of Maud Baum, daughter of early suffragette Mathilda Gage and wife of L. Frank Baum, Oz’s creator. Alternating between her personal history from 1871 (10 years old) through 1899 (38 years old) and the 1938-39 Hollywood film production, the pages unravel the secret origins of Oz and the personal world Baum embedded in the story. As the narrative unspools, the characters are brought to life: Frank is the consummate storyteller and imagineer, firmly embedded in thoughts of the future while weaving fantastical stories from everything around him. Maud is his balance — “To see the ordinary, to avoid being bedazzled by spectacle — this was her gift.” She remained a shopkeeper’s daughter, “firmly anchored in the palpable things of this earth — things that could be observed and touched, measured and weighed.”

The scenes are abundantly filled with period details such as peptonizing milk for a baby’s consumption, prescriptions of “Bayer heroin” for coughs, patent medicines, and early air conditioning technology brought to Hollywood — “a heater for the cool.” We follow Frank and Maud as they move from upstate New York to the Dakota territory, working in a variety of occupations from theater management (and acting, scriptwriting, scenic design, etc.), to the owners of Baum’s emporium, to the owner of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer newspaper, to superlative Salesman. Frank was an early marketeer — blending story and spectacle with product to entrance consumers into buying something they never knew they wanted.

The 1938-39 narrative focuses on an older, widowed, Maud, fighting M-G-M to ensure the movie would stay true to Frank’s version. Maud wants to protect the story and what it represents to the millions who have been brought into the Magic of Oz — the longing for something better and the “dream of the rainbow” that keeps people going when times are hard (as they were for most people back then).

I’m not a fan of fictionalized history in general — it feels unfair to me to impart imagined thoughts, motivations, and dialog to real (but dead) people who can no longer set the record straight. However, I get easily caught up in a good story, and Elizabeth Letts has done an excellent job of generating one, starting from a variety of primary and secondary sources and filling in with period detail, imagined internal lives, and a well-defined narrative arc.

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Algonquin Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.
This is the story of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence told from the perspective of four spies from Israel’s “Arab Section” — a precursor of what would eventually become Mossad. Although the book includes a lot of background about the Middle East and the War itself, it is primarily a personal account of the experiences — both internal and external — of the spies.

The spies were Jewish men of Arab descent who wanted to be pioneers in the new, experimental (Zionist, socialist, and paradisical) country. Instead they were asked to “live like an Arab” — far from family and friends and amidst people with completely antithetical views (such as “Death to all Jews”). They were given false Arab / Muslim identities and sent out to gather intelligence and sometimes engage in sabotage. When they were finally able to come back to Israel two years later, it was to a completely different place — the reality of the country was a stark contrast to the ideal which they had held. Drawn from interviews, personal writings, and historical reports, the book did a good job of detailing the time and place as well as the attitudes and activities of the spies and those upon whom they spied.

The writing is uneven with an irregular structure resulting from the mashing together of personal accounts, historical documentation, and the author’s occasionally inserted opinions. A little more synthesis and coherence would have been very welcome. However, I did learn a great deal and appreciated the way the many details brought the time and place to life for me.

While I’ve known the rough history of Israel for a long time, I had either forgotten or never had known many of the specifics that I picked up from the book. At the time Israel declared independence in May 1948, 90% of its Jews were European — and looked down on the “black” Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The creation of Israel was a solution to a European, not Middle Eastern, problem. The declaration of Independence caused a massive influx of Jews from the surrounding Middle Eastern countries — not because they were enamored with the idea of a Jewish state but because they were fleeing a sudden and drastic increase in persecution in their home countries. As an example, according to the book Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish prior to 1948 (pretty much 0% now). So the solution to a European problem resulted in a much more widespread and amplified problem for the same target population in the broader Middle East.

Middle Eastern history is long and complicated and this book did not dissuade me from my largely pro-Israel stance. However, it certainly gave me a deeper comprehension of the experiences of the every-day people of the time on both sides of the fluid borders.

The Colors of All Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Another installment (number 19) of the Botswana-based, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In this episode, Mma Ramotswe is persuaded to run for a seat on the Gabarone City Council in order to prevent the “Big Fun Hotel” from gaining council approval while simultaneously helping the victim of a hit and run accident— who happens to be an old friend of her father’s.

While this book is as good as all the rest, I admit to experiencing some series fatigue with the Botswana collection. The characters, once lovably simple and straightforward, have begun to feel like stereotypes that do not grow. I am feeling more and more irritated with Mma Makutsi’s rigidity and undeserved arrogance while simultaneously being annoyed with Mma Ramotswe for putting up with it! However, the story is interesting and many of the regular characters are developing — Mma Makutsi and her husband have a rare falling out and the way they come back to a loving center is beautifully done, Charlie manages to fall in love, and the ongoing focus on living an intentionally ethical life is always welcome. As usual, McCall Smith has managed to utilize a new (to me) word in his writing: “persipience: a good understanding of things; perceptiveness.” I consider myself to have a large vocabulary but he puts me to shame every time!

Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb. 26, 2019.

A funny and poignant YA book about friendship and making your way in the world. Jackson, Tennessee High School seniors Josie Howard and Delia Wilkes are best friends who created and host their own public access television show. Midnight Matinee is a campy creature-feature complete with dorky attire, low budget “so-bad-it’s-good” horror movies, and two delightfully risible, costumed, witchy hosts named Rayne and Delilah.

As BFFs Josie and Delia work through what will happen to the show and their friendship after high school, the action is peppered with a search for a long-lost, deadbeat, dad; a cartoonishly over-the-top sequence with a has-been film producer and his Russian mafia sidekick; a slowly developing love story with the world’s greatest guy and wannabe MMA champion; and plenty of (gratuitous?) butt and fart jokes.

The writing is good — some hysterically funny live and text-based banter (the collection of one-line descriptions of country music alone is worth the price of admission) mixed with heartfelt scenes of connection, questioning, and resolve.

Great for fans of John Green.