Ask Again,Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Character: 5/5

I ended up loving this story exploring the impact of a “tragic event” on two families. In general, I don’t like reading about tragic events — it’s depressing, upsetting, and being the emotional sponge that I am, I don’t feel the need to soak up more misery than is absolutely necessary. But! This really wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s a book about people making their way through life, living with choices — both the ones they make and the ones thrust upon them — and learning about themselves and each other.

Two families brought together happenstance (two rookie cops in the same class, a move to adjacent houses in the suburbs) are inextricably bound together by the aforementioned “tragic incident.” The book does a brilliant job of showcasing the full impact of mental illness — from the person who suffers, to his or her family, and the swath of destruction left in its wake. Ranging from the early seventies to the present day, we get intimate portraits of each character as his or her innate personalities are molded, expanded, and stunted by his or her experiences — a kind of a human development lab examining the twining of nature and nurture. Some excellent portraits of marriage — I love one of the lines: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested.”

Absorbing writing, in-depth, and insightful characters — an exploration of the impact of the vicissitudes of life on evolving into the person you become.

Good for fans of Ann Packer or Joyce Carol Oates.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (F&SF)

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

Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (three are available to date) is every bit as good (if not better) than book one. I wouldn’t mind a (non-invasive) peek into Sanderson’s brain because his ability to world build is better than any I’ve seen. The variety and depth of the cultures that populate these worlds is overwhelming — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

While volume one reads well as a stand-alone (no cliff hangers), volume two does take up where it left off (by the way, I waited one full year before reading the second book and had no trouble remembering the characters or world — it was that vivid). Words of Radiance brings the storylines of the three main characters closer together as they each muster their own internal resources (and develop unexpected capabilities) to tackle the danger that faces Roshar. Dalinar rises to the challenge of refounding the Knights Radiant in spite of overwhelming and devious opposition of all the other High Princes; Kaladin contends with his own bitterness, mistrust, and divided loyalties in his new leadership position as most trusted personal guard of the King and family; and Shallan — meek supplicant scholar in book one — develops in every dimension possible to become absolutely essential for the preservation of the human race on Roshar.

Plenty of action and tension, strong moral and ethical themes around honor, blame, responsibility, and doing what is right. Great character development — the heroes make sometimes drastic mistakes and have inner as well as outer demons to fight while the villains are often motivated by similar values but conflicting needs and situation assessments. There are more answers — and more questions — on some fundamental concepts of the world such as the Spren, the Void Bringers and the Desolations. Sanderson is a master at introducing other cultures by way of natural storytelling rather than long descriptions. As an aside, I love the division of labor between males and females: females are the scholars, scientists, and engineers; males are the warriors and politicians. Reading is considered too feminine for most men. Crossover happens — some people are scandalized and others couldn’t care less. A fun twist on gender assumptions!

My favorite line: “Do not let your assumptions about a culture block your ability to perceive the individual or you will fail.”

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

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

Women’s fiction pairing romcom humor with a smart, capable, protagonist. Complex themes with authentic resolutions. Multi-cultural and sexual diversity interest.

29 year-old Raina Anand is under constant pressure from her beloved Nani to get married. Her best friend is about the tie the knot and the close knit Indian community in her Toronto suburb is all geared up to help her follow suit. However, Raina is keeping a shameful secret — she is still in love with the man she left (in another country) 2 years ago. In order to protect this secret, she allows her Nani to believe she is gay — with broad and surprising consequences.

This is not your typical romcom. There are no firemen, no Fabios flexing muscles, and no ditzy but lovable blondes prepared to make some man very happy. The story continually veers off into unexpected territory and allows the main character to experience real emotional growth while trying to find her way in the world. Opening on Raina’s 29th birthday, the narrative carries through to her 30th, interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks to previous memorable birthdays. Her family is not typical (is anyone’s?). Half Indian, half caucasian, she was raised by her grandparents and only rarely saw her mother who bore her when only 16. But even this is not exactly as it seems — there is depth and nuance in this story.

There is a strong theme of sexual orientation diversity — portrayed in an interesting way because while our first person narrative protagonist is not gay herself, this “small” white lie highlights the clash of tradition and modernism simmering beneath the surface of her small, tight-knit, community.

Fun, witty, writing. Well structured with good messages about diversity, values, and the danger of letting shame drive you into making bad decisions.