All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (Audio Book — Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

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

Ky Tran comes back to the violent, drug ridden, largely Vietnamese / Chinese Sydney suburb of Cabramatta when her relatively nerdy, honor student, brother is brutally murdered at a post graduation party. The witnesses won’t talk, the police don’t care, and her parents haven’t the language skills or the will to pursue the matter. Ky tackles the witnesses — most of whom she knows — unable to let the matter rest. The novel structure fills in background, the story each witness reluctantly lets out, and the real story each remembers about while curating what comes out of their mouth. The path of disclosure winds towards a confrontation with Minnie — the best friend Ky hasn’t spoken to in years.

The writing is good and the main reader for the audio book is excellent (I did not love the two minor readers but they only appear once each for a relatively short time). I appreciated the in-depth descriptions of different approaches taken by members of a refugee community trying to make a life in a new country that doesn’t necessarily want them. Insightful commentary on loyalty, friendship, family, justice, and the concept of “being good.”

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 13th, 2022.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill (Mystery)

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

A three-layer nested story merging a murder mystery, the evolution of friendships, and some fascinating insight into a writer’s process.

Australian Hannah Tigon is a writer, and in a semi-epistolary shell to the novel, she writes a chapter which is followed by detailed feedback and comments from an e-colleague living in Boston where her story is set. These comments get stranger and stranger as the book evolves. In the story itself, Winifred Kincaid (Freddie) is also a writer — trying to get some work done in the Boston Library when a bloodcurdling scream is heard. She — and the three others nearby — form a friendship after the scream as they try to figure out what happened. In the third layer of the story, she bases her characters on these three new friends.

Twisted. Engaging. Quite well written in the spare, thoughtful style that I like. The story is told from Freddie’s first person perspective and her internal dialog is clever, colorful and full of insight into a writer’s thoughts. I found it interesting that she presented some un-PC perspectives such as a white author bemoaning the fact that he never got to benefit from white privilege (see quote) and took an interesting perspective on race — never telling us the race of the characters while simultaneously being harangued for same by the man sending her feedback.

A few interesting quotes:

“I open my mouth to explain, to assure him that I’m a writer, not a leering harasser, but of course this is the reading room, and one does not conduct a defense while people are trying to read. I do attempt to let him know I’m just interested in him as the physical catalyst for a character I’m creating, but that’s too complex to convey in mime.”

“But they all smile while they talk — that’s the difference I think, that’s what makes it American. Australians don’t seem to be able to smile and talk at the same time — unless they’re lying, of course.”

“I write her terror gently, allowing what is unsaid to carry the narrative, aware that overt emotion could well move the story into melodrama.”

“The reality is, I suppose, that I am a straight white man with no diversity disadvantage to offer as a salve for the fashionable collective guilt that rules publishing. I understand that popular correctness demands that men like me be denied to compensate for all the years in which we were given too much. I just wish I’d had a chance to enjoy a little of that privilege before it became a liability.”

“I’m not sure if they have more information or if it is simply an inevitable evolution of sensationalism.”

“Cain smiles at me, and the fact that he’s handsome is again very salient.”

“New, but already beloved, wrapped in the excited crush of friendship’s beginning, untarnished by the annoyances, disappointments, and minor betrayals which come with the passing of time.”

Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

All Together Now by Matthew Norman (Fiction)

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

In a kind of modern-day Big Chill, four far-flung high school friends are brought together for one last blow out weekend. Billionaire Robbie Malcolm is dying of cancer and asks his oldest friends to come for one last get together. Cat Miller — Hollywood producer — has just quit her job and ended her lesbian relationship with the married star of her show; Wade Stephens — “inexplicably good at useless things” — is flat broke as he watches his second novel go through a long string of rejections; and Blaire McKenzie Harden — married with children — is wondering how on earth she ended up owning a minivan. For each, it becomes a time of reflection about friendships, parenthood, relationships, and the inevitable effects of time marching on without consent.

As an aside, l Iearned about an interesting financial scheme called viatical settlement — where someone buys the insurance policy from someone who is dying for less than its value. I honestly didn’t understand what was so despicable about it — it allows someone access to money before their death and they pay for the privilege. There was some discussion about rich people, how they got their wealth, whether or not they could be good people, etc. but not at the depth it deserved. That was one aspect of the book that fell into stereotyped treads and wasn’t really developed on either side.

I liked Norman’s last book — The Last Couple Standing. He is good at writing realistic relationships and presenting multiple character viewpoints well and that comes out here as well. For this book, I didn’t really love the “billionaire facilitation” aspect of this story, though it served its purpose and didn’t sink into too much Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Overall an easy and enjoyable read.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 15th, 2021.

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

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

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

The story of a lifelong friendship between two women who first meet at Lovegood College in 1958. Feron comes from a terrible, dark, background and has trouble connecting with people in any meaningful way; complacent and composed, Merry comes from a happy background and yet suffers a tragedy that forces her to withdraw from school after only one semester. Both develop literary interests and talents which feature in the story.

It’s an odd (to me) friendship and an odder narrative. After bonding immediately as freshman roommates, their next contact isn’t for ten years and remains sporadic after that. The narrative plays off this strange relationship by leaping from contact to contact and filling in the (event rich) intervening years via memories and asides. Thus whole marriages are relegated to a sad memory summarized in a couple of lines.

In some ways the book is written well — the language is good, the characters interesting, the dialog decent. However, it was difficult to get invested in the characters and this central relationship when there was so little to it. The author does convey the closeness each feels to the other, in spite of the fact that neither seems to make much effort to connect more often. It’s possible that these are just not people or modes of interaction that would work for me — I didn’t particularly like either of the main characters. I could not manage to find empathy for Feron, despite knowing her background and being privy to her inner thoughts. Merry was less well developed and while likable, she was far too passive for my taste. I feel like a real friendship would have brought out more in the other — the fact that these two felt close, despite rarely seeing or talking to each other, wasn’t much of a story.

While there was a lot in the book I liked — the (very different) literary aspirations, motivations, and processes for the two; the full depictions of Merry’s tobacco farm, Feron’s New York City life, Lovegood college, and the other characters — overall I found it rather depressing. Nobody in the book has a particularly happy life, and while the tone is not overly dramatic (the action is removed since it’s all in history), I felt dragged into an emotional pall. While each character seemed to have found some happiness or sense of accomplishment in their life, we don’t get to experience that directly. Overall I found the book mildly interesting from an intellectual perspective and mildly depressing from the emotional.