Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley (Fiction)

A cheerful, happy, just-what-I-needed book. A series of commutes on the Waterloo lines (London) leads to a burgeoning group of friends centered on one larger-than-life Iona Iverson — previously an “It Girl” alongside Bea, the love of her life. Iona is a popular “magazine therapist” (not an Agony Aunt!) plying her trade at a women’s magazine, but her clueless boss is pushing her towards the door due to her advanced age (57). Meanwhile, her unofficial and unpaid break-all-the-norms-of-commuting business is thriving.

Watching the group coalesce, each facing his/her own problems (a teenage girl afraid to show her face at school, a successful banker rapidly losing his money, a husband so dull his wife can’t stand him, and a male nurse without the confidence to approach the bookworm with an overbearing boyfriend) is funny, poignant, and uplifting. Big kudos to the author for actually bringing out the assumptions we make about people we don’t know and showing how wrong we can be. Rather than taking the easy way out and subscribing to the always popular white male bashing, she lets the person who appears to be the “smart but sexist Manspreader,” turn out to be a pretty decent guy (see one of the quotes below). Kudos!

Some fun quotes:
“Sanjay wound the tape back in his head, re-examining it from a different angle. Perhaps Piers hadn’t actually been flaunting anything. Perhaps that was just what he’d wanted to see. Was he just as guilty of stereotyping as everyone else? The thought lodged in his brain like a festering splinter.”

“…peering at him through narrowed eyes, giving him the impression of being scanned by a supermarket checkout machine before being declared an unexpected item in the bagging area.”

“He was like an electrical appliance on standby — still plugged in, but not functioning — and she had no idea where to find the remote control.”

“Emmie, why on earth did you decide to go into advertising if you have such an inflexible conscience?”

“Shakespeare, she’d discovered, never used four words when twenty-six would do. He might be good at the whole play thing, but he’d be useless at writing the emergency evacuation instructions for an airline.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking, Pamela Dorman Books 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.

The Key to Deceit by Ashley Weaver (Mystery)

A real palette cleanser — light, fun, non-standard characters, the closure of a good mystery, and some historical context. The second in the Electra McDonnell series (I have not yet read the first), the semi-reformed Ellie (her family was happily living on the wrong side of the law) teams up again with the well-bred and straight-laced Major Ramsey to break up a spy ring in London, 1940. Some very likable thieves and forgers, a pleasant clash or classes, and a background mystery concerning Ellie’s own (long deceased) mother all make this a great read in the cacophonous world of today!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 21st, 2022.

The Last Dance of the Debutante By Julia Kelly

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A description of the London debutante season during the last year at which debs were presented to Queen Elizabeth (March 1958). Told from the perspective of Lily — a young woman who would much prefer furthering her studies in literature but nevertheless obliges her mother and grandmother by being the best deb she can be. While there are plenty of descriptions of gowns, parties, and balls (as one would expect), what I liked was the perspective of someone for whom the daily activities were — while pleasurable at times — more chore than treat. Utterly exhausting at times, in fact. The Season had a purpose and it was to be pursued with brutal focus: meet the “right” people and find an eligible man with whom to start the “right” kind of life. Lily has principles and gains a greater understanding of what those principles are and how to handle the conflicts that arise when her principles meet her family’s goals. We gain access to a variety of characters through an unusual take on the lives of “quality” women during this time period. Some secrets are unearthed, some surprising events occur, and the story is engaging from start to finish. The author describes her interviews with various debutantes of the time — very well put together!

Bryant & May: London Bridge is Falling Down by Christopher Fowler (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
Another beyond convoluted, arcana rich, episode of Bryant & May. In this installment, the two old (or rapidly decaying in one instance) colleagues and their merry band of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are once again battling to keep their unit alive. Given that the building has been gutted, their equipment retracted, and they’ve been told they are out of jobs, it isn’t going well. However, leveraging a loophole requiring all open cases to be closed before the unit can be officially shut down, Bryant gloms onto the case of a 91-year old lady found starved to death in her apartment. Blamed on a communication breakdown in social services, it turns out to be anything but. The merry chase that ensues involves the CIA, a Latvian national, a set of secret files, MI6, agents left over from Bletchley and of course, Bryant’s motley crew of “experts” ranging from psychics to anarchists to reformed academic sewage engineers to OCD ridden book restorers. It’s a fun and often confusing ride with rich veins of British history pumped throughout. Some fun pokes at Millenials too.

A nice quote about (mis)information spreading like disease: “There’s a nice traditional feel to the way diseases circle the earth. Information has the same spread pattern. It expands parts from a central starting point, burning through the crowded hot spots, bypassing those in isolation, guarded by super-spreaders.”

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on December 7th, 2021.

The Peculiarities by David Liss (Speculative Fiction)

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

In the Age of Peculiarities, women give birth to rabbits, well-dressed ghouls roam the streets of London, individuals start sprouting leaves, and terrible luck to those who break contracts — though these oddities mostly impact the very poorest, so who cares? It’s 1899 and Thomas Thresher — the younger, largely ignored, son of the Thresher banking family — turns to the occult to find out why the bank seems so very involved in the pervasive disasters. He seeks to save the bank and return it to its original charter — to serve those with nowhere else to go.

Portals to astral realms, a magical society, and Aleister Crowley himself are at the center of this wild-ride style adventure. Plenty of surprises, wry asides, and a strong sense of duty — but what I really love is that the ability to see and manipulate the patterns within mathematics is the powerful magic that is able to do what the best stylings of the Crowley gang cannot.

A real page-turner — well-written, humorous, exciting, and with a wide array of interesting, non-stereotypical, characters.

Good for fans of Alix E. Harrow and Susannah Clark.

Thank you to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 7th, 2021.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

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

A heartwarming piece of historically accurate fiction. Grace Bennet — 23 — heads to London just in time for Britain to enter the war and the Blitz to begin. Without any kind of reference, she is lucky to get a job at Primrose Hill Books, complete with the requisite curmudgeonly owner, Mr. Evans.

This is the story of Grace’s growth into a stellar human being and unassuming pillar of the community. We share her experiences as a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, her discovery of books and reading, and her ability to find ways to bring some light into people’s lives.

While similar stories have been told before, Martin’s depictions of the British spirit and the way the community comes together in the face of terrible adversity were completely inspiring. I was also, of course, enraptured by her transformation into a bonafide Reader of Books.

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 April 20th, 2021.

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.

Just Like You by Nick Hornby (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Story: 3.5/5

London, England.  Boy meets Girl in this simple story with character depth and plenty of everyday life thrown in. Girl is Lucy — a 42-year old white English teacher, divorced with two sons. Boy is Joseph — a 22-year old black “portfolio worker” (someone who works lots of jobs rather than one) interested in grime music and hoping to DJ. (As an aside, it is not possible to have a Nick Hornby book in which there is no character who is immersed in music).

I’m a Nick Hornby fan — this book had the great dialog and likable characters I’ve come to expect from him — while the characters didn’t all agree with each other, I would be happy to spend more time with most of them. Plenty of topics covered in ways that gave me something to think about: race, age and socioeconomic gaps, stereotypes, affinity groups, and how opinions can be formed by one’s willingness to to cling closer to or distinguish oneself from a group.

Brexit and later the Trump election form the larger-than-life background topics. He must be kicking himself to have finished this too soon — the pandemic would have made another excellent backdrop! By throwing together two people with wildly different backgrounds and characteristics, each situation can be specific to them and not representation of a category. I liked the way difficult issues could be presented and discussed as part of daily life without the heavy handedness of larger-than-life events. I also liked the fact that there was no clear resolution, because guess what? How often do we get real resolution in life? Deftly done and entertaining to boot.

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept 29th, 2020.

 

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

The second installment of Horowitz’ self-referential detective series starring himself as the semi-bumbling, self-deprecating sidekick to the enigmatic Detective Daniel Hawthorne. Horowitz writes fantastic mysteries — they are convoluted in the most delightful ways, are full of interesting characters, and progress at the perfect pace (also — I never do figure it out early!) One of the benefits of this particular series is also gaining some insight into other aspects of Horowitz’ writing life — the production issues for Foyles War, the interactions with agents and booksellers, and parts of the Writer’s Process (as experienced by Mr. Horowitz).

I don’t want to give away *anything* in the plot, but it covers a wide range of places, people, time, and professions — divorce lawyers, (very) expensive wine, literary snobs, interior decorators, spelunkers, forensic accountants, muscular dystrophy, and the NHS. Horowitz does an impressive job of applying diversity to characters with no regard to stereotypical expectations. I did find myself struggling to constantly sift out the fact from the fiction, which told me more about myself and my own neuroses than about the book — it doesn’t matter a bit! A fun read.

Great for fans of Robert Galbraith.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.