Maame by Jessica George (Literary Fiction)

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

In Twi (one of the languages spoken in Southern and Central Ghana), Maame means “woman” or “mother” or “Responsible One.” And that is the name by which Maddie is known (and treated) within her (somewhat dysfunctional by many standards) family. This story of the 25 year old dutiful daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in London is beautiful, insightful, humorous, and utterly engaging. Maddie is finally ready to strike out on her own after several years of caring for her Parkinson’s debilitated father whilst her brother and mother have managed to find urgent excuses to be elsewhere. With a new job, a new apartment (with new flatmates), and a few boyfriend experiments, Maddie feels ready to transpose herself into “fun” Maddie and “happy” Maddie, though her true (intentionally stifled) feelings always manage to seep through. With deft and spare prose, the book delves into deep issues of how we become the selves we want to be, rather than the selves that have unintentionally emerged while we were making other plans.

The story explores the roots of Maddie’s desires and unhappiness — seen through the lens of multiple cultures, friends, family, religion, and … the ultimate source of all knowledge … Google. Some honest and new (to me) discussions of racism, from a personal point of view rather than a strident, social justice approach. I loved the first lines: “In African culture — Wait, no, I don’t want to be presumptuous or in any way nationalistic enough to assume certain Ghanaian customs run true in other African countries. I might in fact just be speaking of what passes as practice in my family, but regardless of who the mores belong to, I was raised to keep family matters private.” In one fell swoop George outlined Maddie’s personal context in the many layers of identity to which she belonged.

I absolutely love George’s writing. Great structure with most of the content deriving from interactions (in-person, text), reflections (including some great conversations with “subconscious Maddie” who can be quite flippant bordering on rude), and extensive (and intriguing) “conversations” with Google. I love her use of vocabulary — the exact right word at the exact right spot in the prose. I love that Maddie’s flirtation with one man made extensive use of accurately placed semicolons. I loved Maddie’s Voice — so real and so individual. The language conveys essence and experience skillfully, without resorting to tricks of plots and constant emotional tugging. It feels genuine — that rarest of literary attributes.

So many excellent quotes — here are just a few:

“When Waterloo station approaches, I brace myself for another day at a job Google itself has deemed deserving of a bronze medal in the race to unhappiness.”

“We were friendlier at first, joked around a bit more, but that dried up like the arse of a prune on a date and time I still can’t stick a definitive pin in.”

“For some reason, at night, when you’re meant to be sleeping, your brain wants answers to everything.”

“It’s mentally exhausting trying to figure out if I’m taking that comment on my hair or lunch too seriously. It’s isolating when no one I know here is reading the Black authors I am or watching the same TV shows.”

“Still, that doesn’t change the fact that although I didn’t think I’d be rich I expected to be happy and the failure to do so has left me gasping for air most of the day.”

“I only suffer a few hiccups, mainly with the printer because they’re all bastards and will likely lead the technological charge in the eventual war against humans, but I’ve finished everything before Penny returns from her last meeting of the day.”

“I’d googled what to do when your flatmate is dumped by someone they’re casually seeing, but Google seemed very confused with at least two parts of the sentence.”

“I know what to do, how not to bring attention to myself. I’m skilled in assimilation, though my subconscious is quick to remind me that it’s nothing to be proud of. I have spent the entirety of my professional life in predominantly white spaces. As a bookseller, a receptionist, at the theater, and now a publishing house. Over the years, my instinct has been to shrink myself, to make sure I’m not too loud, to talk only about subjects I feel well versed in.”

“She frowns. ‘I don’t know why you’re offended. Gold-diggers are our nation’s hardest workers; do you know how much effort goes into pretending to give a shit about some guy for his money? A lot. Hoes are Britain’s unsung heroes.”

“It’s about what love is. Which is trust, commitment, empathy, and respect. It means really giving a shit about the other person.”

“I’m late, arriving halfway through, and he’s speaking Fante, which when spoken quickly is like trying to catch bubbles before they pop.”

“I cut the conversation off there because the way I see it, apologies only benefit the beggar. They get a clear conscience, and I get a sequence of hollow words incapable of changing anything.”

“Okay,” she says, and for a word that is often spelled with only two letters, she makes each syllable work hard. I slightly hate her.”

“I think when working in white spaces we can feel programmed to not rock the boat; like, we got a foot in the door and we should try to keep that door closed behind us. Which means you begin assigning any and all problematic issues to just being a part of the job….”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 7th, 2023.

Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

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

Another fun, twisty mystery by Elly Griffiths of Ruth Galloway fame — number 3 in the Harbinder Kaur series. Harbinder — our 38-year old diminutive Sikh lesbian — has just made Detective Inspector and is now in charge of a London based Murder Investigation Team.

A great first line (in the prolog) appears to be a confession of guilt for a decades old murder. This is rapidly followed by the school reunion of a high achieving group of friends who were all affected by that long ago death. The long awaited “fun” evening ends in the death of one the group — his body found in the school bathroom with cocaine dust around his nostrils.

A nice, convoluted mystery with plenty of interesting characters. What I found particularly fun was Harbinder’s inner monologue regarding her new subordinates, witnesses, potential suspects, and surprising love interests. While always behaving professionally and never losing her cool, we are treated to her irritation regarding arrogant attitudes, bimbo responses, and one particular subordinate’s oft repeated macho stances. I thoroughly enjoyed this insight into an honest and human interior in contrast with a professional and impassive exterior.

Thank you to Mariner Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 15th, 2022.

V for Victory by Lissa Evans (Fiction)

Completely heartwarming novel about London in the latter stages of WWII (taking over where Crooked Heart left off). Noel Bostock (15) and his “pretend” Aunt (Vee) are living in the large house Noel inherited from his “pretend” godmother, the famous suffragette Mattie Simpkin. It has become a boarding house where boarders pay rent in both cash and tutoring for Noel. When a room becomes vacant, they search for a boarder with specific knowledge to impart. Noel is the most wonderful character — smart, capable, kind, and curious about absolutely everything. Mr. Reddish teaches him math while quoting his own rather bad poetry; Dr. Parry-Jones teaches science (giving him a dissectible rat for his birthday); the one-eared Mr. Jepson teaches him Latin; and Miss Appleby mixes her French lessons with more personal lessons about the heart (her heart to be precise).

In the odd way different lives seem to come together haphazardly, an American GI drives a lorry on the wrong side of the road, the more fashionable (and obnoxious) twin of an air-raid warden writes a surprising novel about her sister, and Noel’s origin story comes out of hiding.

I really like her writing — some nice quotes below:

“He didn’t have a family tree, he had a Venn diagram, in which none of the circles overlapped.”

“Impossible to explain Vee’s myriad antipathies, her constantly updated list of prejudices and judgements.”

“She had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.”

“Since the end, just a year ago, of his own, terrible marriage he found himself studying other couples, like someone conning an aircraft recognition chart — spotting those tics and phrases that signaled contempt or boredom or fear, and when he saw those, he wanted to take one or other of the pair aside, and say, ‘Finish it now.’

“Jepson was present but unlit, so that in the dining room he was more furniture than inhabitant, talked around and over, but never to. But in lessons there were glimmers — he had seized Noel’s first essay and pushed the words around the page like backgammon counters, showing him how to introduce a subject, how to make a neat and satisfying ending, how to prune, and rearrange the content.”

“It was so easy, she thought, as he led her towards the music; he was so easy — a printed postcard, when every other man she’d ever known was a sealed letter filled with blank pages or mystifying codes”

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.