War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction History)

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 October 6th, 2020.

This is a surprisingly engaging study of War as a human activity throughout history — rather than the more commonplace in-depth study of a particular conflict. With tight (read non-meandering, non-dry, non-dull) prose, MacMillan studies War from its evolution across the ages: how the ability to make war and changes in human society progress inextricably; the evolution of war across changes in society and technical advancement; the shift from King and Country to nationalism and our view of warriors; what induces people to fight, the role of civilians, and the efforts to control and regulate something as completely uncontrollable as the license to slaughter other human beings. Drawing on a wide variety of examples — from the Peloppenesian and Punic wars to more modern conflicts and everything in between — she brings this uniquely human activity into a sobering perspective.

Like most historians, MacMillan provides an impressive array of sources at the end — what I particularly appreciated is that a significant portion of those referred to individual accounts — diaries, letters, etc. This gave her narrative the perspective of the individual as well as the big picture trends. Her attention to detail pervades from the high-level machinations of governments, kings, and rebels down to the experiences of individual foot soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and diplomats.

Here are some parts that stuck with me for a variety of reasons:

• For much of history the records were made and kept by that minority who could read and write. WWI was groundbreaking in that the majority of combatants were literate.
• We have an antipathy to war that makes us avoid its study and understanding.
• A paradox of war: growing state power and the emergence of larger states are the result of war but can also then bring peace. A strong state keeps a monopoly on force and violence but keeps things peaceful within. For example, Tito kept Yugoslavia together — once he toppled all the ethnic groups within started killing each other. Similarly, the Chinese Qin empire in 221 BC was run by a ruthless tyrant but was remembered with gratitude as the ruler who brought peace and order to China.
• After Waterloo, the British proudly wore dentures made from battlefield dead and used their skeletons as fertilizer.
• Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to — many came to war to avoid shame, not for glory or duty.
• People at home hate the enemy more than the fighters do. The fighters have pity for each other and understand how similar they are. Those at home see the enemy as one anonymous “they”.
• The longer or costlier the siege, the worse the treatment of the citizens afterwards.
• In WWII, Germany followed International prisoner protocols as long as they considered the prisoners their racial equals — the French and British, not the Poles or Russians.
• The state of the British soldiers during the Boer war was so poor that society started a whole program to improve health of citizenry in order to have more fit soldiers.

While I thought I preferred her deep-dive books to this thematic one, I’ve found these concepts keep coming back into my brain. I’m realizing that it has shifted my way of thinking on the topic — which is exactly what happened to me with her book The War That Ended Peace (highly recommended — all about what led up to WWI). She has an ability to get to the heart of subjects, and her examples are illuminating because while I was aware of some before, I had not been aware of how they exemplified the theme.

Reading this book was both fascinating and depressing, though not in an emotionally wrenching way. While I was aware of all the conflicts she mentioned, the aggregation of violence and mass destruction through the ages makes it harder to ignore. Her concluding point is that we must keep thinking about War, despite our innate abhorrence of the topic, because it has reached a point (Total War, Modern War, high-tech weaponry) where we are threatening all of humanity.

A single quote: “War is a mystery both to those who fight and those of us who are on the sidelines. And it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive. It promises glory and offers suffering and death. We who are non-combatants may fear the warriors, but we also admire, even love, them. And we cannot pretend we are not party of the same family, with the same potential for fighting.”

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons (Mystery)

Number 17 in the ever enlightening, ever entertaining Bryant & May series. In this episode, the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) — finally tipped over the brink of being shut down permanently — is “temporarily” reinstated to solve a series of high profile murders that appear to be following the verses of the age old children’s nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.”

As always, the writing has me in stitches as well as completely gripped by the story. We have an intriguing new character — Sydney — who when queried about whether or not she is “on the spectrum” responds that she prefers to think of herself as “over the rainbow.” When accused of being offended by something, she responds “It’s the millennials who take offense. I’m Generation Z.” I love her. Each of the misfits of the PCU is bursting with an off-canter personality of some sort, especially Arthur Bryant who dwells happily in the arcana of existential English history and alternate forms of knowledge.

And also as always, I never saw the end coming until it smacked me in the face.

This is a unique mystery series — I’ve never read another one quite like it.

Thank you to Ballantine Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on NovDecember 8th, 2020.

 

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

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

Ex-editor / publisher Susan Ryeland is living in a not-so-glorious involuntary retirement in Crete after the events of Horowitz’ Magpie Murders in which her primary author (Alan Conway) was murdered and her publishing company offices burned to the ground. Now she is approached by a pair of distraught parents who want to help find Cecily Treherne, their missing daughter. Why Susan? Because just before she went missing Cecily had called them to say that upon rereading Conway’s Atticus Pund Takes the Case, she realized that the wrong person had been jailed eight years ago for a murder taking place in the Treherne hotel. I love British murder mysteries but I am constantly amazed that anyone is left alive in the country!!

This is a murder mystery steeped in literary detection. Right in the middle of the novel we are treated to the entire text of Atticus Pünd Takes the Case to try to decipher what Cecily read. I didn’t figure it out and neither will you (let me know if I’m wrong — I’d love to hear!). The literary “clues” are deeply embedded in the book and we need the main character to unpack them for us. Luckily there are also a lot of un-literary clues that follow more traditional murder mystery lines.

Lots of fun to read, though I admit to having had a hard time keeping track of the initial characters once the book-within-a-book began (it is not short). Horowitz is an adaptable writer — he does a great job of writing in the style of another (his Sherlock Holmes stories are a case in point). The embedded Atticus Pünd book is in the style of Agatha Christie and Pünd himself is a thinly disguised Poirot (I literally just finished watching the entire David Suchet series so it was easy to spot).

Possibly a little long — especially the embedded book. I like the Horowitz style of writing better than the Agatha Christie-like writing so that also added to the feeling of wanting to get back to the main story a little faster. As always, though, the plot twists were just the right amount of convoluted and surprising. Worth reading.

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 November 10th, 2020.

 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Mystery)

Coopers Chase retirement village — a place where everyone has done something interesting with his or her life and everyone has a story. And trouble with technology, memory, and joints. They aren’t afraid to play the dementia card if it suits them. The Thursday murder club meets every — you guessed it — Thursday to talk about cold cases to see if they can solve the cases to its own satisfaction. That is, until a real murder falls into their lap. And then another, and possibly a third.

Sounds like your everyday cozy but it isn’t at all. The ocatgenarians of the club are interesting and smart: Elizabeth, with the mysterious background and friends in high and low places who all seem to owe her favors; Ibrahim, the retired psychiatrist, who pores over the cases he failed; Ron, the former trade union leader who loves a chance to get back on the stage; and Joyce, the newest addition, who has the often underappreciated skill of bringing everyone together while remaining invisible herself.

The plot is convoluted with all sorts of intertwining stories, some with actual bearing on the case and others simply with bearing on individual lives. Great writing that had me in stitches, completely gripped, and even tearful at times.

My one word summary: fun! Make that two words: Great fun!

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

 

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow (speculative fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Harrow is a fantastic storyteller! I very much enjoyed her The Ten Thousand Doors of January and this second novel is every bit as good if not better. Hooray!

The action takes place in New Salem in the 1890s. It’s a kind of alternate history where the women’s suffrage movement becomes entwined with a movement to bring back witching —benevolent witching being another route to to recover lost power for women in an era rife with female oppression. The three Eastwood sisters — bookish Beatrice Belladona, strong Agnes Amaranth, and wild James Juniper — are at the heart of the story as they work together with a growing sisterhood to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon.

It’s a book focused on women, with a smattering of male characters playing both utterly good and utterly evil men — a male version of the madonna / whore dichotomy. I love it! I also loved the way the embedded fairy tales — written by Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang — bore little resemblance to the fairy tales with wicked witches I’ve grown up with. A not so subtle reminder that history is written by the victor!

Lots of action but not the kind that bores me, plenty of interesting characters, and some fantastic malevolence captured in an evil creature of some inner complexity. She even manages to weave in lesbians and a trans person in a completely matter-of-fact manner. Lush prose suffused with magical realism and gripping from start to finish.

Great for fans of Alice Hoffman, Diane Setterfield, and Deborah Harkness.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 13th, 2020.

Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

Jared is a bot. Engineered from human DNA, he lives a productive life as a dentist in Ypsilanti, Michigan and is deeply programmed to serve humans. Until one day … he starts to have feelings. Thus begin his simultaneously hilarious and yet poignant adventures as he heads to Hollywood to write a screenplay daring to portray bots as beings deserving humane treatment and not the “killer bots” that comprise the bulk of modern cinema.

The social commentary is priceless as Jared struggles to make rational sense of human behavior. Jared’s “voice” as a developing character is so appealing — his way of expressing surprise, disbelief, and acceptance is incomparable. He refers to himself as a “toaster with a heart.” Bots are the new underclass in this world because after all — they aren’t even human. While the journey is comic (laugh out loud funny much of the time), there are plenty of deep things to think about: What makes us human? What should our relationship with other beings be? What kind of “programming” do we humans have of which we are not explicitly aware?

In some ways this reminded me of Vonnegut — the speculative and humorous extrapolation of today’s social mores — but with a little more depth in terms of human (or bot) experience and how we treat others. As fun additions, there are some great descriptions of classic movies (without titles) that are fun to see through Jared’s eyes (and try to make the identification), some fun screen-writing tips, and all the details of a futuristic road trip adventure.

I won’t give away the ending but I loved the way the author embedded an intricately layered set of foreshadowing and self-referential plot twists.

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 September 1st, 2020.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Fiction)

Thank you to Doubleday books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals by Becky Mandelbaum (Literary Fiction)

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

After a false start I ended up loving this book — it just got better and better. Kansas. An animal sanctuary. The nature of home, love, forgiveness, and understanding.

Mona runs the “Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” in rural Kansas with a single devoted employee on a shoestring budget. Her daughter Ariel left years ago to find a life of her own but is drawn inexorably back when news reaches her of a deadly fire at the sanctuary.

I almost stopped reading after the first chapters. Trump has just been elected, and the sanctuary fire is set by what appears to be a stereotypical “bad guy” (think swastikas, racists, Fox News). Not my kind of thing. Instead, the story delves into the people and all the connections between them. It looks at how personal histories (both good and bad) shape people and how each individual has to continually work to understand their own motivations, mistakes, and desires. The writing is excellent, depicting life in a (poorly funded) animal sanctuary in vivid detail — the animals, the work, the squalor, the caring.

The plot is unpredictable, all of the characters are engaging and fully fleshed out, and the environment is intriguing and very real. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:
“…how unfortunate it was that they didn’t kiss the way humans did, how they could never really hold a loved one in their arms. So few animals even had lips.”

“…because caretaking seemed like the only reasonable occupation in a world that needed so much care.”

“She had always admired this type of woman — women like her mother, like Sunny — who naturally exuded authority. They navigated the world with confidence, looking for things to improve, whereas Ariel moved through the world on tip-toes, expecting someone to reprimand her, to tell her she was doing something wrong.”

“Out here, we have to work with nature. It’s our boss. Our livelihood. Out there, people see nature as this dying thing they need to protect — this thing totally separate from themselves, from the world of people.”

“The animals are weird at night. You’d be surprised how many of them are awake — like they’re all dressed up and ready for church.”

“Maybe that’s the ingredient they’d been missing all along — the ability to say the squishy stuff other families had no problem tossing around.”

“Even in the moments of greatest anger, behind the flames there was always love. If anything, love was the air that stoked the blaze.”

“It seemed both absurd and unjust, that murdering animals made you rich while caring for them made you poor.”

“You know, my mom used to have this saying. She’d say ‘Mona, sorry is like a sponge. You can use it to clean up your messes, but the more you use it, the dirtier it gets.’”

“Dex would catch her looking at him, a shimmer of contempt in her eyes, as if his penis alone had engineered the electoral college.”

“It was something she’d noticed since the election: everyone was eager to dole out little kindnesses wherever possible, as if, deed by deed, they might tip the scales of the world toward goodness and restore some measure of order.”

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct 7th, 2020.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg (Fiction)

Thank you to Random House and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 27, 2020.

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

The ultimate feel good book, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop takes up where Fried Green Tomatoes left off, following the beloved residents of Whistle Stop, Alabama as they disperse through the South. Told vignette style, we bounce between time periods, characters, and locales — like a collection of friendly gossip between friends about people they love in common. The main narrative arc follows Buddy and his daughter, Ruth, in the present. You may remember Buddy as the six-year-old who lost his arm in a train crossing accident in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s an amazing journey.

The ending is absolutely delightful, and I won’t give it away with any hints. Let’s just say I’m in a much happier space than I was when I started. Thank you, Fannie Flagg!

Great for fans of Elizabeth Berg.