Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (Historical and Literary Fiction)

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.

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

The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.

Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.

Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.

If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)

Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:

“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”

“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”

“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”

“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”

“People always tired him, always had, always would.”

“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”

“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”

“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”

Barker House by David Moloney (Fiction)

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

A set of interconnected stories as told by prison guards in New Hampshire’s Barker County Correctional Facility or “The House.” Each unfolds specific events, though the import of the story comes not from the events themselves but from what they uncover about the life of the person telling the story: a sexual attraction, a fellow officer’s suicide, a softball game between law enforcement branches, the attempted suicide of an inmate, the processing of an accused child killer, etc.

This is way outside of my comfort zone — everything I’ve ever learned about prison comes from documentaries, bad TV shows, and sensationalized news stories. I liked this book because it didn’t appear to come with any specific political agenda — the focus was far more on individual lives. And there were no real stereotypes — each guard is a distinct human being with his/her own motivations, coping mechanisms, and personal context. Some are withdrawn, some mean, some afraid. Many are dealing with their own personal issues while trying to maintain an acceptable demeanor. Not your typical adventure story, it’s all character. It also includes detailed descriptions of typical days in a correctional facility from the perspective of those who run it: the tiers, transportation, property management, and booking. I have no idea how accurate it is, but I found it fascinating and full of depth. Couldn’t put it down.

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

The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

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 7th, 2020.

Non-Binary Lives by Jos Twist, et al (Non-Fiction)

An interesting collection of essays by and about non-binary persons. From wikipedia:  Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine — ‌identities that are outside the gender binary.

Most of the authors are living and working in the UK, though a few were from other countries. My impression is that most are therapists and / or gender study students or professional academics.

While a few of the essays proved to be overly jargonistic or borderline offensive (one railed against the “ableist, capitalist, patriarchal, white supremist, cisgenderist dominant society” and another kept mentioning “toxic gender binary notions”), most were well-written and explored aspects of the non-binary gender concept that were new to me. Many examined the intersectionality of being non-binary within different cultures or religions as experienced by (for example) a Vietnamese Confucianist, a Jewish feminist, a Quaker, and an Hispanic. One essay explored the effect of motherhood (via the traditional biological pathway) on someone who self-identified as non-binary.

I was naively surprised by the references to infighting between differently gendered groups. Said one author: “…the phenomenon of self-identified transsexual folk who are vehemently opposed to non-binary as a concept as they feel it undermines the realness of their own identities. The vitriol they express is nearly as bad as the right-wing opponents of ‘gender ideology’ who are freaking out about the end of gender and gender roles.” Another bemoaned the fact that as a non-binary person, they were no longer able to benefit from the many women-only groups and privileges they had been enjoying. They had been happy to be part of women’s theater companies who were “dedicated to presenting lesser-told stories” as compared to the more “mainstream” companies, “dedicated to working their way through the safe Western dramatic canon of plays by dead cishet white dudes,” and were now unhappy to be automatically lumped in with the outsiders.

I’ve been fascinated with the concept of gender and gender fluidity ever since reading Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski, and I enjoyed many of the essays in this book. They forced me to examine my own perceptions and actions: Why do I care what gender a person is? Or whom they prefer as a sexual partner? And yet I notice that if I can’t tell at a glance, I spend time trying to figure it out. For some reason I feel I need to know. Does this mean I treat people differently based on gender or simply that I have a great need to keep things categorized in my head? I have no idea!

I do know that I am greatly in favor of more inclusion in society, but not at the expense of other groups. Let’s hear more stories and give more opportunities to previously unrepresented groups — but why is it necessary to exclude people simply because some perceive them to have been part of a “privileged” group? Today’s white, cishet, men should not have to suffer because in the past *some* white, cishet, men benefited at the expense of other groups. And why on Earth would we want to belittle the great works of the past simply because their creators were white men when there were others at the time who did not have the same opportunities? Shakespeare’s plays are still amazing as are the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Sir Isaac Newton. Let’s work on making the world a place where we can have more greatness, not less.

I hate identity politics, and I’m happy to say that most of this book was focused more on individual experiences and perceptions than on politics. Worth a read if you’re curious about the concept.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra (Fiction)

Book 2 in my happy and light series!

A warm-hearted, feel-good novel about family and relationships. It both modernizes and fills in the gaps of Alcott’s beloved Little Women. A kind of fictionalized fiction as it were. Focused primarily on the two older sisters — the titular Meg and Jo — the book delves into what is happening behind the scenes: What is Meg’s marriage like? How can the fiercely independent Jo learn to remain true to herself and still give herself in love to another human being? And what is the mostly absent Mr. March really like as a father? By the way — spoiler alert — in this version Beth is not dead (nor sick, nor recovered). The author just skipped over that realistic for the time but now unnecessary part of the story. Great!! Never particular liked that part anyway!

Easy to read, great insight into the characters, and seamless modernization that maintains the integrity of the key messages but is totally believable for today’s world. Plenty of life lessons for a variety of personalities and situations.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 3rd, 2020.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King (Literary Fiction)

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

A sharply observed tale of a writer’s tumultuous journey.  31-year old Casey Peabody is the very definition of a struggling writer — deep in debt from student loans, living in near-squalor, and six years into her “Great American Novel.” Her mother’s sudden and recent death coupled with a devastating breakup have left her with debilitating panic attacks and general anxiety. Making it through each day is not a done deal.

So what makes this book worth reading? For me it’s King’s writing and her ability to meticulously document every aspect of this character’s experience — both personally and as a writer. In many ways, it was hard for me to read about Casey — because we really don’t know her that well, we also live the stress of not knowing if she will be able to get through this period (I’m going to cheat and tell you that she does get through it). In other ways, though, Casey is such an appealing character — her insights and experiences as a writer are fascinating, as are her thoughts about books, teaching literature, and literary criticism. I particularly enjoyed the details of a writer’s workshop near the end — her engagement with the exercises were intriguing.

I love her writing — I felt like I was highlighting every other line. The opening paragraph was perfect — it set the stage and drew me in with just few short lines:

“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.”

A few more great quotes:

“I look back on those days and it feels gluttonous, all that time and love and life ahead, no bees in my body and my mother on the other end of the line.”

“It’s like a dream, the way they transform from sloped strangers, a man with a crackled bald spot and a woman in a gold jacket, into my father and stepmother.”

“Bob chooses this moment to put his hind legs through his front legs and produce a soft tan coil of poop at the base of a Japanese lilac.”

“I didn’t much like the writers Paco did, men who wrote tender, poetic sentences that tried to hide the narcissism and misogyny of their stories.”

“I should be wary of the guy who locks in too soon. It’s a sort of premature commitulation.”

“There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.”

“All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear. If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world.”

“Admire me. Admire me. Admire ‘judge’ and ‘courthouse’ and ‘seven sharp.’ I don’t like myself around Adam. I don’t think he wants me to.”

“The bees in my chest stir. A few creep down the inside of my arm. One conversation can destroy my whole morning.”

“I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for.”

Thank you to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 3rd, 2020.

Last Couple Standing by Matthew Norman (General Fiction)

Mitch and Jessica are the last couple standing. When the other three couples in their set all divorce within a couple of years, suddenly their own previously happy marriage seems almost up for grabs. With infidelity at the root of most of their friend’s problems, they decide to experiment with a temporarily open marriage to see if they can forestall what feels like the inevitable. Jessica — a therapist — points out “Love is a feeling. Monogamy is a rule. One we came up with twelve-thousand years ago when we started worrying about property rights.”

While the first chapter is a kind of leaden background — explaining how all four couples got together and what went wrong in the other three — both writing and content picked up after that. Lots of humorous and interesting dialogue and plenty of non-gender conforming behavior. In fact, I really appreciated the fact that each character was an individual with his/her own ideas and standards — none of which felt stereotypical to me. Scarlett — one of Mitch’s wilder students (and simultaneously Jessica’s client — they work out of the same high school) — really throws some good curve balls at them both with her own ideas about sex, love, and the #metoo movement.

I found the book increasingly insightful and relevant and enjoyed how it portrayed a wide variety of viewpoints.

Some good quotes:
“Like we used to before the kids sucked the life out of us like vampires.”

“For Mitch, being married to a therapist had some advantages and some disadvantages. She was unfailingly reasonable. She was incredibly smart. But sometimes it felt like he was talking to a robot that had programmed to read WebMD pages aloud to him.”

“I haven’t had sex with a guy once since my divorce who hasn’t tried to come all over me.” “Same,” said Sarah. “Which is such a delight, because God knows that’s exactly what we’re hoping for.”

“How much easier would life be if, the moment you get married, you take a pill, and everyone else in the world turns plain and boring?”

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 March 17th, 2020.