Under the Golden Sun by Jenny Ashcroft (Historical Fiction)

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

It is 1941 . Rose Hamilton answers an ad to accompany Walter — a young, newly orphaned boy — to his distant family on an Australian cattle station. But Walter is not an ordinary boy, and the cattle station is not what they were led to expect. About a third of this book was a very appealing romance. The rest was fiction that depicted life during wartime — in England, during the months long journey on a not-exactly-elegant ship, and in the remote areas of Australia, a few hours from Brisbane. I learned more than I knew about Australian history — particularly about the White Australia Laws and the Chief Protector of Aborigines (FYI he was not very protective). Plenty of surprises in the plot as past events come to light, and current events continue to unfold.

This was a happy book for me — in truth it was somewhat formulaic but it was executed so beautifully and with such appealing characters and well-researched history that I didn’t mind a bit. I liked the fact that the drama was not overstated, that moral commentary was pervasive but not overwhelming, and that the main characters had far more to them than their tropes (e.g. vulnerable hero) would require.

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 March 15th, 2022.

Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

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

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

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 January 18th, 2022.

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White (Fiction / Mystery)

The seventh (and possibly last) book in White’s immensely popular Tradd Street series sees family, romance and historic house restorations Charleston-style (read: expensive and persnickety) come together in this exciting story of betrayal, old and new. And did I mention Ghosts? No? They populate every corner — friendly ghosts, malevolent ghosts, and immensely sad ghosts still seeking justice after many, many, years. For those new to the series, Melanie Trenholm — star realtor, new mother, and label gun enthusiast — can see and often speak to the dead.

A nice combination of women’s fiction (relationship issues, shopping, extravagant theme parties), mystery (cold cases as presented by sad, justice-seeking ghosts), and historical fiction (plenty of interesting research into Charleston’s history as it bears on the cold case du jour). A fun mix of humor and over-the-top lifestyles with complicated plot twists, an overly dramatic research librarian, and intricate treasure hunts. You could certainly read this book on its own, but given the five months to publication, I recommend starting at the beginning with The House on Tradd Street. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the series.

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 Nov. 2nd, 2021.

Little Souls by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

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

Little Souls takes place in Denver, 1918. The Influenza has hit the population badly, and the men are still away at war. At 19, Lutie Hite is a carefree artist working in advertising for the local department store; her older, more careworn, sister Helen is a nurse. Through an interesting set of events they become responsible for Dorothy, the ten-year old daughter of their now deceased tenant. From these beginnings follows a fairly wild, often heartbreaking, but ultimately heartwarming ride.

I’m a big Sandra Dallas fan. Dallas writes Western historical fiction about strong women making it through adversity with fortitude, intelligence, and the help of their community. She always brings in the small details of life in that particular time and place to make everything ring true.

Her stories tend to the dramatic, but never go over the top and feel quite realistic for their time. She is even-handed about how people thought and behaved at the time — different characters have different opinions on everything from mask-wearing (ha!) to personal morality, and no opinion is presented as obviously better than the others. Religious feeling and participation was a big part of life in that place and time, and I liked how she treated it. While this in no way dominates the book, there were some beautiful passages about how individual characters felt about God that moved me, despite my not being religious myself.

This is a real page-turner — I’m afraid I annoyed my husband by reading on into the night…

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 April 26th, 2022.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

On the one hand, a wild adventure story. It is 1954 and 18-year old Emmet Watson is driven back to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile detention facility where he has served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left years ago, and his father just died; the bank is preparing to foreclose on the farm and all their belongings. He is now the guardian of his 8-year old brother, Billy. While they plan to drive to California to start a new life, two stowaways (Duchess and Woolly) from the facility have a different idea. And so it goes…

The writing is — of course — excellent. The narration alternates between Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly, with occasional chapters from a few others. Each character has a distinctive voice as they describe both events and their inner thought processes during the ten days covered. Billy is my favorite character — never a narrator he somehow becomes a focal point for all of the stories. He is earnest, innocent, smart as a whip, and somewhat beatific. Billy doesn’t go anywhere without his large red book — Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. This book — which mixes mythical with real-life heroes (all male by the way) in its A to Z collection — serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the action as Billy pores over the pages offering its inspiration to those he meets.

There are many layers to this book, and I don’t claim to understand them all. Well articulated moral themes as interpreted and internalized by our different players. I loved Sister Agnes’ Chains of Wrong doing lecture (which I include in the quotes below) — this book will keep book club discussions going forever. Interesting note: I loved Rules of Civility and yet tried twice to read A Gentleman of Moscow and could not get past about page 50. Lincoln Highway was impossible to put down. One more interesting note: I did find this book a little stressful which says more about me than about the book. It reminded me of the nightmares I sometimes have where I need to get to the airport but things keep happening and then while trying to address those things, other things keep happening, etc. There is an element of that in the pages that stressed me while I tried (in my head) to get our protagonists back on track. My advice for reading — just let it go and enjoy the ride.

A few good quotes:

“Rather, the comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

“Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.”

“One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the Chains of Wrongdoing. Boys, she would begin in her motherly way, in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that other have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.

“Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”

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 October 5th, 2021.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

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 19th, 2021.

The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Historical mystery)

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

The Bombay Prince is the third title in the Perveen Mistry series. 1920s India — Perveen is Bombay’s first female solicitor. With prestigious legal training from Oxford, as a woman she is not eligible for a degree. This particular story takes place during the 1921-22 Indian visit of Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales. With Gandhi’s call for a hartal (boycott) and others anxious to show loyalty to the crown, a great deal of violence and turmoil ensures. And in the middle of this, the body of a young female student is found on the missionary college grounds.

While the pacing is a little slow for me, the writing is good and the characters and historical situation are well described and embroidered with detail. I learned a lot from the descriptions of different religious groups, practices, and attitudes towards independence, toward the British, and toward women. Individual characters representing foreign journalists, businessmen, servants, and others were all well-done and enlightening. I’ll plan to go back and read the first two.

Thank you to Soho Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 1st, 2021.

Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown (Non-Fiction History)

The acclaimed author of The Boys in the Boat (which I loved) tackles Japanese Americans in WWII — both those interned in camps following FDRs Executive Order 9066 and those who served in the military’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the single Japanese American unit, which also happened the most highly decorated.

While dealing with — let’s face it — some deeply depressing and disturbing topics — Brown makes it clear from the start that this is the story of Victors, not Victims. And that is how the story reads. This is the story of how a diverse group of people (not everyone in a single ethnic group is the same, even as they are treated as the same!) faced adversity and made the best of it. Through extensive research and first person interviews, Brown follows three primary characters who each ended up in the 442nd: Kats Miho from Hawaii, Rudy Tokiwa from Salinas (within California’s Exclusion Zone) and Fred Shiosaki from Hillyard, WA (outside Washington’s Exclusion Zone). An additional thread follows Gordon Hirabayashi as he makes his way through the courts protesting the unconstitutionality of interning American citizens based on their ethnicity. The character set expands to include their families, friends, and comrades-at-arms while the story extends from Pearl Harbor to incarceration to military draft to battle to returns home to legislation (finally) apologizing to the community and paying (some) restitution to survivors.

It is a massive undertaking but Brown’s style makes it appear effortless (like Fred Astaire’s dancing). He gets to the essence of every thought and action. Through personal interviews and letters, we gain access to the actual (not fictionalized) thoughts, discussions, and noticed details of those involved. Often these brought tears to my eyes. Reading first-person accounts is so very different than what I or a novelist imagines in any situation. Facts and figures, as well as historical context, are inserted at just the right moments.

I found the book fascinating from start to finish. While I was aware of the broad strokes of the treatment of Japanese Americans during the war, I was not aware of the many, many, tiny strokes that comprised it. I give this book a strong five star rating and highly recommend but if I were to point out a couple of negatives (which it appears I’m about to do) it would be that he does sometimes descend into hyperbole — for example when describing a situation, such as the conditions initial Japanese immigrants found in the late 1800s, from his own perspective rather an individual’s recollection and report. He also inserts anecdotes — all but one negative — about the treatment of Japanese Americans by neighbors without including any positive anecdotes (there must be some) or giving any kind of statistics on how broad those negative behaviors actually were.

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 May 11th, 2021.

A Cup of Silver Linings by Karen Hawkins


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

A second installment of what promises to continue the fun, lightly magical, tales of Dove Pond. This episode focuses on Ava Dove, the sixth of the seven Dove sisters, whose semi-magical herbal teas — carefully concocted for each individual client — are starting to go wonky. Meanwhile, buttoned-up grandmother Ellen is brought to town for the funeral of her long-estranged daughter Julie and runs into trouble trying to convince Julie’s daughter Kristen to leave Dove Pond for a fabulous new life in Raleigh. Sarah Dove — daughter seven — is back as well, continuing to listen (literally) to books as they tell her who needs to read them (yes, I would be so happy to pay for that talent!). Simple but appealing characters and a light touch of mostly playful magic that is more an extension of the person’s character — this feels like a combination of Alice Hoffman and Fannie Flagg to me. A nice feel good book.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2021.

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.