Paper Names by Susie Luo (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 / 5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
I quite enjoyed this story which weaves together three characters: Tony, a first generation Chinese immigrant who gives up a prestigious engineering career in China for the promise of more opportunity in America for his descendants; Tammy, the daughter who “gets” to live his dream for him — Harvard educated with a promising legal career in a wealthy firm; and Oliver, a wealthy (white) lawyer with a very secret past, whose path brings him close to both of them.


I don’t agree with the book blurb: “An unexpected act of violence brings together a Chinese-American family and a wealthy white lawyer in this propulsive and sweeping story of family, identity and the American experience.” IMHO the “act of violence” — which happens fairly near the end — did serve as a forcing function for some essential reflection and self-reckoning, but it didn’t bring them together and detracts from the real meat of the story which indeed was about “family, identity and the American experience.”


I quite liked the characters and found them both realistic and individualized (no stereotypes!). I enjoyed the contrast between the first generation immigrant father and the second generation immigrant daughter. I found the expression of how each felt — about his or her history, opportunities, and values as well as the complex web of feelings and attitudes about each other — to be artful, genuine, and identifiable.

The chapters alternate between perspectives of the three and jump around in time. I didn’t find it difficult to keep track of the time (very appreciative of the chapter labels!)
There are a lot of Asian immigrant stories out there — I found this one to be more reflective, less stereotyped, and less over-dramatic than most. Definitely recommend.

Thank you to Ballantine, Dell and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

No Two persons by Erica Bauermeister (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3/5
An interesting premise — in the first chapter, Alice Wein writes, and manages to publish, a deeply felt book, drawing on her own emotional experiences. It is titled “Theo.” Each of the next nine chapters (extending over a number of years) is a story about an individual who interacts with the book in a way that has a significant impact on his or her life: the Assistant who discovers the manuscript, the actor who narrates the audio book, a blocked artist, a driven diver, a deserted teenager, a bookseller, a ghost town caretaker, an intimacy coordinator (my favorite), and a book agent.

Each story is deeply personal; several brought tears to my eyes. While I didn’t find the book depressing, many were quite poignant. As the stories continue, we learn more about the book itself from it’s opening line — “wandering is a gift given only to the lost” — to succinct summaries of its development and denouement. Kind of clever embedding a book within a book without actually having to write it! I did find one story trite (I won’t tell you which — it may not feel that way to you!)

I greatly prefer novels to short stories, so I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t really a novel. On the other hand, I read them all (I often stop after the first few in a story collection). Bauermeister is a lovely writer, and the characters have real depth. And I have always liked the concept of books and how subjective each reader’s experience is. As an aside, I also really like the cover!

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 May 2nd, 2023

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson (Historical Fiction)

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

This is a fictionalized history of the Bethnal Green (at the time) unfinished tube stop in East London during WWII.  This book focuses on the library that was moved to the station when the above ground version was bombed, but there was a veritable city created in the stop and (unused) tunnels, with triple bunks for 5,000 people, a nursery, cafe, and the as-always top notch administration by locals.  I don’t like reading books about war, but I’m always drawn to books about how civilians create on the fly systems to help them survive.  The addendum explains the actual history more fully, making clear what part of the book was fiction vs fact, though I found that pretty obvious anyway.

It’s March 1944. Clara Button is the 25-year old childless widow who is “temporarily” put in charge of the library, with the help of the irrepressible library assistant Ruby Munro.  A well-detailed set of characters ranging across age and socio-economic levels populate the library, all with inspiring and heart-breaking stories.  Thompson does a good job of bringing these characters to life.  An engaging story — I could pick apart aspects of the plot if I were in a snippy mood, but overall I quite enjoyed it.  It spoke well to the value of books and reading in all circumstances which means that it spoke very well to me!

This book would make a great movie — I hope it gets optioned!  

Thank you to Forever Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 21st, 2023

Earth’s the Right Place for Love by Elizabeth Berg (Literary Fiction)

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

A sweet, uplifting story with real depth.  I loved Berg’s previous novel — The Story of Arthur Truluv (see my review here).  This novel is Arthur’s memory of the long courtship of and friendship with his (now deceased) wife. Beginning in 2016 when Arthur is 85 and finds himself “waiting for small things,” we spend most of the book in the 1940s when he first falls in love with Nola McCollum.

The novel deals with the key elements of life — relationships, mortality, family, and nature. Her descriptions of the every day aspects of life often brought tears to my eyes, simply because they touched the essence of tiny details so very well.  There are some wonderful quotes because Berg is a fantastic writer, but I’m not including them as they tend to give away certain aspects of the plot.

Beautifully done.

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 March 21st, 2023

The Archivists by Daphne Kalotay (Short Stories)

A collection of stories taking place in Charlottesville, Virginia, spanning a wide array of people who all seem to be somewhat lost in their own lives (as anyone who spends time thinking about larger issues often will be). Some good reflections on self with respect to those larger issues. My favorite story was the eponymous The Archivists which introduced the concept of possible epigenetic manifestations throughout generations from an initial extreme trauma (in this case the Holocaust). One phrase really stuck with me: heart-scalded — meaning “an anguished, active, grief.” Not just grief at the loss, but “the ongoing torment of her regret.”

I admit I found many of the stories mildly depressing, though all were thoughtful and piqued my interest in some way. One made me laugh while simultaneously despair: Guide to Lesser Divinities — wherein an adjunct professor of English lectures her class on the subtle difference between similar meaning words:

“To deny the accuracy of one versus the other, I explained, was a first step toward moral corrosion. I told them how the degradation of language set the stage for ethical misjudgment, that our careful parsing of word choice and allusion were skills to combat despots and charlatans. That the semicolons they so blithely misused might be the last feeble shims propping up our teetering republic.”

And later in the same story: “To be imprecise is moral laziness. Not idleness. Not sloth. Moral laziness. It’s a matter of morality because to knowingly misuse a word is a way of lying. And deception is, of course, immoral.”

I’m not a big short story person, but I like Kalotay’s writing and each of the stories did provide insight into experiences outside of my own.

Thank you to Northwestern University Press, TriQuarterly and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 15th, 2023

The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Elinor White has been trained to be a predator rather than prey which served her well during WWI when her home in Brussels was occupied by Nazis. It also served her well during WWII as she worked to protect her adopted country (England). But exercising those skills left their mark, and she finds herself torn between protecting those who can’t protect themselves and letting go of the violence that continues to haunt her.

A standalone (or possible new series beginning?) from the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, this book is kind of a mix between an historical novel and a mystery, with an emphasis on the former. It had a bit of a slow start but I was drawn in and found myself caring very much about the characters. I’m a big Winspear / Maisie Dobbs fan. I wouldn’t mind finding out more about Elinor White if this turns into a series…

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 21st, 2023

Homecoming by Kate Morton (Literary Fiction)

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

A dual timeline story in the Adelaide Hills (Australian Outback). In 1959 an inexplicable tragedy occurs with a nasty, but generally accepted explanation which is never actually proved. In 2018 Jessica Turner-Bridges races back to Sydney when the grandmother who raised her suddenly takes ill. A free lance journalist, Jessica gets obsessed with the 1959 story which she has stumbled on and which — it turns out — is closely related to her family.

Vivid writing bringing to life the surroundings and individual, interconnected stories. Good pacing continually introduces new stories and sources that shift your understanding at the same pace as it does for Jessica. I kept thinking I knew what had happened but was continually surprised. There was a little more scenic description than I like (I’m not a visual person) but I was able to skim those sections if they got too long. Plenty of drama (but not melodrama — the events were dramatic but the characters got on with doing their best and didn’t descend into wailing and teeth gnashing). It was difficult at time knowing in advance what happened (and that is is awful) and watching the narrative slowly unfold to explain the details. On the other hand, in a weird way it is less stressful knowing the end as there is no way to avoid it.

Some beautiful commentary on books and reading and a nice array of literary and cinematic references. Some genuine and insightful reflection on loneliness, community, motherhood, purpose, identity, and the impact of events on a wider assemblage of persons than might be suggested by the event itself.

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 April 4th, 2023.

Central Places by Delia Cai (Literary / multi-cultural fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5
A somewhat over-detailed but ultimately satisfying story of a young woman coming to an understanding of herself — the person she wants to be and the person she evolved from. Twenty something Audrey Zhou loves her life in New York City: her kind and conscientious NYC born and bred photojournalist boyfriend (Ben) and her job as a salesperson for a trendy NY magazine, but most of all she loves the extreme distance from her home and immigrant parents in Hickory Grove, Illinois. When her father has a potential health problem, Ben insists on accompanying Audrey home to meet her parents for the first time and learn more about her.

I was impressed by the way this book worked out — it really did focus on a single person’s experience, rather than another agenda heavy diatribe about racism in the U.S. Assumptions, biases, and exposed hypocrisies appear in multiple places, and the recognition of what part Audrey finds herself playing in all of that is worth the price of admission. The story did NOT evolve the way I expected it to, and I found I really liked the non-standard, unexpected ending. Some of the more descriptive sections contrasting her Hickory Grove memories and current experiences went on for a little longer than I needed, but I was overall quite happy with the book.

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 January 31st, 2023.

Flight by Lynn Steger Strong (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A family drama focussed on three siblings and their families on the first Christmas after their mother’s death. Each is experiencing some disappointment / pressure in life and each twirls within their own constant inner monologue while engaging with each other in a kind of complex dance with needs, desires, and irritations constantly up for rebalancing. Martin, the eldest, is on temporary leave after having made some ill-advised statements to the wrong people at his educational institution; his wife Tess is the practical one, a lawyer who is in a constant state of worry and irritation; Kate is a housewife and mother, married to Josh who has managed to run through the inheritance they were living on; Henry is an artist obsessed with the climate, and his wife Alice somehow shifted from artist to social worker and now finds herself over-attached to one of her charges. When that particular charge disappears on Christmas Eve, each individual gets a jolt that drives him or her to a deeper understanding of his or her own life.

While slow at times, the book contains a lot of insight through each person’s reflections coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and situations. An enjoyable read.

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 8th, 2022.

The Devil You Know by PJ Tracy (Mystery)

Book number three in the Margaret Nolan series (I still haven’t gotten around to reading number one but I really liked number two). This one has all the glitz, glamour, and ultimately scumminess of Hollywood. A beloved celebrity is found dead — accident, suicide, or murder unclear — days after a nasty-nasty (but deepfaked) video of him sped out over social media. Nolan and partner Crawford have a more difficult time “reading” the persons of interest as they are all actors and good ones at that.
Very good writing (see a couple of quotes below) and I like the regular characters who have depth and develop with each book. I didn’t love the “bad guy” characters as much as last time — they seemed more shallow and two dimensional — but it’s Hollywood and I expect that comes with the territory!
A fun read, and I’ll be happy to check out book four when it comes!

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 January 17th, 2023.