Bessie by Linda Kass (Fictionalized History)

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

This is the fictionalized story of Bess Myerson — the first Jewish Miss America, winning the prize in 1945. The author chose to focus the book on her early life — her upbringing, experiences in the Bronx (where the family had moved from the Lower East side for the trees, parks, and fresh air!), and her moral development. The book follows her story in a primarily linear fashion, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall at the end of her year as Miss America. The epilogue goes on to summarize the rest of her professional life on TV and in public government and her personal life (I’ll let you read that in the epilogue so I don’t spoil the story).

What I loved in the book was the description of the Jewish community life in the Sholom Aleichem Housing complex (open to Jews when most were not). Her entire extended family lived in the 200 apartments across 15 buildings. The community was full of musicians and artists and though her family was by no means well-off, she was given piano lessons from an early age and as pushed to excel. That is the Jewish culture in which I was raised — not one of religion but of art, music, and study! — and I love reading biographies and stories that percolated out of Jewish New York City in that time period (check out any Marx Brother biography for an even wilder, but somewhat similar, ride).

What I didn’t love about the book was the level of fictionalization. I’m not a fan of fictionalizing real people when dialog and thoughts are created when none actually occur. The author does a good job of summarizing what she made up vs what was real at the end of the book, but for my taste she made up too much — she added in scenes that she felt could have happened based on her deep understanding of the character and that is her prerogative, but I really like to keep my fact and fiction separated. I can honestly say that I doubt this will bother anybody else — I seem to be the only person who likes to keep the line between fact and fiction solid and thick!

Thank you to She Writes Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 12th, 2023

The Lady from Burma by Allison Montclair (Historical Mystery)

This is book five of the historical mystery series starring Iris Sparks (with a possible dangerous past) and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (an aristocratic war widow with a young son who is fighting for her rights in Lunacy Court!). Together they run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau in post WWII London, but they simultaneously seem to be in just the right place to solve murders, much to the chagrin (and eventual admiration) of the local police.

While this is book five in the series, it’s book one for me. I was able to keep up just fine but I do feel a lot must have happened in the previous books. I can’t tell how much progress was made in the personal situations for both women before this story — may be better to start at book one!

In this book, they get an unusual client. A woman dying of cancer comes in to line up a wife for her husband after her passing. Unfortunately, that passing happens more quickly than expected. Simultaneously, the very conservator who has been holding Mrs. Bainbridge hostage during her fight with the Lunacy Court has also turned up dead. The body count steadily increasing only seems to stimulate the interest of the two women.

The plot kept my interest, and I enjoyed learning about various procedures / processes in that (still rather unfriendly to women) time period. The writing was a little stilted for my taste, but overall I enjoyed it.

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 July 25th, 2023

Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan (Women’s Fiction)

Another light and uplifting story from Jenny Colgan. Women’s Fiction with humor and wit taking up more space than the actual romance (the romance honestly felt kind of secondary here which was fine with me ). A sequel to The Christmas Bookshop: bookstore manager Carmen Hogan deals with an obnoxious millionaire anxious to turn the lovely street into a tacky Souvenir Row, getting booted out of her sister’s lovely home to make room for a charming, one-armed manny, and her own pining for the love of her life whom she somehow scared off to the wilds of the Brazilian jungle.
Great banter, ridiculous and yet utterly believable plot twists, and characters that are interesting and yet normal at the same time because people actually are interesting if you go just the tiniest bit below the stereotype. Lots of fun to read.

Thank you to Avon Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 10th, 2023

Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health by Anupam B. Jena; Christopher Worsham

Random Acts of Medicine is a Malcolm Gladwell style book applied to health care systems. The authors — both physicians and public health researchers at Harvard Medical School — propose to explore the “hidden, but predictable ways in which chance affects our health and our healthcare system” through the use of “Natural Experiments,” that is observational studies that make use of naturally occurring differences in the world and measuring the impact. The two (along with colleagues) have used the approach to explore and answer a number of questions such as: does stress really age you? How does the month of a child’s birth impact their health and life success? What happens when all the cardiologists leave town? How does a marathon impact our health? Does your doctor’s politics affect the care they give? For each question (and there are many, many, more than the ones I have listed), the authors carefully explain the natural experiment, the sources of data, results, and what use can be made of the results (possible policy changes, or greater awareness of our own biases at work).

I found the book got better (more interesting to me) as it went on. The authors are careful not to assume that the reader knows anything about natural experiments, statistics, counterfactuals, etc. and they explain the (possibly new) concepts carefully, but not tediously. Still, if you are already familiar with the concepts it can get a little dull and I enjoyed all the actual experiments (many with surprising results) more than the introduction.

An easy read full of fun “I never thought about that” insights. Plenty of notes and references for those who want to investigate further. I always appreciate the kind of “popularized” topic books when they actually show their work, clearly separating them from the whopping pile of self help books that make claims without an iota of scientific support.

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 11th, 2023

Road to Surrender by Evan Thomas (Non-Fiction — History)

Writing: 5/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5 References: 5/5

My favorite kind of non-fiction — all well-referenced facts, with details of people’s thoughts, motivations, and actions as captured at the time through records, diaries, and notes. The book covers the day-to-day (and sometime minute-to-minute) events pertaining to the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — not the development of the bombs which is well covered elsewhere, but everything to do with the (somewhat chaotic) logistics, strategy, political machinations, and even the evolution of revisionist history to do with the use of the bombs. Drawing heavily from memoirs of several of the key players, including Japanese foreign minister Togo, we are treated to the decision making process with all of the attendant, intermingled motivations and fears of the time.

The writing was superb — clean, clear, and detailed, but never rambling. I don’t tend to read non-fiction unless it’s like this (and very few books are!). The action ranges from March – August 1945, with a well-summarized epilogue that followed some of the main characters (Stimson, Togo, Spaatz) to the end of their lives amidst shifting popular perceptions of the war and the US role in ending it. In many ways, I found this chapter the most interesting — watching the way history gets retold when the stress of an uncontrollable situation is gone and the pontificators get to revise strategy with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. Towards the end of this period, there is also the scepter of the Russians — allies at the time, but allies who are starting to behave in a not-so-collegial fashion. To trust or not to trust? (I think the answer to this one is now pretty clear).

Of the many character portraits painted, three stood out: Henry Stimson — Secretary of War whose ongoing worry was that “man’s technical capacity to do evil will outrun man’s human capacity to do good;” Carl “Tooey” Spaatz — the Commander of the Strategic Air Forces who insisted on written orders to deploy the bomb(s) and carried the orders around in his pocket; and Shigenori Togo —the only Japanese Cabinet member to oppose the war (and the only one not executed as a War Criminal). I loved the peek into the minds of the men (yes, they were all men) making the decisions — what they worried about, what information they had at their disposal, and how their insights and opinions were informed by their individual backgrounds and levels of idealism and pragmatism.

A significant portion of the book exposed the (wildly different) decision making process in Japan, which resulted in the much delayed surrender. The emperor was largely a prisoner of an increasingly fanatic military and rarely challenged their usually unanimous recommendations. Additionally, the Japanese culture at the time valued consensus and information transmission that is expected to be implicit, rather than explicit, greatly hampering any kind of rapid and rational decision making. Ultimately Emperor Hirohito did issue a proclamation of surrender, but even that was almost quashed through a last minute and desperate coup. Honestly, it reads like absolute insanity, which I’m sure it was.

I honestly couldn’t stop reading. The last paragraph summed it up nicely: “It is hard to imagine the pressure that these men faced in the spring and summer of 1945. The surrender of Japan came at a high cost. Decision makers on both sides engaged in wishful thinking and psychological denial, and peace of mind was hard for the victors to find. But Japan did surrender before hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more lives were lost. Stimson, Spaatz, and Togo gave mightily of themselves to bring peace, and at last they succeeded.”

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 May 16th, 2023

Orchid Child by Victoria Costello (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 plot: 4.5/5 characters 3.5/5

Kate is a neuroscientist, on her way to a new position in Ballymore, Ireland having been fired from her prestigious New York City based position after an ill-advised affair with her married boss. Ballymore has an historically high rate of schizophrenia, and she has been hired to work on a new followup study on the descendants of the original 1970 work. She brings along her newly adopted nephew, Teague, who is suffering from schizophrenic symptoms and whose therapeutic care is part of the new job package.

What ensues is a tangled, multi generational story (the narrative follows two timelines — Kate’s story in 2002 and the history of her family from 1920 through 1974). Between the two, we are exposed to Irish folklore, long term feuds based in the Irish “Troubles,” druids, and (most interesting to me) multiple approaches to treating and supporting schizophrenics. These approaches include support from therapists following real (I checked) research results, recommendations from “Mad Pride” activists who avoid medical intervention for mental illness, and the consideration that those who claim to hear the voices of their dead ancestors, really can.

There were enough interesting (and new to me) concepts to keep me reading to the end — I really wanted to know what happened. I thought the writing could use some editing — it was messy with a lot of rambling details and I found the dialog a bit stilted. I liked some of the characters more than others and definitely found the different attitudes towards schizophrenia fascinating. I didn’t personally like the main character, although I know I’m supposed to! Of course, I’ve never walked in her shoes (and the author’s bio suggests that she has), so I can’t really judge. My favorite part was reading about treatment modalities based on new (around the 2002 timeframe) research in neuro-epigenetics and the Orchid Child hypothesis (google it). The focus was primarily on the help people need and mostly avoided any discussion of the very real danger some mentally ill people could be to others when not adequately supervised / managed — I always wish reports and stories could be more balanced in this regard.

Some quotes, which reflect more of the plot than the writing style:

“In the parlance of researchers, they were the orchids, prone to dysfunction. When faced with the stressful choice of which lever to push to get their next drink of syrupy water, orchids sat and trembled with indecision. Their luckier peers, her control group, born with a longer form of the same gene, were hardy like dandelions — a group with which she wholly identified.”

“The Celts called it second sight. In our profession, we throw it all under the label of psychosis. Or we assigned patients different positions on a spectrum of abnormality.”

“You all suffer from the same wound, which festers as each generation fails to face it head on.”

“Let’s say you re-enter your body with the intention of telling the story of what happened to you today in whatever medium you choose. You can be sure that one of your ancestors is seeing and feeling that story in his on time as a powerful premonition.”

Thank you to Between the Lines Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be publlished on June 13th, 2023

Harold by Steven Wright (Literary Fiction?)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters : 2/5
A deeply interior book with constantly catchy and cerebral writing. The narrative purports to be the thoughts of an obviously gifted and unusual seven-year old boy, primarily while he is sitting in a classroom absolutely not paying attention to the woman in charge. Harold has “tangent festivals in his head” — what a great way to put it! While I’ve read other interior novels, they often seem to focus on neuroses and over thinking, while this one is focussed purely on imagination.

I very much enjoyed the writing and the constant stream of bizarre and connected thoughts — my own brain works that way and it was fun experiencing someone else’s stream. Every thought in Harold’s head presents itself as a well-depicted bird flying through a rectangle in his head. I liked the imagery. However, to be honest, I did get a little bored with the book about half way through — the novelty wore off and I began to notice that Harold’s thoughts were more bitter, superior, and snide than comical (yes, I realize that that is the very definition of comedy for some people, but not me). I also started realizing that there was a fair amount of misogyny — his thoughts on his mother, the young, pretty girl he is obsessed with (Elizabeth), and his teacher are all pretty negative in stereotypical ways. For example, on Elizabeth: “Said the pretty very very smart, blonde girl who years later would send several men to their emotional deaths.”

A couple of good quotes:
“Harold loved living in the circus in his head. He saw his mind as a soup made up of a mixture of what was on the inside of his head and what was on the outside of his head. He considered himself a brain chef.”

“Harold thought that an echo was audio plagiarism.”

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 May 16th, 2023

Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge by Helen Ellis (Memoir / Essays)

My first Helen Elllis book, though there are many. Laugh-out-loud funny “memoir” in essays written by a completely neurotic (and completely typical IMHO) New Yorker of a certain type and class. I like that all the snark is pointed (in a loving way) at herself and not at others. I also love that I get to both laugh and read about an actual happy marriage at the same time. Humor is the best lens through which to see the world if you can manage it.

Great storytelling, some insight and evolving personal understanding, but mostly just funny and not stupid. The stories do not feature lovable f-ups which is wonderful because, honestly I never find f-ups that lovable and don’t enjoy reading about them. Think of this book as a kind of more articulated and less curated instagram series. So much more depth! So many more laughs! A modern Nora Ephron.

Just a few funny quotes to give you the flavor:
“I gasped the kind of gasp that leaves your face looking like a cornhole board.”

“Papa likes to say, ‘your mother is such a good audience, she listens to a waiter list the specials like she’s in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert.’“

“My husband can’t lie. The man is less animated than a documentary on soap.”

“I wear my heart on my sleeve like a grenade. I wasn’t put on this earth to walk on eggshells. The world is my western omelette and everyone in it is diced ham.”

“I want to wear make up so heavy it exceeds JetBlue‘s carry-on limit.”

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 13th, 2023

The Dane of My Existence by Jessica Martin (Chick Lit)

Book two in the Shakespeare drenched Rom Com series from Jessica Martin. While the first book (For the Love of the Bard) focused on one Barnes daughter ( the Barnes family being a kind of First Family of the Bard’s Rest Shakespeare Festival), this book centered on the eldest daughter — Portia — the uber driven, germaphobic, corporate lawyer who does not get the hype about Shakespeare (grumble grumble). Forced into a summer sabbatical prior to a big promotion, Portia gets a real chance for something different when she meets Ben Dane — a genuine good (and smart and gorgeous etc.) guy in the guise of an evil developer who wants to turn the local island / festival outdoor stage into — gasp — condos!

Honesty, ethics, and truth in relationships trump all — great banter and wonderful (completely unrealistic but absolutely fun to read about) characters make this very entertaining and great alternative to reading the daily news. Medium-high on the Steamy Scale. Plenty of fun around the Shakespeare themed town with merchants such as: the Merry Wines of Windsor, The Taming of the Shoe, and Parting is Such Sweet Gelato including the flavor “Et Tu, Brûlée.” I admit it — I would totally book a place for the weekend.

A few fun quotes to give you an idea of her comic and irreverent writing style:

“Selfishly, I rooted against the baby thing. Babies were gross, and I was really bad at faking any enthusiasm for them.”

“Dan’ face twisted into somewhere between ‘accidentally licked a persimmon’ and ‘received undesirable correspondence from the IRS.’”

“Candace is the total package: smart, creative, caring. And in a zombie apocalypse scenario, she’d be the last one standing atop a pile of rotting undead carcasses.”

“I was committing a felony with people who weren’t smart enough to wear non-identifiable gear. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.”

Thank you to Berkley and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 4th, 2023

A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly (Historical Mystery)

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

The start of a new mystery series (and her first stab at the mystery genre, no pun intended) by one of my favorite historical fiction writers — Julia Kelly. WWII – London – 1940. There is a body, there is a mole in Whitehall, and there is a smart, sharp heroine who insists on equal billing with the agent assigned to ferret out the answers. Best of all — the action takes place in the Churchill War Rooms with a detailed and accurate (as far as my two fascinating visits to the place informs) depiction of the environment and activities within. As always, she really brings it all to life! A nice complicated plot, characters with good backstories, and of course, a time period and place that is rife with opportunities for mystery.

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 3rd, 2023