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.

Sam by Allegra Goodman (Young Adult)

A story about a young girl who sinks into despondency and manages to (literally) claw herself up through rock climbing, her perseverance and stubbornness when faced with impossible climbing challenges mirroring the way she finally finds a path that works for her. The six parts of the novel take us from seven to eighteen — dealing with a beloved father who, fighting addiction, disappears for long periods of time; a (temporary) step father with no fondness for her and a somewhat violent temperament; a (most of the time) single mother pushing her children to not miss the opportunities she herself had missed; a half brother who needs constant management to get even the smallest thing done; and many others on varying sides of (my) moral boundaries.

The writing is good and I appreciated the thoughtful characterizations. While she finds her way at the end, I found reading the book to be a little depressing. While there were many good characters, I found myself wishing that people had just made better choices up front. It’s always painful for me to think about how many screwed up people there are and how their mistakes cause such pain for others. I’m aware that I’m completely missing the actual point of the story which is about how someone overcomes the problems of their childhood, but I find myself unhappy that they ever had to face those problems to begin with.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group, The Dial Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 3rd, 2023.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

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

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley (Fiction)

A cheerful, happy, just-what-I-needed book. A series of commutes on the Waterloo lines (London) leads to a burgeoning group of friends centered on one larger-than-life Iona Iverson — previously an “It Girl” alongside Bea, the love of her life. Iona is a popular “magazine therapist” (not an Agony Aunt!) plying her trade at a women’s magazine, but her clueless boss is pushing her towards the door due to her advanced age (57). Meanwhile, her unofficial and unpaid break-all-the-norms-of-commuting business is thriving.

Watching the group coalesce, each facing his/her own problems (a teenage girl afraid to show her face at school, a successful banker rapidly losing his money, a husband so dull his wife can’t stand him, and a male nurse without the confidence to approach the bookworm with an overbearing boyfriend) is funny, poignant, and uplifting. Big kudos to the author for actually bringing out the assumptions we make about people we don’t know and showing how wrong we can be. Rather than taking the easy way out and subscribing to the always popular white male bashing, she lets the person who appears to be the “smart but sexist Manspreader,” turn out to be a pretty decent guy (see one of the quotes below). Kudos!

Some fun quotes:
“Sanjay wound the tape back in his head, re-examining it from a different angle. Perhaps Piers hadn’t actually been flaunting anything. Perhaps that was just what he’d wanted to see. Was he just as guilty of stereotyping as everyone else? The thought lodged in his brain like a festering splinter.”

“…peering at him through narrowed eyes, giving him the impression of being scanned by a supermarket checkout machine before being declared an unexpected item in the bagging area.”

“He was like an electrical appliance on standby — still plugged in, but not functioning — and she had no idea where to find the remote control.”

“Emmie, why on earth did you decide to go into advertising if you have such an inflexible conscience?”

“Shakespeare, she’d discovered, never used four words when twenty-six would do. He might be good at the whole play thing, but he’d be useless at writing the emergency evacuation instructions for an airline.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking, Pamela Dorman Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

Racing the Light by Robert Crais (Action / Mystery)

Elvis is back! Well, Elvis Cole that is — sorry — couldn’t help myself! Cole and his quiet (but definitely-the-guy-you-want-to-have-your-back) partner, Joe Pike, help an old woman find her missing adult son, Josh. But it’s not just any old woman and not just any missing son. Adele Schumacher pays in cash, doesn’t trust phones, and talks about conspiracies and aliens as obvious facts. She has a couple of very buff “helpers” who follow her everywhere. And Josh is the controversial podcaster of In Your Face with Josh Shoe (with a listenership of approximately 20 people).

Laugh out loud funny, with plenty of action (the good kind where a lot happens and it happens quickly but we don’t have to suffer through long car chases or drawn out battles — ugh) and plenty of colorful characters. A fast and thoroughly enjoyable read. This is book 19 but you can really start anywhere — a few references to previous cases but nothing problematic.

Thank you to G.P Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 1st, 2022.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler (Fictionalized History)

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

What an unusual book. It is a fictionalized history of the Booth family from 1822 to 1865 when its most infamous member — John Wilkes — shot Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes is kept as an important but minor character throughout until his action at the end tears everything apart. The story is told from the perspective of three of his siblings: “poor” Rosalie, the eldest daughter who remains a spinster family caretaker for life; Edwin, who becomes the leading tragedian of the 19th century; and Asia, the youngest daughter and eventual poet and writer.

Fowler is a fantastic writer — every book she writes is completely different and spans topics and genres easily. In this — her first fictionalized history — she brings the place and time to life in incredible physical, political, and every day life detail. Following their lives in rural Maryland, Baltimore, and later Philadelphia, New York, and then California (including a harrowing description of the trip across the 40-mile Panamanian isthmus, pre-canal) we are immersed in the attitudes and experiences of a very different time.

Fowler doesn’t modernize sentiments — we are treated to multiple attitudes towards women, immigrants, and slavery. Having read a lot about the time period, I found them to be accurate and comprehensive. As examples, the family’s patriarch — Junius Brutus Booth (a famous Shakespearean actor of the time) — didn’t like slavery but had two slaves; John Wilkes declaimed frequently on the value of slavery and the tyranny of the North; and various speeches (including Lincoln’s, Douglas’ and others) offer additional viewpoints.

I had to keep remembering I was reading a book which while novel-like had to adhere to actual history so while some details seemed extraneous to the plot, they were not extraneous to the lives of those living through them. For me it was a bit of a slow start — I let myself be unhappy that I was having to read a book about someone I did not want to know more about and of course, knowing what happens at the end, I had a kind of dread creeping up on me. However, if you can avoid the kinds of destructive thoughts I was having, it really is gripping reading, and the assassination and aftermath actually takes up a very small part of the end of the book.

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 8th, 2022.

The Verifiers by Jane Pek (Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

Claudia Lin is the tiny, stereotype-busting, Asian, lesbian, bicyclist hero of this tongue-in-cheek, semi-snarky, story of an amateur detective gone wild. Having landed a job at a dating detective agency, she ignores protocol and starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of an unusual client. And so it goes…

The mystery lives within an interesting premise — online matchmaking systems using AI based bots which move from verifying dating profile claims to nudging clients to becoming one with their claims. Claudia (and obviously the author) is an inveterate reader, and I enjoyed her literary asides and the source of Claudia’s detective know-how — the (fictional) mystery series starring the philosophical Inspector Yuan. Some interesting, novel likes explorations of the life and background of Claudia and her family that dips freely into a somewhat standard immigrant parent backstory. It’s a bit of a genre mishmash that started as a lot of fun with well-drawn characters but ultimately took too long to get to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 22nd, 2022.

Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close (Fiction)


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

Cousins Teddy, Gretchen, and Jane alternate perspectives on their not-quite-mid life crises in Chicago as Trump wins the election and the Cubs finally win the World Series just weeks after their biggest fan — famed restaurateur Bud Sullivan — passes away. His eponymous restaurant is the center of most of the action as Teddy struggles with an affair with his recently-ex, not engaged boyfriend, Gretchen is forced to leave her band, pondering her “failed experiment with adulthood,” and Jane uses a cheating husband to examine what she wants in life (hint: it turns out not to be him).

It’s a fun story with a decent amount of insight as characters figure out how to keep going in a world that seems to be falling apart. Great family dynamics and social commentary.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 26th, 2021.