The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Special Credit for beautiful math concepts: 5/5

A thoughtful and unusual memoir-style novel describing the personal journey of a female mathematician as she simultaneously navigates a male dominated field and slowly uncovers the truth of her family history. Katherine is a young, bi-racial Asian American growing up in New Umbria, Michigan in the early 1950s where her prodigious mathematical talent housed in a female body is not encouraged by early academic institutions (like 3rd grade!)

The novel merges her love affair with mathematics with the difficulties of pursuing an academic career in a male-dominated field and her personal quest for the roots of her family whose tangled branches reach into both Nazi Germany and the Japanese invasion of China. Told from the perspective of our first-person narrator speaking from the end of her career, the book is a combination of articulate description and mature reflection that adds great insight to every step without detracting from the innocence of the experience.

My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of math from her perspective. They are beautifully written accounts of both the concepts themselves and the personal process of discovery, determination, and excitement that Katherine feels. I’ve included some of my favorite lines below. The author manages to take complex mathematical subjects and both reduces them to simple concepts and makes them beautiful, even to a non-mathematician. This is spectacularly done (IMHO).

Little biographical vignettes of female mathematicians throughout history are sprinkled liberally through the text. These include Hypatia (~350 – 415), Emily Noether (1882 – 1935), Maria Meyer (she of “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize” fame), Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891), and Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) in a kind of “sister companion” to Bell’s Men of Mathematics. I loved the way the author discussed both the historical and present (late 60s) barriers to entry women faced without ranting or complaining —simply noting the contributions and the kinds of determination the women had to have.

The themes of guilt, culpability, and oppression are explored throughout the book. What is the culpability of the German mathematicians in Goettingen (formerly the “Mecca of Mathematics”) who thrived during the war years by keeping their heads down as their more distinguished colleagues were conscripted, deported to camps, or escaped the country? What guilt should adhere to a man who allowed misattributed credit for an achievement to stand because those who knew better were gone? What fault attaches to the oblivious man who genuinely wants to “support” a young, female, protege by a means which ends up completely undermining her main claim to esteem? With no heavy-handed agenda or obvious answers, these thoughtful questions percolate throughout the book.

I loved the mathematics and personal process portions of this book. Katherine is an older, professionally successful mathematician as she recounts her experiences making it full of reflection and insight. While she professes no regrets, she freely admits that she could have handled things differently — rather than put all the blame on the barriers and mistakes of others, she understands that she bears responsibility for the outcome as well. I personally didn’t enjoy the parts of the book devoted to her family discovery — they were more in a Joy Luck Club style that recounted the stories as the narrator might hear of them from others but without the reflection and insightful commentary that the narrator was able to apply to her own experiences. While I think these stories and the slow unraveling of the mystery of her origins will appeal to many, for me they were secondary to her personal quest for a meaningful life.

Some great lines:
The very first line of the book: “There is nothing as intriguing as a locked door. Which is why in 1900 when David Hilbert presented the first of his twenty-three unsolved mathematics problems in his address to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, he changed the course of scientific inquiry, and thereby the course of the world.”

“As we all know, the closest distance between two points is a straight line, but sometimes the closest distance between two ideas is a long and winding path.”

A key insight that Katherine tells her students: “It isn’t always the dazzling talent who ends up doing the great work. Sometimes people grow into their work, sometimes people burn out, and you never know who will stumble on the right problem at the right time.”

“How it was possible to fall into the space that someone left behind, and be crushed inside, like air falling back into itself with in a clap of thunder.”

“I found the promise of transcendent purity, a deeper order that never failed, I would believe in that, and let go of everything that couldn’t be counted on. Like my mother. Like family. Like home. By the time fall came around and it was time to go to university, in my mind, I was already gone.”

“They were lovely, I thought, in what they suggested — a visual representation of an idea, an ordering of a thought.”

“Analysis is considered the study of limits, but before it was called that, it was called the study of the infinite. I felt for the first time that I was looking at mathematics as it was meant to be done: here was a book that wasn’t meant just to instruct, but to open a door.”

“What I found most exhilarating was figuring out how to make the mathematical tools that explained the logic underpinning natural phenomena.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 18th, 2019.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

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

This book has all the makings of an Oprah book club selection — it’s a well-written, family oriented drama, full of people with serious personal issues but who are striving to deal with them (and succeeding). The triple narrative switches between the first-person viewpoints of the three Butler sisters: Althea (48), convicted of government fraud and in prison; Viola (40), recently separated from her partner and subject to long-term eating disorders; and Lillian (36), in the old family homestead struggling to take care of Althea’s teenaged twin daughters and her 88-year old ex-mother-in-law (who is one of my favorite characters).

Insightful character studies that elicit empathy in the reader without being overly dramatic (though gut-wrenching in places) — I was surprised that the author actually got me to understand and empathize with Althea, who after all had stolen charity money from people who could ill afford it. The characters bring to life the impact and genesis of several issues: IED — Intermittent Explosive Disorder, eating disorders, the stigma of jailed parents in a small community, and childhood abuse. Sometimes painful to read, but generally uplifting in the way the characters draw together for healing and never give up on themselves or each other.
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 Feb. 19th, 2019.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Romance)

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

(Note: I’m not a romance reader but I agreed to review this book because I am endlessly fascinated with Austistic brains and the people who house them).

An erotically charged, utterly non-traditional, romance novel. Diệp Khăi is a successful, Vietnamese-American accountant, with his own business in Sunnyvale. He was also diagnosed with Autism and decided long ago that his “Stone Heart” and “inability to feel emotions” disqualified him from having romantic relationships. His grandchildren-desiring mother (Cô Nga), however, is not willing to give up. Unbeknownst to Khăi, she travels to Việtnam to find him a bride.

Esme Tran (Việtnamese name — Trán Ngọc Mỹ) cleans bathrooms in a nice hotel in Hơ Chi Minh city. While resting between disappointing bride interviews in the ladies’ lounge, Nga finds what she is looking for in the attractive, diligent, and polite Esme. Esme has a few secrets of her own — she has a five-year old fatherless daughter, and longs to find her own father — an American named “Phil” who went to UC Berkeley over 20 years ago. Esme accepts Nga’s offer — a job and a visa for the summer and a chance to convince the reluctant Khăi that he wants to marry her.

Well-written, with alternating chapters offering alternating character insights in addition to steamy prose. In an interview, the author revealed her own recent Autism diagnosis and the evolution of the Esme character based on her own mother’s immigration to U.S. As a side note, I enjoyed all the Vietnamese names written in the full alphabet and made the (somewhat difficult) effort to include them here. It’s a beautiful looking language which I admit to knowing nothing about. If you’re interested, scan the Wikipedia article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_alphabet.

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 May 7th, 2019.

City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Historical setting: 5/5

A great story! It grabs you from the first page and won’t allow itself to be put down. It’s a fascinating piece of historical fiction taking place in Hollywood during the Silent Era (1890s – 1920s). The history comes to life through the experiences of our three main characters: Irene Van Beck, Millie Martin, and Henry Weiss. In the opening scene, the three jump off a moving train to escape their current employer — the Burlesque company Chandler’s Follies — and its enforcement goons. They make their way to Hollywood for a chance at a better life.

This is my favorite kind of historical fiction — the author embeds as many of the personages, events, and mechanics of the era into the story as possible: vaudeville, burlesque, and films; jobs within the studios (scenarists, costumes, editing, etc); prohibition and speakeasies; taxi dancing and prostitution; (legal) use of heroin; housing issues (No Jews or actors!); unintended pregnancies; a budding studio Publicity department and the power of the Press to destroy; fancy Hollywood parties; and most interesting — the feel of the small Hollywood enclave within which social mores are relaxed, and many kinds of “forbidden” love are possible (though only with great discretion — hence the budding Publicity department).

In summary — a terrific story with a real feel for what life was like, embedding historical facts and figures without fictionalizing real people (I hate that!). The characters are very likable, with fully fleshed out, historically accurate, backstories (but not the rich interior life that I like). Excellent pacing, decent writing, the story “sticks” with you for a long time…

As an aside, the author lists many sources in the afterward, including a reference to a 13 part documentary called Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. All the episodes (listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_(1980_TV_series)#Episode_list) are available on YouTube. Start at Episode 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mo3Z8IkLnU.

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 April 16th, 2019.

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew (Historical Fiction)

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

A coming of age story in a racially divided South. Told from 13-year old Jubie Watts’ perspective, the story follows the Watts family as they travel with their “girl” (their 48-year old negro maid) through the South in August, 1954. From anti-integration signs to a lack of motels and bathrooms willing to accept Mary to downright nastiness and hostility, the narrative heads towards the bad end hinted at in the very first paragraph of the book.

The real story, however, is not about this “bad end.” It’s about Jubie trying to understand how and why different people are treated so very differently. To her, Mary is someone she loves, someone who is the “heart” of their family — but her family, friends, and the white world at large, at best, treat Mary as a useful piece of furniture.

The narrative alternates between the events of August 1954 and the previous eight years with Mary in the household. In some ways, the story feels like a jumble of experiences, without the synthesis and understanding that might come to the narrator later in life. The characters (other than Jubie) are a little two-dimensional and several story elements are left unresolved. In this, the tale is a realistic depiction of the world as seen through the eyes of a 13-year old.

The book includes a lot of historically accurate detail about the time, and the story is compelling — but it felt a bit too long and somewhat oversimplified.

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan. 29, 2019.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Lit Fiction)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on July 9, 2019.

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Fun book with a capital F!

Nina Lee Hill is introduced to us as the “spinster of this parish and heroine both of her own life and the book you’re holding in your hand.” The parish in question is Knights — an independent bookstore in Larchmont Village (a quaint neighborhood in central Los Angeles) and her place of employment. She is a delightfully interesting character — an anxiety-ridden Millenial with a super-active brain who thinks of books as “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things.” A surprise bequest from a father she didn’t know she had coupled with an obnoxious but attractive trivia competitor form the scaffolding of the simultaneously modern and Edwardian plot of this ultra-literary, romp through a central LA I never knew existed.

Funny, intelligent, and clever writing coupled with an array of engaging and quirky characters make this book what it is. Great dialog and banter and even … grammar jokes! The literary references range from Harry Potter to Chinua Achebe, Dickens and Austen to SF biggies Gaiman and Stephenson, Star Wars to Flowers for Algernon. I even discovered some new “classics” — a rare occurrence for me. Part Eleanor Oliphant, part Jane Austen, a great, fun, read that will leave you gasping on the floor from too much lol-ing.

Delightful Quotes:
“Grilled cheese in any form was her spirit animal.”

“Nina might battle crippling anxiety once or twice a week, but she also worked in retail, and rudeness is the special sauce on the burger that is the Los Angeles shopping public.”

After sputtering the phrase “Cool Beans” at the object of her affection … “At this her brain threw up its metaphorical hands and curled upon its stem like a pissed off hen.”

Quotes about Los Angeles:
“Whenever Nina was stuck there, which was rarely, because she would rather have filled her ears with flaming dog turds than go to the West side…”

“Sartre said hell was other people, but that was only because the 405 hadn’t been built yet.” <— my favorite!

New (to me) words / concepts:
– bullet journaling – https://bulletjournal.com/
– vampiring other people’s feelings
– quisling – a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.

 

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019 — in 2 days!
Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Karen McManus is the Liane Moriarity of the YA set, writing gripping thrillers with characters that draw you in immediately and hold you fast.

California twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran find themselves in Echo Ridge, Vermont, living with a grandmother they barely know while their single mother Sadie dries out in rehab. Echo Ridge has a haunted past — it was the place Sadie’s twin Sarah disappeared 20 years ago and more recently the place that 17-year old prom queen, Lacey Kilduff, was killed in the aptly named Murderland theme park. And the haunting doesn’t seem to be restricted to the past…

Populated with well fleshed out, multi-generational, townies, the story is told in alternating voices: Ellery is a True Crime fanatic and invents crazy scenarios faster than they can be discounted; Malcolm Kelly is the younger brother of Declan Kelly, Lacey’s boyfriend at the time of her death and thought by many to be responsible for the crime.

It’s a story full of suspicion and trust, new friendships and old understandings, standard teen stuff and very non-standard teen stuff, and lots of tangled and tortuous plot twists. As with her last book — One of Us is Lying — I didn’t figure it out until the very end.