The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals by Becky Mandelbaum (Literary Fiction)

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

After a false start I ended up loving this book — it just got better and better. Kansas. An animal sanctuary. The nature of home, love, forgiveness, and understanding.

Mona runs the “Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” in rural Kansas with a single devoted employee on a shoestring budget. Her daughter Ariel left years ago to find a life of her own but is drawn inexorably back when news reaches her of a deadly fire at the sanctuary.

I almost stopped reading after the first chapters. Trump has just been elected, and the sanctuary fire is set by what appears to be a stereotypical “bad guy” (think swastikas, racists, Fox News). Not my kind of thing. Instead, the story delves into the people and all the connections between them. It looks at how personal histories (both good and bad) shape people and how each individual has to continually work to understand their own motivations, mistakes, and desires. The writing is excellent, depicting life in a (poorly funded) animal sanctuary in vivid detail — the animals, the work, the squalor, the caring.

The plot is unpredictable, all of the characters are engaging and fully fleshed out, and the environment is intriguing and very real. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:
“…how unfortunate it was that they didn’t kiss the way humans did, how they could never really hold a loved one in their arms. So few animals even had lips.”

“…because caretaking seemed like the only reasonable occupation in a world that needed so much care.”

“She had always admired this type of woman — women like her mother, like Sunny — who naturally exuded authority. They navigated the world with confidence, looking for things to improve, whereas Ariel moved through the world on tip-toes, expecting someone to reprimand her, to tell her she was doing something wrong.”

“Out here, we have to work with nature. It’s our boss. Our livelihood. Out there, people see nature as this dying thing they need to protect — this thing totally separate from themselves, from the world of people.”

“The animals are weird at night. You’d be surprised how many of them are awake — like they’re all dressed up and ready for church.”

“Maybe that’s the ingredient they’d been missing all along — the ability to say the squishy stuff other families had no problem tossing around.”

“Even in the moments of greatest anger, behind the flames there was always love. If anything, love was the air that stoked the blaze.”

“It seemed both absurd and unjust, that murdering animals made you rich while caring for them made you poor.”

“You know, my mom used to have this saying. She’d say ‘Mona, sorry is like a sponge. You can use it to clean up your messes, but the more you use it, the dirtier it gets.’”

“Dex would catch her looking at him, a shimmer of contempt in her eyes, as if his penis alone had engineered the electoral college.”

“It was something she’d noticed since the election: everyone was eager to dole out little kindnesses wherever possible, as if, deed by deed, they might tip the scales of the world toward goodness and restore some measure of order.”

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 Oct 7th, 2020.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg (Fiction)

Thank you to Random House and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 27, 2020.

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

The ultimate feel good book, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop takes up where Fried Green Tomatoes left off, following the beloved residents of Whistle Stop, Alabama as they disperse through the South. Told vignette style, we bounce between time periods, characters, and locales — like a collection of friendly gossip between friends about people they love in common. The main narrative arc follows Buddy and his daughter, Ruth, in the present. You may remember Buddy as the six-year-old who lost his arm in a train crossing accident in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s an amazing journey.

The ending is absolutely delightful, and I won’t give it away with any hints. Let’s just say I’m in a much happier space than I was when I started. Thank you, Fannie Flagg!

Great for fans of Elizabeth Berg.

The Cousins by Karen McManus (YA / Mystery)

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Dec. 1, 2020.

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

Another excellent YA thriller / mystery by Karen McManus who seems to have an endlessly twisted repertoire of stories stored in her brain. These books are hard to put down — well-written with engaging characters and a set of twists that I never quite figure out until it is too late.

The Cousins is about three cousins who are each invited to work at the resort owned by the grandmother who cut off all ties with their parents decades ago. Secrets abound and are unraveled at just the right pace. While it is labeled as a thriller, and I was on the edge of my seat, I didn’t find it to be anxiety provoking. Thriller-lite?

As a side note, isn’t it funny that teen angst is so refreshing in a pandemic? It’s so soluble!

The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

An Isabel Dalhousie book. For those unfamiliar with McCall Smith’s less well-known protagonist (Mma Ramotswe of Number One Ladies Detective Agency is far more popular), Isabel is a philosopher of independent means. She serves as the publisher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. What an unusual character on which to base a series! These books center around questions of morality, and amidst the light plots that loosely guide each episode, we are treated to a constant stream of philosophical musings and epiphanies. I love the fact that rather than read the (probably) dry research papers that populate Isabel’s Review, we instead get to hear the intriguing summaries.

In this installment, Isabel is asked to serve as executor of a dying man’s trust while simultaneously coming to terms with her niece’s engagement to an (to Isabel) unsuitable man. These situations give rise to musings about the accidents of love, moral obligations, moral strangers, the sphere of moral proximity, and what it means to act graciously. Populated by the educational elite of Edinburgh, this series also gives rise to discussions on a wide variety of topics — this time including Himalayan languages and Scottish Country dancing.

I have a very good vocabulary and have read most of McCall Smith’s books and yet he *still* surprises me with new words. This time: Gluckschmerz and commensality. Gluckschmerz is feeling pain in the face of another’s success — the opposite of Schadenfreude. Commensality refers to the positive social interactions that are associated with people eating together.

My favorite phrase in the book: “the suppurating corruption of greed.”

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 July 28th, 2020.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

A heroic fantasy novel with a YA slant from the author of Spinning Silver and Uprooted. Think Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind.

The action takes place at Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted. Unlike Hogwarts, however, there are no kindly Dumbledores anxious to help you survive and master your skills. Indeed, there are no teachers, or adults, or even any communication with the outside. Induction into the Scholomance is sudden and permanent. The only way out is to graduate, and there a lot of malevolent beasties that will do their best to ensure you make a tasty magic meal rather than a full wizard.

El (short for Galadriel — don’t ask) has an affinity for mass destruction — not what you want if you desire to be a “good witch”! She is roundly shunned by most — but is this because of her affinity for evil or because she is rude, off putting, and endlessly defensive? And the local hero, Orion Lake, keeps saving her life. How annoying!

The world building is complete and awesome — crawling with outlandish and execrable monsters, arcane rules and physics that doesn’t work in any way that I’ve experienced. Full of action (which normally bores me but somehow the sarcasm and wit and characters that I cared about in spite of myself carried me along quickly). Some not-so-thinly disguised political commentary on the haves and have-nots, but well-done and not completely one-sided. Overall enjoyable. I admit to liking Spinning Silver and Uprooted a little bit more but found this eminently consumable. Looks like it may be a series based on the last line of this book (not a cliff hanger in any sense but a promise of more to come).

I forgot to add that our heroine comes from Cardigan, Wales. That doesn’t have a lot to do with the story but it’s a beautiful place and I was tickled to find it in the book.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 29th, 2020.

Just Like You by Nick Hornby (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Story: 3.5/5

London, England.  Boy meets Girl in this simple story with character depth and plenty of everyday life thrown in. Girl is Lucy — a 42-year old white English teacher, divorced with two sons. Boy is Joseph — a 22-year old black “portfolio worker” (someone who works lots of jobs rather than one) interested in grime music and hoping to DJ. (As an aside, it is not possible to have a Nick Hornby book in which there is no character who is immersed in music).

I’m a Nick Hornby fan — this book had the great dialog and likable characters I’ve come to expect from him — while the characters didn’t all agree with each other, I would be happy to spend more time with most of them. Plenty of topics covered in ways that gave me something to think about: race, age and socioeconomic gaps, stereotypes, affinity groups, and how opinions can be formed by one’s willingness to to cling closer to or distinguish oneself from a group.

Brexit and later the Trump election form the larger-than-life background topics. He must be kicking himself to have finished this too soon — the pandemic would have made another excellent backdrop! By throwing together two people with wildly different backgrounds and characteristics, each situation can be specific to them and not representation of a category. I liked the way difficult issues could be presented and discussed as part of daily life without the heavy handedness of larger-than-life events. I also liked the fact that there was no clear resolution, because guess what? How often do we get real resolution in life? Deftly done and entertaining to boot.

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept 29th, 2020.

 

The Party Upstairs by Lee Conell (literary fiction)

Thank you to Penguin Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 7th, 2020.

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

A single day in an Upper West Side apartment building in New York City: we tag along inside the heads of a father and daughter. Martin is the long time super for the building, snagging the free apartment in the basement as part of his salary. Martin has internalized the building — the tenants, the systems, the various immigrants that continually circle around building infrastructure to keep it all running. Ruby is his daughter — recent Art History graduate plunged into a jobless recession and back living in the basement with her parents. As they churn through a disastrous day amidst plenty of existential angst, they are prodded along by two wildly different characters: Caroline lives in the building’s penthouse and has been Ruby’s friend since childhood; Lily is the now deceased, rent-control, neighbor who serves as a kind of Marxist Greek chorus narrating Martin’s every movement in his head. These narrations are priceless.

As a novel, I very much enjoyed this book about relationships across socioeconomic divides. Clear, insightful writing that absolutely captures the “voice” of the two main characters. Plenty of morally ambiguous action where judgement is left to the reader. On the other hand, the “wealthy” tenants were not painted with much sympathy. While we care about Martin and Ruby and understand (though possibly disagree with) their actions, the tenants are all depicted as hypocrites, rationalizers, or virtue signalers (except for Lily — the last representative of pre-gentrification!). In this book, there is no way for these wealthy tenants to behave that would earn them any appreciation from the “oppressed.” There is no way for them to be sympathetic or “good.” As a description of the way Martin and Ruby saw those people, I can’t argue with the narrative, but I don’t believe all New Yorkers are easily divided into just two categories: rich or exploited.

However — a fun read with plenty of good quotes (see below) and some great descriptions of specific aspects of individual jobs and the way a building works! I’m very interested in reading her previously published “Subcortical” which sounds like it might be right up my alley.

Some fun quotes:
“ ‘It’s not Ruby’s fault the fever dream of free-market capitalism has corrupted the realm of higher education.’ Lily had always tried to cheer Martin up by blaming his parental angst on the free market.”

“He’s got the Manifest Destiny glaze in his eyes.”

“The culture of grievances in this country is an unseemly stain, spreading fast! Wherever you come from, rich or poor, there is suffering. The problem is the way we quantify that suffering, revel in suffering — tired of those pesky self-pity streaks? Try growing a pair.”

“… in a real utopia the super wouldn’t exploit the voice of the dead to think the thoughts that he can’t let himself think on his own because his own voice is too quiet, too soft, too accommodating, he’s so good-natured they all think, not knowing that he’s only that way because if he acted out, if he shouted at Caroline over her little sporks, it would only confirm what they hoped was most true in him, he was a beast, he deserved his position in this world, he deserved to be exploited, I mean, that temper they would say, no wonder he’s …”

“The collar of the shirt under his gray cardigan was half down, half up, which gave him the sartorial look of a friendly dog unable to coordinate the orientation of its ears.”

“The city just operated this way sometimes; you could have a day fueled by coincidences that lined up wearing the mask of fate, trying to fool you into thinking there was some secret order to your life.”