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.

Under the Golden Sun by Jenny Ashcroft (Historical Fiction)

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

It is 1941 . Rose Hamilton answers an ad to accompany Walter — a young, newly orphaned boy — to his distant family on an Australian cattle station. But Walter is not an ordinary boy, and the cattle station is not what they were led to expect. About a third of this book was a very appealing romance. The rest was fiction that depicted life during wartime — in England, during the months long journey on a not-exactly-elegant ship, and in the remote areas of Australia, a few hours from Brisbane. I learned more than I knew about Australian history — particularly about the White Australia Laws and the Chief Protector of Aborigines (FYI he was not very protective). Plenty of surprises in the plot as past events come to light, and current events continue to unfold.

This was a happy book for me — in truth it was somewhat formulaic but it was executed so beautifully and with such appealing characters and well-researched history that I didn’t mind a bit. I liked the fact that the drama was not overstated, that moral commentary was pervasive but not overwhelming, and that the main characters had far more to them than their tropes (e.g. vulnerable hero) would require.

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 March 15th, 2022.

Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

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

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

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 January 18th, 2022.

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White (Fiction / Mystery)

The seventh (and possibly last) book in White’s immensely popular Tradd Street series sees family, romance and historic house restorations Charleston-style (read: expensive and persnickety) come together in this exciting story of betrayal, old and new. And did I mention Ghosts? No? They populate every corner — friendly ghosts, malevolent ghosts, and immensely sad ghosts still seeking justice after many, many, years. For those new to the series, Melanie Trenholm — star realtor, new mother, and label gun enthusiast — can see and often speak to the dead.

A nice combination of women’s fiction (relationship issues, shopping, extravagant theme parties), mystery (cold cases as presented by sad, justice-seeking ghosts), and historical fiction (plenty of interesting research into Charleston’s history as it bears on the cold case du jour). A fun mix of humor and over-the-top lifestyles with complicated plot twists, an overly dramatic research librarian, and intricate treasure hunts. You could certainly read this book on its own, but given the five months to publication, I recommend starting at the beginning with The House on Tradd Street. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the series.

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 Nov. 2nd, 2021.

Little Souls by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

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

Little Souls takes place in Denver, 1918. The Influenza has hit the population badly, and the men are still away at war. At 19, Lutie Hite is a carefree artist working in advertising for the local department store; her older, more careworn, sister Helen is a nurse. Through an interesting set of events they become responsible for Dorothy, the ten-year old daughter of their now deceased tenant. From these beginnings follows a fairly wild, often heartbreaking, but ultimately heartwarming ride.

I’m a big Sandra Dallas fan. Dallas writes Western historical fiction about strong women making it through adversity with fortitude, intelligence, and the help of their community. She always brings in the small details of life in that particular time and place to make everything ring true.

Her stories tend to the dramatic, but never go over the top and feel quite realistic for their time. She is even-handed about how people thought and behaved at the time — different characters have different opinions on everything from mask-wearing (ha!) to personal morality, and no opinion is presented as obviously better than the others. Religious feeling and participation was a big part of life in that place and time, and I liked how she treated it. While this in no way dominates the book, there were some beautiful passages about how individual characters felt about God that moved me, despite my not being religious myself.

This is a real page-turner — I’m afraid I annoyed my husband by reading on into the night…

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 April 26th, 2022.