Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
This third chapter in the Lucy Barton series (I am Lucy Barton and Oh William!) might alternately be titled Lucy Gets Through the Covid Pandemic as it extends from just before Covid slams into New York City and continues through the availability of vaccines. Lucy and her first husband, William (the parasitologist), head to Maine for what (very) naive Lucy is told will just be a few weeks to escape the ravages of Covid. William is — very simply — trying to save her life.

I’m a huge Strout fan and have read most or all of her books — I love her clean, clear writing and insight into personal experience. I did find this book a little more preachy than previous novels to the point where I liked the main character much less than I did previously. This is largely because the book took on political topics (Covid, George Floyd, the Capitol Riots) and manipulated the story to show how very correct her side of the political spectrum was in every case (the Capitol Rioters were all nazis and racists but the George Floyd riots were all peaceful; everyone in her book who did not adhere to strict covid protocols were rashly stupid and were all punished by death or hospitalization, etc.). While worrying about the state of democracy and bemoaning child labor in foreign countries, she has access to lots of money, and while befriending people with very different beliefs and professing love for her born again sister, she comes off as feeling superior to them. Of course, it is Lucy’s story and to be fair, the author does let some characters blast Lucy for just that! She even has Lucy (a writer) write stories about people very unlike herself so … overall I enjoyed the book, and it gave me a lot to think about (I think I’m still just sensitive to the many sanctimonious people I weathered Covid with, some of whom called me a “grandma killer” when I went out to run on deserted streets).

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 September 20th, 2022.

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee (Literary fiction / Audio book)

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

Casey Han — the daughter of Korean immigrants in Queens — craves a wealthy lifestyle she cannot afford, having been exposed to such while on a scholarship to Princeton. She craves “beauty and the illusion of a better life.” Casey balances pride, deeply embedded family traditions, and her emerging sense of self as she struggles to grow up and be the person she is slowly determining that she wants to be. While we follow Casey from graduation through the next five (or so) years, we are also treated to the developing stories of women who are important to her: her mother, a mentor, an acquaintance who rescues her and turns into a close friend. Rather than following a narrative arc, this book seems to follow a Life Arc — twisting and turning with sometimes rapid and surprising (to us and to Casey) shifts. The first novel by the author of Pachinko, you’ll recognize the style and treatment, while this book focuses on a Korean-American family and Pachinko is focused on 20th century Korea.

Although only covering a few years, this book felt epic because of its size and incredible depth. The characters are far too detailed and deeply introspective to even hint at stereotypes. Psychological analysis, philosophical musings, and cultural context (somehow never the same for any two people) help move the inner story along while the external story is utterly unpredictable.

The prose is beautiful, detailed, and rich. I love the way the author repeatedly and seamlessly contrasts the inner deliberations of each character with how his or her behavior appears to others. We are led through the minutiae of multiple lives that rarely go in the expected direction, but make do with the many, realistic tangents that comprise a life (regardless of any planning!). I appreciated the many domains that were brought to life by Casey’s experiences: investment banking and trading, millinery and fashion, church and faith, weddings, antiquarian books, and probably several others that I can no longer remember.

There were so many good quotes, but I listened to most of it as an audio book while driving and couldn’t write down a single one. 😦

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Historical fiction)

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

How have I never read this book? This will definitely be one of my top reads of 2022. Historical fiction immersed in the drive to commercialize the production of penicillin for the troops. Here’s a shocking statistic — over 50% of the deaths in the Civil War were from infection; over 30% in the “Great War.”

The story opens with Claire Shipley — photojournalist for Life magazine — covering the story of early trials on penicillin for humans. 1941 — just days after Pearl Harbor — a man makes an almost miraculous recovery from near death by the injection of penicillin — only to die days later when researchers literally run out of the drug: it is that difficult to produce. Together the U.S. Government, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (a real place — look it up), and reluctantly drafted pharmaceutical companies race to find a process to produce enough of the miracle drug to save the men on the front.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part home front war story, and part industry story, the author does an incredible job of making war-time New York City come to life. New York is a great setting for historical fiction as it is and always has been teeming with people, innovation, and secrets. While the main characters are fictional, the historical characters (e.g. Vannevar Bush, Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Sanger, Jack Reed) are presented realistically (without any fictionalized access to their inner thoughts). Beautiful writing — I highlighted a lot of quotes in the (physical) book but I was too lazy to transcribe them 😦

In addition to the description of the historical setting, what I loved about the book were the characters. Each had his or her own passion, and the author explored the depth of their work, their attraction to it, and the kind of personalities and background that made them so suited to it. The descriptions of Claire and her photos were completely absorbing and beautifully described; Dr. James Staunton leading the research at the Rockefeller Institute; his sister Tia the mycologist, exploring dirt samples from around the world to find other antibacterial “cousins” to penicillin; and Edward Rutherford, one of the very earliest venture capitalists, describing the process of making money from opportunity.

Completely captivating. This was her second novel, published in 2010. Novels 1,3, and 4 are all excellent as well!

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub (Literary Fiction)

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

On Alice’s 40th birthday, she finds herself working in the admissions office of the private Upper West Side school she attended as a child, single, and facing the death of her only parent — an unconventional single dad who earned his keep with a best selling science fiction novel about time travel. But here is where things take a sharp 90 degree turn: after a drunken blow out of a birthday, she falls asleep in the shed outside her father’s house and wakes up … as her teenage self on her 16th birthday.

This was an impressive book in that we have all the character depth, insight, and good writing of a literary novel with the fantastic philosophical considerations made possible by the opportunity to potentially impact the future with some targeted behavior shifts on this one, important night. I loved her wry tone and engaging reflections, and I greatly enjoyed her descriptions of New York City from the perspective of a native. As a diehard SF fan, I was also pretty impressed with the breadth of time travel stories Alice ponders as she tries to come to terms with her situation. Some impressive thoughts about the nature of grief as well. I both enjoyed reading this book and feel like I gained some understanding from it as well.

Some fun quotes:

“In the real world, and in her own life, Alice had no power, but in the kingdom of Belvedere, she was a Sith Lord, or a Jedi, depending on whether one’s child got in or not.”

“Her pants were so long that they dragged on the ground, creating a seismograph of filth along the raw bottom edge.”

“It was like there were two of her, the teenage Alice and the grown-up Alice, sharing the same tiny patch of human real estate.”

“Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early, even kids that she’d never really looked at too closely, like Kenji Morris, who was taking the SAT class a whole year early, like he was Doogie Howser or something.”

“Her vision was clear, but it was coming from two different feeds. Alice was herself, only herself, but she was both herself then and herself now. She was forty and she was sixteen.”

“Like many transplants from small towns around the world, Matt seemed to look at New York City as a set to walk through, not thinking too much about what had come before.”

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on May 17th, 2022.

Murder on Madison Square by Victoria Thompson (Mystery)

A nice, light cozy — number 25 (!) in the Gaslight mystery series (New York City around 1900). Frank Malloy (former NYPD policeman, now gentleman private detective) and his wife Sarah (former midwife, but always a Lady having been born into a prominent family) work together (with some other interesting characters) to solve mysteries. This mystery: a man is found dead, having been run over by one of the very cars he was selling.

In truth, there is a lot of filler, a relatively simple plot, and a lot of repetition as everyone keeps talking about the possibilities from all sides. Some things become obvious to the reader long before the characters wake up to the truth (but perhaps this is a nod to expectations of the times?). However, what I do always like about Thompson’s mysteries are the new and interesting pieces of history she brings in to motivate and support the plot. In this book, we learn about the history of electric cars which were apparently very popular at the time — especially for women because they were so much easier (and safer) to drive. Who knew? Also an interesting note about New York divorces where adultery was the only valid grounds for divorce. These two items (and others) have a bearing on the plot.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 26th, 2022.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu (Literary Fiction)

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

Lit Hub lists this as one of the “22 novels you need to read this fall,” so I moved it to the top of my review list.

Willa is the bi-racial (Asian dad, white mom) daughter of parents who divorced when she was young and moved on to build new families. Somewhat adrift in New York City after finishing college, she falls into a live-in nanny position with a wealthy family and a precocious child and wonders what life would be like to be part of such a (in her eyes) perfect family. The story alternates between the present day and various experiences in Willa’s past.

What I liked about this book was the content-rich and easily flowing writing style and the high degree of reflectivity on the part of the main character. While at times it appeared to move slowly, that is a good reflection of how normal life proceeds, and I enjoyed the access to Willa’s mind as she slowly came to understand what was important to her and how she could make changes in her own behavior to make her life be what she wanted. I also liked the way the story focused on Willa as an individual and not as a representative of a particular group. It traces the impact of her various experiences (some teasing at school for being Asian, lack of attention in her broken home situation, etc.) without calling attention to an overly dramatic agenda. It’s a personal story of an individual.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 2nd, 2021.

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 Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

On the one hand, a wild adventure story. It is 1954 and 18-year old Emmet Watson is driven back to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile detention facility where he has served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left years ago, and his father just died; the bank is preparing to foreclose on the farm and all their belongings. He is now the guardian of his 8-year old brother, Billy. While they plan to drive to California to start a new life, two stowaways (Duchess and Woolly) from the facility have a different idea. And so it goes…

The writing is — of course — excellent. The narration alternates between Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly, with occasional chapters from a few others. Each character has a distinctive voice as they describe both events and their inner thought processes during the ten days covered. Billy is my favorite character — never a narrator he somehow becomes a focal point for all of the stories. He is earnest, innocent, smart as a whip, and somewhat beatific. Billy doesn’t go anywhere without his large red book — Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. This book — which mixes mythical with real-life heroes (all male by the way) in its A to Z collection — serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the action as Billy pores over the pages offering its inspiration to those he meets.

There are many layers to this book, and I don’t claim to understand them all. Well articulated moral themes as interpreted and internalized by our different players. I loved Sister Agnes’ Chains of Wrong doing lecture (which I include in the quotes below) — this book will keep book club discussions going forever. Interesting note: I loved Rules of Civility and yet tried twice to read A Gentleman of Moscow and could not get past about page 50. Lincoln Highway was impossible to put down. One more interesting note: I did find this book a little stressful which says more about me than about the book. It reminded me of the nightmares I sometimes have where I need to get to the airport but things keep happening and then while trying to address those things, other things keep happening, etc. There is an element of that in the pages that stressed me while I tried (in my head) to get our protagonists back on track. My advice for reading — just let it go and enjoy the ride.

A few good quotes:

“Rather, the comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

“Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.”

“One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the Chains of Wrongdoing. Boys, she would begin in her motherly way, in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that other have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.

“Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

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 19th, 2021.

The Tiger Mom’s Tale by Lyn Liao Butler (Fiction)

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

36-year old Alexa Thomas is hit with a double whammy when she learns that Chang Jing Tao — her Taiwanese biological father — is dead after 22 years of estrangement and that it is up to her whether or not his extended Taiwanese family will lose their homes. A personal trainer in New York City who loves her clients, Alexa was raised by her white American mother and adoptive father. Efforts to learn more about her Taiwanese family came to a screeching halt the summer she was 14 and had a lot to do with the titular Tiger Mom — Jing Tao’s second wife.

A fun book with good writing and likable characters. Butler is a great storyteller, and I confess I read this in a single sitting on one insomniac night! Taiwanese culture is explored — mostly through mouth watering food descriptions but with some customs and the tiniest bit of history added in. While hitting plenty of hot topic buttons (being bi-racial, not fitting in, family break up, and … wait for it … the exploration of one’s sexuality at an “elderly” age), they weren’t the agenda laden center of the book. Instead they were simply influencing factors of Alexa’s life. We all have individual personalities and contexts in our lives, and I like to see “hot topic” forces relegated to the background of one person’s individual story.

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 July 6th, 2021.