The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

The Hidden Palace is a sequel to one of my favorite books: The Golem and the Jinni. Taking up where the G&J left off, we follow the two as they continue their inhuman lives amidst the sea of humanity that is New York City in the early1900s.

The story ranges over fifteen years encompassing WWI, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the disaster of the Titanic and takes place in New York City and parts of Syria. Including most of the characters from the first book, we also meet a Jinniyeh (a female Jinni) who is impervious to iron; an orphaned, ultra orthodox young girl who had helped her rabbi father create a golem to fight the pogroms in Russia; and Yosselle, the new golem himself.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book — the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were fascinating — especially between the young girl and “her” golem. The continuing themes of “otherness” and immigration continued from book one with additional examples through various human and inhuman characters. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t captivated in the way I was by the first book — for me there was too much time spent evoking the time and place through description when I prefer character interaction. Also, the overall tone felt more sorrowful than I remember book one, which is perhaps more realistic, but less satisfying. While book one brought multiple cultures together through these (non-human) representatives, this book felt more like the follow up on a couple in love but with such different essences that they were heading for an inevitable divorce (my impression — not what actually happens). For those who haven’t read the first book, she does a decent summary of the important background and events in the first few chapters.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 8th, 2021.

The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

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

Carol Goodman writes the most intriguing, convoluted, surprising novels. She is a master of setting the mood (in this case — creepy, mysterious, righteous, and fearful). The Stranger Behind You is a woman-centric, Gothic-style, mystery-thriller whose plot lines and main characters keep twisting together in unexpected ways. It all comes together beautifully but with constant surprises and a real sense of not ever feeling like you know the characters all the way. The theme might be — you never know who you can trust. Parallel stories weave together police corruption, mobsters from the past, and #metoo style manipulation of women. I’m not generally a reader of books that induce anxiety or stress, and I did have to limit myself to daytime reading for the first third of the book — but it was not the kind of thriller that induces too much anxiety (for me). I’m not a fan of heavy-handed books where all the men are horrible and the women manage to thrive regardless, so let me hasten to say that this is not one of those books. There are some pretty nasty men, and a few nasty women — but there are also plenty good men and women and possibly even a delightfully drawn and mysterious guiding spirit. Enjoy trying to figure out which is which in advance!

Great writing, great storytelling.

Thank you to William Morrow 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 July 6th, 2021.

House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly (Historical Fiction / Mystery)

Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.

In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.

Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.

Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.

No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.

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

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (Fiction / Speculative Fiction)

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 July 14th, 2020.

Writing: 3.5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4/5

A gritty, detailed and yet expansive, story about the evolution of a top (fictional) pop band (Utopia Avenue) in late sixties London. From obscurity to fame — raw talent discovered, initial deals, touring, and the bribery / flirtation / whatever-it-takes approach to getting the music played. The four main band members come from different backgrounds and blend different musical strengths: Dean — an “angry young bassist” specializing in R&B; Elf — a “folk-scene doyenne”; Jasper — a half Dutch “stratocaster demi-god”; and Griff — a Yorkshire jazz drummer.

A lot of dialog and description is devoted to describing the music itself and the music business. For me personally that was less interesting — I love listening to music but don’t translate writing about music to music itself well — but for those who do enjoy discussing and thinking about those topics there is plenty available.

He did a good job of bringing that musical time to life. Many famous musicians pass through these pages with mini appearances that appear true to recorded history: David Bowie, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa all make realistic cameo appearances. We spend time with the band at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. All the aspects of their world comes out — family issues, possible mental illness, drug use, the “offsprings” of philandering, and philosophies.

Mitchell’s books are sometimes hard to read. They all develop slowly and the writing style is a little more stream of consciousness than I like, but somehow I’m drawn in, and by the end I’m completely in the grip and continue to think about the emerging holistic picture afterwards. As an aside — and it’s a weird aside — one thread of this novel ties in with characters (beings?) that are elements of at least two of his previous works. It’s really just a thread here but this book fits squarely within the Mitchell universe which is not completely founded on the reality most of us share.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Fiction)

Thank you to Doubleday books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

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.”

 

 

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

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

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

The story of a lifelong friendship between two women who first meet at Lovegood College in 1958. Feron comes from a terrible, dark, background and has trouble connecting with people in any meaningful way; complacent and composed, Merry comes from a happy background and yet suffers a tragedy that forces her to withdraw from school after only one semester. Both develop literary interests and talents which feature in the story.

It’s an odd (to me) friendship and an odder narrative. After bonding immediately as freshman roommates, their next contact isn’t for ten years and remains sporadic after that. The narrative plays off this strange relationship by leaping from contact to contact and filling in the (event rich) intervening years via memories and asides. Thus whole marriages are relegated to a sad memory summarized in a couple of lines.

In some ways the book is written well — the language is good, the characters interesting, the dialog decent. However, it was difficult to get invested in the characters and this central relationship when there was so little to it. The author does convey the closeness each feels to the other, in spite of the fact that neither seems to make much effort to connect more often. It’s possible that these are just not people or modes of interaction that would work for me — I didn’t particularly like either of the main characters. I could not manage to find empathy for Feron, despite knowing her background and being privy to her inner thoughts. Merry was less well developed and while likable, she was far too passive for my taste. I feel like a real friendship would have brought out more in the other — the fact that these two felt close, despite rarely seeing or talking to each other, wasn’t much of a story.

While there was a lot in the book I liked — the (very different) literary aspirations, motivations, and processes for the two; the full depictions of Merry’s tobacco farm, Feron’s New York City life, Lovegood college, and the other characters — overall I found it rather depressing. Nobody in the book has a particularly happy life, and while the tone is not overly dramatic (the action is removed since it’s all in history), I felt dragged into an emotional pall. While each character seemed to have found some happiness or sense of accomplishment in their life, we don’t get to experience that directly. Overall I found the book mildly interesting from an intellectual perspective and mildly depressing from the emotional.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

What a wonderful book! The novel follows 85-year old Lillian’s perambulation around her beloved New York City on New Year’s Eve 1984/85. Alternating chapters expand on her memories of the city beginning in 1926 when she started as an assistant copywriter for RH Macy’s and continuing through her meteoric rise to the “most highly paid woman in advertising.” Walking is not an unusual activity for the elderly Lillian — she has claimed the ancient Greek motto “Solvitur Ambulando — it is solved by walking” as her own.

The exquisite language — completely evocative of the age — folds in bits of the history of New York, the history of advertising and the history of feminism into the story. Lillian’s stunning rebuttal to her younger colleagues’ endorsement of shifting advertising from clever and witty to manipulative and infantilizing is worth the entire price of admission.

This novel is a love song to the beauty of language, the city of New York, and to Lillian’s idea of civilization. Her true religion is “civility” (see full quote below) and she practices this — and her delicious grasp of language — with everyone she meets: the family that encourages her to join them at dinner, the young immigrant manning his parent’s all night bodega in a dangerous part of town, the night watchman, the young bohemians who invite her to their New Year’s party, and even the thugs who want her money.

Lillian’s character is loosely based on Margaret Fishbeck — the original “most highly paid woman in advertising.” The poems, ads, and two letters are hers, though the story around them is complete invention.

While I’ve listed some of my favorite quotes below, the entire book was filled with language that communicates complex ideas clearly and is utterly stylish — a delight to read and a perfect book on which to end my reading year.
Some quotes:
“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility. Please note that I do not call my faith ‘politeness.’ That’s part of it, yes, but I say civility because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extent that that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.”

“Then she and I got to work, sprinkling each page of copy, mine and others’, with irresistible little eyedrop-sized points of wit.”

“In the 1950s, when I was freelancing, I was often enlisted as a grocery-aisle Cyrano, a ventriloquist for the new and improved, repeatedly making the case that the way Mother did it was not, in fact, best.”

“The city is dazzling but uncompassionate. It always has been, but I feel it more now.”

“Solutions of style have a greater moral force than those of obligation.”

“A disco rhythm, I suppose. I never warmed to disco — which always struck me as crass yet flaccid, all buildup with no payoff — but rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music.”

“Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.”

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads, never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant expertise of my two successors. Please, ladies. resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely.”

“We chat about the things New Yorkers chat about — the constant low-grade lunacy of life in the city — but I am surprised to find, and I think they are too, that our stories emphasize the serendipitous, even the magical. Our tone is that of conspirators, as though we are afraid to be overheard speaking fondly of a city that conventional wisdom declares beyond hope.”

“It went by the name of Radio Row before the Port Authority — that practically paramilitary factotum of the odious Robert Moses — demolished it all in 1966, citing eminent domain.”

“We drift — all of us — farther from the fraught spasm of midnight, settling into the fog of another year.”

The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

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

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Fantastic book! Jennifer Egan’s writing is extraordinary. This was an audio book — not my preferred reading mechanism, and it just about killed me not to be able to write down the many, many, (many!), amazing lines.

This story is a whole set of interlocking vignettes that rocket backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time from two main characters: Bennie and Sasha — a record executive (and former punk rocker) and his (somewhat kleptomaniac) assistant. Real in-depth characters with surprising cameos in each other’s stories, the later impact of chance meetings, and plenty of odd “where did they end ups.” The stories pan across time and space — from New York City to the high desert to unlabeled countries with genocidal generals — with music and / or the music industry playing a major or minor role.

All the tales have one thing in common — the impact of time. Every one of the characters is trying to figure out — how did I end up here? How did this happen? One thing they all agree on — “Time’s a goon.”

Jennifer Egan is the best — I have to go back and find out what else I have missed.