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.

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.