Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Last Love Note by
Emma Grey.
The book is being released by Zibby Books on November 28, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: You may never stop loving the one you lost. But you can still find love again.
br> Kate is a bit of a mess. Two years after losing her young husband Cameron, she's grieving, solo parenting, working like mad at her university fundraising job, always dropping the ball-and yet clinging to her sense of humor. Lurching from one comedic crisis to the next, she also navigates an overbearing mom and a Tinder-obsessed best friend who's determined to matchmake Kate with her hot new neighbor. When an in-flight problem leaves Kate and her boss, Hugh, stranded for a weekend on the east coast of Australia, she finally has a chance, away from her son, to really process her grief and see what's right in front of her. Can she let go of the love of her life and risk her heart a second time? When it becomes clear that Hugh is hiding a secret, Kate turns to the trail of scribbled notes she once used to hold her life together. The first note captured her heart. Will the last note set it free? The Last Love Note will make readers laugh, cry, and renew their faith in the resilience of the human heart-and in love itself.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Predictable Heartbreaks of Imogen Finch by
Jacqueline Firkins.
The book is being released by St. Martins Griffin on October 31, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: Jacqueline Firkins's The Predictable Heartbreaks of Imogen Finch is a beautiful story of friendship, and second chances at love.

Imogen Finch has just been through her seventeenth breakup. She saw it coming, so she's not as crushed as she might be, but with all seventeen of her exes leaving her for other partners, she's come to believe a prediction her well-intentioned and possibly clairvoyant mother made over twenty years ago: that Imogen would never come first at anything or to anyone. Is her love life failing due to a magical curse? Insufficient effort? Poor timing or personality mismatches? Everyone has opinions on the matter. Imogen's ready to give up altogether. But when Eliot Swift, her secret high school crush, returns to their small coastal town after a decade of nomadic travels, Imogen has new motivation to try again. Eliot's full of encouragement. He suggests that her curse is not only imagined, it's easily breakable. All they need is one win--any win--and she can believe in love, and in herself again.

From trivia games to swimming races to corn-shucking contests, the pair sets out to snag Imogen her first first. But when victory proves more elusive than Eliot anticipated, and when his deep-seeded wanderlust compels him to depart for far away places, Imogen fears she's destined to remain in second place forever. Fortunately for them both, sometimes magic lingers in the most unexpected places. And love is far from predictable.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Love on the Menu by
Mimi Deb.
The book is being released by Avon Books on October 24, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: One takeaway dinner. Two lonely hearts. Did somebody order a rom com?

Gia thrives on risks. Ben plays it safe.

She crossed continents to chase her London dream; he works the same job in the same restaurant, night after night.

Then fate steps in. When Gia's takeout is delivered, her embarrassing list of New Year's resolutions accidentally makes its way to Ben's restaurant, stuck to the bottom of a delivery backpack.

With each delivery Gia orders, Ben slips in a note of his own and eagerly awaits her reply. One by one, these notes transform their lives in unexpected ways, and an unlikely love story is written.

Review: They're Going to Love You by Meg Howrey

I am about as graceful as a duck in a tutu, wobbly and pigeon-toed but that doesn't stop me from being attracted to books set in the professional dance world. There's something so dreamy about ballerinas, pancake tutus, pointe shoes, and the seemingly effortless way they glide across a stage. But all that ethereal grace and art hide a tough and punishing underside: stress on the body, serious athletics, hard work, body expectations both for weight and height, dedication, and a short professional window. Meg Howrey's remarkable novel of a father and daughter's relationship, They're Going to Love You, revolves around this competitive and unforgiving world.

Told from the perspective of an adult Carlisle, and alternating between her past and present, this is a story of family drama, love, belonging, betrayal, the sometimes fragile bond of the parent/child relationship, finding peace, and ballet. Carlisle is the daughter of a former Ballanchine ballerina and a noted choreographer. Her parents divorced when she was young and she only got to see her father and his partner James for a few weeks in the summer. She adored life with her father and James, who recognized her natural talent and mentored her in the dance world. She wanted more than anything to belong to them and to their NYC dance world, despite the devastation that AIDS was wreaking in it, and she seemed to be well on her way to becoming a professional ballerina herself. But something happened both professionally and personally and she's been estranged from her father and James for years when she receives a phone call from James telling her that her father is dying and she should come back to NYC to say goodbye.

The cause of the estrangement is only slowly revealed as Carlisle relives for the reader the summer that the rupture occurred. She's a fascinating character and the novel is first person so we see all of her hestitations, questions, and regrets. It's easy to see that even as a 40 or 50 year old woman, she's still looking to be someone's first choice (James is her father's first choice and her step-father and half brother are her mother's). As she prepares to go to New York to see her father again, can she put the past aside, forgive, and finally choose herself no matter what awaits her? The ballet pieces are interesting and technical, but not too technical for non-dancers. The writing itself is elegant and balletic and the story presents common themes in intriguing new ways.

This novel is one of the Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads for 2023.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Review: Stealing by Margaret Verble

As Indigenous People's Day has just passed, it is perhaps entirely fitting to share Margaret Verble's stunning novel, Stealing.

Told in chapters as letters written to whoever discovers her missing, this is the beautiful, heartbreaking story of Kit, a young half Cherokee, half white girl whose mother is dead and whose father does the best he can for his daughter. She has a large extended Native family on her mother's side, all of whom cherish her. She is a lonely child though, living way out in the country, so it's not a surprise when she befriends the nearest neighbor, a glamorous and beautiful woman named Bella, whose lifestyle causes the townspeople to look askance, thinking the worst of her. This friendship is the catalyst for a terrible crime and the reason behind the whole story.

Switching back and forth between Kit's present in a religious boarding school and the events that led her there, she innocently chronicles the hypocracy of the "Christian" adults around her, the racism and cruelty of the rural 1950s, and the terrible harm that comes when adults discount a child's word. The crime is perhaps predictable and inevitable but Verble still has some surprises in store for the reader. The writing, entirely in Kit's voice, is lovely and the structure serves the story beautifully. Kit, as a character, is wholly sympathetic, surprisingly worldly for her age in some ways, and yet sweetly naive and innocent in the ways that matter most despite her life and desires and family all being stolen from her. This is a hard and heartbreaking book, magnificently written and well worth the time spent reading it.

This novel is one of the Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads for 2023.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Review: Mrs. Plansky's Revenge by Spencer Quinn

Do I like books with older protagonists because I myself am getting older or do I like them because they are generally populated with quirky, fun, intelligent characters who are still concerned with living their best lives and looking forward to the future? Probably both, to be fair. I like old curmudgeons. I like flighty little old ladies. I like smart, curious oldsters who outwit younguns. I like 'em all. So I was definitely looking forward to Spencer Quinn's newest novel, Mrs. Plansky's Revenge, the start of a new series.

Loretta Plansky is a recent widow who, with her late husband, invented the Plansky Toaster Knife, an invention that left them quite well off. She plays a lot of tennis, even after her hip replacement, and takes care of her irascible 98 year old father, who lives in an assisted living home not far from her in Florida. She's the mother of two middle aged children and grandmother to two young adult grandchildren, none of whom perhaps appreciate her enough beyond her bank account. In fact, a late night call from her grandson asking her for money to get him out of a big jam starts off Mrs. Plansky's whole madcap adventure. The morning after the phone call, she discovers that her entire bank account has been wiped out. The FBI is less than encouraging about her ever getting her money back. But Mrs. Plansky won't accept this and after snooping into the FBI's information a bit herself, she hocks some jewelry and heads to Romania to track down the criminals who prey on the unsuspecting elderly and to get her money back. Alternating with Mrs. Plansky's perspective are chapters focused on the scammers themselves, in particular a teenager named Dinu, what drove him to this crime and how he and his buddy feel about it.

The characters are all entertaining and while the scammers are initially unsympathetic, they start to grow on the reader, while Mrs. Plansky's feisty, determined self is a treasure from the jump. Why her children and grandchildren don't appreciate her is the biggest mystery of the book (it's not really a mystery at all despite some marketing to the contrary). Mrs. Plansky's detective skills are impressive if completely unrealistic and the coincidences here abound. There are some unexpected twists and turns throughout and the novel is a fun, easy, and undemanding read.

This novel is one of the Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads for 2023.

Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

The Gilded Age was a fascinating time in history, on the cusp of so much discovery and invention and a whole new way of life (sometimes positive, sometimes negative). Witches have traditionally been women who have had a power and a knowledge that wasn't supposed to be available to them. Society, when not punishing them to death, often shunned them, except for those furtive moments that they needed these wise women's counsel or skills, herbal and otherwise. Combine the Gilded Age in New York with witches and you have the potential for an amazing novel, which is exactly what Ami McKay's The Witches of New York is.

Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom run an apothecary/tea shop in New York called Tea and Sympathy. They are both witches. Seventeen year old Beatrice Dunn is looking for an escape from her boring life when she sees an advertisement looking for a shopgirl for the aforementioned store with the intriguing caveat that "those averse to magic need not apply." Beatrice is a witch too, although she doesn't know it yet. What she does know is that this job is meant for her so she heads to New York City at the same time that Cleopatra's Needle is making its way down the rail line. Tea and Sympathy is a cozy and appealing place but also quietly subversive, a place where women are on the verge of being able to show their power, to claim suffrage, to wear less restrictive clothing, and to manifest their own autonomy among other things. Because it is this, it is also the target of hatred, especially in the character of a local reverend intent on stamping out his perception of "evil" even as he brings evil with him.

The story is a charming mix of history and magic. It believes in communing with the dead, ghosts and spiritualism, potions and palmistry. In other words, it captures beautifully the spirit and atmosphere of the Gilded Age. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice are intriguing characters and Perdu the raven, who is something more than a raven is a marvelous touch. The plot is mesmerizing and the tension rises apace, taking this from a quaint, witchy tale to a desperate howl against the patriarchy. It's an engrossing story of the power of friendship and of a modernizing world that has to make room for powerful women in a whole new way. My book club was divided on it but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Review: The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood

A lot of people read scary books for the month of October. I am not one of those people. I am too much of a coward. But I also want to read spooky books like everyone else. So I compromise with myself. I read spooky adjacent books. You know the ones: they scare no one but there might be a mostly off-page murder or slight thriller-y bits. But I am picky and want something a half degree more plausible than the cozy mystery series that take up a ton of real estate at the bookstore. I may not want the knit shop owner and her cat to solve the murder, but I am all over feisty old folks solving murders. So I was more than delighted to pick up The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood.

Judith is 77. She lives happily on her own on the banks of the River Thames in the pleasant village of Marlow. She is a crossword setter for the Times, loves a glass or three of Scotch of an evening, and enjoys a private skinny dip in the river outside her door. One night she is out for her swim when she hears shouting and a gunshot from the neighbor's across the way. When she calls the police to investigate, they don't believe her so she takes it upon herself, returns to her neighbor's and finds his body. When two more people turn up dead, both also shot by an antique German Luger, it's possible that there's a serial killer on the loose. Judith teams up with Suzie, a local dogwalker, and Becks the very buttoned up mother of two and wife of the local vicar to look into the background of her neighbor in hopes that figuring out what got him killed will help them stop the killer before anyone else dies. As a crossword setter, Judith is quite good at figuring out clues and she, Suzie, and Becks will need all of their collective intelligence to unravel the crazy mystery and catch the killer.

These three women are delightfully kooky and do some madcap stuff in the course of their investigations. Each of them has a nicely worked out backstory (although Judith's has a hint of mystery: why does she keep one room in her house locked and what was her relationship with her late husband anyway?) and their growing friendship is quite appealing as each woman comes to appreciate her own inherent value. Everyone here is a suspect and the plot is rife with red herrings with the eventual solution being completely convoluted. The story can veer into the absurd (the police are really going to let these three women help them?) but the over all effect is fun and diverting if less than plausible. For big old scaredy-pants like me, it's a nice addition to mystery season.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Reading allows us to experience lives nothing like our own. Am I a high society wedding planner of Puerto Rican descent? Am I the child of a drug addicted father with AIDS and a militant activist mother who abandoned me to be raised by my grandmother when I was a young teen? Am I trying to figure out my life, my relationships, and where my heart is? OK, maybe yes to that last one but definitely no to the first two scenarios. And yet, in reading Xochitl Gonzalez's novel Olga Dies Dreaming, I can step into the shoes of a character who answers yes to all of these questions as she tries to figure out what the American Dream really means and who it applies to.

Olga is a wedding planner for the rich and famous after having been featured on a reality tv show. She is incredibly sought after and successful, even if she sometimes pads her bills or overbuys and charges her clients for these "mistakes." Her brother Prieto is a Congressman representing a gentrifying LatinX neighborhood, one that, at least initially, thinks he hung the moon and is undeniably one of them. Olga and Prieto have a close knit sibling relationship but that doesn't mean they don't have secrets from each other. And their secrets are big ones. The person who seems to know both of their secrets is their absent mother, Blanca, who sends them well-informed letters when either of them make choices that stray from the path she wants them to tread, the path that she herself has taken, backing, and, if necessary, fighting for an independent Puerto Rico. As Hurricane Maria barrels down on Puerto Rico and then in its devastating aftermath, both siblings will face reckonings.

Gonzalez has drawn complex and interesting characters in this personal and political family drama. She liberally sprinkles political and historical information throughout the novel, some of which is organic and some of which felt a little forced. She tackles immigrant life and expectations, classism and capitalism, racism, political corruption, the Puerto Rican Independence movement, family trauma, and oppression as her characters look to find themselves and face the difficult things that their pasts have contributed to even as they come to terms with their Puerto Rican heritage. The story bogs down in the middle and the pacing remains mostly slow. The ending, which is set in 2025, picks up the pace but is a bit of a neatly tied bow. It does give a sense of how Olga and Prieto have grown and come into the truth of themselves and imagines an interesting ending/beginning for Puerto Rico. I mostly enjoyed this novel but I had to refresh myself on it to write this review so there was nothing special enough to stick with me long term.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Review: The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe

I gave this book to my dad a couple of years ago for Christmas, thinking he would enjoy it. (He's never told me if he read it so I don't know if I was right or not.) True to form, that meant I had to read it too. I used to listen to Mike Rowe's podcast, also called The Way I Heard It, and thought that it would be interesting to learn more about the charming, witty, and down-to-Earth host through this combination of podcast vignettes and memoir.

The vignettes are all stories he'd already told on the podcast rather than the new pieces I had hoped for. That's on me but it meant that having heard the podcast, I was already familiar with the bulk of the book. In and among the 35 stories from the podcast, Rowe has dropped short anecdotes from his own life. Readers get to know his parents, see the path he took through show business, from his years at QVC to hosting Dirty Jobs, and stop in at some of his other unconventional life choices along the way, finally culminating in the founding of his mikeroweWORKS foundation. He is a public figure and much of what he shares in the book has been shared elsewhere, on air or online, as well, so there's not a lot of new material here. It is a pleasaant read, filled with self-deprecating humor, a little bit Paul Harvey, a little bit memoir. Readers unfamiliar with the podcast and wanting just little snippets of stories where they can try to guess the subject as the tale goes on will enjoy this book and the way [Rowe] heard it.

Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

If I saw a gate, wreathed in fog, and swirling with magpies like on the cover of Ruth Ware's The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I would high tail it right back to my comfortable, safe existence and try to forget what I'd seen. I almost felt this way about picking up and reading this novel too. Would it be too creepy for me? Would it give me nightmares? Would I be able to read it with both eyes open and/or after dark? It turns out I didn't really have all that much to worry about, especially since one (or more!) of the major plot points was telegraphed incredibly early on in the book, making the rest of it feel less scary over all.

Harriet (Hal) Westaway reads tarot cards on the Brighton pier, barely eking out a living after the death of her mother in a hit and run. The season has turned so she doesn't have many customers. What she does have is a big, looming debt that she cannot repay, owed to a loanshark threatening violence if she defaults so when a letter arrives informing her of an inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother, it couldn't have come at a better time. Except the dead woman is not Hal's grandmother; her grandmother died years ago. Hal decides to go the funeral and Trepassen House anyway, and using her skills as a tarot reader who can bluff and intuit quite a lot about human beings thanks to their mannerisms and tells, perhaps still claim the inheritance. She is soon immersed in a spooky house, populated by her "uncles" and "aunt" and an ancient, surly housekeeper as she tries to figure out the secrets everyone is keeping in this spectacularly unhappy family, especially after she uncovers a very real connection between her mother and this disconcerting place.

Ware has created an interesting premise, filled it with menacing atmosphere, and set it in a gothic landscape. The weather reflects the story and her main character's (perhaps justified) paranoia is rising. The sense of foreboding should augur well for the story. But it doesn't. Hal is not nearly as prerceptive as the reader is told. In fact, she somehow discovers the truth despite her strangely self-aware bumbling, which is frustrating. The other characters are not particularly well drawn, making it hard to differentiate them from each other. The late Mrs. Westaway's character is a caricature of the spiteful, nasty mother and the ancient housekeeper mainly just shuffles around in a cloud of toxic suspicion, muttering gleefully dire warnings. The flat characters combined with the ponderously slow narrative made for a slog of a read for me. Many readers love Ruth Ware. I'm just not one of them.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The House of Doors by
Tan Twan Eng.
The book is being released by Bloomsbury Publishing on October 17, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: From the bestselling author of The Garden of Evening Mists, a spellbinding novel about love and betrayal, colonialism and revolution, storytelling and redemption.

The year is 1921. Lesley Hamlyn and her husband, Robert, a lawyer and war veteran, are living at Cassowary House on the Straits Settlement of Penang. When "Willie" Somerset Maugham, a famed writer and old friend of Robert's, arrives for an extended visit with his secretary Gerald, the pair threatens a rift that could alter more lives than one.

Maugham, one of the great novelists of his day, is beleaguered: Having long hidden his homosexuality, his unhappy and expensive marriage of convenience becomes unbearable after he loses his savings-and the freedom to travel with Gerald. His career deflating, his health failing, Maugham arrives at Cassowary House in desperate need of a subject for his next book. Lesley, too, is enduring a marriage more duplicitous than it first appears. Maugham suspects an affair, and, learning of Lesley's past connection to the Chinese revolutionary, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, decides to probe deeper. But as their friendship grows and Lesley confides in him about life in the Straits, Maugham discovers a far more surprising tale than he imagined, one that involves not only war and scandal but the trial of an Englishwoman charged with murder. It is, to Maugham, a story worthy of fiction.

A mesmerizingly beautiful novel based on real events, The House of Doors traces the fault lines of race, gender, sexuality, and power under empire, and dives deep into the complicated nature of love and friendship in its shadow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Review: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

In December 1926, mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. The entire country of Britain was searching for her, worried that she had harmed herself or become a victim of foul play like so many characters in her own books. Then she reappeared quite far from home, at a hotel, registered under the name of her husband's mistress, and claiming amnesia. She never really spoke of this disappearance, where she was the whole time and exactly why she took off. This gap in her story has left it open for authors to interpret and imagine their own reasons behind it all. The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is Marie Benedict's version of Christie's motivations and the secrets surrounding Christie, her husband, and their marriage.

It is no small feat to take an historical figure, about whom much is known, who has even written an autobiography or two--I highly recommend Come, Tell Me How You Live, which details Christie's writing life not at all, but who has one gigantic, unanswered mystery at the center of her life and to make that mystery the fascinating, unsubstantiated focus of a novel but Benedict pulls it off. Alternating between the past, when Agatha meets her husband Archie and the present, when she has disappeared and is directing Archie on a quest she has designed, the novel gives the reader the background into a whirlwind love affair and marriage that perhaps inevitably went wrong and into the psyche of the woman who remains the best selling novelist of all time. Benedict has gotten the period details down pat, although occasionally they read as info dumps rather than organic pieces of the story. Her Agatha grows from the giddy young woman who met Archie to an intelligent, determined author who can't and won't fit into the box her husband wants to place her in. Given the characterization of Archie here, it's a wonder she didn't disappear earlier.

Although this is an historical fiction, it fittingly reads a bit like a mystery itself as the reader works towards the reveal at the end. And that ending is worthy of Christie herself. The story is a page turner as the forces that shaped Christie personally and as an author play out on the page. There are some spoilers for several of Christie's mysteries in here so readers who haven't yet read her novels might want to beware. The majority of the book, which is separated into two parts, is focused on Christie's life before her disappearance, the unhappiness and loneliness, the anger and the sorrow of a life so different than the one she once envisioned, and the disappearance itself. The second, quite brief part reveals the story and motivation behind the missing 11 days, how she and Archie will play it out for the world, and how she will move on for the future. Benedict has written a captivating and plausible story to account for Christie's missing days while also drawing the picture of an almost Machiavellian woman scorned, a woman far smarter than her husband, one who has finally seized control of her life and found herself. An interesting read for sure.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Review: The Wishing Pool and Other Stories by Tananarive Due

I was very reluctant to read this collection of stories. I know that Tananarive Due is supposed to be an amazing author but I'm not the biggest short story fan and am decidedly cowardly so the horror tag for these was hard to overcome. Having finally read them now, I will say that Due is as amazing as billed and that the horror was not really horror (or maybe it is but the horror of it is less each storyline and more its closeness to our actual life in many cases).

The stories in this collection are arranged thematically and divided into four different sections: Wishes, The Gracetown Stories, The Nayima Stories, and Future Shock. Wishes deals with the supernatural and the horror of the familiar that turns out to be something entirely other once the mask is removed. The stories in this section weave the supernatural into the everyday in creepy and sometimes terrifying ways. Haint in the Window, perhaps my favorite story of the entire collection, is in Wishes. It tells the story of a black bookstore manager who grew up visiting the bookstore as a child, took over the store as an adult, and has watched, uncomfortably, as the neighborhood around the store gentrifies. He is uncertain what it means when a haint moves into this store he's dedicated his whole life to but it can't be good. Due ratchets up the tension as the story progresses and then comes out swinging, presenting the reader with a terrible truth, one unfortunately not at all removed from real life. It was masterfullly done. The stories in The Gracetown Stories section are all set within the magical, and often sinister, Gracetown. The Nayima Stories only comprise two stories about a girl and then woman named Nayima, who is one of few survivors of a plague that has more than decimated the world. Both stories are set in a horrifying dystopia, one immediately suceeding the plague and one many years in the future. And the stories of Future Shock are firmly in the Afrofuturism camp but also set in a dystopian world (but perhaps not the same dystopia as The Nayima Stories).

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed many of the stories. Or perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word and appreciated is a better one. The stories as a whole are tightly written and complete on their own, although there were certainly a few that might have needed a bit more (and some I wanted a bit more from). Due weaves the theme of racism through many of the stories but it is not the sole focus of her collection. I definitely appreciated that Due's brand of horror isn't gory and graphic, no jump scares, just a rising sinister atmosphere, a dawning recognition, and suspense leading to a creepy, unsettling reveal. It's not my usual type of read but it's not bad to expand your horizons sometimes.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

A sci-fi fantasy mash-up? If you know me, you might be wondering right now who I actually am, because Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki is not at all my usual sort of read. Well, this was a book club choice so despite being really hesitant about the concept, I tried to go into it with an open mind. And unfortunately, this is not the book to convince me to read similar books.

Shizuka Satomi is a famous violin teacher, once a prodigy herself. She is called the Queen of Hell and it turns out there is a good reason. She has promised to deliver the souls of seven other violin prodigies to the Devil in return for her own. So far she's delivered six and is on the lookout for the seventh. Katrina Nguyen is a young transgender woman who has been teaching herself to play the violin via YouTube tutorials. Her father is abusive and she earns a small amount of money as a sex worker. When she can no longer tolerate the abuse she's endured for so long, she runs away from home and ultimately ends up homeless. Shizuka hears Katrina playing her violin in a park and knows she's found her next student. Lan Tran is an alien, both in the sense of a creature from somewhere other than Earth and in the sense of being an immigrant to the US (she and her family have taken on human form). Her family/crew is trying to remain undiscovered as they flee from war and plague on their home planet. They've bought a donut shop and are working to make it an interstellar star gate. This is, of course, the donut shop where Shizuka gets her coffee in the morning and she is drawn to Lan despite both women keeping the secret of their real identity from each other.

These narrative threads don't actually mesh very well, and they are not the only ones presented here either. Aoki seems to be trying to do too many things all at once. In fact, there are so many traumatic issues dealt with here, rape, racism, abuse, incest, and transphobia to name a few, that it is hard to feel like any of them were given enough space on the page. The fact that there's so much going on isn't helped by the cast of characters, many of whom are barely fleshed out at all, especially Lan and family. Had Aoki chosen to just write this story about Shizuka and Katrina, the book would have held together better (although certainly a different ending would have been needed--something I might have advocated for anyway). The constant flipping of perspective between characters without any warning and even within sentences or paragraphs made this difficult to follow without having to circle back and re-read. I know many people really loved this book and I generally enjoy quirky, ultimately hopeful books but this one just didn't work for me (or for most of my book club either).

Review: A Boob's Life by Leslie Lehr

When my daughter was younger, she told me that she didn't ever want breasts. Given her genetics, that was not going to be an option. We, on both sides of her family, have been given more than our fair share and in the end, she has too. But other than bemoaning the ways shirts don't fit properly when you're so over-endowed, or how your back hurts from the extra weight up front, or the inability to go braless, none of us has really given much consideration to these things stuck on our fronts, at least not until my mom got breast cancer. Sure, I breast fed my kids and I know that breasts are both sexual and functional but I never really considered them in the way that Leslie Lehr does in her fascinating book A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me...And You.

Opening with the realization that her reconstructed breasts are not even, and the shame this affords her despite her husband's assertion that, like pizza, there are no bad breasts, Lehr gives us an intriguing mix of history, memoir, and feminism told through the lens of the female body, and specifically breasts. She skillfully blends her growing childhood understanding of "pretty" and women's bodies with the reality of American culture from the 50s, 60s, and onward. She talks of the sexualization of breasts using things like lists of movies that feature women topless, including many Oscar winning films you might never suspect. She tracks her own desire for needing a bra to auditioning (as a flat-chested woman) for Playboy. She even chooses her college based in part on her perception of women's worth, as modelled by her father. She looks at the beauty standards for women that played into her own life, her parents' divorce (her father then married a younger woman), her sense of belonging, and the way that the cultural stance on beauty and breasts added to her fears as she was diagnosed with breast cancer not many years into her second marriage.

Lehr does a good job integrating the very personal and the larger general cultural realities, pointing out that while she never relinquished her identity as "the smart one," she was, nonetheless, negatively impacted by society's view of women, their bodies, and their place in the world. Short, dated, and bullet-pointed inserts of the history of bras, the history of Victoria's Secret, nicknames for breasts, first females in huge political positions, and the progression of women's legal rights, among others, add cultural touchpoints throughout her story of growing from a child through adulthood to fully aware womanhood, a woman formed, outraged, and still, amazingly, hopeful for the future.

This is one of the Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads for 2023.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Berry Pickers by
Amanda Peters.
The book is being released by Catapult on October 31, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: A four-year-old Mi'kmaq girl goes missing from the blueberry fields of Maine, sparking a mystery that will haunt the survivors, unravel a family, and remain unsolved for nearly fifty years

July 1962. A Mi'kmaq family from Nova Scotia arrives in Maine to pick blueberries for the summer. Weeks later, four-year-old Ruthie, the family's youngest child, vanishes. She is last seen by her six-year-old brother, Joe, sitting on a favorite rock at the edge of a berry field. Joe will remain distraught by his sister's disappearance for years to come.

In Maine, a young girl named Norma grows up as the only child of an affluent family. Her father is emotionally distant, her mother frustratingly overprotective. Norma is often troubled by recurring dreams and visions that seem more like memories than imagination. As she grows older, Norma slowly comes to realize there is something her parents aren't telling her. Unwilling to abandon her intuition, she will spend decades trying to uncover this family secret.

For readers of The Vanishing Half and Woman of Light, this showstopping debut by a vibrant new voice in fiction is a riveting novel about the search for truth, the shadow of trauma, and the persistence of love across time.

Review: Where Waters Meet by Zhang Ling

Mothers and daughters are a special relationship. But what daughter can fully know who her mother was before she became a mother? This lack of knowledge is complicated even more when the mother doesn't share her past, keeping secrets from her daughter. Zhang Ling's newest novel, Where Waters Meet, explores a daughter's search for her late mother's past, a search that will change her view of her mother and alter herself in the process.

Phoenix's mother Chunya "Rain," has passed away unexpectedly at the age of 83. Rain has lived with Phoenix for her whole life, even after Phoenix married, and her death has devastated her daughter. After discovering her mother's memory box, brought with her from China to Canada, Phoenix has more questions than answers about her mother's life, especially since Rain had been suffering from dementia for the last several years. Reaching out to her Auntie Mei in China, she is told that the stories must be told in person. With her easy-going husband's blessing, she flies over to China to uncover the missing pieces that shaped her mother.

The novel is told in several different formats: third person narration in the present, Phoenix's emails home to George once she lands in China, and a manuscript that Phoenix is writing about her mother but written as if it is Rain's memoir. The story of Rain's life is full of hardship and tragedy, running as it does through the Sino-Japanese War, WWII, and the Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists. Each time something seems to be looking up, history flip flops and there are additional horrors to live with and through. Ling has seamlessly woven the twentieth century history of China into Rain's life, exposing the horrors perpetrated on the common people. The leaps into the past are not handled chronologically as Auntie Mei recounts things out of order to Phoenix, not only leaving room for additional information to come later but making the story turn back on itself, winding along, much as a river meanders through a landscape. This can come across as a bit disjointed to the reader but works with the nature of memory and a long gone past. Phoenix's desire to know her mother's past and what she learns remakes her own memory of her early life in China, changing her perception of her mother from a woman who coasted along relying on others to a strong woman taking charge when she could and making decisions for Phoenix's future over her own. The ending of the novel is quite abrupt and unsatisfying after everything that went before, but over all, the novel combines an intriguing premise with history that we don't often read about in the West. It's a novel of loss and resilience, relationships, secrets and truth, wrapped up in a family saga complicated by history.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Review: The Family Fortuna by Lindsay Eagar

I've never really been a fan of circuses, real or imagined. I definitely don't search them out in my reading but so many people love books about them that I keep trying them despite knowing that they are likely to be a miss for me. Unfortunately, that is the case here. I found Lindsay Eagar's The Family Fortuna slightly off-kilter, slightly disturbing, and honestly, slightly boring.

The Family Fortuna is a traveling circus that travels the West. Arturo Fortuna is the patriarch of the family and ringmaster but youngest daughter, Avita, is the headliner and star of the entire spectacle. She is a monstrous, feathered and beaked girl whose snarling, chicken slaughtering show terrifies and thrills and rakes in money. She delights in being able to inspire fear, horror, and nightmares until she sees a young man who does not gasp at her theatrics. He is an artist and he might just see her inner person, beyond the freak of circus hype, so she helps him get a commission to paint new posters for the show. She is convinced he will expose the truth of her humanity. What he shows her is other people's perception of her, which pushes her to find a way to become the person she wants to be, all while there are crises, large and small, financial and personal, brewing in the circus as a whole.

This YA novel is incredibly character driven, to the point that it is almost plotless. Avita and her search for freedom and an authentic sense of self are the main focus. There are occasional shifts to other characters, emotionally abusive, narcissistic father Arturo; long-suffering, superstitious and religious Mama; older sister Luna, who is the silvery, stunning goddess who rules over the kootchy girl tent; and older brother Ren, who is a little person (non-performing) and the circus' frugal accountant. The chapters from the other characters are so few in number that they seem like interruptions to the story and don't truly serve to fully flesh those characters out. There is an antique feel to the whole story, and a feeling that the reader shouldn't look beyond the illusions or too closely at the peeling paint in the shadows here. The writing is filled with florid descriptions, similes, and metaphors in the way that a circus barker or ringmaster might exaggerate in their patter but it comes off as slightly ridiculous and strange on the page. Those who enjoy circus-set stories might like this overly long novel far better than I did; I just wasn't drawn into the grotesquerie.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

What do we need to have full lives? Do we need other people? Can we find contentment in isolation? Meredith Maggs, the main character in Claire Alexander's debut novel, Meredith, Alone, isn't too sure of the answers to these questions as she tries to figure out how to live her life, to expand it, and to take care of herself at the same time.

Meredith hasn't left her house in over three years. This is not a COVID story. It talkes place in 2018-2019. Meredith used to leave her house but now she cannot bring herself to go outside. She lives alone with only her rescue cat Fred for company. The only people she sees in person are her best friend and her friend's children when they come to visit her every week and the grocery delivery boy. All of her other interactions are online: her therapist and a chat support group. Even her work is remote, allowing her to cocoon herself away and not confront the trauma that keeps her prisoner in her home. But she wants to try to take baby steps back into the world, to make connections, as evidenced by Meredith allowing Tom, a volunteer with Helping Hands, to come into her house, work on her jigsaw puzzles with her, and get her to open up the tiniest bit. It is also evidenced by her growing online friendship with Celeste, a woman she meets through her chat support group and to whom she herself is a great support. Meredith alone can find the courage to brave the outside world but Meredith is not alone in any sense of the word as she faces her past and her fears.

Chapters are headed with a tally of the number of days Meredith has stayed in her home in the present or with a year from the past. The present moves linearly but flashes from varying times in the past are inserted in between the present chapters, slowly revealing what has made Meredith panic at the thought of the outside world. The pacing of the whole book is deliberately slow, mirroring Meredith's stuttering progress, panicked setbacks, and determined resets. Meredith as a character is endearing and the more the reader learns about her, the more her kind heart shines through. Alexander does not minimize mental health issues here, nor does she make them disappear unrealistically. Instead she has created a heartwarming, hopeful story about the people who have your back no matter what, who push you just enough to be helpful and supportive. As Meredith faces her demons, readers will cheer for her healing.

Content warnings for sexual assault and child abuse.

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