Monday, January 31, 2022

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY, novel of greed, racism, and triumph


THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY
BRENDAN SLOCUMB

Anchor Books
$28.00 hardcover, available tomorrow

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A riveting tale about a Black classical musician whose family heirloom violin is stolen on the eve of the most prestigious classical music competition in the world.

Ray McMillian loves playing the violin more than anything, and nothing will stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional musician. Not his mother, who thinks he should get a real job, not the fact that he can't afford a high-caliber violin, not the racism inherent in the classical music world. And when he makes the startling discovery that his great-grandfather's fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, his star begins to rise.

Then with the International Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—fast approaching, his prized family heirloom is stolen. Ray is determined to get it back. But now his family and the descendants of the man who once enslaved Ray's great-grandfather are each claiming that the violin belongs to them.

With the odds stacked against him and the pressure mounting, will Ray ever see his beloved violin again?

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Want to know what people really think of you? Stand between them and a big, fat payday. You will get your actual, genuine position in their hierarchy delivered at express speed and before the varnish could be applied, still less dried.

Rayquan (usually "Ray") McMillian learns that there's nothing in this world like the benjamins to bring stuff into focus very early: He grows up without anything extra and the minimum was as cheap as it could reasonably be (often enough cheaper). As soon as it became possible, Ray was pressured to stop wasting time with his stupid fiddling and get a shelf-stockin' job to "help the family" (aka his selfish mother). Time to make horrible noises on his fiddle was more than merely grudged, it was a source of actual anger...seen as selfish, unproductive, the action of a loser. (All those fingers pointin' back from the accusatory poking one missed her notice, it seems.)

You knew there'd be a grandmother in here, right? One who Believes in Ray? You were right, there is.

And a more wonderful soul it's hard to conjure. I was all ready to Pearl-Rule this bad boy before Grandma Nora (she whose belief in Ray makes her "talk so sweet {about him} it could give you diabetes") came on stage, I was so pissed off at the Philistines and money-grubbers Ray has to call family! What malign genetic flub gave Grandma Nora a daughter like Ray's mom?! And there's no end to the nasty, of course, since this is a thriller/mystery. But that's the tour I signed up to take, and was ready for. A bracing dose of lovingkindness later, it was all gas no brakes and that finish line won't know what hit it.

Ray, as you'll have gathered, is a fine musician and to hell with his grasping, whiny mother complaining about the "racket" his practicing makes. He perseveres, Grandma Nora's staunchness in his corner, and actually begins to climb the ladder of classical violin's performance hierarchy. What he faces along the way is no surprise to anyone reasonably sentient, as his ethnicity is used by everyone around him. Only rarely to help him, I'm sure you'll be stunned to learn. His other shining light is his teacher, his one professional mentor, Dr, Janice Stevens. She makes school a haven, a place where someone really gets him and sees the music in his being.

Ray's early training in Keep Calm and Carry On within the loving bosom of his family pays off. That ability to focus is his superpower. It leads him to the *pinnacle* of a violin soloist's ambitions: the International Tchaikovsky Competition, a quadrennial classical-music Olympics that unquestionably makes a musician's career. Even competing there is a leg up...and for a Black man raised with nothing, it is damned near unprecedented for him to be there.

That? That's enough novel for most of us. But Author Slocumb said, "...now, what happens if the Black man happens to get a Stradivarius from his grandmother...?"

What happens is betrayal, heartbreak, and the kind of publicity you damn sure can't pay for. Broken hearts mend; wounds don't fester forever; a career launched into the stratosphere by a juicy scandal leads to a lifetime of opportunities. Ones Ray's absolutely up to taking full advantage of, coming away with a silver medal in spite of the horrors around his violin's rape from him. This one unique possession, it will surprise no one to learn, opens so many doors to him. It will not surprise anyone, either, that he walks boldly up to the doors expecting them to open...and they do.

Ray's search for the thief of his prized possession, his almost desperate desire not to believe where the search leads him, and his dogged perseverance through it all speak volumes for the value of adversity surmounted in creating character. I think Author Slocumb did exactly the right thing by enabling Ray to reach back, to offer a hand of fellowship from his place of privilege.
Ray made it a point to highlight music by Black and Latinx composers. After all those years fighting and proving wrong the preconceptions that people who looked like him couldn't play the music of dead white men, he dove into the phenomenal music written by those people who did indeed look like him.

It is the thing that defines my memory of Ray McMillian, fictional character: He worked his ass off, he focused on the problem at hand, and he stomped the daylights out of the inner voices installed early that demanded he think about unimportant stuff instead of powering himself, supercharging his gifts with well-honed talents.

In the end, what matters in a life? Looking back, what difference does any of what we do make?
"Music's the gift. Caring's the gift. There are a lot of ways apart from a concert hall to make a difference in someone's life."

That's Dr. Janice Stevens, if you're wondering, having a ghostly chat with post-disaster Ray. Thanks, Janice. Whatever your name, wherever you might be...whichever one of us you reached out for, gave a hand to...Thanks to the Janices the world over who do something easy for them and priceless to the recipient.

Care.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

January 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews


Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to say...now I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more. Although as you'll see, I'm not strict about the only-three-sentences rule.

Think about using it yourselves!

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Now and Then by Lisa Henry

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A rock star walks into a bar.

Then

Owen Bannister loves his best friend Zach Baldwin like a brother. When Zach auditions for a reality TV show looking for Australia’s next musical superstar, Owen is afraid he’ll lose him forever. But in the end, it isn’t Zach’s talent that tears them apart—it’s a single reckless moment in the spotlight, one that shatters their friendship and sent their lives spinning in very different directions.

Now

They say you can never go back, but when Zach walks into Owen’s pub, they might just have a second chance at getting it right—if only they can forgive each other for what happened between them ten years ago when they were teenagers.

My Review: Lovely little shortie, take you about an hour to read, about second chances with first loves. I'm pretty sure there was actually sex in there somewhere but Author Henry took it out so she could give it away (free here) without making a Federal crime out of it. What made it so fun to read was that "lost first love" trope between 25-year-olds!

Do it, try it, don't miss a chance to be misty-eyed over a long-delayed HEA.

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Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan (tr. Brendan Feely & Yelda Turedi)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Volume 1 of the Ottoman Quartet

A powerful, beautifully written saga set during the fall of one of history’s greatest empires.

Altan’s “Ottoman Quartet” spans the fifty years between the final decades of the 19th century and the post-WWI rise of Atatürk as both unchallenged leader and visionary reformer of the new Turkey.The four books in the quartet tell the gripping stories of an unforgettable cast of characters, among them: an Ottoman army officer, the Sultan’s personal doctor, a scion of the royal house whose Western education brings him into conflict with his family’s legacy, and a beguiling Turkish aristocrat who, while fond of her emancipated life in Paris, finds herself drawn to a conservative Muslim spiritual leader.

Intrigue, betrayal, love, war, progress, and tradition provide a colorful backdrop against which the lives of these characters play out. All the while, the society that spawned them is transforming and the Sublime Empire disintegrating.

Here is a Turkish saga reminiscent of War and Peace, written in lively, contemporary prose that traces not only the social currents of the time but also the erotic and emotional lives of its characters. The female characters in Altan’s gripping saga will upend prejudices about Turkey, the Middle East, and Muslim nations.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This early-20th Century-set Turkish soap opera is just about as much fun as there is to have reading. There are women with agency, there are men with Yearnings, there are Grand Historical Changes! It is just as juicy as you could wish, it is volume one of four...written by a novelist imprisoned for his liberal politics, therefore without any serious distractions...and it will appeal to any historical-fiction lover as well as those whose taste for magical realism (ghosts! Plenty o' ghosts!) is on the restrained side.

I'm suggesting reading it pretty strongly, right? Get it here: Non-affiliate Amazon link.

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Losing Our Minds: The Challenge of Defining Mental Illness by Lucy Foulkes

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A compelling and incisive book that questions the overuse of mental health terms to describe universal human emotions.

Public awareness of mental illness has been transformed in recent years, but our understanding of how to define it has yet to catch up. Too often, psychiatric disorders are confused with the inherent stresses and challenges of human experience. A narrative has taken hold that a mental health crisis has been building among young people. In this profoundly sensitive and constructive book, psychologist Lucy Foulkes argues that the crisis is one of ignorance as much as illness. Have we raised a 'snowflake' generation? Or are today's young people subjected to greater stress, exacerbated by social media, than ever before? Foulkes shows that both perspectives are useful but limited. The real question in need of answering is: how should we distinguish between 'normal' suffering and actual illness?

Drawing on her extensive knowledge of the scientific and clinical literature, Foulkes explains what is known about mental health problems—how they arise, why they so often appear during adolescence, the various tools we have to cope with them—but also what remains unclear: distinguishing between normality and disorder is essential if we are to provide the appropriate help, but no clear line between the two exists in nature. Providing necessary clarity and nuance, Losing Our Minds argues that the widespread misunderstanding of this aspect of mental illness might be contributing to its apparent prevalence.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: The author identifies and discusses, in clear and un-jargonized even-handed ways, the many poles of our society's increased awareness of mental health issues. Has the openness resulted in more frank and open acknowledgment of the central issue, or has it resulted in armchair psychologists diagnosing themselves and others with serious problems and then browbeating physicians into prescribing expensive medications for them? That answer is "yes" and that should tell you whether this is the book for you.

Highly recommended for anyone who's said, "that orange guy's a narcissist," and felt smugly superior about it. Like me. Get it here: Non-affiliate Amazon link.

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Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night: A Novel by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (tr. Philip Roughton)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From the “Icelandic Dickens (Irish Examiner),” a writer who “shares the elemental grandeur of Cormac McCarthy” (Times Literary Supplement), comes this profound and playful masterwork of literature—winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize and longlisted for France’s Prix Medicis Étrangere—that ponders the beauty and mystery of life and our deepest existential questions.

In small places, life becomes bigger.


Sometimes distance from the world’s tumult can open our hearts and our dreams. In a village of four hundred souls, the infinite light of an Icelandic summer makes its inhabitants want to explore, and the eternal night of winter lights up the magic of the stars.

The village becomes a microcosm of the age-old conflict between human desire and destiny, between the limits of reality and the wings of the imagination. With humor, poetry, and a tenderness for human weaknesses, Jon Kalman Stefánsson explores the question of why we live at all.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE U.S. PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Beautiful, sad, resonant but complicated sentences:
[We're not going to tell you about the whole village; we won't be going from house to house. You would find that intolerable. But we'll definitely be telling you about the lust that binds together days and nights, about a happy lorry driver, about Elisabet's dark velvet dress and the man who arrived by bus; about Puriour, who is tall and full of esoteric desires, about a man who couldn't count the fish and a woman who breathed shyly; about a lonely farmer and a 4,000-year-old mummy. We're going to tell of everyday events, but also of those that are beyond our understanding —possibly because there are no explanations for them. People disappear, dreams change lives, folk nearly two hundred years old apparently decide to make their presence known instead of lying quietly in their place.]

There are two things I think you should know before reading the book: 1) it's almost 20 years old, so it deals with the world of the Aughties not today; 2) it is highly episodic, in fact it's a collection of linked short stories in my opinion not a novel. That seems to cause severe digital retraction from buy buttons, though, so pretend I didn't speak.

In a small place, Life is magnified because we are social animals; the issue is, what to do with that finer-grained view of Others this grants us...judge, blame? forgive, accept? deny, ignore?...and those variable and varying answers are this book. The Greek-chorus-ness of the village (see above), like that used with less success (in my opinion) in the well-received Lanny, gave me a sense of place that kept me reading past the author's clearly articulated disdain for Americans.

I think this delight should be on your TBR pile anyway. Get it here: non-affiliate Amazon link.

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The Pasha of Cuisine by Saygın Ersin (tr. Mark Wyers)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For readers of Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series and Richard C. Morais's The Hundred-Foot Journey, a sweeping tale of love and the magic of food set during the Ottoman Empire.

A Pasha of Cuisine is a rare talent in Ottoman lore. Only two, maybe three are born with such a gift every few centuries. A natural master of gastronomy, he is the sovereign genius who reigns over aromas and flavors and can use them to influence the hearts and minds, even the health, of those who taste his creations. In this fabulous novel, one such chef devises a plot bring down the Ottoman Empire—should he need to—in order to rescue the love of his life from the sultan’s harem.

Himself a survivor of the bloodiest massacre ever recorded within the Imperial Palace after the passing of the last sultan, he is spirited away through the palace kitchens, where his potential was recognized. Across the empire, he is apprenticed one by one to the best chefs in all culinary disciplines and trained in related arts, such as the magic of spices, medicine, and the influence of the stars. It is during his journeys that he finds happiness with the beautiful, fiery dancing girl Kamer, and the two make plans to marry. Before they can elope, Kamer is sold into the Imperial Harem, and the young chef must find his way back into the Imperial Kitchens and transform his gift into an unbeatable weapon.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: First, read this:
“There's no such thing as forgetting. No matter how hard you try, you only think you've forgotten, and over time the things you think you have forgotten emerge again under another guise and tear into your soul. Understand this: whoever says they have forgotten have merely condemned themselves to an endless repetition of the same event until the end of their lives.”

Extraordinarily beautiful sentences dot the landscape of this read with unseemly, almost brazen, promises of Delights...and they come just seldom enough to make the promises feel like a tease. But there's a lush, vigorous urgency to this story of the rare person born with the gustatory equivalent of perfect pitch. If Like Water for Chocolate or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake left you with a hankerin' for more magically delicious food fiction, run get this book.

NOT, however, if you're dieting, or if you're already hungry. You'll come to regret that five pounds later. Get it here: non-affiliate Amazon link.

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Rating: I've always said 3* of five, but...welllllll...nope, still 3* of five

The Publisher Says: "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon."

This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness.

But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. from Red's father and mother, newly-arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red's grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.

My Review: I guess y'all already know how you feel about Anne Tyler...I read A Spool of Blue Thread when it came out and, well...yeah. But as the years have galumphed along, I've remembered the Whitshank family with exasperated fondness, with occasional flashes of sympathy, and the odd moment of revelation.

I've rated books a lot more highly than this one that have had less impact on me than this one has, and continues to have. It's just so sure it's Literature, and it really isn't. It is, however, a Thumping Good Read. So go buy you one for your Kindle, since it's a lousy $1.99: non-affiliate Amazon link


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This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.

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Savage Mountain by John Quick: Pearl Ruled at 5%

The Publisher Says: Ami and her friends just want to do a little white-water rafting in the Smoky Mountains. When her jealous boyfriend decides to try and make their amateur guide look foolish, they end up stranded along the banks of the Pigeon River. While searching for help, they run across a group of men growing for the cartels—men who have no intention of letting them escape with their lives.
My Review: First, read this:
Her suit was pink and, at first glance, seemed perfectly decent until one noticed the shirt top was too small, allowing the bulge of her belly to be visible to anyone who chose—or even those who didn't choose—to look. At least the girl was not grossly overweight, only slightly, so the vision was not nearly as scarring as it could have been.

I get a load of nasty heaped on me when I don't like something a woman says...then there are men who *really* deserve it, like this guy. He's writing a woman's PoV and using stereotypically anti-woman body-shaming "bitchery" to...entertain. Not to criticize her choices or to critique the words used. To make the story "fun" and "funny" like the 1939 movie The Women. Just a big no from me. This claptrap deserves that outraged anger!

I officially tapped out, though, when Jay says to Ami:
"If he's already asleep, we bite the bullet and either back out as gracefully as we can or get our asses killed on the river tomorrow."

"Deal."
This last from Ami.

They're talking about a deeply stupid, dangerous decision made in a group. So not only does this young woman let others make bad decisions that she accepts as applying to her as well, but she's a fat-shaming ageist jerk.

Not a damn chance is this story going to get enough better to rise above these deficits.


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Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: Pearl Ruled at The Wife

The Publisher Says: Five women. One question. What is a woman for?

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro's best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or "mender," who brings all their fates together when she's arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

My Review: First, read this:
"There were twelve, by the way," he says. "I know you have stuff to do, I'm not saying you don't, but could you maybe wash the toilet once in a while? Twelve hairs."


It's not me, it's you, Book. Vaginal discharge, uninterested male fertility specialist, inexperienced boy abusing a girl's vagina, another whiny husband....

I loathe vaginas. I disassociated myself from their functions a long time ago because they aren't to my taste (!) at all. I am not interested in reading about their mal/functioning. But there is nothing more important in today's political landscape than protecting people's rights, and that includes women's inalienable bodily autonomy. I want to keep supporting those stories and their tellers.

Then I get the litany of "men are clueless/malevolent/indifferent" delivered in a cloud of vaginal discharge and I am out.

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Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill: PEARL RULED at (p35)

The Publisher Says: The New York Times bestseller: a prize-winning, critically acclaimed memoir on life and aging —“An honest joy to read” (Alice Munro).
Hailed as “a virtuoso exercise” (Sunday Telegraph), this book reflects candidly, sometimes with great humor, on the condition of being old. Charming readers, writers, and critics alike, the memoir won the Costa Award for Biography and made Athill, now ninety-one, a surprising literary star.

Diana Athill is one of the great editors in British publishing. For more than five decades she edited the likes of V. S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, for whom she was a confidante and caretaker. As a writer, Athill has made her reputation for the frankness and precisely expressed wisdom of her memoirs. Now in her ninety-first year, "entirely untamed about both old and new conventions" (Literary Review) and freed from any of the inhibitions that even she may have once had, Athill reflects candidly, and sometimes with great humor, on the condition of being old—the losses and occasionally the gains that age brings, the wisdom and fortitude required to face death. Distinguished by "remarkable intelligence...[and the] easy elegance of her prose" (Daily Telegraph), this short, well-crafted book, hailed as "a virtuoso exercise" (Sunday Telegraph) presents an inspiring work for those hoping to flourish in their later years.

My Review: While I grant you that Editor Athill did amazing work in a long, fascinating career, I find that I'm not hugely compelled to follow her in her slow trudge to the grave.

I do want to finish the read one day but I rather stalled out at 25%:
Surely the part of life which is within our range, the mere fact of life, is mysterious and exciting enough in itself? And surely the urgent practical necessity of trying to order it so that its cruelties are minimized and its beauties are allowed their fullest possibly play is compelling enough without being seen as a duty laid on us by a god?

Somehow that just...summed it up. Need I go on, reading her ringing changes on this central theme she's developed so very thoroughly?

But she does make her points in lovely, precise, needlepointable words.

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Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand: PEARL RULED at 18%

The Publisher Says: The Kohinoor is the world's most famous diamond, but it has always had a fog of mystery around it. Now, using previously untranslated sources, William Dalrymple and Anita Anand blow away the legends to reveal its true history – stranger, and more violent, than any fiction. Moving from the Mughal court to Nadir Shah's Persia, from Maharaja Ranjit Singh's durbar in Punjab to Queen Victoria's palace, this thrilling tale is full of drama and intrigue.

My Review: Fascinating details exhaustively footnoted about a spectacularly sparkly booty item ravished from the Mughals by the British. Dalrymple's The Anarchy is very much the big brother of this manageably sized story in tone and tenor. But when a man's dress decisions are characterized as "effete" and his artistic enthusiasms presented within a context of judgment, I lose the desire to keep slugging through the well-sourced and quite interesting, in the abstract, history of the superlative item of Imperial History's ill-got gains.

Others without my very 21st-century woke perspective will not share my eyerolling impatience.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

THE VANISHED COLLECTION, a family's heritage raped away by Nazis


THE VANISHED COLLECTION
PAULINE BAER de PERIGNON
(tr. Natasha Lehrer)
New Vessel Press
$12.95 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five, for the message if not the messenger

The Publisher Says: It all started with a list of paintings. There, scribbled by a cousin she hadn't seen for years, were the names of the masters whose works once belonged to her great-grandfather, Jules Strauss: Renoir, Monet, Degas, Tiepolo and more. Pauline Baer de Perignon knew little to nothing about Strauss, or about his vanished, precious art collection. But the list drove her on a frenzied trail of research in the archives of the Louvre and the Dresden museums, through Gestapo records, and to consult with Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano.

What happened in 1942? And what became of the collection after Nazis seized her great-grandparents’ elegant Parisian apartment? The quest takes Pauline Baer de Perignon from the Occupation of France to the present day as she breaks the silence around the wrenching experiences her family never fully transmitted, and asks what art itself is capable of conveying over time.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Well, this review went through some changes. A lot like me as I read this book. I think the world needs to attend to the huge, stinking pile of denial in the center of Culture Inc. What happened to the art collected by Jews? It was stolen by the Nazis. Those bad Nazis!

...and then what happened? *blank stare*

In Author Baer de Perignon's tale of family, legacies, and fairness denied, you will learn that the reality is...nothing happened. Museums bear extraordinary responsibility for the nothing that happened. They don't want to give their ill-got gains back to the families whose rightful property it is. The whole raison d'etre of "the Museum" (in its broadest cultural-institution sense) is thus opened to serious question.

This isn't a small issue. The 2003-2011 Iraq war resulted in *appalling* levels of art and antiquities being looted or damaged, often destroyed. There is some tut-tutting over this. Not a lot, given the scale and value of it. Why? Because that leads to lots of awkward questions about how "the Museum" got the stuff in the first place. "Provenance" and "spoliation" in other words. Then that opens lots of graves "the Museum" wants to leave closed.

This isn't the first time that this issue has been raised, or wrestled with. Read a book called Goldberg's Angel: An Adventure in the Antiquities Trade (it's excellent, BTW, highly recommend it to you). The topic simmers along, looted antiquities are topics of concern on slow news days around the world. For a minute. They don't rate high on most folks' outrage meters. But the Impressionists and Academicians and Old as well as other Masters aren't talked about in media or entertainment almost at all (pace George Clooney's lukewarm The Monuments Men, which did poorly at the box office). Because people love them, come to see them in their hallowèd homes, are inclined to buy tat with the (profitably licensed) images on them (from "the Museum"'s store). The fact that many were looted from Jews by the Nazis is bad. But whatcha gonna do.

Nothing, for as long as possible, until the heirs of the murdered millions forget (I was *astonished* at the number of people Author Baer de Perignon met who just knew nothing about what had been looted, spoliated, from their ancestors!) or give up. "The Museum" will still be there, after all, taking in cash from ill-got gains they should've given back most of a century ago.

It is a scandal but no one wants to bring up the solution: restore spoliated property to its proper owners, or otherwise their descendants. As I read this book, I realized the case for this is unassailable. But I realized also why I had such trouble writing this review: I dislike the author.

She's quite sarcastic, very judgemental, has a serious oh-poor-me attitude. She snarks, in the text, about people she fawns over in the Acknowledgments. One assumes she thinks these people won't read the actual book.... Her scattered, disorganized research method draws criticism she fobs off as passing...but I promise you that her "mentors" did the real heavy lifting. I read this between the lines, I recalled many author Acknowledgments from when I was an agent that left out lots of realities not to the Author's Taste. And I realized that I support the message of repatriation, restitution, and acknowledging the harm done to generations of people simply because they were Other...but I dislike this messenger.

It's a shallow, personal response, and it shouldn't prevent anyone from picking up this book for its message of ma'at, fairness, justice, and the value of saying "I'm sorry."

Postscript: Sotheby's has auctioned the painting the author worked so hard to reclaim. Watch her conversation with the auction house's staff. In the end, it brought $1.23 million hammer price.

Friday, January 28, 2022

RED MILK, weird title (so what else is new) for Sjón's latest & best


RED MILK
SJÓN
(tr. Victoria Cribb)
MCDxFSG
$12.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A timely and provocative novel about a mysterious Icelandic neo-Nazi and the enduring global allure of fascism.

In England in 1962, an Icelandic man is found dead on a train bound for Cheltenham Spa. In his possession, policemen find a map on which a swastika has been drawn with a red pen. Who was he, and where was he going?

In a novel that reads as both biography and mystery, the internationally celebrated novelist Sjón tells the story of Gunnar Kampen, the founder of Iceland's anti-Semitic nationalist party, with ties to a burgeoning network of neo-Nazi groups across the globe. Told in a series of scenes and letters spanning Kampen's lifetime—from his childhood in Reyjavík during the Second World War, in a household strongly opposed to Hitler and his views, through his education, political radicalization, and his final clandestine mission to England—Red Milk urges readers to confront the international legacy of twentieth-century fascism and the often unknowable forces that drive some people to extremism.

Based on one of the ringleaders of a little-known neo-Nazi group that operated in Reykjavík in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this taut and potent novel explores what shapes a young man and the enduring, disturbing allure of Nazi ideology.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: There is so much that goes into making a person's life. So many moments of seeming ordinariness, so many times unremembered but never forgotten.

Author Sjón absolutely understands this, relies on it, makes me aware of how unaware I am in my life. Living it day-to-day it's unremarkable. After it's over, as it's ending...those are the times reflection becomes available to the average person. Author Sjón takes that truth and makes it the structure of the novel.

We're reading the life of Gunnar after it's over, after it's been picked apart and examined...this book reads like an evidence box would, pick up this letter, what did this key open...and that lets us contextualize the story as the tragedy it really is.

I was gobsmacked to learn this is a based-in-fact story, this was a real person, the ending is factual. How Gunnar came to hold beliefs so horrible to me was all in the oblique and the sidewise and the interstitial parts of the text. Lest that sound Arty and pretentious, I hasten to say that there is no better way I evoke an honest emotional response than this. Author Sjón trusts you to Get It. He allows you not to know.

I'll take that sense of being allowed to find the truth in the fiction over being spoonfed any day.

What I hope you'll enjoy, resonate with, in this read is that quality of discovering the meat of the life Gunnar led, and placing the pieces in order for yourself. While you're never left in doubt about your position in time, you're not going to get everything there is simply by that means.

I think it was a real, living person that I found in this novel. Would I have "liked" him? I don't think so. But I wouldn't have known him the way I do because Author Sjón showed him to me in this simple, elegant piece-by-piece fashion. I like novel-Gunnar a little bit. He was so very empty. He found something to fill what a human can't live without having full. AND it was something awful. Something vile, foul...but it filled the void.

I understand the souls whose quest to be Whole leads them in dark, ugly, despicable places that one fraction better.

Thank you, Author Sjón. I can get better at being a good version of me after this read.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

LIGHT YEARS FROM HOME, a poignant story of the cost of being where you fit not belong


LIGHT YEARS FROM HOME
MIKE CHEN

MIRA Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$12.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Every family has issues. Most can’t blame them on extraterrestrials.

Evie Shao and her sister, Kass, aren’t on speaking terms. Fifteen years ago on a family camping trip, their father and brother vanished. Their dad turned up days later, dehydrated and confused—and convinced he'd been abducted by aliens. Their brother, Jakob, remained missing. The women dealt with it very differently. Kass, suspecting her college-dropout twin simply ran off, became the rock of the family. Evie traded academics to pursue alien conspiracy theories, always looking for Jakob.

When Evie's UFO network uncovers a new event, she goes to investigate. And discovers Jakob is back. He's different—older, stranger, and talking of an intergalactic war—but the tensions between the siblings haven't changed at all. If the family is going to come together to help Jakob, then Kass and Evie are going to have to fix their issues, and fast. Because the FBI is after Jakob, and if their brother is telling the truth, possibly an entire space armada, too.

The perfect combination of action, imagination and heart, Light Years From Home is a touching drama about a challenge as difficult as saving the galaxy: making peace with your family…and yourself.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Every damn word of this is so heartfelt, so honest and so completely resonant with my Kassie-like self that I feel like a rotter for not giving it that fourth star. But yet again, sexuality (Evie's probably Lesbian or Bisexual) is window-dressed onto an otherwise complete character. Please stop doing that.

When Arnold, the family patriarch (and doesn't he just know it!) disappears with Jakob, the underperforming (according to Arnold) son, the whole family flies into a state of emergency! Then Arnold comes back from that camping trip, without Jakob, but with a Purpose: Find him and bring him home.

No matter what, no matter who gets hurt or slighted.

So the family is broken again, not re-broken but the existing broken structure is smashed on a new rock. That rock is a vanished son...who returns one day! But what baggage he drags...and what a life he's led...and what his sisters had to put up with...and what they're coping with now.... And, as I am sure you've tipped to by now, this isn't a seamless, straight-through narrative. There are flashbacks!

Every single soul in this narrative has reasons for what they have done that do not depend on what the others did or didn't do. However, as in all toxic families, they blame each other publicly and themselves privately. Jakob made it easy for his twin sister to avoid the tough parts of growing up by leaving her the job of fulfilling the family's expectations. That'll make anyone angry! His little sister, growing up in the vacancy left by a father whose obsession with his lost son is all-consuming, opts out of sane, mainstream society...and this puts yet more pressure on her older sister. Then, wouldn't you just know, Dad dies! And Mom gets dementia!

I think it was around here that I went inside my emotional hidey-hole for a while. It's a lot. I related to Kassie. I was angry with Jakob for...vanishing...without a word. (I mean, come on! He can come back now, but he couldn't send some sort of interplanetary post card? "Having a wonderful war, be glad you aren't here" or something?) But that doesn't put the blame on him, Kassie, the way you want it to...you chose your path, and everyone has choices. Yes, some are harder to make than others, but they're still within the realm of possibility. A thing you, in your faithlessness, have every reason to know....

So this is sci fi? Well...yyyeeesss, but in a curious way no. It's what happens in the space opera between the acts. The messy human bits of the story that get elided over when you're telling the Ultimate Battle of Good Versus Evil!!! and the Hero is tasked with getting {thing} from his home, and whee! he comes back with {thing} and a story about his father being dead. Well, this is what actually happened then!

What makes the story compulsively readable for me is that quality, that interstitial nature. I am always interested in what occurs between the acts. I was not as interested in the seemingly grafted-on piece about the FBI thinking Jakob had run off to become a terrorist...Jakob?! lazy schlub that he was?!...but I can see how it felt timely for young Mister Shao to be branded as something he clearly could never bring himself to be. In a very odd way, though, I guess he did become a violent actor. Just not on Earth. Which, funnily enough, makes it okay...? Or does it?

Kassie's point-of-view narration is cringe-inducingly spot-on for the judgmental left-behind Responsible One's angle. It wasn't fun for me, but it was so real that at times I had to go look and make sure I was still an old, white man and hadn't transmogrified into Kassie Shao. So well done, Author Chen...sort of.

I don't think for a minute that the sci-fi elements will pass muster among the die-hard fans of the genre. They really aren't made for those readers. So if you're a hard SF reader, don't come here with those expectations. This is the moving, affecting, real story of one family's emotional dysfunction over the course of fifteen long, hard, lonely years of alienation and isolation, and the reason for it is science-fictional in nature.

I honestly wondered why I was so caught up in this family cess pit when the Universe is in danger out there! The first part makes you believe that Jakob's quest is URGENT and REAL and then...his sisters kludge onto him, Evie in a credulous, uncritical way and Kassie with her trademark judgment and blame (and she's a therapist?! Yikes), and suddenly it's possible that this is reality and Jakob's just not in it with us.

It gave my reading a focus, a real sense of the stakes, for the story to be presented in this way, though I would've predicted it to have been otherwise. Author Chen's work, which I've been reading for years now, has always made itself a home on my devices because he visibly grows with each published work. I haven't always liked his growing pains, but I appreciate that he is clear about what it is he needs to do and always tries to do it better every time. That he succeeds is a testament to his talent.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

THE MIKE CHEN PAGE, three fine reads you need to get into before his latest appears


A BEGINNING AT THE END
MIKE CHEN

MIRA Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 Kindle edition on SALE, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: How do you start over after the end of the world?

Six years after a global pandemic wiped out most of the planet’s population, the survivors are rebuilding the country, split between self-governing cities, hippie communes and wasteland gangs.

In postapocalyptic San Francisco, former pop star Moira has created a new identity to finally escape her past—until her domineering father launches a sweeping public search to track her down. Desperate for a fresh start herself, jaded event planner Krista navigates the world on behalf of those too traumatized to go outside, determined to help everyone move on—even if they don’t want to. Rob survived the catastrophe with his daughter, Sunny, but lost his wife. When strict government rules threaten to separate parent and child, Rob needs to prove himself worthy in the city’s eyes by connecting with people again.

Krista, Moira, Rob and Sunny are brought together by circumstance, and their lives begin to twine together. But when reports of another outbreak throw the fragile society into panic, the friends are forced to finally face everything that came before—and everything they still stand to lose.

Because sometimes having one person is enough to keep the world going.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: First, read this:
“See, relations are people with the same blood. But family, that's different. Family is about who gives you hope, who gets involved. And earns the right for forgiveness. Or at least starts down the path.”
–and–
As a community, we still emphasized the importance of familial ties but finally understood that the definition of family wasn't about blood or even who or what you'd lost. It was about what gave you hope and who was willing to get involved.

You're fully in the thick of this book's ethos with those two quotes.

Post-apocalyptic Britney Spears story, full of the expected drama, and all the better for it. The book was published very early in COVID times, so it really felt too on-the-nose for me to get much distance to do more than gibber incoherently at it. Author Chen's first novel, see below for Here and Now and Then's review, was a very good, if simplistic, rendering of an extremely complex story. In this sophmore effort, he's definitely learned from the crafting of a novel for sale to the public and applied those lessons. In the manner of telling, in the effort to craft sentences, every way this book shows the growth of an artist who listens and learns.

Many are the comparisons made between this book and the superficially similar Station Eleven...post-pandemic societies with survivors doing what people always do, muddling through as best they can to get their livings, as much like they always have as possible. This story's focus isn't on a complete collapse, as Station Eleven focuses on; instead it's more like this present moment, issues and hitches and ongoing crunches; then all Hell breaks loose.

That is where Author Chen shines in his craftsmanship. All the stuff you've read until now, thinking "hmmm is this actually worth going a-dystopianing?" snaps into focus. Author Chen does not stint. Because it's not the World that's ending again; it's the world of each character's own making.

In other words, Life Goes On.

That's the post-apocalyptic novel I want to read, and the one I got here. The one where we're talking about "Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder" or PASD. I absolutely devoured it because each story, the Britney Spears one and the fatherhood-in-dystopia one, kept me fanning pages as fast as I could.

Author Chen is, it is clear, a father, and that makes his storytelling from a father's perspective. That is very much what I want to read. And, I hope, to read his work when he becomes a grandfather...though it's not likely I'll live that long...because it's a refreshing change to find a man telling the emotional story of his parenthood against this backdrop.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


WE COULD BE HEROES
MIKE CHEN

MIRA Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The super hero book you need to read right now!

An extraordinary and emotional adventure about unlikely friends and the power of choosing who you want to be.


Jamie woke up in an empty apartment with no memory and only a few clues to his identity, but with the ability to read and erase other people’s memories—a power he uses to hold up banks to buy coffee, cat food and books.

Zoe is also searching for her past, and using her abilities of speed and strength…to deliver fast food. And she’ll occasionally put on a cool suit and beat up bad guys, if she feels like it.

When the archrivals meet in a memory-loss support group, they realize the only way to reveal their hidden pasts might be through each other. As they uncover an ongoing threat, suddenly much more is at stake than their fragile friendship. With countless people at risk, Zoe and Jamie will have to recognize that sometimes being a hero starts with trusting someone else—and yourself.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: First, read this:
“I’ll figure something out” probably wound up being the last sentence said by a lot of people in difficult scenarios.
–and–
“If you're the one everyone relies on, if you take on people's burdens, sometimes there's just not that much left of you.”

There. That's the emotional core of this read, as I see it anyway; how can you live up to your best and still do your life's miscellany? Who gets to drain you of your reserves with your permission, and why?

Answering those questions outside the framework of a Romantic Relationship is the central conflict in the story of Zoe and Jamie. They aren't, and don't become, lovers; they are friends. They are bonded by something weird, that is being without memories but with superpowers. And they are very, very unlikely to remain friends when their pasts recrudesce.

Screw that, says my imaginary avi of Author Chen, Real Life has lots of examples of friends who don't fit! He is, of course, correct, and he makes sure that the story develops in such a way that they must come together to use their superpowers but only together will they work to stop...a villain who wants to feed the whole, overcrowded world...?!

Wait. What?

Yes, that's right folks, we're in the era of "superheroes aren't so great" fiction! If you've paid me the slightest bit of attention, you already know I adore Natalie Zina Walschots' HENCH for its unflinching take-down of the Cult of the Superhero. It is greatly to my taste. I think the whole MCU and DCEU are, in a word, brummagem. But there's something irresistible in the stories available to tell in them...Irresistible Force meeting Immovable Object can be played for laughs, for tears, for intensity or resolution. It is always going to find takers. But I, perverse old bastard that I am, want to find takers-on instead.

Author Chen's chops are up to it. What he doesn't seem to want to do, however, is explore pansexual Jamie's sexuality. It's not even there, it's simply referred to. If one doesn't want to use the gun, don't bring the gun out. I'm not asking for details, I'm asking for more than a mention of him having had a husband. This is the 21st century, not the 20th...don't tell me we're going there and we're not.

But that was not a fatal flaw in a story that gave me morally gray, but more goal-oriented than selfishly motivated, characters overcoming not only a handicap but a lifetime's conditioning to work together to solve a problem they could only hope to really fix if they worked together. That was worth so much to me. In a deeply divided world, it needs saying again and again: Do you want to Be Right, or fix what's wrong?

I like Jamie's and Zoe's answers.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


HERE AND NOW AND THEN
MIKE CHEN

MIRA Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: To save his daughter, he’ll go anywhere—and any-when…

Kin Stewart is an everyday family man: working in IT, trying to keep the spark in his marriage, struggling to connect with his teenage daughter, Miranda. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career…as a time-traveling secret agent from 2142.

Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s after a botched mission, Kin has kept his past hidden from everyone around him, despite the increasing blackouts and memory loss affecting his time-traveler’s brain. Until one afternoon, his “rescue” team arrives—eighteen years too late.

Their mission: return Kin to 2142, where he’s only been gone weeks, not years, and where another family is waiting for him. A family he can’t remember.

Torn between two lives, Kin is desperate for a way to stay connected to both. But when his best efforts threaten to destroy the agency and even history itself, his daughter’s very existence is at risk. It’ll take one final trip across time to save Miranda—even if it means breaking all the rules of time travel in the process.

A uniquely emotional genre-bending debut, Here and Now and Then captures the perfect balance of heart, playfulness, and imagination, offering an intimate glimpse into the crevices of a father’s heart and its capacity to stretch across both space and time to protect the people that mean the most.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: First, read this:
Somehow, he’d mistaken her being good at something for really wanting to do it.
–and–
Sometimes I feel like I can’t move forward with things. Because it’s not right that life is happening without her. But I keep telling myself that she would want us to change and move forward. She’d say an awesome quote and it’d make it all right. So I’m nervous because of how I feel. But I’m also nervous because it’s like this big life thing without Mom and I wonder how can it really be me without her. We’re all different people all through our lives, but that’s okay, as long as you remember all the people you used to be.

What you really need to know about this read is there, in those quotes.

It's been several years since I got this DRC, to my shame, and I've put off writing about it because it was...good. Okay reading. Neat ideas! And it could've been so much more. There are reasons, though, to pass on from bashing a first novel. The resulting career is a big one: Mike Chen's a significant author in SF these days. He's grown a good deal as a writer, and this promising start has paid off.

The emotional core of this crossed-destinies story is still: Did a missing past even matter anymore compared to human touch in the here and now? It's a clear-cut choice and Kin, the point-of-view time traveler, must make it. What happens to him, as a result of making his choice, isn't a perfect ending. It is a happy one, and worthy of the suspenseful story that led to it. But...and this is a key consideration...there's a reason none of my quotes are dialogue.

Go in forearmed. Enjoy the good things the story offers, and be entertained.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

JOAN IS OKAY, the title's a complete lie; & THREE APPLES FELL FROM THE SKY, a fairy/folk tale of the Armenian Genocide


THREE APPLES FELL FROM THE SKY
NARINE ABGARYAN
(tr. Lisa C. Hayden)
OneWorld Publications (non-affiliate Amazon link)
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Russian bestseller about love and second chances, brimming with warmth and humour

In the tiny village of Maran nestled high in the Armenian mountains, a place where dreams, curses and miracles are taken very seriously, a close-knit community bickers, gossips and laughs, untouched by the passage of time. A lifelong resident, Anatolia is happily set in her ways. Until, that is, she wakes up one day utterly convinced that she is dying. She lies down on her bed and prepares to meet her maker, but just when she thinks everything is ready, she is interrupted by a surprise visit from a neighbour with an unexpected proposal.

So begins a tale of unforeseen twists and unlikely romance that will turn Maran on its head and breathe a new lease of life into a forgotten village. Narine Abgaryan's enchanting fable is a heart-warming tale of community, courage, and the irresistible joy of everyday friendship.

THIS WAS A FREE DOWNLOAD VIA BOOKBUB. I THINK. ANYWAY, THANK YOU.

My Review
: A clever little folk-tale that mimics the forms of earlier tales with modern, relatable trappings. It’s meant to be a means of processing the upheavals of Armenia as it bumpily traveled from tsars to commissars to…chaos, pure capitalism, as part of Russia then on its own with no stops at any rational place anywhere along the way. We’re not given much information but the wretchedness of the people to use as a calendar. The main event is World War I's Armenian Genocide, there was much suffering; there was much suffering throughout, but the weird thing about it is how little of it seemed to penetrate the inner lives of the characters, really better called "survivors" given how many die in the course of the story. Their village, isolated and insulated all together, goes on, despite the horrific events that unfurl between and around them.

Is that realistic? What do I, fat comfortable American that I am, know about that; I know the author chose the fairy-tale/folk-tale structure and tenor for a reason. The Armenians have a saying:
As has been established in Maran legends since time immemorial, the night will drop them to earth from the sky:
And three apples fell from heaven:
One for the storyteller,
One for the listener,
And one for the eavesdropper.

Welcome, fellow eavesdropper, to the juicy apple of Narine Abgaryan's bestselling Russian-language tale of Armenia's wild ride through the 20th century. Strap your helmet on a little tighter. You're going to meet a lot of people, and not all of them have names you'll be able to pronounce. It does not matter a whit. Love them for who they are, not how they sound in your monoglot's ear. Anatolia, the woman at the actual center of the story, is one of the world's readers-cum-librarians so she merits our rapt attention. It's not hard to give.
Little by little, thanks to intuition and innate taste, she learned to distinguish good literature from bad and fell in love with Russian and French classics, though she came to hate Count Tolstoy, unequivocally and forever, as soon as she finished Anna Karenina.
Happen I agree...but the less said of her shelving preferences the better. Her travails, those of her fellow villagers, are deeply experienced in the author's (and translator's, what a great job Lisa Hayden did on this book! I honestly forgot it was a translation most of the time, and that is meant as a compliment) open, honest, and still lyrical prose:
For eight long, unbearable years, the war reaped a harvest of restless souls around the world, but one day it sputtered out and retreated, howling and limping and licking its bloody paws.
–and–
Anatolia suddenly grasped that there was no heaven and no hell: happiness was heaven and grief was hell. And their God was everywhere, all over, not just because He was all-powerful but also because He was the unseen threads that connect them with each other.

The other feature of the prose you'll have discerned by now is the simple, direct wisdom of it. The author and translator have taken care to make sentences that sound like they've rolled around simple peoples' minds and mouths for long enough to become weighty with meaning and light of touch:
“There’s nothing more destructive than idleness,” his father had loved repeating. “Idleness and leisure deprive life of purpose.”

Vasily now understood the truth of his father’s words. Life does, indeed, lose its purpose at the very instant a person ceases bringing benefit to those around him.

Which is a truth that many of us, disabled and/or retired, learn at a very high cost in self-esteem and peace of mind. It's not, youthful imaginings to the contrary, at all fun to be idle. So what is one meant to do? Find something useful to do! Me, I write book reviews...how about you?

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


JOAN IS OKAY
WEIKE WANG

Random House
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Funny how Life works out, isn't it? This wasn't *meant* to be a pandemic novel, says Weike Wang. Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A witty, moving, piercingly insightful new novel about a marvelously complicated woman who can’t be anyone but herself, from the award-winning author of Chemistry

Joan is a thirtysomething ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. The daughter of Chinese parents who came to the United States to secure the American dream for their children, Joan is intensely devoted to her work, happily solitary, successful. She does look up sometimes and wonder where her true roots lie: at the hospital, where her white coat makes her feel needed, or with her family, who try to shape her life by their own cultural and social expectations.

Once Joan and her brother, Fang, were established in their careers, her parents moved back to China, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in their homeland. But when Joan’s father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America to reconnect with her children, a series of events sends Joan spiraling out of her comfort zone just as her hospital, her city, and the world are forced to reckon with a health crisis more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

Deceptively spare yet quietly powerful, laced with sharp humor, Joan Is Okay touches on matters that feel deeply resonant: being Chinese-American right now; working in medicine at a high-stakes time; finding one’s voice within a dominant culture; being a woman in a male-dominated workplace; and staying independent within a tight-knit family. But above all, it’s a portrait of one remarkable woman so surprising that you can’t get her out of your head.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: First things first: I think Joan's neurodivergent. There. I said it.

What else is Joan? A disappointing daughter, who isn't going to give her mother the expected grands. An annoying sister, who is resolutely unimpressed with her brother's lavish getting-and-spending lifestyle. A breathtakingly good, effective ICU doctor at the outset of the Plague. A clueless, oblivious object of somewhat diffident romantic interest...utterly unrequited...for her neighbor. And most of all, most satisfyingly and unbreakably, Joan is herself.

If you don't like to read "women's fiction" because it's about men (how to catch), read this book. It's about Others (how to evade), when it's about anyone not Joan. And that was exactly why I enjoyed the read so much. Joan's struggles are typical for an atypical person, and her intelligence isn't a problem but a solution, making her an extra delightful companion for this reader. As everyone around her tries to make her feel she's missing out, lacking something, somehow wanting for something, and until she decides for herself what she thinks, she remains upset and at sea. In her enforced idleness (bereavement leave? for a father she felt little connection to still less affection for, shouting abuser that he was?) she loses the armor of being too busy to deal with all the mishegas of ordinary life.

It is great to read about the woman lead's sense of self being explored and resolved without a boyfriend at the beginning, middle, or end of the process. It is bracing to read the genuinely painful experience of the first-generation American in attempting to come to a happy resolution to a parent's desires when these are rooted in a wildly different world. But then, as the visibly different as well as culturally different as well as neurologically different (this last is not explicit in the text, but its factuality is the hill I'll die on) Joan thinks, "Why try to explain yourself to someone who had no capacity to listen?" She thinks this in a different relationship's context but the truth is, it is Joan all the way. She's not going to do the same thing a dozen...even, I suspect, a pair of...times expecting or hoping for different results. What kept me from giving it all five stars was, however, that very thing: I felt Joan was harshly judgmental from beginning to end, despite questioning herself and her responses as we went through the story. I think that's a bit unbelievable, it seemed to me she would've adjusted some of her private judgments...still, not a fatal flaw since I liked her from giddy-up to whoa.

In fact, in just over 200pp, I fell in love with Joan as she is. I think you might do the same. Give her a few of your hours. She's a good companion.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

BLUE-SKINNED GODS, one of my favorite 2021 demonstrations of social progress


BLUE-SKINNED GODS
S.J. SINDU

Soho Press
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

FINALIST FOR THE 34th Lambda Literary Award—BEST BISEXUAL FICTION! Winners announced 11 June 2022.
GBH's virtual book club, BEYOND THE PAGE, features Author Sindu discussing this story and answering audience questions FREE Register at the link for tonight's 7p EST event!

The Publisher Says: From the award-winning author of Marriage of a Thousand Lies comes a brilliantly written, globe-spanning novel about identity, faith, family, and sexuality.

In Tamil Nadu, India, a boy is born with blue skin. His father sets up an ashram, and the family makes a living off of the pilgrims who seek the child’s blessings and miracles, believing young Kalki to be the tenth human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. In Kalki’s tenth year, he is confronted with three trials that will test his power and prove his divine status and, his father tells him, spread his fame worldwide. While he seems to pass them, Kalki begins to question his divinity.

Over the next decade, his family unravels, and every relationship he relied on—father, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin—starts falling apart. Traveling from India to the underground rock scene of New York City, Blue-Skinned Gods explores ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, and spans continents and faiths, in an expansive and heartfelt look at the need for belief in our globally interconnected world.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: A child is fed a diet of lies by his parents and all the adults around him. They seek many things from their lies, and he seeks only his truth.

Come for the writing, stay for the story...the sentences are lovely things, shining and glowing with the light of inspiration. The story's the one we all need to hear at this juncture, the one about the abuse of religion in service of religiosity and greed. The cost to this genuinely beautiful soul, Kalki, is so huge...the relationships he can not save are all built on the sand of lies.

What makes this story so extraordinarily resonant is that we're all surrounded by lies all day every day. Yes, it's true, Kalki's lies are costly to those he's lying to...not being a god and still trying to heal people is wrong...but he told the truth he had been sold all his life by the liars he was raised by and among. Kalki, unlike all the rest of us, has the weight of the literal world on him, has expectations of miracles mounded on him. That's his excuse for buying into the lies he's surrounded by. What's yours? What's mine?

The questions that this brutally honest look in the mirror of a story raises are urgently in need of everyone's answers, delivered with the honesty and the anger that Kalki uses as he does the absolutely unthinkable, the unbelievably god-like thing and takes control of his life: He forgives.

Being able to forgive is, I honestly believe, the single most important quality in a healthy person's happiness. I see it in stark relief as this novel winds its coils around my heart. Kalki, wronged on every level, betrayed and abandoned on every side, used and abused and ripped off...he forgives. And that is the most beautiful thing available for a mortal to do, to give. Come and be healed: Read BLUE-SKINNED GODS.

HOW TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR, a sweet HEA straight rom-com


HOW TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
SOPHIE SULLIVAN

St. Martin's Press
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Enemies-to-lovers meets HGTV in this frothy, effervescent romantic comedy from Sophie Sullivan, author of Ten Rules for Faking It.

Interior Design School? Check. Cute house to fix up? Check.

Sexy, grumpy neighbor who is going to get in the way of your plans? Check. Unfortunately.

Grace Travis has it all figured out. In between finishing school and working a million odd jobs, she’ll get her degree and her dream job. Most importantly, she’ll have a place to belong, something her harsh mother could never make. When an opportunity to fix up—and live in—a little house on the beach comes along, Grace is all in. Until her biggest roadblock moves in next door.

Noah Jansen knows how to make a deal. As a real estate developer, he knows when he's found something special. Something he could even call home. Provided he can expand by taking over the house next door—the house with the combative and beautiful woman living in it.

With the rules for being neighborly going out the window, Grace and Noah are in an all-out feud. But sometimes, your nemesis can show you that home is always where the heart is.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: When Irresistible Force Met Immovable Object is a romantic-fiction staple. The reason it works, time upon time after time, is that the plot never stops feeling...probable, plausible, possible. "Surely *I* will succeed where others have failed," we think with the point-of-view character. The gendered expressions of this...a man who needs to Fix It, a woman who needs to Change It...are both present here.

Why does it work? Because we're told it will, does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Um...how's that workin' in real life, then....

So reading this iteration of the old story is pointless, then? Nope. Not a bit of it, as you'll find out when you settle in for a dank winter's afternoon of page-borne cheerfulness. Two people with frankly selfish agendas meet with no obvious path to compromise, only of necessity the victory of Party A over Party B. For most of human history that set-up plays out that way. Given the nature of Grace's upbringing I expected it to be that way this time too, with her gladly giving up her utterly unknown grandparents' little bungalow for the handsome prince's home. Why, there's a way we can subvert expectations, thinks Author Sullivan...so instead of making Grace a gracious loser who wins the bigger prize, the neighbors mend their fences (figurative and literal) in more lasting ways. Therein the way the subversion works best.

What plays well with me, maybe predictably, is Grace's (ugh) gracious (sorry) inclusion of elders in her life. Her deeply toxic mother wasn't a mom, and her thus-inevitable lifelong search for found family is relatable to me. What makes it even sweeter, in the sugary sense, is that she volunteers for caretaker duties with older men who need her for practical reasons...Morty's the proverbial old fool whose unwillingness to grow up even as he grows old will be the death of him much to his gal-pal (NOT "girlfriend" ugh!) Tilly's disgust...but whom she in her turn needs for the long-missing and urgently needed sense of Belonging that older people anchor younger ones with. It is something I've played out from both sides at different times in my life, and it's always worked out well. So far.

So that's the plus side...the downside is real too. The two characters alternate viewpoints, which I approve of as a device in these "he-said-she-said" narratives. The execution...
"You're a very curious and capable woman."

She beamed at him. "Thank you."

He just laughed. Maybe the women he usually hung out with liked different compliments.
–and–
Biting his cheek to keep from smiling, he nodded, then asked, "You think I'm handsome?"

She turned away before her eyeroll was complete. "I'm about to Julia Roberts your credit cards so make sure you're prepared."

No points for guessing which is from whose point of view. Grace gets the best lines...it is really her book, so fair enough...but if you go to the trouble of setting up the dichotomy, even out the benefits for it to work as well as it can. I was more convinced that these insta-luuuv sufferers were being presented to me this way so I would really understand why the lust each quite justifiably fell into went deeper. This was undermined by the aforementioned inequality of quality, if you'll forgive the excursion into recursion.

There is quite a cast of characters to keep track of...Rosie, Chris are the BFFs but Chris is also a sibling; Kyle's a contractor whose life as a dad we're treated to glimpses of but Josh is another whose appearances are frequent enough that I was left wondering why he wasn't a bigger part of the story...though I myownself don't see that as a problem, it does contribute to what I honestly feel is a big one: It's too long. I'm interested in Grace's interior design process, I'm appreciative of that layer of verisimilitude offered me, and I still want less of it. The exchanges with Morty and Tilly are amusing, but honestly? Less is more, emulate Le Corbusier when you're inching up on 400pp. And, I realize this is probably just me, but good goddesses please no more painting-as-foreplay! I got headaches from it.

In the end, as one knows it will, the story's HEA comes as no surprise but does come wrapped in a semi-lethal dose of feel-goodish sweetness. It's a lovely moment, the one that ends the book, and would film well...something I don't doubt was in the author's mind...and it gives us the thing that romantic fiction readers need: closure without foreclosure. The parties are together, big shock; but they're not on shaky ground, there's no magical elimination of the obstacles in their world. That always means to me that the author's got respect for her readers. Using deus ex machina is always a cheap trick and it's one that Sophie Sullivan did not succumb to the obvious pointers to use. Kudos for that, and could you please use your PowerPoint skills to wean other authors off it?

Monday, January 17, 2022

THE MAID, a lightly-sweetened lemonade of a book...refreshing!


THE MAID
NITA PROSE

Ballantine Books
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This is a locked-room mystery, narrated by a naïve narrator who genuinely, unfeignedly does not understand what is happening or why it unfolds the way it does. Its bones, then, are excellent. A well-trodden path is a gift and a curse for writer and reader. What makes or breaks the reading experience is the voice the author tells the story in.

Having edited books for a living, Author Prose is very much aware of this reality. It makes her achievement in creating Molly the Maid, ironically surnamed "Gray", contextually appropriate but nonetheless impressive. Molly loves her world, the job of being a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel.
There’s nothing quite like a perfectly stocked maid’s trolley early in the morning. It is, in my humble opinion, a cornucopia of bounty and beauty. The crisp little packages of delicately wrapped soaps that smell of orange blossom, the tiny Crabtree & Evelyn shampoo bottles, the squat tissue boxes, the toilet-paper rolls wrapped in hygienic film, the bleached white towels in three sizes—bath, hand, and washcloth—and the stacks of doilies for the tea-and-coffee service tray. And last but not least, the cleaning kit, which includes a feather duster, lemon furniture polish, lightly scented antiseptic garbage bags, as well as an impressive array of solvents and disinfectants, all lined up and ready to combat any stain, be it coffee rings, vomit—or even blood. A well-stocked housekeeping trolly is a portable sanitation miracle; it is a clean machine on wheels. And as I said, it is beautiful.

There is nothing about a housekeeping trolley that has ever creased my cranium before now. I'll never be so blind again. It's a rolling chemistry experiment, though I don't see that with Molly's appreciative eyes.

What strikes the neurotypical reader is how very clearly Molly isn't One of Us. She has her meltdowns, logically enough, when overwhelmed by the chaos of Life (which of necessity includes death); we'd do the same if Chaos obtruded on our day the way it did Molly's as she discovers the lifeless body of repeat hotel guest Mr. Black. The fact is, Black is well named. His death wasn't an accident or an illness...he was Murdered and the police, unfamiliar with Molly's, um, state of being, rapidly assign her the role of Suspect.

And then the Universe springs into action.

Molly, you see, is a gem. She's being used by some bad people whose moral compasses aren't calibrated right, she's being set up to take a fall she can't even see, and she is...crucially...possessed of seriously good luck in her friends. There is no question that she is the proof one always wishes for that there are some Forrest-Gumpian stories that aren't cloying. However, I will not lie to you: anyone...and I mean ANYone...who says "we are all the same in different ways" to me is going to get a truly Tongan response.... Still there is a beauty in the repetition and reassembly of cliché in service of a Message. Well, when that Message is a positive and a constructive one, which is what this fun read exemplifies to the point of being the illustration in the dictionary under "message fiction." It is, though, this Message-y nature that leaves a fifth star off my rating. I could hang with the repetitive reminders of Molly's neurodivergence. I was not quite so willing to overlook the "different ≠ bad" catechism, or the "pretty ≠ good" catechism. Learning to see beyond surfaces? Yes, yes, a maid whose oft-repeated mantra is to "return your suite to a state of perfection" is the perfect messenger for it, got it, stop now. But there was no Stop button....

What happens as a result, though, is the unraveling of a long and ugly strand of American society, a series of horrible crimes that are so...repellent...to persons and so easy to distract institutions from pursuing, that it really isn't on for me to go into it. I will say that there's not one miscreant who gets through this wringer unsqueezed. That's enough about the crime parts. The resolution parts are shaped to suit Molly the Maid's comprehension level, which expands exponentially as she navigates the shoals of her grieving for her Gran's death, for her sad coming-to-awareness of the venality of people, and her sudden awakening to the fragility of Truth and Innocence in a world that needs answers instead of solutions.

Molly and Gran used to watch Columbo reruns together, so Molly's primed for a policing style that doesn't exist in reality when she's enmeshed in a dreadful web of lies and betrayals in her safe place, The Regency Grand Hotel. She's arrested for a crime she knows she didn't commit, and her tormentors aren't even slightly interested in her life-long passion for truthfulness. The issue is, of course, that even her truthfulness is weaponized against her by the miscreants using her innocence to cover their crimes. But, crucially, Gran's long shadow nurtured relationships that Molly, all unknowing, can depend on for her very life. Right there in the hotel! And she surprises herself by being able to reach back to the hands held out to her. Though there is a serious difficulty in that she doesn't immediately see them as helping hands.

Seeing is a recurring theme for Molly. Her being seen, being acknowledged, is a huge issue in her life...people don't see maids, and even her co-workers don't as a rule see Molly. The names of the characters are almost all colors or qualities of sight...Stark, Rosso, Green among others...and Molly's perceptions of the Regency Grand are of its colors and presentations of shiny, glossy surfaces. It's not subtle, goodness knows, but it's very effective because of the narrator's neurodivergence. It's very easy to see that this brightness of vision is intentional and it's all down to interpretation for Molly to be able to present what she's so clearly seen in self-exculpatory ways.

The final scene, a lovely piece of courtroom theater, will make Florence Pugh a bigger star than she is when the film is eventually released. It is so very,very satisfying that I can only blush while reporting the honest truth that I cheered a little and even had a humidity condensation event around my ocular area.

Don't tell anyone.