Top 5 Saturday: Books Inspired by Mythology


The Top 5 Saturday weekly meme was created by Amanda at Devouring Books.

Rules!

  • Share your top 5 books of the current topic—these can be books that you want to read, have read and loved, have read and hated, you can do it any way you want.
  • Tag the original post (This one!)
  • Tag 5 people (I probably won’t do this bit, play along if you want)

This week’s topic is: Books inspired by Mythology. Which you’d think would be super-easy—and it was fairly easy—but coming up with a fifth took a little more work than I expected.


Bad Blood
by
Lucienne Diver

An Urban Fantasy featuring a strong, snarky, female PI who doesn’t believe the family legend that she’s descended from Pan and Medusa. But when Apollo himself shows up to hire her, she starts to come around . . . I admit I don’t remember a lot of this (I read it 7 years ago), but it was one of the first I thought of when I decided to do this list and I do keep asking myself why I never got around to reading the rest of the series.


American Gods
by
Neil Gaiman

Honestly, not my favorite Gaiman (maybe on a second read that’d change). But man, there are passages in this book that are pure magic. Epic in scope, but filled with fantastic characters, and Gaiman’s prose, you can absolutely understand why it’s beloved and so widely-read.


The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
by
Douglas Adams

Unless I read something I cannot recall, this was the first book I read that made use of mythological characters in a contemporary setting. I absolutely loved the idea and wondered why more people didn’t do that. Clearly, they do (just see the rest of this post and the others posting on this theme today), but at the ripe old age of 15, it was revolutionary to me. Odin, Thor, Loki and a few other Norse dignitaries are flitting about London and the area, inflicting damage, killing innocents, and driving nursing home staff crazy. Throw in Dirk Gently and Adams at his best and you have a killer read.


Hunted
by
Kevin Hearne

Members of five (I think) pantheons show up in this book—in what’s probably Hearne’s finest use of them all. A good story for Atticus, Oberon, and Granuaile (Oberon has his best dramatic moment, as I recall) aside from that, but a great way of blending the various pantheons into the Iron Druid’s world. One of my Top 2 in the series.


The Lightning Thief
by
Rick Riordan

How can you have a list like this and not include this book (or one of the legion it spawned)? The book that started a craze and gave Riordan the ability to quit teaching. This set the template for all of Riordan’s myth-inspired books (be it Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Norse mythology) and is just fun (unlike some of the latter books which got a bit preachy and tedious). It’s not quite Potter-level of fame/influence, but it’s the closest we have in the States, a nice collection of kids, a creative way of brining myths to the 21st Century, and a rollicking good time.

Hi Five by Joe Ide: A Criminal for a Client, an Unreliable Witness, and a Larger Number than Usual that Want Him Dead. IQ has his work cut out for him.

Hi Five

Hi Five

Joe Ide
Series: IQ, #4

Hardcover, 339 pg.https://www.mulhollandbooks.com/titles/joe-ide/hi-five/9780316509534/
Mulholland Books, 2020

Read: February 10-16, 2020

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


Isaiah has tried to move on after the heartbreak of Wrecked, and has a new girlfriend. This is unfortunate for her—not because IQ is a bad boyfriend or anything—it’s just that when a low-life gun dealer needs Isaiah to investigate something for him, he threatens the poor girl to insure that Isaiah will do it.

What he needs Isaiah to do is clear his daughter of murder. She’s the only witness to the event, but can’t give the police (or our hero) much information about it, despite being in the same room as the murder. Why? Well (and this feels like spoiling something, but it’s on the book jacket), she has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)—what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorder—and given the stress and danger presented by a man being shot in her shop, Christina wasn’t “there” for most of what happened. Now, did her father bother mentioning this to Isaiah? Nope. but he thankfully figures that out fairly quickly. So now our intrepid investigator has to look into a murder with an eyewitness/prime suspect who didn’t see anything, and who can’t convince anyone who did see something to say something—and if he doesn’t succeed, someone he cares about will pay the penalty (and he assumes he’ll pay, too).

This is such a fantastic idea for a murder case—it could easily be a sloppily executed idea, but if someone does their homework and does a responsible job depicting DID, this is a wonderful fodder for drama. Please, if there are other examples of mystery writers doing this, fill up the comments with titles. I’d love to read other versions of this—and can’t believe that Ide’s the first to do this.

Most authors would be content to fully develop this idea and run with it for the whole novel. But not Ide. In fact, as interesting as it is, the murder case is not the most interesting thing about Hi Five. I’m pretty sure that’s impressive. To take a concept like that and say, “well, sure, but what’s important is the trouble that Isaiah finds himself in because of the investigation.” That’s bad enough, but Isaiah has recently run afoul of a gang of white supremacists after gang violence has hit someone that Isaiah and Dodson (particularly Dodson) respect and admire.

Oh, and Grace is back.

Ide also finds a way to work in some lighter stories and even a little sweetness. And the book never feels crowded, and everything gets dealt with in the space it needs. Sure, I’d have preferred to spend more time dealing with Christina and her “alters,” but that’s a personal taste thing. I’m a sucker for a good DID story. But what Ide wanted to focus on justifies cutting that storyline some of the space I’d prefer it get.

The tension is high and Isaiah has never seemed more human and fallible (including when he was being waterboarded because of some foolish moves).

Some of the reviews I’ve read about this book seem to think that Ide’s wrapping up the series here. I can see why they’d say that, Hi Five could certainly serve as a fitting end to the series. but it seems to e that Ide has more he wants to say. The way he left things with Isaiah points to a triumphant return. Also, toward the end of the novel, something pretty significant happens to Deondra and I just don’t see Ide leaving things where he did and just walking away—the scene is extraneous unless he’s coming back to follow up on it. I hope I’m reading things right, but if I’m not, this is a solid way to go out.

This is not my favorite of the series, but it is so, so good, that it doesn’t bother me too much. It’s just a pleasure to be back in this prose, in this world, with most of these characters. A great mystery (with a better hook), some great character development, a client you can’t help but loathe—but a subject that you’ll pull for (and want to see more of). Hi Five is just one more proof that Joe Ide is one of the best writers in the genre right now. This is a decent entry to start with, but you’d be better off starting with IQ. But honestly, just grab the nearest book by Ide and enjoy.


4 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge
This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Not Dressed by Matthew Hanover: If this book doesn’t bring a smile to your face, something’s broken

Not Dressed

Not Dressed

by Matthew Hanover

eARC
2020

Read: January 3-6, 2019

“Hey there, Jake. This should be fun, right?”…

“I guess,” I say.

“You don’t sound too excited,” she says as she takes a hair tie off her wrist and pulls her disheveled hair back into a ponytail.

“Yeah, well. I’m not good at dancing.”

“Obviously! That’s why you’re here. Same as me. I’m probably just as bad as you. But we’ll learn together, okay?”

“Okay.”

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” she says.

“I…have no idea what that means.”

“It’s from Star Trek…Actually, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It means we’ll work together to solve a common problem. In this case, the problem is learning how to dance.”

“I gotcha. So, you’re like…a Trekkie?”

“Was my sweatshirt not a big enough clue?”

“No, I just—”

“You’re not a Star Wars fan, are you? If you are, you’ll have to find a different partner.”

Jake Evans is our protagonist—he’s a decent enough guy, who could probably use some maturing (which means he’s like 90% of guys in their twenties). He’s got a great girlfriend (although the relationship seems a bit rocky when we meet him) and is second-guessing his chosen career (partially because he has a horrid employer, and partially because architecture isn’t the career he thought it would be). There are signs that he’d be a pretty fun guy to hang out with, but when the book opens he’s got a pretty good-sized cloud over his head between the girl and the gig.

Lindsay’s his long-time girlfriend. She works in radio and is very passionate about her job. She’s enjoying a little bit of success, and has a hard time relating to Jake’s struggles. She’s the producer and in-all-but-name on-air sidekick to a Boston-area conservative talk show host, who calls her “Lefty Lindsay.” (don’t worry, politics are absent from the book!) At least when the book opens, I really didn’t see why the two of them were a couple. There’s a good chance that neither of them rembered at that point, either, it had been so long.

Two things about their relationship provide most of the initial conflict for the plot. First, due to some financial hits they’ve taken recently, Lindsay has taken some modeling gigs to make some extra money. She did it back in college, which was recent enough that she still had connections. Why didn’t Jake do something to make extra money? He’s having a hard enough time finding a replacement full-time job that it didn’t seem like a good idea to try to add another job search to his plate. Besides, Lindsay’s moonlighting is profitable enough. What she neglects to mention to Jake is that this modeling is for art classes at a local college. And, well, none of these artists-in-training are working on fashion degrees—clothing gets in the way of what they’re learning to draw/paint/sculpt. Jake’s an open-minded kind of guy, except when it comes to this, it’s not pretty when he finds out (although it’s a pretty amusing scene for readers when he does).

Meanwhile, Jake’s sister’s wedding is coming up and Lindsay has decided the two of them need to learn to dance before it. Besides, it’s a fun activity for the two of them—they never go out mid-week anymore, and their relationship could use a boost. So she signs them up for a dance class, and then tells Jake about it after she paid for it, so he pretty much has to agree to it, but isn’t really that interested. So she basically promises him sex if he goes. Which pretty much seals the deal. But then Lindsay’s show gets moved to a new (and better) time slot. So, in addition to not being able to make the class, the couple will hardly see each other during the week. Her plan is that Jake will go, and then on the weekend, teach her the moves (he insists on getting his payment in advance for this).

Jake hates this new plan, and is convinced that he’s going to be stuck dancing with the instructor (after he and the reader meets this instructor, no one thinks this is going to be fun for him). Thankfully, just before class starts, Kaylee walks in. You read her opening dialogue up above. She’s a few years younger than Jake, taking some time out from college to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and is a major geek. She’s almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but doesn’t fit the category in a few ways (I’m only using that term because I’m afraid this post is getting too long and I want to pick up the pace). She’s also my favorite character of 2020 so far (granted, that would mean more if it wasn’t January 13th).

Kaylee and Jake strike up a nice little friendship during the class, and pretty soon, he’s going so he has an excuse to hang out with her. The two of them are fun together—she’s socially awkward and embarrassed to be herself, Jake tries to shake her out of that, and even encourages her to let her Geek-Flag fly (even if he doesn’t get any of it). Meanwhile, she’s encouraging about his job hunt (as opposed to Lindsay, who mostly nags or wants him to find a way to succeed where he is), and gets him to be a little less angst-y about his life. I like Jake more when he’s in friend with Kaylee-mode over guy with Lindsay-mode. But what do I know? I have a tendency to pick people the protagonists don’t in these situations (I won’t provide examples because I’d expose myself to too much ridicule).

The one last bit of Jake’s life we need to talk about is his job. It’s horrible. He has a nice group of work-friends who band together for mutual support (and complaints), but the atmosphere at work is toxic, and their superiors would be enough to turn anyone against their chosen field. For example, in the first chapter, Jake’s two-year anniversary with the company happens and he asks his boss about scheduling his annual review (which will hopefully involve a raise, which he could really use). His boss stammers and suggests an alternate date, nine months away. Yeah, Jake’s bad attitude toward work makes a little sense, doesn’t it?

I worked as a draftsman at an architecture firm some years ago, and while the atmosphere there wasn’t at all what Jake experienced, Hanover did do a great job of capturing the kind of work and personalities that I saw—which doesn’t really match the typical depiction of architects in fiction. I liked that bit of realism. (I asked Hanover about that in an upcoming Q&A, but I haven’t read his responses yet, looking forward to seeing where that authenticity came from).

Getting back to Jake’s life—what we have here is a stagnant (at best) relationship that’s got a couple of pretty big things to work through; a job situation that needs addressing; and a new friend that is really the only positive thing in his life. Jake’s life is basically begging to be shaken up, is Kaylee going to help instigate that?

There’s something about Hanover’s style that I can’t express, but I wish I could. This book (like last year’s Not Famous) is effortless to read. When I started this book, it was late in the day and I thought I’d just stick a toe in the water, maybe read about 10% of it. Before I knew it, I was about a third into the book (and were it not for the time of day, I’d have probably finished it in one sitting!). It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s infectious, it’s engaging as anything I can remember. I cared about these characters and got invested in their lives faster than I typically do.

Jonathan Tropper tends to have certain character types that show up in every novel—particularly the wise sister/friend-who-might-as-well-be-sister* (many authors do this kind of thing, I know, but Tropper is who I thought of when I was reading this book). Hanover shows signs of the same thing—sisters play a big role in both of his novels to date. He doesn’t use them the same way that Tropper does, don’t get me wrong, but his male protagonists are more honest and open about their emotional lives because of sisters. This is neither good or bad, it’s just a trait that he may have—it’s something I’ll be looking for next time. (again, see the Q&A for more on this topic). I like that there’s someone who can draw this out of a character without the need for alcohol, drugs or trauma—also, that he bares his soul first to someone who isn’t a love interest.

* There are other types that Tropper utilizes constantly, too, if I ever get around to my big re-read of his corpus, I’ll end up compiling a chart.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom discussed here that I didn’t know before reading this book.

“You realize that dancing is basically foreplay, right?”

“So I’ve heard.” [Jake replies]

Four chapters later:

“Because dancing is, like, totally foreplay, you know.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” [Jake asks]

I counted someone telling that to Jake four times (with at least one more allusion). Is this really a thing that everyone thinks/says? I may need to cancel some of my daughter’s plans for the next 20 years…

I’d forgotten that Hanover had said there’d be a link between Not Famous and this book. It’s small, and if you haven’t read his other novel, you won’t miss anything. But if you have, you’ll enjoy the brief catch-up you get about the lives of the protagonists of that novel. It brought a big grin to my face.

There was a slight flavor of Nick Hornby wanna-be-ness to Not Famous that’s not present here. Instead, what Hanover has done is take that same voice and put it to use telling a story that’s all him (while being the kind of thing that Hornby readers will appreciate). I do think that Hanover could go a bit deeper in his characterizations (I have very little sense about Jake apart from work/Lindsay) and his plots could add a little more complexity. I’m looking for a few degrees of depth/complexity, not much. But that doesn’t stop me from loving this world and characters, and it doesn’t keep me from encouraging you all to grab this book when it releases next month.

This heart-warming tale about being who you are and finding acceptance for it is a real winner. Adorkable, irresistible, and just fun—Not Dressed is sure to please (if you are so led, book is available for pre-order). I don’t know what Not Description is next for Hanover, but I’m already eager to read it.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion and this post. I appreciate the book, but it didn’t sway what I had to say.


4 Stars

Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg: A Dynamite Beginning to a New Series from One of the Most Reliable Scribes Around

Lost Hills

Lost Hills

by Lee Goldberg
Series: Eve Ronin, #1

Kindle Edition, 237 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2020

Read: January 23-25, 2019
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Mulholland Drive. It was an intersection that generated lots of confusion, and not only because of the nearly identical street names. It was also the intersection of two cities, three neighborhoods, two law enforcement jurisdictions, and on this hot, smoggy Thursday afternoon in December, life and death.

So begins Lee Goldberg’s new series—a story of a young, talented, fallible, inexperienced woman detective in the LA County Sheriff’s Department. Eve Ronin is in this position thanks to being in the wrong place at the right time, and getting herself plastered all over social media just when the Department needed any good publicity it could get. Capitalizing on this, the Sheriff puts her in the high-profile Robbery-Homicide Division where she faces a lot of sexist backlash—and some that’s not sexist, but based on the way she got the job and how unprepared she is for it. Still, Eve knows a good opportunity when she gets it and is determined to rise to the occasion, as hard as it will be.

That’s the novel (and probably the series) in a nutshell—everything else is just window dressing. But man, I tell you, it’s great window dressing.

First off, you’ve got this case. A single mother of two (no longer romantically involved with the man she’s living with, but unable to move out), her kids and their dog are missing. What’s present in their home is a lot of blood. I mean a lot. Enough that there’s little hope that any of them are still alive, but Eve can’t rule out the possibility. So she really has two investigations to get into—the multiple murder case, and a missing persons case. Given the grizzly nature of the crime scene, there’s a lot of public attention on this case, and a lot of pressure on the rookie detective. That there is enough for most novels, but we get more.

What I loved about this book (and, from what I hear in interviews, the series to come), is how it displays that everyone in the L.A.-area is in or adjacent to the entertainment industry. Eve’s mother and the probable victim are chasing stardom, the likely victim’s ex-boyfriend works on a film crew (as does his alibi). There are detectives shopping script ideas around, and clearly will jump on new “material.” You’d think that with the sheer number of police procedurals/PI novels set in LA that this would be well-trodden territory, but it really isn’t. How is that possible? I’m so glad that Goldberg committed to this idea.

At the end of the court was a poorly maintained, unfenced ranch home with two cars in the driveway— an old Ford Taurus with oxidized paint and a Nissan Sentra. A woman in her early thirties paced anxiously in front of the house.

“She’s keyed up,” Duncan said as Eve pulled up to the driveway. “You better talk to her, woman- to- woman.”

“Good idea, because you know we don’t even have to speak to each other,” Eve said, putting the car into park. “Our uteruses can communicate telepathically.”

“I think the correct term is ‘uteri.’”

But what makes this (and any series) work are the characters. Eve is a great character, while her mom was off chasing stardom (and primarily finding work as an extra), she did the heavy lifting when it came to raising her younger siblings. Now she’s taken that sense of responsibility to her career and those she comes into contact with.

Eve’s mom is still in pursuit of the Hollywood dream, if not for her (though that’d be her preference), than for Eve. When Eve shows up on TV being cornered by a reporter, Jen is more focused on how Eve looks than the case in question. When she does think about the case, it’s in relation to how Eve can turn it into a movie deal. I cracked up at Eve’s first conversation with her (and enjoyed the rest), but can easily see where she could be overused on the long-term, and she could easily turn into a one-note joke. I know Goldberg can do something interesting with her if he wants to, I just hope he does.

Meanwhile, Eve’s younger sister, Lisa is a delight. She’s a nurse as well as Eve’s main source of emotional support (and ice cream). The cynic in me thinks she might as well be named Nurse Bechdel Test. But let’s ignore him—she’s a great character for Eve to bounce off of—a sounding board for the emotional beats and struggles that Eve endures thanks to her promotion and career—as well as something that humanizes Eve. She’s not just a cop, she’s a sister with strong maternal instincts/reflexes, who needs someone to take care of her occasionally. I thoroughly enjoyed their interaction and the way they fed off each other, and her continuing presence in the series bodes well for it (and, yeah, probably makes sure these books pass that particular test).

Then there are Eve’s colleagues (who get more real estate in the book than her family does, but I’m going to cover briefly here because I’m rambling). I’ll start with her partner, Duncan—a jaded veteran detective nearing retirement. That gives him a certain detachment from Eve’s catapulting into Homicide, as long as her presence doesn’t interfere with his exit, what does he care. In the meantime, he’ll pass on some wisdom and cynicism. I loved his character and really hope that retirement stays away for a while.

Almost every other detective (both in the Sheriff’s department and the LAPD) doesn’t share his detachment, and will not actively try to derail Eve, but will be skeptical and antagonistic to her. The nicest thing anyone will say about her is that she’s starved for attention and fame. The Sheriff on the other hand, will exploit Eve whenever he can (he needs her to be a star to deflect attention away from serious problems in the department). It’s hard to tell if he has any real confidence in her, or if it’s all opportunistic. I’m not sure it matters much.

I would’ve liked a little more depth to this story, but just a tad. Any more and it would’ve slowed down the fast, driving pace and tension—which wouldn’t have been worth the trade-off. I’d also have liked to gone a bit more in-depth here myself, but if I do, I’d probably not get this posted for two more months, so we’ll call this good.

I haven’t read every novel Goldberg has written, but I have read 26 of them (so far), so I feel like I have a pretty decent idea of what kind of writer he is. There is something distinctly Goldberg-esque about Lost Hills and Eve. At the same time, there’s a freshness and verve to them that is new—it felt like Goldberg has stretched himself to try something in these pages and it worked—a reward for both author and readers. Eve Ronin is a fantastic character that I hope to spend many years reading and exploring the world of. You should, too.


4 1/2 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam: Hunter tries SF with Predictably Entertaining Results

Junkyard Cats

Junkyard Cats

by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam (Narrator)

Audiobook, 5 hrs., 2 min.
Audible Original, 2020

Read: January 3-6, 2020


Faith Hunter dips her toe into SF with this Audible Original, and leaves quite an impression. The distinctive Hutner-flair is there, with science-y stuff replacing the magic stuff. It works pretty well.

Shining Smith is a veteran, of a handful of things, really. This takes place in the near-future, following a World War and another one (called the Final War in an act of aspirational nomenclature, I assume). She lives in/runs a scrapyard left to her by her father with a few cats and another vet recovering from trauma.

Shining deals on both sides of the law through intermediaries—no one knows her or who she is beyond those. It’s a perfectly safe environment.

Not a nice one, not a fulfilling one, but a safe one. And in her world, that’s asking a lot.

Until one day, one of her intermediaries shows up at her scrapyard dead. And then a very strong suspect for killing him shows up. And things get worse from there.

The action scenes are cool—filled with all the kinds of things that the best SF action scenes are filled with. The future-tech is cool, completely foreign to reality, yet it seems like the kind of thing that would emerge from our current tech.

I liked Shining, we don’t get to know her much. She’s such the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that it’s hard to get a real handle on her—but we get enough to root for her and want to know her better. Her compatriots are intriguing—as well-rounded as characters can get in this limited space where everyone is lying to each other about who and what they are.

There were a couple of SF-brand/tech names (like The Tyrell Corporation or tricorder) that I really couldn’t understand what Hvam was saying. Against the spirit of an “Audible Original,” but I’d like to read this so I could get a handle on those things. Which isn’t saying that Hvam didn’t do a great job—as per usual, her narration is top-notch.

My only complaint (outside of the tech words I couldn’t decipher), is the brevity, we get the good story, but we don’t get any depth—it’s like it’s designed to make you want more. Hey, wait a second . . .

A fun action-packed story that’ll whet your appetite for more. This is a glimpse into a cool world and I love what Hunter has created here. Yeah, I’m only going with 3 Stars for this. There’s a lot of potential in this world and with these characters—if Hunter returns to this? I can easily see this becoming a favorite series. It’s fine as a stand-alone, and it doesn’t demand a series/sequel but I think to really appreciate everything she set-up here, we need a little more. I’m not sure that makes sense, but…it’s what I can do.


3 Stars

Not Dressed by Matthew Hanover: If this book doesn’t bring a smile to your face, something’s broken

Not Dressed

Not Dressed

by Matthew Hanover

eARC
2020

Read: January 3-6, 2019

“Hey there, Jake. This should be fun, right?”…

“I guess,” I say.

“You don’t sound too excited,” she says as she takes a hair tie off her wrist and pulls her disheveled hair back into a ponytail.

“Yeah, well. I’m not good at dancing.”

“Obviously! That’s why you’re here. Same as me. I’m probably just as bad as you. But we’ll learn together, okay?”

“Okay.”

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” she says.

“I…have no idea what that means.”

“It’s from Star Trek…Actually, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It means we’ll work together to solve a common problem. In this case, the problem is learning how to dance.”

“I gotcha. So, you’re like…a Trekkie?”

“Was my sweatshirt not a big enough clue?”

“No, I just—”

“You’re not a Star Wars fan, are you? If you are, you’ll have to find a different partner.”

Jake Evans is our protagonist—he’s a decent enough guy, who could probably use some maturing (which means he’s like 90% of guys in their twenties). He’s got a great girlfriend (although the relationship seems a bit rocky when we meet him) and is second-guessing his chosen career (partially because he has a horrid employer, and partially because architecture isn’t the career he thought it would be). There are signs that he’d be a pretty fun guy to hang out with, but when the book opens he’s got a pretty good-sized cloud over his head between the girl and the gig.

Lindsay’s his long-time girlfriend. She works in radio and is very passionate about her job. She’s enjoying a little bit of success, and has a hard time relating to Jake’s struggles. She’s the producer and in-all-but-name on-air sidekick to a Boston-area conservative talk show host, who calls her “Lefty Lindsay.” (don’t worry, politics are absent from the book!) At least when the book opens, I really didn’t see why the two of them were a couple. There’s a good chance that neither of them rembered at that point, either, it had been so long.

Two things about their relationship provide most of the initial conflict for the plot. First, due to some financial hits they’ve taken recently, Lindsay has taken some modeling gigs to make some extra money. She did it back in college, which was recent enough that she still had connections. Why didn’t Jake do something to make extra money? He’s having a hard enough time finding a replacement full-time job that it didn’t seem like a good idea to try to add another job search to his plate. Besides, Lindsay’s moonlighting is profitable enough. What she neglects to mention to Jake is that this modeling is for art classes at a local college. And, well, none of these artists-in-training are working on fashion degrees—clothing gets in the way of what they’re learning to draw/paint/sculpt. Jake’s an open-minded kind of guy, except when it comes to this, it’s not pretty when he finds out (although it’s a pretty amusing scene for readers when he does).

Meanwhile, Jake’s sister’s wedding is coming up and Lindsay has decided the two of them need to learn to dance before it. Besides, it’s a fun activity for the two of them—they never go out mid-week anymore, and their relationship could use a boost. So she signs them up for a dance class, and then tells Jake about it after she paid for it, so he pretty much has to agree to it, but isn’t really that interested. So she basically promises him sex if he goes. Which pretty much seals the deal. But then Lindsay’s show gets moved to a new (and better) time slot. So, in addition to not being able to make the class, the couple will hardly see each other during the week. Her plan is that Jake will go, and then on the weekend, teach her the moves (he insists on getting his payment in advance for this).

Jake hates this new plan, and is convinced that he’s going to be stuck dancing with the instructor (after he and the reader meets this instructor, no one thinks this is going to be fun for him). Thankfully, just before class starts, Kaylee walks in. You read her opening dialogue up above. She’s a few years younger than Jake, taking some time out from college to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and is a major geek. She’s almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but doesn’t fit the category in a few ways (I’m only using that term because I’m afraid this post is getting too long and I want to pick up the pace). She’s also my favorite character of 2020 so far (granted, that would mean more if it wasn’t January 13th).

Kaylee and Jake strike up a nice little friendship during the class, and pretty soon, he’s going so he has an excuse to hang out with her. The two of them are fun together—she’s socially awkward and embarrassed to be herself, Jake tries to shake her out of that, and even encourages her to let her Geek-Flag fly (even if he doesn’t get any of it). Meanwhile, she’s encouraging about his job hunt (as opposed to Lindsay, who mostly nags or wants him to find a way to succeed where he is), and gets him to be a little less angst-y about his life. I like Jake more when he’s in friend with Kaylee-mode over guy with Lindsay-mode. But what do I know? I have a tendency to pick people the protagonists don’t in these situations (I won’t provide examples because I’d expose myself to too much ridicule).

The one last bit of Jake’s life we need to talk about is his job. It’s horrible. He has a nice group of work-friends who band together for mutual support (and complaints), but the atmosphere at work is toxic, and their superiors would be enough to turn anyone against their chosen field. For example, in the first chapter, Jake’s two-year anniversary with the company happens and he asks his boss about scheduling his annual review (which will hopefully involve a raise, which he could really use). His boss stammers and suggests an alternate date, nine months away. Yeah, Jake’s bad attitude toward work makes a little sense, doesn’t it?

I worked as a draftsman at an architecture firm some years ago, and while the atmosphere there wasn’t at all what Jake experienced, Hanover did do a great job of capturing the kind of work and personalities that I saw—which doesn’t really match the typical depiction of architects in fiction. I liked that bit of realism. (I asked Hanover about that in an upcoming Q&A, but I haven’t read his responses yet, looking forward to seeing where that authenticity came from).

Getting back to Jake’s life—what we have here is a stagnant (at best) relationship that’s got a couple of pretty big things to work through; a job situation that needs addressing; and a new friend that is really the only positive thing in his life. Jake’s life is basically begging to be shaken up, is Kaylee going to help instigate that?

There’s something about Hanover’s style that I can’t express, but I wish I could. This book (like last year’s Not Famous) is effortless to read. When I started this book, it was late in the day and I thought I’d just stick a toe in the water, maybe read about 10% of it. Before I knew it, I was about a third into the book (and were it not for the time of day, I’d have probably finished it in one sitting!). It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s infectious, it’s engaging as anything I can remember. I cared about these characters and got invested in their lives faster than I typically do.

Jonathan Tropper tends to have certain character types that show up in every novel—particularly the wise sister/friend-who-might-as-well-be-sister* (many authors do this kind of thing, I know, but Tropper is who I thought of when I was reading this book). Hanover shows signs of the same thing—sisters play a big role in both of his novels to date. He doesn’t use them the same way that Tropper does, don’t get me wrong, but his male protagonists are more honest and open about their emotional lives because of sisters. This is neither good or bad, it’s just a trait that he may have—it’s something I’ll be looking for next time. (again, see the Q&A for more on this topic). I like that there’s someone who can draw this out of a character without the need for alcohol, drugs or trauma—also, that he bares his soul first to someone who isn’t a love interest.

* There are other types that Tropper utilizes constantly, too, if I ever get around to my big re-read of his corpus, I’ll end up compiling a chart.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom discussed here that I didn’t know before reading this book.

“You realize that dancing is basically foreplay, right?”

“So I’ve heard.” [Jake replies]

Four chapters later:

“Because dancing is, like, totally foreplay, you know.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” [Jake asks]

I counted someone telling that to Jake four times (with at least one more allusion). Is this really a thing that everyone thinks/says? I may need to cancel some of my daughter’s plans for the next 20 years…

I’d forgotten that Hanover had said there’d be a link between Not Famous and this book. It’s small, and if you haven’t read his other novel, you won’t miss anything. But if you have, you’ll enjoy the brief catch-up you get about the lives of the protagonists of that novel. It brought a big grin to my face.

There was a slight flavor of Nick Hornby wanna-be-ness to Not Famous that’s not present here. Instead, what Hanover has done is take that same voice and put it to use telling a story that’s all him (while being the kind of thing that Hornby readers will appreciate). I do think that Hanover could go a bit deeper in his characterizations (I have very little sense about Jake apart from work/Lindsay) and his plots could add a little more complexity. I’m looking for a few degrees of depth/complexity, not much. But that doesn’t stop me from loving this world and characters, and it doesn’t keep me from encouraging you all to grab this book when it releases next month.

This heart-warming tale about being who you are and finding acceptance for it is a real winner. Adorkable, irresistible, and just fun—Not Dressed is sure to please (if you are so led, book is available for pre-order). I don’t know what Not Description is next for Hanover, but I’m already eager to read it.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion and this post. I appreciate the book, but it didn’t sway what I had to say.


4 Stars

My Favorite Non-Crime Fiction of 2019

Like last year, while trying to come up with a Top 10 this year, I ran into a small problem (at least for me). Crime/Thriller/Mystery novels made up approximately half of the novels I read this year and therefore dominated the candidates. So, I decided to split them into 2 lists—one for Crime Fiction and one for Everything Else. Not the catchiest title, I grant you, but you get what you pay for.

These are my favorites, the things that have stuck with me in a way others haven’t—not necessarily the best things I read (but there’s a good deal of overlap, too). But these ten entertained me or grabbed me emotionally unlike the rest.

Anyway…I say this every year, but . . . Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to books that I’ve loved for 2 decades that I happened to have read this year.

Enough blather…on to the list.

(in alphabetical order by author)

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator)

My original post
I’ve been telling myself every year since 2016 that I was going to read all of Backman’s novels after falling in love with his My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. The closest I got was last year when I read his first novel, A Man Called Ove (and nothing else). It’s enough to make me resolve to read more of them, and soon. The story of an old, grumpy widower befriending (against his will, I should stress) a pretty diverse group of his neighbors. It’s more than that thumbnail, but I’m trying to be brief. The story was fairly predictable, but there’s something about the way that Backman put it together that makes it perfect. And even the things you see coming will get you misty (if not elicit actual tears).

5 Stars

Dark AgeDark Age

by Pierce Brown

My original post
When I started reading this, I was figuring that Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga was on the downward trend. Boy, was I wrong. Dark Age showed me that time after time after time after time . . . Entertaining, occasionally amusing, stress-inducing, heart-wrenching, flat-out captivating. It was brutal and beautiful and I can’t believe I doubted Brown for a minute.

5 Stars

Here and Now and ThenHere and Now and Then

by Mike Chen

My original post
One of the best Time Travel stories I’ve ever read, but it’s so much more—it’s about fatherhood, it’s about love, it’s about friendship. Heart, soul, laughs, and heartbreak—I don’t know what else you want out of a time travel story. Or any story, really. Characters you can like (even when they do things you don’t like), characters you want to know better, characters you want to hang out with after the story (or during it, just not during the major plot point times), and a great plotline.

4 1/2 Stars

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn

My original post
Chorn’s prose is as beautiful as her world is dark and disturbing. This Fantasy depicts a culture’s collapse and promises the rebirth of a world, but getting there is rough. Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was. As different as fantasy novels tend to be from each other, by and large, most of them feel the same as you read it (I guess that’s true of all genres). But I kept coming back to how unusual this feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading Seraphina’s Lament isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

4 1/2 Stars

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

My original post
Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?” These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy—but they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss—and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

(but mostly you laugh)

4 1/2 Stars

Twenty-one Truths About LoveTwenty-one Truths About Love

by Matthew Dicks

My original post
It’s an unconventionally told story about a man figuring out how to be a businessman, husband, and father in some extreme circumstances. The lists are the star of the show, but it’s the heart behind them that made this novel a winner.

5 Stars

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby

My original post
This series of brief conversations held between a married couple just before their marriage counseling sessions. At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length—I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

4 1/2 Stars

The SwallowsThe Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

My original post
This is not my favorite Lutz novel, but I think it’s her best. It has a very different kind of humor than we got in The Spellman Files, but it’s probably as funny as Lutz has been since the third book in that series—but deadly serious, nonetheless. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling. From the funny and dark beginning to the perfect and bitingly ominous last three paragraphs The Swallows is a winner. Timely and appropriate, but using tropes and themes that are familiar to readers everywhere, Lutz has given us a thrilling novel for our day—provocative, entertaining, and haunting. This is one of those books that probably hews really close to things that could or have happened and you’re better off hoping are fictional.

5 Stars

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane

My original post
This has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose—no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. The protagonist feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper—it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (I hate that phrase, but I don’t know what else to put there).

4 1/2 Stars

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

My original post
This is a novel filled with readers, book nerds and the people who like (and love) them. There’s a nice story of a woman learning to overcome her anxieties to embrace new people in her life and heart with a sweet love story tagged on to it. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but I can’t imagine a world where anyone who reads my blog not enjoying this novel and protagonist. It’s charming, witty, funny, touching, heart-string-tugging, and generally entertaining. This is the only book on this particular list that I know would’ve found a place on a top ten that included Crime Novels as well, few things made me as happy in 2019 as this book did for a few hours (and in fleeting moments since then as I reflect on it).

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Not Famous by Matthew Hanover, Circle of the Moon by Faith Hunter, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski, In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, and Lingering by Melissa Simonson