Review: Darkness Falls – Kate Marshall #3 ( Robert Bryndza)

Kate Marshall is back. Myra, her AA sponsor, has died and left Kate her business, with the caveat that Kate start her own PI business. And she does.

Business, however, is slow, and Kate and Tristan need a break. They get one when Bev, the mother of journalist now missing a dozen years, asks them to look into her daughter’s case. It’s long gone cold, but Kate and Tristan will take it – it’s better than no work, after all. Bev’s current partner has somehow laid hands on the boxes (and boxes) of case files kept by the police, and Kate and Tristan start going through it, following the same leads, looking in the same spots. They come up empty, even though the journalist was thought to be working on a story involving a local politician.

Until Kate notices two names written on a notebook. Two men, young and healthy, gone missing without a trace. Just like the journalist, but prior to her own disappearance. Could they be related?

With a new wind in their sails, the duo start the tedious task of determining who these men were, tracing their contacts, and figuring out why they would disappear. The chasing of the clues, the interviews, the scenery: no sagging middle in this book.

Eventually, Kate puts the pieces together. The only gripe I had here is that unlike the last book in the series, I didn’t think there were enough clues – or, rather, enough details in some respects – to allow the reader to determine (or guess) the villain in this one.

Still, it’s an enjoyable read, about people who are grounded in who they are and have a doggedness worthy of admiration.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Silent Sisters – Charles Jenkins #3 (Robert Dugoni)

The final(?) book in the Charles Jenkins series has Jenkins once again going to Russia for the Sisters.

The last two Sisters – sleeper agents for the American CIA – have gone radio silent. Jenkins is once again recruited to head to Russia. The mission this time: get the two remaining women exfiltrated and back to the US.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews my major issue with this series. It’s just fantastically difficult for me to see an over six foot tall, over 200 pound, black spy in Russia able to move around as he was, in a country that is predominantly white. That is (partially) solved, at least at the beginning here, by Jenkins assuming a disguise that involves making him white: mask on the face, long gloves on the hands, and so on. He also enters the country under an assumed ID of a British textile salesman (and hilariously, gets asked by a guard to give the uniform manufacturers something breathable, like cotton, as Moscow is in the throes of a late heat wave).

Jenkins checks in at an out of the way hotel, then goes to a really out of the way dive of a bar, where he does something monumentally stupid: he involves himself in the business of two locals and a woman who is obviously a prostitute. In the alley, he steps in when one of the guys is about to sexually assault the woman. One of the men accidentally shoots the other dead, then runs away, and the prostitute asks Jenkins, “What have you done?”

Good question. As it turns out,the dead guy is the son of the woman who runs one of the most powerful organized crime families in Moscow. Jenkins realizes he’s left a fingerprint behind at the scene.

So now, Jenkins has the mob boss, a cop on the verge of retirement (who is a widower with a perfect record of closing cases, of course), and the head of a division who is looking for a promotion on his tail. But not, amazingly, the FSB, who has a kill order for Jenkins. It would be inconvenient for all these other parties if Jenkins was knocked off.

He manages to get away fro his hotel before anyone comes looking, and gets the first Sister passed on to the person who will then pass her on to another person, etc., until she’s out of the country. There’s very little about her, as the other Sister – Maria, assistant to the head of the division – is the more interesting one.

Quite a good chunk of the middle is taken up by narrative from Maria’s POV, and it is absolutely fantastic. It’s the best part of the entire book, in my opinion.

Eventually, Jenkins and Maria are on the run – there’s an assassin working to eliminate her and capture him, the mob family, the cop, our old friend Federov who used to be FSB, and a heroin dealer whose nickname is The Fly involved and a nice comeuppance at the end for a particularly slimy party.

Overall: a solid four out of five stars, and a good closing to the series. Maybe. Dugoni puts in the afterward that he’s heading to Egypt, so who knows what the future holds for Jenkins. I sense Jenkins might fit in a little better there, but still, 6’+ and 200+ pounds? I suppose we’ll see.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Left-Handed Twin – Jane Whitefield #9 (Thomas Perry)

I jumped into this series at the ninth book. I have not read any of the previous books in the series, nor have I read anything else the author has written. This could be read as a standalone, but I think it would be better to read the series in order. As a first time reader of this one, I was a bit regretful that I’d not read the previous books to give some kind of context for the way Jane acts the way she does. She’s a guide, helping people disappear (said people are called ‘runners’).

We open with Jane driving to her original family home from the home she shares with her surgeon husband, and it seems every piece of road she travels is explained to us. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ll know that a pet peeve of mine is overly detailed descriptions of where the characters are traveling, what roads they’re taking, if they turn off any side roads, and so forth. There is a TON of this in this book. Once Jane gets what she needs, she heads home.

Jane travels again to what is basically her safe house and finds a young woman there. She’d slept with someone other than her boyfriend Albert. Albert drags her along and shoots the man dead in front of her. Albert is arrested and Sara is advised to testify against him. Inexplicably, Albert beats the charge and starts his pursuit of Sara. When his efforts to find and kill her are fruitless, he turns to a friend of his for some suggestions about how to go about catching her. Said friend introduces him to the Russian mafia – and they want Albert to join them in hunting – not Sara, however. They want Jane. If they happen to find Sara, he can do what he wants with he, but the primary mission is to find and kidnap Jane so she can be sold o the highest bidder.

It’s at this point the story really gets moving: a cat and mouse game between Jane (trying to find a place where Sara (now Anne) can call home) and the Russians (local crews trying to track them down). Eventually, we wind up with Jane on the most dangerous portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Issue: Jane, it is said, has conducted over a hundred escapes. Yet it didn’t occur to her that maybe the bad guys keep catching up because of a GPS tracking device, a lojack tied to the battery, or Onstar? Her plan also has a hole in it that I won’t detail here, and on the Trail, it takes her quite a bit of time to start playing offense versus defense.

Eventually, we wind up back at Jane’s safe house, where we get to see a very inventive solution to an almost impossible problem.

Issue: the writing. Repetitive, often stilted, and a lot of short, declarative sentences: Jane went to Target. Jane bought x, y, and z. Jane spread out he poncho. Jane fell asleep. Jane ate (food). Jane urinated. It really had a “See Spot run” to it.

Issue: we don’t get much about the runner in this one. We do get quite a lot about Albert.All we really know is that she went to a lot of parties the the elite A listers attended. I won’t ding the book for that, as the blurb for it suggests that the focus should all be on Jane.

Overall: three out of five stars.

Thanks to Mysterious Press an NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Dark Horse – Orphan X #7 (Gregg Hurwitz)

The seventh book in the Orphan X series opens in south Texas, at a party for Anjelina Urrea, daughter of “unconventional businessman” Aragon Urrea – in actuality, as much of a cartel as any other south of the border. When he steps away from the party to deal with a young man who has forced himself on a woman, armed, masked gunmen invade the party and take Anjelina away. Indications are that she’s been taken by the Leones – one of the worst of the worst of the Mexican cartels, led by a bonafide psychopath. The opening is quite long- enough for us to know that Urrea is a bad man who also provides good things: the town is healthy, protected, people are taken care of, and he has a bit of a philosophical bent, not unlike Evan.

Evan Smoak, AKA Ophan X AKA The Nowhere Man is rebuilding his penthouse condo after it was destroyed in the previous book. Although I think most of the Orphan X books can be read as standalones, I’d advise reading at least the one before this for context, since the book opens in what could only be termed (for Evan Smoak) complete disarray.

Smoak hires temporary day laborers to help out in the evenings with the more unusual pieces of his rebuild. One evening, one of the (presumably) Mexican laborers asks if he is a bad man, or if he can help a bad man. Evan gives the man the usual number and tells him to pass it on.

And pass it on he does – to Urrea. When Urrea calls, Evan answers, as he always does. He has something telling him to say no on this one, but ultimately, he agrees to help, and the story takes off. Joey and Dog arrive to take over coordination of the legit rebuild of the condo, and also to provide IT services to Evan (Vera III in place!) as he heads to Texas and ultimately across the border to deal with the Leones.

This is by far the most gruesome of the Orphan X books. If you’re really squeamish, you might want to skim over those parts. There’s one really bad one involving a floor buffer – you should definitely skip that one.

One of the more interesting things about Dark Horse are the lengthy talks between Evan and Urrea about the nature of good and bad, and what bad men do for good reasons or for the greater good. They do slow down the action a little, but that turns out to be necessary, as do the moments when Joey and Mia come into the story. If those breaks weren’t there, it would be nonstop infiltration, fighting, killing, and bombs. There is nothing wrong with this, but we could read Mack Bolan or The Punisher for that.

As we rush headlong to the end, sometimes things are not quite what they seem.

While I didn’t like this one as much as the last one, I did enjoy it quite a lot: it’s true to what we know of Evan Smoak and continues his evolution from a disposable killer into a real human being.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press/Minotaur and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Scout and the Scoundrel – Sisters of Sarras #2 (Barbara Ann Wright_

This is the second book in the Sisters of Sarras series, but it is not necessary to have read the previous book to settle comfortably into this one.

We open in prison. Veronique “Roni” Bisset has been caught coming down the outside of a building where she has just had the easiest steal of her life. Pity for her there were two guards patrolling right then. She ran (“Everybody runs.”) and during her run, has hidden the jewels away under a footbridge. Eventually, she is chased down and hauled away to the hoosegow. While there, she figures this stay won’t last long, and starts doing the math to figure out what the jewels are worth, and then how much the cuts are going to cost her – especially the cut to the local crime syndicate, for operating in their territory. As Roni does not belong to any syndicate, the cuts are of course higher.

Zara del Amanecer (Zara of the Dawn) is a scout for the Sarrassian forces, leading scouting missions to the border to ensure no Firellian incursions into the country. It’s fairly clear Zara is on the autism spectrum (most likely: Aspberger’s), but she’s an excellent scout, leads her team well, and has just returned from a mission. She’s also the controller of the Vox Ferama, a sort of metal bird she can use when wearing a particular chain on her wrist and hand, tied in a particular way. While back in the city, she uses the Vox to fly around, and then runs into – and manages to insult – the daughter of a colonel in the army. Zara doesn’t understand why it’s an insult, as she’s only speaking truth, and that’s par for the course with her throughout the book: things are black and white, up or down, part of the mission or not.

Roni gets a shock when it becomes clear she is in fact going to be sent to prison, and she’s a bit worried about this as one would be. While being led out, the leader of the local syndicate, Julia Esposito, tells her that she’s a dead woman. But things change when the army decides on a rehab program for nonviolent offenders: Roni and some others are taken to the army compound and placed under the leadership of Zara.

Zara, for her part, is distressed, as this throws her orderly world into chaos. But she manages to talk herself down into a new order, and the new “soldiers” are started on training. During Roni’s training, the goon Hacha (Axe/Hatchet) from Esposito’s syndicate tells her they have a deal: Ronis will liberate the Vox from Zara and hand it over to Esposito. Roni doesn’t know what that is, but agrees.

Training finished, Zara and her troops head out on their next mission. What they find is almost impossible to believe, but the rumor of a very heavy weapon in the hands of the Firellians turns out to be very true.

Roni reminded me quite a lot of the character Tas from the old (mid-1980s) Dragonlance series. She often says things without thinking, especially when it comes to Zara and her attraction to Zara. This rocks Zara from time to time,trying to process a “soldier” speaking out of turn to a superior officer, but also trying to determine what to do with the flirting. Beyond that, we don’t get much of a rounded character in Roni.

Zara, however, is a fully realized character, and also learns during the last part of the book that at times, you have to give up control of something to save your own life, which in turn will save the live of others.

This is a primarily fantasy novel, with the romance an incredibly slow burn. As is often the case, the dustup between the two is caused by them not talking to one another, even though they had been doing quite well on that front as the book went along at the end.

There’s a consistency issue with the name of the woman in charge of the local crime syndicate -she’s referred to as Julia at the beginning, then Judith around the middle, and then she’s not spoken of again until Hacha comes calling, to force Roni to betray Zara and her fellow troops.

Overall, it’s a fun read. I had hopes, based on the blurb, that we might be seeing fantasy sitting on a Castillian framework, versus the Middle Ages England most authors use, but beyond the names of Zara, Hacha, and a few of the soldiers/officers, there wasn’t enough to say one way or the other.

Four out of five stars.

Review: Damnation Spring (Ash Davidson)

This is not a book most people will find easy to like. It’s slow to start, people seem to be completely oblivious to certain things, and chapters can seem repetitious at best. However, sticking to it should find readers of literary or eco-literary fiction enjoying it.

It’s the late 1970s in the US, and Rich Gundersen, along with his much younger than he wife Colleen and their young son live in a very small town where the economy is almost all logging.

Rich has worked for the Sanderson company forever as a topper (the person who gets to climb to the very tops of trees to cut off branches and/or the actual head of the tree in order to install lines to pull felled trees up the mountain). He has also lasted longer than both his grandfather and father did in this punishing, physical work for the same company. His best friend is Lark, an eccentric old man who worked with Rich’s father – in fact, whose topping of a branch killed Rich’s father when it landed on him fro a couple hundred feet in the air – and who looks out for Rich as he can.

When it’s Rich’s POV, we get a lot of logger jargon, as one would expect from a logger. We also get to know Rich’s dream, which had been his father dream before him: cutting the 24-7, which is not a convenience sore but a redwood that is 24 feet, seven inches in diameter. Without telling Colleen, Rich takes all of their savings, gets a loan, and buys over 700 acres of land that includes the 24-7. It abuts land that Sanderson owns, and Rich thinks that when Sanderson cuts in an access road, Rich will be able to use that as he feels the redwoods on his property, and become wealthy in the process.

Colleen has suffered a miscarriage one of many, the exact number of which she has not told Rich. When it’s her POV, we get a snapshot of her typical day: worrying about Rich. Dealing with her sister Enid and her passel of kids. Colleen’s an amateur midwife, so cannot be blind to the strange things happening in other womens’ pregnancies: stillborns, miscarriages, massive deformities, like half a brain, or no brain, in one case. Many people in the community, including Colleen herself, suffer from random nosebleeds.

Rich and his brother in law shoot a deer who appears to be pregnant, only to find a basketball-sized tumor inside it. Someone loses a calf after it’s born with deformities. Another person’s bees are all killed by the spray.

The company sprays herbicides in the area, to keep pesky weeds at bay where trees are being harvested. It smells slightly of chlorine and when it’s in the water, either directly or via runoff, it’s described as having an oily sheen. (I think this last may refer to including diesel fuel in the mix, to help weight down the spray.)

Issue number one for me: there’s no hint in this small town that anyone picks up on these things being connected. They may not have gone to college, for the most part, but not all of them are idiots.

The book moves back and forth primarily between Rich (now worried about the anti-logging hippies will close down the patch he and his crew are working for Sanderson as well as broaching the quarter million dollar bet he’s made on their future) and Colleen (who seems to be condemned to be condemned to forever driving her sister Enid and her brat pack of kids around and making pancakes or eggs), but we also get chapters from their young son’s POV here and there, making observations the adults never would.

Into this small town, one major industry setting, walks Daniel, Colleen’s high school boyfriend. He now collects water samples from around the area for testing purposes, as not only are the salmon dying, so are other things (like human and bovine babies, born or not, like bees) and it appears that people are also suffering from things (like nosebleeds and respiratory illnesses). other environmental impacts are also present (mudslides from cleared areas, runoff of soil and herbicides into the drinking water).

Once he enters the picture, the book fully transforms into eco-lit. Daniel knows Colleen and her family drinker from the spring that runs near their house, and he wants her to take samples so he can send them off to be tested. She declines, because of course she does: she’s a logger’s wife,and testing the water may reveal things she doesn’t want to see. Eventually, she gives in and starts collecting in secret.

Daniel tells her everything is contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin – AKA dioxin. He’s also been sounding the warning bell around town, and trying to talk to people, only to find doors slammed in his face and his tires slashed, among other things. There’s a scene in the book where the (only) gas station attendant in town refuses to sell him gas.

One couple speaks up about the contaminants in their water and food. They’re quickly ostracized by the rest of the town. Another couple speaks up. They too, get the cold shoulder. There’s even a house belonging to one of the couples that is burned down. Colleen eventually appears at one of the meetings Daniel is hosting. A reporter happens to catch her saying something, and after it’s reported, she and Rich start to get that same cold shoulder. Rich is angry with her; he’d told her to stay out of it. After all, this is their livelihood in danger, and his larger dream as well. Rich gives a passionate speech about how loggers are environmentalists at a town meeting, to which people applaud, but they are still cold toward Rich and Colleen as they leave.

I’ve lived in small towns, and can say the book captures that often claustrophobic feeling of living in the same place, doing the same jobs for generation upon generation. The snubbing and shunning of neighbors is also presented quite well.

We then go speeding toward the end. Rich finds out he didn’t check the fine print on his purchase. But there are a couple of things that bothered me about the end.

One is the deux a machina in relation to one of the larger items in the book. The other is the actual end, which I didn’t like at all. I didn’t think, after 400 pages of Rich shown to be a careful, conscientious man, that he would do what he did.

The book could have used a bit of tightening, especially with the repetitive nature of Colleen having to chauffeur Enid and her kids around.

Overall, I found the book to be exceptionally written from a narrative standpoint. We expect to see Rich do all the logging things, and he does. We expect Colleen to be the stay at home mom and look after her child and sister, and she does. There are a number of passages that are a joy to read. The book does give us a good look at an entire town living around and in an environmental nightmare.

4.5 stars out of 5, rounded down to 4 for the issues noted.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Constance – Constance #1 (Matthew FitzSimmons)

Constance (Con) D’Arcy is one of two people in her family who have escaped a dismal existence in Texas. The other is her aunt Abigail Stickling, a brilliant scientist who founded PalinGenesis in order to clone humans.

There is a lot of discussion both here and later about the treatment of clones and ethics. Should clones be treated the same as their originals? Do they have the same rights? Should they have access to the entire life of their original? There are, of course, the usual people who want to hunt down and kill clones, presumably before any signal makes it back to PalinGenesis to pull out another and stuff that person’s memory in place.

Abigail commits suicide by flinging herself off the building. As she suffered from a genetic health issue that prevented the cloning process from working, we’re told she has no clone on standby.

For Con’s part, she wound up in a band, led by her boyfriend. One night, tired from the rigors of the touring road, Con’s boyfriend crashes their van. Two of the five members die, her boyfriend is left in a permanent vegetative state, Con suffers a knee injury, and the last member (also a woman) survives without major injury.

Con’s aunt has built PalinGenesis into a cloning shop, catering to the uber wealthy – who can afford to have their minds downloaded every 30-ish days at the company’s HQ and have a clone soaking in case of sudden death – and also to Con, beneficiary of her aunt’s offer of a clone for each family member. Con is the only one who accepted, and goes to PalinGenesis dutifully about every month to download her head.

Something goes terribly wrong, however, and Con wakes up 18 months later, an entire year and a half missing. What this means first, of course, is that her original has died. And her original died without doing regular downloads. We know Con is a clone as she has no indicators of a lived life: no tattoos, no scarring on her knee.

We also know that Dr Brooke Fenton is breaking a ton of protocols to wake up Con and get her out of the building. But she does, and send Con out into the NYC night with just the clothes on her back an the things she came into the facility with. This is where the book veers heavily into mystery territory.

Con starts investigating her own death and discovers some interesting things along the way, including paid bad actors and an amazing admission from the leader of the protest group, a billionaire whose kids want to declare him dead (since he died and was cloned) so they can inherit, a fiance who is heartbroken, an old friend with a new life, differing stories as to Abigail’s genius or sociopathy, and she comes face to face with a certain someone not once, but twice, and with another person who has risen from the ranks of the dead.

The ending felt a bit rushed, and we had a villain explaining things, but it’s an enjoyable read. If you like purity in your genre, this ain’t it. But if you’re okay with your science fiction and your mystery mixing things up, this might be right up your alley/space lane.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Silent Witness – Amanda Steele #3 (Carolyn Arnold)

The third in the Amanda Steele series opens with a bang, so to speak. In the wee hours of the morning, Angela Parker nudges her husband Brett and tells him there’s someone in the house. While he investigates, she gets their very young daughter Zoe, then hides in the closet. She hears Brett being shot, and then with dread, waits her turn as the intruder discovers her.

Steele is called to the scene, and she and her team (plus everyone else who shows up at a murder) move around the interior of the house, looking for anything to give a clue as to who these people are, what they did for a living, and if they recently mad someone incredibly mad. They quickly realize that Zoe is not there – not in the closet, not behind mom in the closet – and think perhaps the intruders have taken her. The child is about the same age as Steele’s daughter was when she died, and eventually Steele finds the girl in a wicker basket at the foot of the bed.

Zoe, for her part, traumatized by what she’s seen and heard, does not speak – thus, the silent witness. Much of the first third of the book revolves around Steele gaining Zoe’s trust and getting her to talk and Steele’s own, constant, inner thinking about how she misses her daughter and doesn’t want to get close to Zoe. Despite this, she does wind up taking Zoe in, since the girl is likely in danger.

The team pulls the strings of the investigation, eventually pulling in a connection to another case involving a sitting rep in the city, a hotel seemingly in the middle of nowhere, another unsolved murder, and corruption under their noses.

The pacing is fairly taut, and the writing is fine – no major bumps except the drumbeat of Steele insisting to herself that the kid will be put into the system, that she can’t handle it, and so on. That did get a little old by about the 60% mark, but it eases up toward the end.

The end…I’m not a big fan of bad guy infodumps at the end. But we get one, and not a bad shootout to go with it, which kind of made up for that.

Solid three out of five stars.

Thanks to Bookouture and Netgalley for the reading copy.

Review: A Change of Circumstance – Simon Serrailler #11 (Susan Hill)

A Change of Circumstance reminds me of the repositioning sails cruise ships do, to move, free of passengers, to another location to begin ferrying people in a different area.

This is listed as a mystery, but it’s more of a domestic slice of life book about Simon and his family, and Brookie and his family, and Cat and all the DCs, and poor Mr Lionel, and the Chinese herbalist, and the junkie found dead of an OD/contaminated batch of heroin and a couple of animals and Olivia and whether Simon is going to get with Rachel and ugh.

The crime is laid out, so there’s no spoilers in place by saying if you’ve read Oliver Twist, you’ve read this story before, only better in that book, because this crime is an homage to that. There’s even an Olivia to help get any non-literary heathens up to speed on where they could track down the OG version.

Seriously, though, I really didn’t care about Simon at all. This is the first book in the series I’ve read,but if the writing is like this in all of them – sometimes ending a chapter very abruptly, almost as if there’s something that’s been left out, or hopping between two or three heads without any break to help us figure out whose head we’re in now – I won’t be going back to book one, as I do with many other series, and I definitely won’t be picking up/requesting the next one. The latter I really, really do not like: head-hopping only works if it’s done well. This was not. The story was fractured and quite unenjoyable for that reason alone. Put all the rest in between all the domestic stuff, and it’s a sandwich not worth eating.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to Abrams/Overlook Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Joan is Okay (Weike Wang)

Workaholic doctor Joan, the titular character, takes us to China to begin things in Joan is Okay. Her father has died, and she muses as she meets relatives she has not seen for over a decade, that here, in China, she is seen as an American. Not much for her to do in a strange place full of strangers to her, so she flies back to the US, where her Chinese-American heritage marks her as Chinese.

Joan resumes her duties as attending physician in the ICU. We see her interaction with workmates Madeline and Reece, and her inner self tells us she prefers the world of the medical ICU, with its machines and beeps and codes, to the other ICUs (surgical, for instance, where the doctors’ handwriting is worse than any other, according to Joan).

There came a point where I wondered if Joan’s reticence and focus was a byproduct of Asperger’s syndrome, or if it was simply a byproduct of a solitary, introverted child who became a solitary, introverted adult. I don’t think it matters all that much: Joan is intelligent, sometimes witty, and often wryly observant, and that makes the book a good read.

The doorman of her apartment building takes a shine to her, asking about her health, her love life; later, when a resident moves in across the hall, he asks if she has fallen in love with Mark the neighbor yet. I found this rather creepy, to be honest.

Mark, for his part, increasingly invades her life, and sad to say, she lets him do it: as he acquires new stuff, he gives her his old stuff. Books he’s read, a tv, furniture. This culminates into a party in her apartment at New Year’s, Mark having set the entire thing up using the spare key she’d given to him. I found this also to be rather creepy as well as annoying, and in the end, so does Joan. Her passivity finally gives way, and after fleeing the party to her brother’s place in CT (where her mother is also staying for an extended visit), she returns and installs a deadbolt on her door. Good call, Joan!

There are brief breaks in the narrative where Joan explains written Chinese and what symbols are combined to mean what words. At the first one, I was a bit confused, but as they popped up here and there, I realized that Joan is explaining to us some of the things she might be feeling if she were NotJoan (who might not be quite as reserved as Joan is), and they also serve as respites from some of the heavier moments in the story.

I expect anything published from the end of this year moving forward to have something in it about COVID, and this is no different, especially since Joan is a doctor: the beginnings of rumbles come at the end of the book, eventually turning into the flood of patients we’ve all seen and read about. Joan herself, and her two workmates, come down with it. She survives, returns to work, and deals with the brutal reality of having to help patients talk to their loved ones via tablet. There’s a memorable scene with Earl, one of her patients, and it’s both heartening – he is giving his wife the things she will need if he dies – and dreadful, because we know in those early days, the odds were not good, just as they are not now in certain circumstances.

Joan, however, knows herself and her place. And Joan is okay.

4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up. Recommended. I read it in one sitting, today.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Reflections on gardening, cooking, and life