“Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” by Roselle Lim

Natalie Tan's Book of Love and FortuneIn the world of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, a flock of ceramic bird figurines bursts into song; harsh words draw real blood; and tears crystallize, forming glittering piles, proving that “there was beauty to be found everywhere—even in sadness.” There’s more than a little magic in the San Francisco Chinatown setting of Roselle Lim’s novel. (As someone who lives in the area, perhaps the only thing that I totally couldn’t buy was the delicious smell of dumplings carrying all the way from Chinatown to the Mission; I only wish SOMA and the Tenderloin smelled that good.)

Natalie has been estranged from her agoraphobic mother for seven years, traveling the world and trying to pursue her dream of becoming a chef. Her mother had refused to support that dream, leading to their split. Natalie returns to Chinatown after her mother’s death—oddly, she died right after stepping outside for the first time in ages, and none of her friends and neighbors know why she finally chose to leave her apartment.

One of the things Natalie inherits is her laolao’s (grandmother) book of recipes, which seem to have mystical properties. Natalie wonders if she can bring the fractured, decaying neighborhood together again with her food, perhaps even opening the long-abandoned, decrepit restaurant where her laolao once cooked.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune has a wonderfully vivid Chinatown setting and lots of descriptions of food that will surely make your mouth water. I did find some of the plot twists a little too convenient (for instance, the discovery of her mother’s journals which pretty much answer every question Natalie had ever had), but overall, this is a fresh and fanciful novel, as long as you have an appetite for a few spoonfuls of magical realism.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune will be published on June 11, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Good Riddance” by Elinor Lipman

Good RiddanceMarie Kondo’s blockbuster The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has inspired millions of people to declutter their homes. And now Kondo has also inspired a novel: Good Riddance, which kicks into gear when Daphne Maritch decides that an old yearbook she inherited from her mother doesn’t “spark joy,” so she discards it in her apartment building’s recycling bin.

Who could possibly want a copy of 1968’s The Monadnockian, documenting the high school lives of a bunch of small-town New Hampshire students now approaching their 70s? Not Daphne, who has just moved into a tiny Manhattan apartment following her divorce. Her neighbor Geneva, however, discovers the book, as well as the copious and often snarky notes Daphne’s mom made over the decades about the students she taught (she faithfully attended each of the reunions held by the class of 1968): “Who’s fifty pounds heavier, who’s a failure, who’s wearing the same dress she wore at the last reunion?”

Geneva decides that the yearbook would be great fodder for a documentary film, and heads to New Hampshire to attend the class’s 50-year reunion, with a reluctant Daphne in tow. Geneva’s only previous credit is a doc about the last matzo factory in Brooklyn, so Daphne figures the odds of her actually financing and completing the film are slim. However, the contents of the yearbook cause long-buried secrets to come to light, wreaking havoc in Daphne’s already-precarious life.

Like much of Lipman’s oeuvre, Good Riddance is a light, fluffy, modern comedy of manners. (The fact that Geneva, unable to get her documentary off the ground, decides to turn her project into a podcast instead is a delightful touch.) However, Daphne often seemed a tad immature for a woman in her early 30s, and her romance with another neighbor, an actor named Jeremy who is several years her junior, kept annoying me for a rather petty reason: he is supposedly an actor on the hit TV show “Riverdale.” Now, I’ve never watched a single episode of “Riverdale,” but I have read enough about it to know that it films in Vancouver, B.C., and not New York. Why was Jeremy always at home and never jetting off to Western Canada?

In an afterword, Lipman acknowledges, “I do know that the TV series ‘Riverdale’ is not filmed in New York. I took liberties with the cast, plot, and location for narrative convenience.” By that point, the book’s general amiability had had its effect on me; you can’t stay mad at a book that tries this hard to please.

“Daisy Jones & The Six” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones & The SixI was having a very bad week, so the publication date of Daisy Jones & The Six came along at precisely the right time. I needed an escape, and this book delivered. My only wish is that it could have gone on for another 50 or 100 pages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, one of my favorite books of 2017. In that novel, Reid constructed an alternate history of the movie business around her fictional characters; here, she does the same for the music industry of the 1970s. Daisy Jones is a charismatic Hollywood wild child who joins forces with a Pittsburgh rock band called The Six, not entirely dissimilar to the way Stevie Nicks became a member of Fleetwood Mac after they’d already released a few LPs. The powerhouse duo of Jones and The Six frontman Billy Dunne takes the band to new levels of superstardom; then, in 1979, they abruptly called it quits. This book—which takes the form of an oral history—tells the story of their rise to fame and why they broke up at the height of their success.

The oral history format is interesting and unusual (I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that exclusively uses this type of conversational style), allowing us to get sometimes-differing perspectives of the same events. Sex, drugs, rock and roll—it’s all here, and depicted so convincingly that I had to remind myself that I couldn’t actually log into a music app and listen to Daisy & The Six’s hit album Aurora.

The only thing I didn’t entirely buy is that in the final pages, where we find out what everyone’s been up to since 1979, there’s no mention of any manager or promoter trying to reunite The Six. They were huge—surely somebody would have backed up a truck full of money to try to get the band back together one more time? A group that leaves the scene at the peak moment of fame and never tries to cash in on their glory days in the decades to come… well, I guess there’s a reason this book is a work of fiction.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingI try to keep tabs on the latest hot crime fiction, but I’ll admit that Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing wasn’t on my radar at all until I noticed it had started climbing the New York Times bestseller list. Credit Reese Witherspoon’s book club for making it a hit. I do think Reese has good taste, and it’s wonderful that she’s using her celebrity to spotlight new fiction by a diverse range of mostly-female authors. I’ve reviewed several of her selections, including recent picks The Proposal and One Day in December.

Where the Crawdads Sing has likely continued to sell well because it has all the ingredients of a word-of-mouth hit. It’s a coming-of-age story, always a popular genre; it tells the tale of a poor, neglected young girl conquering difficult circumstances; and there’s a murder mystery, to boot.

I found the book extremely compelling, and whenever I had to put it down to go do something else, I felt its pull—returning to Owens’ lovingly-described North Carolina marshland felt like a reprieve from the hectic modern world. “The wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky,” goes one lyrical passage. “Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.”

Owens, who spent decades living in isolation as a wildlife scientist in Africa, writes with authority about Kya, a young girl whose entire family abandons her, one by one, until she is left alone. Managing to avoid school except for one traumatic day when the kids in town made fun of her for being “marsh trash,” Kya eventually learns to read from a sympathetic young man who begins to pay visits to her remote cabin and slowly gains her trust. Chapters depicting Kya’s childhood and teen years alternate with ones taking place several years later, in the immediate aftermath of the suspicious death of the privileged Chase Andrews, who is everything that Kya is not: popular, well-off, with loving parents. Eventually, the two timelines intersect.

This is definitely not a conventional mystery novel, but it’s a lovely, sometimes heartbreaking work. And I hope the fans who have made this book a bestseller will go on to discover Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which also features a young woman growing up in a wild, beautiful and lonely place.

“One Day in December” by Josie Silver

One Day in DecemberBefore I started reading One Day in December, I scanned the blurbs on the back cover, including this one by author Hannah Orenstein: “I devoured this delicious novel in one sitting.” Noting that One Day in December is 400 pages long, I scoffed at the idea of reading it in one go, assuming I would finish it in 3-4 days.

Instead, I found myself turning the final page at about 1:45 AM, long past my usual bedtime, grateful that I’d at least started it on a weekend night.

The novel covers 10 years in the life of a Londoner named Laurie, beginning on a fateful December day in 2008. Laurie is riding the bus and looking out the window when she spots the man of her dreams waiting at a stop. Their eyes meet, “as if an invisible fork of lightning has inexplicably joined us together.” But he’s waiting for a different bus, and Laurie is hemmed in by a crowd of passengers, so she can only sit there helplessly as the bus pulls away.

At this point, I wondered if they have “Missed Connections” ads in London, but I guess not, since Laurie spends months searching for “Bus Boy,” to no avail. Helping her out is her best friend and roomie Sarah, a gorgeous aspiring TV presenter. Sadly, a year passes, and Laurie never manages to find her mystery man. Then Sarah introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie and… you definitely see where this is going, right?

The premise is pure rom-com, but Silver kept me turning the pages because the characters were so appealing: you get to see them grow from kids fresh out of university into adulthood, making mistakes and figuring things out along the way. When Laurie realizes that her pal’s new love, Jack, is Bus Boy, she immediately decides not to tell Sarah that he is the guy she’s been mooning over all year long. Jack doesn’t say anything, either (Laurie can’t be sure that he even recognizes her).

The main reason Laurie doesn’t want to spill the beans to Sarah is because she doesn’t want to risk jeopardizing her friend’s happiness. The relationship between the two women is, refreshingly, depicted as just as important, if not more important, than any of the romantic entanglements in the book. Laurie’s family is also a crucial part of her world. By the end, Laurie, Jack and Sarah all felt like old friends.

“Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One” by Raphaëlle Giordano

Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have OneIt’s the beginning of a new year, which means many people will be picking up self-help books. I was curious about Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One because it is, as far as I know, the only book of its kind: self-help fiction. YSLB tells the story of a Parisian woman named Camille who changes her life with the help of Claude, a “routinologist.”

After they meet by chance, Claude describes the nature of his work to the harried, stressed-out Camille. “You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis,” he tells her. “The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your bearings and everything meaningful in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness… Unfortunately, developing our capacity for being happy isn’t something we’re taught at school. Yet there are techniques you can learn.”

After mulling it over for a few days, Camille decides to call Claude and schedule an appointment, hoping to learn how to escape the rut of her long marriage and sometimes-fraught relationship with her 9-year-old son, and her exhausting job. The “routinologist” begins presenting her with tasks, from the straightforward (“throw away at least ten useless objects and… tidy up, sort out and refresh your surroundings”) to the fanciful (taking her on a long car ride to meet a great teacher who turns out to be… a cat: “There’s no one like him for being peaceful and calm, completely anchored in the here and now”). Over time, her life begins to change for the better in practically every way, including her love life with her husband Sebastien (“A warm wind blew on our love, reviving embers that seemed only too willing to burst into flame”).

My biggest beef with YSLB is that it’s just not very good as a novel. It’s full of anodyne aphorisms (“Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present” and “Come down from your cross, we need the wood”), and a lot of Claude’s advice seems torn from the pages of other self-help books, like suggesting she implement SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. This made me curious to learn what SMART goals were called in the original French version. It turns out they’re… called SMART goals (Spécifique, Mesurable, Atteignable, Réaliste, Temps), which seems like a lucky break for the translator.

As someone who has often struggled with routinitis, I think the real benefit that Claude is selling is accountability. It’s easy to say you’re going to start doing things to break out of your rut, but wouldn’t you rather have a charming older Frenchman at your side to encourage you and take you on adventures? (The cat thing might have been a bit of an anticlimax, but he also arranges for Camille to go up in a hot-air balloon so she can toss overboard paper airplanes with negative thoughts written on them.)

YSLB has been a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of copies sold, so obviously a lot of people have found it inspirational. Personally, it made me think that a really great way to break out of my own routine would be to go to Paris and sit at a sidewalk café sipping an espresso while reading a more enjoyable novel than this one.

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect StrangersOne of the “nine perfect strangers” in Liane Moriarty’s new book happens to be a once-bestselling author whose career has fallen on hard times. Frances Welty’s latest book was rejected by her publisher, and perhaps even worse than that, a critic wrote a much-read opinion piece calling her novels “formulaic” and “trite.” Frances finds herself obsessing over it, which made me wonder if Moriarty was working out some of her own issues with negative reviews.

In any case, I found Nine Perfect Strangers to be anything but formulaic and trite, and it kept me awake an hour past my bedtime because I simply had to finish reading it. This is a very entertaining novel, although it’s one that goes off in some rather unexpected directions, so I’ll try to avoid spoiling too much of the plot.

Frances, along with eight other people—a newly-rich couple, an ex-athlete, a couple and their 20-year-old daughter, a woman whose husband has just left her, and a handsome lawyer—have all checked in to Tranquillum House for 10 days of wellness. The resort, in an isolated locale six hours northwest of Sydney, promises to transform its guests through “fasting, meditation, yoga, creative ’emotional-release exercises.”

“Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time,” muses Frances. What awaits her at Tranquillum House is a transformative experience, all right—but one that neither she nor any of her eight compatriots could ever have anticipated when they first drove through the gates. Rest and relaxation are definitely not on the menu.

The book has a lot of fun sending up the obsession with self-improvement, but it also tackles some very serious themes, and does so sensitively (as was also the case with Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which dealt with domestic violence). Nine Perfect Strangers goes down as easily as a mango smoothie.