Debut novel The Leavers by Lisa Ko tackles the Chinese immigrant experience in America from the perspectives of Deming Guo and his undocumented mother Peilan/Polly.
When Polly disappears one day, leaving eleven-year-old Deming in New York without explanation, money, or hope, her friends are forced to put him up for adoption. He is adopted by two white academics and renamed Daniel. Deming/Daniel’s adopted parents are well-meaning but emotionally clueless and culturally ignorant, unwilling or unable to recognize Deming’s old life, his fragile emotional state, and the unresolved loss of his birth mother.
Most of the relationships in this book are borderline uncomfortable and fraught, the characters hold each other at arm’s length and are divided by miscommunications and unspoken assumptions; they are unable to truly connect. While I understand the way this emotional divide gives voice to the immigrant experience, shows a cultural identity and character arc in flux, and explores a “them” and “us” dynamic, I ultimately felt sadly indifferent about the characters, couldn’t fully comprehend their decisions, and was left feeling lackluster about the story by the end of the book.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman is a master storyteller. His novels, full of idiosyncratic characters and expertly-crafted dialogue, are heartwarming and entertaining, hypnotizing and transporting.
Where A Man Called Ove, which I read and loved back in January, centers on old cantankerous Ove and his fraught relationship with the world, the main character in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is Elsa, age 7. Her best and only friend is her quirky grandmother who weaves a world of fairy tales for Elsa, regularly stirs up trouble, and who dies suddenly leaving Elsa a task: to deliver apology letters to the folks she’s wronged and left behind. Backman’s characters leap off the page, they come to life fully flawed and perfectly odd, in a wonderful story that is funny and poignant, and rich with imagination. Another great read.
The dystopian world in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes is set to music. In this indeterminate future London, where the written word is a lost code and metal is a precious commodity, Smaill’s characters walk lento and run presto, they sing directions, recognize strangers by their song, and they attune their ears daily to the Chimes, the beautiful music played across London that erases memories and keeps the inhabitants in line.
The novel follows young Simon, recently arrived in London after the death of his parents, with a bag of objectmemories and a message in the form of a song from his mother to a woman named Netty. As the days pass and the Chimes create gaps in his perception and fog his past, he must find a way to remember his purpose, deliver his message, and retain his memories if he is to survive the stifling by those in charge, a set of Oxford elites known as The Order.
After reading and loving V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series over the last few months, I’ve been on the hunt for entertaining, well-written fantasy, which is why I picked up The Chimes. While I liked the novel, I wished for less musical prose and more world-building; there were sections where I couldn’t envision the scene fully because the musicality of the writing muddled the plot and overshadowed the visual elements of the setting.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.
As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.
On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.
Poignant and gut-wrenching, Han Kang’s Human Acts excavates the moments leading up to and during, and the devastating aftermath of, the 1980 Gwangju (where Kang grew up) Uprising of students in South Korea from various narrative perspectives.
Human Acts opens with “The Boy, 1980,” told from the vantage of Dong-ho, a young boy looking for the body of his best friend whom he saw get shot in the street. “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” (my favorite perspective in the book) voices the experience of that friend, now dead, one soul among a jumbled heap of bodies left to rot for days in the forest. As in The Vegetarian, Kang doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the body, she pushes characters to the physical limits of life and beyond; in Human Acts, bodies endure torture, carry the scars of mutilation, are mercilessly shot and killed, bodies bloat and blacken with decomposition. In “The Boy’s Mother, 2010” Dong-ho’s mother speaks tenderly to her dead son, addressing “you” as she wonders if her inaction played a role in his death. Dong-ho, both alive and dead, makes appearances in all of the narratives, which, as a whole, create a breathtaking and acutely brutal portrait of human cruelty, frailty, and endurance.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is the newest book from Chris Cleave, author of the highly acclaimed Little Bee (which I liked but didn’t love).
Set in London during World War II, the story centers on Mary North, a beautiful young socialite turned ad hoc teacher who falls in love (with the best friend of the man she’s dating) amidst the upheaval of war.
The premise sounded promising: young love, heartbreak, conflict, war, a distant era… But the book didn’t wow me. With a constant stream of snappy chatter and chummy condescension, the book reads like a movie from the 30’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, only less charming. While the narrative was peppered with some really elegant bits of writing, and the war scenes were harrowing and evocative, the romantic plot just wasn’t convincing and the emotional exchanges left a saccharine aftertaste.
The blurb from author Kevin Hearne on the back cover of Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures reads: “I don’t care what else you’ve seen in the bookstore today. Buy this book.”
Wake of Vultures is a thoroughly kick-ass, relentlessly awesome book. It’s the first in the Shadow series featuring one of the most original characters I’ve read, the half black/half “Injun” boyish young girl Nettie Lonesome. Nettie is tough as nails; she swaggers, tames wild ponies, slays vampires and other beasties, and braves the dangers of the old west where nothing is quite what it seems and everything seems like it’s out to get her.
Bowen writes with verve, creating a gritty, fantastical world that is as fierce as it is fun. I cannot wait to get my hands on the next book in the series: Conspiracy of Ravens.
Han Kang’s Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, is a dark, illuminating, and at times grotesque book about objectification and the body.
Broken up into three sections, each with a different narrative perspective, the story tracks the repercussions of one woman’s choice to become a vegetarian.
It’s a quick read; I read it in one sitting on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii last week. Did I love it? No. There were times I had to skip over sentences because the descriptions made me slightly nauseous.
However, I appreciated Kang’s seamless writing, the 3-section structure with disparate voices, and what the book reveals about how we/society view women’s bodies and food. Kang’s vegetarian is positioned as an object, and because we are seeing her through the eyes of her husband/her brother-in-law/her sister she is an object to the reader as well, of disgust, of desire and lust, of creation, of fear and perversion, she is an object to control, to feed, to persuade, to manipulate. And we are complicit.
A powerful read overall.
The Bear and the Nightingale, the debut novel from Katherine Arden, grabbed me from page one.
It reads like a fairy tale, complete with a strong-willed girl, a horrid stepmother, a fear-mongering priest, pagan magic, forest demons and water sprites. This book isn’t for everyone.
But if you read that description and are thinking “sounds freaking awesome,” you will be enchanted. Beautifully written and well-paced, it’s a darkly captivating story set in medieval Russia about a young girl, Vasya, born with the sight. She sees spirits in her house and stables and creepy demons in the snowy woods that surround her village.
When a new priest arrives in the village and turns the community against the old ways, against making offerings to the spirits, the spirits get angry. Crops fail, hunger spreads, and winter lasts longer and longer. Young Vasya is called upon by the spirits and demons to right these wrongs, to do so sacrifices must be made.
This is the first book in what is bound to be a great trilogy; the next will be The Girl in the Tower. Also, a book cover and package can really sell a book or do it harm. I almost didn’t buy this book because of the cover, it reads too dark and too juvenile. I prefer the bright and tapestry-like UK cover (left/top) to the American version (right/bottom). Thoughts?