Sunday, September 22, 2019

My take on: Butterfly Yellow


I always find books about families so easy to get into – more so than any other type of book. Perhaps because there’s always something I can identify with. Love. Loss. Laughter. Sadness. Happiness. Up and downs. And everything else in between. Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lai is one of those stories.

The Vietnam War is over and it’s been six years since 18-year-old Hng has seen her brother Linh. In the latter days of the war, Hng brought Linh to the airport, in an attempt to get to safety in America. But Linh’s brother is taken from her, leaving Hng and her family to pick up the pieces. In years past, Hng has lost everything that was important to her. Her parents and grandmother are dead. The joy of one day being reunited with Linh is all that Hng has left to cling to. She makes the dangerous journey from war-torn Vietnam to Texas, armed with an address that will lead straight to her brother.

In Texas, relatives beg Hng to have some patience. She knows nothing about American culture. How will she pay for things? What about school? She barely knows English, and what she does know all comes from watching movies. She really is a fish out of water. But that doesn’t matter to Hng. She’s determined to reunite with Linh. She’s determined to tell him how much she missed him. How much she loves him. How much he was loved by their parents. Remind him of everything he loved about their homeland, the culture, the food – just everything. Everything will be all right if Hng can just see Linh. Everything will be all right. Practicing patience just isn’t going to work. Against her family’s wishes, Hng sets out to find Linh on her own.

Wannabe-cowboy LeeRoy wants no part of the conventional life his parents want for him, instead he wants to pursue his dreams of being a star on the rodeo circuit. Dreams that get derailed by Hng. He gets shamed into helping Hng find her brother. He tries to be friendly to Hng but is initially rebuffed. Hng is reluctant to accept any act of kindness, after the horrors she saw escaping Vietnam everyone who isn’t family is the enemy.

Finding Linh proves to be difficult as the address Hng has leads to a crumbling, abandoned building. But the kindness of another stranger leads Hng to her brother’s front door. But Hng is promptly rejected by Linh, as he literally closes the door in her face. He is no longer Linh. He is now David, an American boy who loves his home, his American adoptive mother, sports, and horses. A sister, whom he has no memory of, is not on that list. But Hng is determined to breakthrough David’s hard shell. LeeRoy reluctantly helps her. Both work on a neighboring ranch where Linh rides his horse every day. If Hng can’t fully be in his life, at least she can see her brother every day. But is that enough? How do you get someone to truly see and love who you are if they won’t even acknowledge your presence?

To me, the unconventional friendship between Hng and LeeRoy is what carries the book. These two don’t have much in common and sometimes it’s hard for both to understand each other. Language is a barrier to start, but it ends up not being a big problem. The real problem – both fail to see the other’s humanity. In the beginning, does LeeRoy really care what happened in Hng’s past? No he doesn’t. But as he starts to care for her, LeeRoy sees the pain and desperation in Hng. On the flip side, Hng sees LeeRoy as more than just an annoying American. She sees he has more hopes and dreams than his parents give him credit for. Together they chip away at David’s frosty demeanor. As friends and maybe more, the future isn’t so uncertain.

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

My take on: The Astonishing Color of After


Love, grief, regret, and suicide are heavy topics on their own. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan tackles them all, but with a magical twist.

One of the greatest moments in life is experiencing love for the first time. Leigh Chen Sanders is in love with her best friend, Axel, but doesn’t know how to tell him. Then, one day the longtime friends share a kiss. A kiss that could have marked a new beginning in their relationship, but life has a way of intervening. While Leigh and Axel were getting closer, Leigh’s mother committed suicide. After years of crippling depression, Leigh’s mother, Dory, could no longer handle the pain. The family is now left to cope on their own. Leigh feels guilty for being with Axel; in her mind if she had been home maybe her mother would still be alive. It’s not Leigh’s fault, but coming to that realization will take time.

Before she can fully understand her grief, Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has turned into a bird. Her spirit has left her physical body and is now free inside of a bird. Her father doesn’t believe Leigh, thinking it’s a figment of her imagination. But Leigh is determined to find the bird. Determined to find her mother, but doing so means digging into her mother’s past. She decides meeting her Taiwanese grandparents for the first time, people who had been estranged from Dory for decades, is the best course of action. Instead of marrying someone of Taiwanese or Chinese descent, Dory fell in love with and married an American man. A choice that ran afoul of her parents’ lofty expectations. Despite language and cultural barriers, Leigh wants to meet her grandparents. Traveling to Taiwan and connecting with family could be the key to finding her mother the bird.

Meeting her grandparents is both good and bad. Good that Leigh gets to know the kind of person her mother was before she came to America. Leigh gets to see all of her mom’s favorite sights, eat her favorite foods, and learn about her overall life in Taiwan. On the flip side, Leigh starts to unearth painful memories. Memories that both Leigh and her grandparents are afraid to confront. Maybe it’s time for Leigh to let go. To let her mother go. To know that no matter what she did, where she was, or who she was with, it’s not Leigh’s fault that her mother ended her life.

I’m in the middle when it comes to this book. On one hand, I thought this was pretty good. On the other, I’m like what does this all mean? Am I missing the metaphor? Am I missing the symbolism? Or (the likely root cause) I just struggle when a book isn’t fully set in reality. I realize most books without any magic, sci-fi, or fantasy elements are much easier for me to wrap my brain around. But let’s focus on the good, I thought this book beautifully portrayed the ups and downs of grief, the roller coaster that is depression, and the whirlwind of first love.

Rating: Give it a try

Monday, August 19, 2019

My take on: The Perfect Son

The Perfect Son by Lauren North explores the complexities and darkness of grief. When the book opens, Tess is in the hospital recovering from a stab wound. She doesn't know how she ended up in the hospital. Or who stabbed her? The only thing Tess knows for sure is that her eight-year-old son, Jamie, is missing. It's just another heartache for the recently-widowed mother.

Just a few months have passed since her husband, Mark, died in a plane crash. Tess can't lose Jamie, too. Her son is the only person that makes life worth living.

Before she was lying in a hospital bed, Tess was looking forward to a happy occasion -- Jamie's birthday party. And now he's gone. What's going on? What's happened in the months since Mark's death and Jamie's disappearance?

Everyday since Mark's death has been tough for Tess. She barely has the strength to get out of bed or take care of Jamie. Each day is struggle to get out the door and get Jamie to school on time. Jamie hasn't been the same, either. The sweet, happy boy Tess remembers has become quiet and moody. Something has to change before Tess and Jamie drown in their grief. Enter grief counselor Shelley. At first, Shelley is a welcome addition to the household; doing the ordinary, mundane tasks that are too much for Tess -- sorting mail, cooking, and cleaning. Shelley understands Tess's pain; she wants to help her new friend see there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It's hard for Tess to think about the future when the present is so hard. Her brother-in-law, Ian, is pressuring Tess to settle Mark's estate. Ian needs money and fast. He alleges Mark owed him money, but Tess is skeptical. To make matters worse, Tess is starting to have suspicions about Shelley. Why has this woman taken such an interest in Tess? Why does she cling so much to Tess? Doesn't Shelley have a life of her own to lead? And...what are Shelley's motives toward Jamie? Is Shelley the key to Jamie's disappearance?

I can't give anything away, but I will say that, for me, this book ended in an unexpected way. The clues are there, but if you get engrossed in the story, like I did, the clues can easily be overlooked. Each chapter has a cliffhanger-like quality to it, so I kept reading. I wanted to know what happened to Jamie? With each chapter, my theories were constantly changing? Did Tess harm Jamie? Did Ian harm Jamie? Did Shelley kidnap Jamie? Or is Jamie perfectly fine and Tess is just overreacting? There are many plausible theories and where this ends up was a bit shocking. The depiction of grief and loss was well done; Tess's highs and lows are vivid. One day Tess is looking forward to the simple things, like shopping or going to the beach. But the next day a photograph or memory of Mark can bringing her crashing back down. Overall, this suspenseful and engaging read.

Rating: Give it a try

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (Berkley) in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Delayed reaction: Muse of Nightmares

Why delayed reaction? I finished Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor while I was on vacation.

What did I think of book 2 in this series? I don't want to be mean . . . but I think this book was worse than Strange the Dreamer. Muse of Nightmares picks up where book 1 left off but it was no less confusing.

I don't have much to say but I'll try my best to articulate my frustration with this book.

****SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT****

In order for me to talk about book 2, I have to spoil book 1.

Still here? Ok!

Sarai dies at the end of book 1, but is resurrected as a ghost under Minya's control. Having Sarai at the mercy of her enemy could have been a cool storyline for Muse of Nightmares, but the way it was presented got to be repetitive. Sarai and Lazlo's love story was also repetitive. Every time they're interacting, we're reminded how much they want and lust after each other. UGH...boring. Then there is a completely secondary storyline, between two sisters Kora and Nova, which was incredibly hard to follow. The connection between Sarai/Lazlo/Weep and Kora and Nova occurs very late in the book. At page 327, the author is still explaining how this society works, which was frustrating and hard to understand.

This is supposed to be a two-book series, but even if it isn't I don't see myself wanting to revisit this world again. I'm done.

Rating: Meh!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Rapid Reaction: Small Great Things

I have read several books by Jodi Picoult, including Mercy, Plain Truth, Salem Falls, My Sister's Keeper (my favorite book by her), The Tenth Circle, and Nineteen Minutes. I also have several of her books on my TBR: House Rules, Sing You Home, Leaving Time, Between the Lines, and The Storyteller. Her books take up almost an entire shelf on my bookcase. She's an automatic buy author for me. I might not buy or read the book when it comes out, but eventually I will get there. This long preamble is all to say that I'm a fan of Jodi Picoult's books, but I finally got around to reading Small Great Things.

This book has been out for three years, and I knew going in that Jodi Picoult tackled a tough but timely subject matter: racism. I wanted to read it because I was curious what her perspective on racism would be. I had high hopes. It pains me to say that I had a love/hate/indifference relationship with this book.

The basic premise: a black labor and delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson, is removed from caring for a newborn and his mother. Why? Because the parents, Turk and Brit, are white supremacists and they don't want anyone who looks like Ruth caring for their family. Ruth's supervisor goes along with this ridiculous request and puts a note in the file that no African-American employees are to care for this family. Ruth spends the next few days stewing about this, acting like she doesn't care and even making mean-spirited comments about the baby and the family. An act of fate leaves Ruth as the only nurse available to look after the baby, an emergency ensues, the baby is in distress, and eventually dies. Ruth is the sacrificial lamb, as her actions or lack of action are blamed for the baby's death. She's arrested and charged with murder. Her white, well-meaning attorney, Kennedy McQuarrie, is determined to get an acquittal but refuses to bring up race during the trial. All of this has the makings of a good book (and eventually a movie, as Viola Davis and Julia Roberts are attached to the project).

This could have been a thought-provoking book, but in my opinion it's not. Picoult clearly did a lot of research on racism, white supremacy, medical and legal procedures. But this reads like a book saying: "Look at all the research I did! Look at all I found out about racism!" Lets list all the things that are in this book: colorism; racism in many forms; white supremacy; while Ruth is sensible her sister, Adisa, is the militant black woman; workplace discrimination; Ruth's mother works for a white family for decades while ignoring the obvious class-ism. The message is clear, we all have our own biases and therefore racism is bad. But that message in this book is so heavy-handed. Right after Kennedy handles Ruth's arraignment, all of a sudden she's thinking about racism in every scenario. Really? Right after meeting Ruth this lawyer is suddenly aware of racism. Kennedy's character is a public defender and has countless clients of color, but it's not until Ruth that she gives any thought to racism? Oh did I mention that the prosecutor in Ruth's case is also African-American. Yes, so everyone can see the irony of a black woman going to bat for the baby born from white supremacists parents. This book wouldn't be a Jodi Picoult book if it didn't have a twist. I won't say what that is, but it was sooooooooo out of left field and just plain unnecessary.

This book includes an author's note at the end. Many times while reading the main text, I was tempted to skip ahead and read the author's note. But I resisted the urge. I didn't read it until I was done with the book. The author's note pretty much confirmed what I thought while reading the book: this was not written for African-American people, like me. It was clearly written for white people, those who aren't racist but might not be aware of their own subtle racist tendencies. I believe 100 percent that Jodi Picoult had good intentions with this book, but I wish she hadn't written this book. Having read other books by her, I can attest that the medical jargon and courtroom scenes felt authentic; that's definitely in her wheelhouse. But everything that had to do with race just didn't feel authentic. I'm not saying a white person can't write about issues impacting the African-American community, but it should at least feel authentic and not like "See! See! This is what happens when you're racist!"

Clearly, I wasn't enamored with this book but that hasn't stopped me from being a fan of Jodi Picoult. I will still continue to buy and read her books.

Rating: Meh!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Thoughts on Sleeping Beauties

From the minds of Stephen King and his son Owen King, comes Sleeping Beauties. All the women, including children, of the world fall asleep and don't wake up. As they fall asleep, threads of white cover their bodies. Soon the white cocoons cover their entire bodies. The few women who can stay awake become shells of their former selves. The men? What do the men do? They try to cope, doing all the tasks that their wives and girlfriends used to, like cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for children. Some men are grief stricken, but some are just violent jerks. And it's the violent jerks who are threatening to take over, starting with the small Appalachian town of Dooling.

The women are asleep in one world, and thriving in another. In the new world, women run the show and everything is different. No major conflicts. No wars. No sexual assault. And the men who will be born in this new world, will be influenced by women only. They will have a better foundation than the men of the old world. In a world like this, why would they want to wake back up in the old world?

But what happens to the men of the old world? Can a world exist where just the men are in charge? One could argue that we're already seeing that in the modern world.

This isn't the typical Stephen King novel. Number one, I found it to be very fast-paced (even though it's 700 pages) and I chalk that up to his son co-writing this book. Number two, the book isn't meant to be scary like a horror movie. I think this book was meant to be a social commentary on today's political climate, and that can be scary. But like a typical Stephen King book, the ending is always problematic and doesn't seem fully formed. Seriously, I think King is great at beginnings and the middle. . .but his endings, after all this time in publishing, still need work. Exhibit A: IT!!! The ending for the TV adaptation of Under the Dome was ATROCIOUS and I can only imagine how the book ended (I'm thinking of reading it this year).

While I did enjoy Sleeping Beauties as a means of escapism, I felt some parts of the ending were just a bit rushed and heavy-handed. A white female police officer and her itchy trigger finger shot and kill a black woman. While the officer believes she was defending others, it turns out she misunderstood the situation and is immediately remorseful (as she should be). It's clear that little nugget is meant to be a reflection of the multiple shootings of unarmed black men and women. I don't see anything wrong with social commentary, it's just that this particular one came less than 50 pages from the end and felt like an afterthought. The overwhelming message was men step back and let women run the show. I don't think that will ever happen in my lifetime, even if we get a female president, but it's a nice thought.

Rating: Superb (as a piece of fiction, not as social commentary).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Rapid Reaction: Strange the Dreamer

Have you ever finished a book and thought: What did I just read? This was good, bad, beautiful, and frustrating! What kind of an ending was that? You're kidding I have to read book 2 to find out what happens?!?

I had all of those thoughts after I finished Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. I finished the book earlier this afternoon and I thought it's best to just get my thoughts out. So this isn't meant to be a traditional review and more of my stream of consciousness on a book I just finished.

I tried reading this book last fall but I couldn't get beyond page 25. Fantasy books are just not in my wheelhouse, I prefer to read books that have some basis in reality. And this book is heavy on the fantasy and my brain just couldn't handle it the first time around. But I worried that maybe I was being a bit of a book snob, so last month I picked this back up again -- determined to read to this from end to end.

I did it! I finished and yet I'm not sure I fully understood everything.

Lazlo Strange is an orphan who was raised by monks in the city of Zosma. He spends most of his time buried in the library, reading about a city called Weep. A city that may or may not exist. Lazlo has so immersed himself in the world of Weep, that he garners the nickname "Strange the Dreamer." Lazlo knows more about Weep than anyone else; he knows their language and history. But what's the use of knowing all that if Weep might not exist? But of course all of this knowledge will come in handy -- otherwise there would be no point to this book.

The Godslayer a.k.a Eril-Fane (honestly what's up this name) comes to Zosma, seeking the greatest minds in various areas of expertise. He needs help freeing Weep from a literal fortress that hovers above the city. This fortress, known as the citadel, is built of a special metal called mesarthium. It's a material that's so strong it can't be cut. But Eril-Fane is determined to build a special team to help him free Weep from darkness. A lowly librarian like Lazlo is not supposed to be among the ranks, but manages to talk his way onto the team. This caravan of the greatest minds of Zosma heads on the months-long journey to Weep.

Meanwhile, in the citadel the survivors of the massacre in Weep know their time might be up. There might finally be a war between the citadel and the citizens of Weep. One of those survivors is Sarai and she has a special gift. She can enter the dreams of the people of Weep, causing them nightmares. When Sarai enters Lazlo's mind, it's not a nightmare but a dream. The two have an instant connection and a desire to resolve the conflict between the citadel and Weep peacefully.

Ok that's the easiest way I can explain everything I just read. And even then I'm sure I missed some plot points. I took notes, I underlined text, and I put post-it flags all over this book. I don't do that with everything I read, just the ones that make me feel like I'm reading a textbook or I'm learning another language.

However, I do have to admit Laini Taylor's writing is very beautiful and poetic.

"She asked in a hesitant whisper, 'Do you still think I'm a . . . a singularly unhorrible demon?'

'No,' he said smiling. 'I think you're a fairy tale. I think you're magical, and brave, and exquisite. And . . .' His voice grew bashful. Only in a dream could he be so bold and speak such words. 'I hope you'll let me be in your story.' " {Pg. 380}

There are many passages that left me in awe of her writing, but it gets to be a bit much. A bit repetitive. And this book is 532 pages, so yeah one can only take so much flowery writing. I think this book could have benefited by being about 100 or so pages shorter. It would have made for a faster and tighter story. I also hate insta-love!!! I hate it in any genre!! Lazlo and Sarai see each other briefly in a dream and already know the other is different. They're unique. They're unlike anyone they've ever met before. That is such a tired trope. I wish authors would stay away from it. 

All that said, of course I'm going to buy the sequel (and I hope final book) Muse of Nightmares. The book ended it such a way, that the only feeling one is left with is: I have to know how it ends!

Rating: Give it a try