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