Happy Fall, friends! For some reason, I always think of fall as the season of reading. I’ve been spending more time reading at home which has been nice. Here’s what I read in September:
FIONA AND JANE by Jean Chen Ho – 4 stars
Fiona and Jane have been best friends since second grade and while they change and drift apart through college years and adulthood, they remain present in each other’s lives and minds. Fiona and Jane is told in alternating POVs from Fiona and Jane. Some of the stories are about their friendship; some are about respective families/lives at the time. The narrative jumps a few years here and there throughout their teens, twenties, and thirties, and I feel like I could’ve listened to more of their stories!
GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead – 4.25 stars
Great Circle follows a fictional female pilot named Marian Graves and a Hollywood actress Hadley Baxter who portrays Marian Graves in a movie a century later. There are some parallels between Marian and Hadley’s lives but the stories in the two timelines eventually connect. It took me a little bit to get into the it (maybe 1/5 of the book?) but it is epic in depth and breadth. While I didn’t love it as much I wanted to/expected, I liked it a lot, especially towards the end.
THE MOUNTAINS SING by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – 4.5 stars
Set in 20th century Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing is told in two POVs–grandmother Tran Dieu Lan and her granddaughter Hương–tells tales from two of the most pivotal periods in Việt Nam history. From Grandma having her life upended during the Land Reform and having to make impossible decisions in order to survive and keep her children alive to granddaughter “Guava” growing up during the Việt Nam War and witnessing the pain and trauma it inflicts on the Vietnamese people, The Mountains Sing is heartbreaking. However, it’s more than just about the violence and brutality of the war; it’s about family and how we persevere and survive and love and find each other.
It’s only very recently that I’m learning about Việt Nam history (more than the simple fact that the US and Korea were involved), and I relate to it so much as a Korean person: the drastic change in (literal and figurative) landscape due to colonialism, people turning on each other fueled by misdirected anger and violence, families being separated, and brothers fighting on different sides of the war. These harsh realities are not often told, especially in the US, and this is why The Mountains Sing is such an important book. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai incorporate Vietnamese text throughout the book in a way I’ve not seen before; she does not distract you from the story but allows you to get the full understanding of the beauty and significance of the text. Beautiful book, beautiful writing–can’t recommend it enough!
DUST CHILD by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – 4.75 stars
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, once again, tells an important story that many are not aware of. Like The Mountains Sing, Dust Child has a dual timeline. During the Việt Nam War, sisters Trang and Quỳnh leave their small village to Sài Gòn where they become “bar girls” in order to help their parents pay off debts. While working at The Hollywood Bar, the sisters drift apart, especially as the older sister Trang develops a romantic relationship with an American helicopter pilot named Dan. In the present, Phong, one of the many Amerasians (children of an Asian mother and a U.S. soldier father) in Việt Nam, dreams of finding his birth parents and starting a new life in America. During his search, he encounters Dan who returned to Viet Nam decades later and is looking for Trang, though he only knows her by her bar name “Kim.”
Dust Child left me heartbroken and hopeful. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai continues to be the master at telling challenging histories. The way she writes every character as a full, complex human allowed me to understand the complicated situations they were in, during and aftermath of the Việt Nam War, and I could empathize with them, even Dan, eventually. I wasn’t sure how the sisters’ story will connect with Phong’s but Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai marries all of the storylines in a way that reflects the interconnectedness of history. As with The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai highlights the dualities of life and war, the importance of forgiving but not forgetting, and moving forward with life while remembering the loved ones who can’t.
Thank you so much Algonquin Books for the gifted advanced reader copy!
MEAN BABY: A MEMOIR OF GROWING UP by Selma Blair – 4 stars
I knew Selma Blair as the actress from Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions (though I’ve never seen the film), and The People vs O. J Simpson (I watched an episode while at a friend’s house) and as an advocate for multiple sclerosis in the recent years following her diagnosis. I did not know about all the other things about her–growing up with a narcissistic mother, battling alcohol addiction beginning at an early age, and surviving abuse. In Mean Baby, named after her childhood nickname (because she literally was a mean baby), Selma Blair opens up fully. Unlike most celebrity memoirs, Mean Baby is not entirely chronological as she often references future events when telling a story before moving onto that time in her life later in the book, which may frustrate some people but I found it to be more reflective and complete in storytelling of each story. She narrates the audiobook which is full of emotions; she tears up several times throughout the book.
ONE ITALIAN SUMMER by Rebecca Serle – 4 stars
I remembered liking In Five Years a couple of years ago so I was excited to listen to One Italian Summer (I was trying to read a couple of “summer” books before October too)! Following the passing of her mom who was also her best friend, Katy decides to go alone on the mother-daughter trip to Positano they had planned together. While in Italy, she somehow encounters her mom Carol from the last time she was in Positano 30 years ago. As they befriend each other, Katy learns things about Carol that evoke to a myriad of emotions.
With both In Five Years and One Italian Summer, I appreciate that Rebecca Serle branches out from typical romance trope. While there is a romance storyline in both, it’s more of a subplot at least to me. In Five Years, it’s the friendship story that really moved me, and the bulk of One Italian Summer is about Katy grieving and understanding her mother.
AFTERSHOCKS by Nadia Owusu – 3.75 stars
Aftershocks is quite a heavy memoir. Nadia Owusu grew up with a complex racial identity, with her absent biological mom being Armenian and her Ghanian father who greatly impacted her world view. Her dad’s job with UN took her family all over the world, which added to her unique upbringing. The way Owusu writes her memoir is unique: she organizes her life events as stages of an earthquake (“Topography”, “Foreshocks”, “Mainshocks”, “Aftershocks”, etc.) thus the title of the book. I generally generally prefer memoirs that are chronological but this works with Aftershocks. It is a bit challenging to read at times due to a number of traumatic experiences, but I really appreciated this memoir and it’s beautifully written.
SEEING GHOSTS by Kat Chow – 3.5 stars
In this memoir about grief, Kat Chow reflects on death–her life following the passing of her brother who was never born and the life before and after her mother’s death. She speaks to her mom directly, referencing something in the past or asking her questions, and I really liked this conversational tone throughout the book. I listened to it on audiobook which I really liked for the first half but it kind of lost me towards the end (though it might’ve been me just being distracted).
EVERY SUMMER AFTER by Carley Fortune – 3 stars
Okay–this did not live up to the hype for me but I definitely had high expectations based on all the glowing reviews. When Persephone’s parents buy a cottage at the lake to spend summers there, she befriends brothers Charlie and Sam who live year-round next door. They grow up together over the next years and Percy and Sam become best friends and possibly more? The setting is cute but predictable and so was the plot. I kept waiting for something to happen so I could understand why Every Summer After was the book of the summer but all it delivered was an uncomfortable ending which I could see halfway but was desperately hoping against…If you’re looking for an average romance book, I don’t think you’d be upset though. I really l liked the narrator of the audiobook.
THESE IMPOSSIBLE THINGS by Salma El-Wardany – 4.75 stars
These Impossible Things starts off lightheartedly, almost scandalously, by introducing the three best friends Malak, Kees, and Jenna are lounging outside with Jacob and Harry, Malak and Kees’ white, non-Muslim boyfriends. With all of them finishing up school soon, it feels as if they’re at the cusp of adulthood. An argument one evening leads the three best friends to drift apart and spend the next year from each other and isolated.
UGH Salma El-Wardany made me feel so many emotions while reading her debut novel. Malak, Kees, and Jenna’s friendship made me happy and almost jealous, the year of separation and what each had to endure alone during the period broke my heart, and I was relieved and ecstatic when they eventually reconcile not only with each other but also their internal conflicts about having to choose between up faith/family/upbringing and the true, happy lives they want to pursue.
SWEEN BEAN PASTE by Durian Sukegawa – 4 stars
Sentaro is living without direction or plan, continuing to run the dorayaki (sweet bean paste-filled pancake) shop for his late boss, now owned by the wife. An elderly woman in her 70s named Tokue comes to the Dorayaki shop asking to work there and eventually wins Sentaro over with her sweet bean paste. She teaches Sentaro how to make the sweet bean paste (and more) and befriends many customers, including a quiet school girl named Wakana. After months of success thanks to Tokue, Dorayaki business struggles, perhaps due to rumors about Tokue’s secretive past.
Sweet Bean Paste is one of those books that portray an unexpected but beautiful friendship. I really enjoyed this simple, heartwarming story and how the author was able to incorporate the historic discrimination against and isolation of Hansen’s disease patients.
ON ROTATION by Shirlene Obuobi – 3.75 stars
On Rotation delivered on multiple fronts for me. Angie is a Ghanaian immigrant who is living her parents’ American dream of their children being successful in the new country, being in medical school and working towards becoming a doctor. The day her lawyer boyfriend dumps her, Angie goes to a neighborhood park to find solace and meets Ricky with whom she has a great connection with…except he has a girlfriend. Angie and Ricky’s paths cross again shortly though, and things seem different this time around.
While On Rotation is primarily a romance book, I enjoyed the friendship storylines more, especially the friendship between Angie and her bestie friend/roommate Nia. Obuobi portrays realistic friendship dynamics of twenty somethings, like Kiley Reid does with Such a Fun Age. I also liked how normal and nerdy the characters are. For example, Angie and Ricky bond over Avatar: the Last Airbender, which made me like them more! Obuobi, being a physician herself, does not miss the opportunity to address the medical racism throughout the book. My only pet peeve was actually about the romance plot; the miscommunication trope between Angie and Ricky went a little too far for my liking
THE PUSH by Ashley Audrain – 3.5 stars
For me, The Push ended up being one of those books that didn’t quite get there in the end. Blythe marries her college sweetheart Fox and they have their first baby, Violet. After growing up with an abusive and absent mother (who also had an abusive and absent mother), Blythe has doubts about her ability to become the mother she wants to be. Blythe witnesses moments of cruelty and coldness from Violet over the years which add to her paranoia.
Audrain does not hesitate to build the suspense from the beginning and really convinced me to empathize with and feel for Blythe. I feel like the plot flashed out quickly but didn’t evolve much further after that. If you generally like thrillers, it’s not a bad one but do not expect it to be revolutionary.
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