Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
There is so much that is wonderful about this book. The incredibly depicted settings of both Chinatown and ballroom dancing. The finely nuanced and richly complicated relationships. The new adult struggles of finding and being true to yourself while still relating to your family of birth. You don’t have to be first-generation American to relate to Charlie’s struggles to reconcile her childhood world with the world she knows now. In some ways I found this to be a Chinese-American version of Dirty Dancing, and that’s a big complement since Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies. I also particularly enjoyed seeing a single father realistically deal with his two daughters. He sometimes does wonderfully and sometimes fails them, and their fights are realistic and full of honesty.
If you’re curious about the audiobook version, Angela Lin does an incredible job. Every single character has their own voice and her accents are full of nothing but realism and respect. It was like a well-produced radio program.The praise this book is getting is well-deserved, and if you want to immerse yourself in Chinatown, dance, and new adult issues, you don’t even need to read my review further. Just go get yourself a copy. But I do need to talk about what didn’t work for me.
Charlie is dyslexic, and her father never allowed her school to officially diagnose and treat her, which led her to have poor grades and struggle with many typical entry level white collar jobs such as being an administrative assistant. Lisa in contrast is an excellent student who works after school at their uncle’s Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. Partway through the book, Lisa starts to have nightmares and wet the bed. She’s also been selected to apply for entry and scholarship to a highly selective private school, though, so Charlie thinks it’s probably related to that. I think the vast majority of readers will be able to quickly figure out that Lisa is being molested at the clinic. There are just way too many hints. Lisa doesn’t want to go to the clinic anymore after being good-natured about it. She starts getting jealous of Charlie whereas before she only wished for good things for her sister. And honestly bed wetting and nightmares are extremely typical symptoms of molestation.
But I don’t dislike this plot because of how obvious it was to me. I also fully acknowledge these terrible things can and do happen in otherwise average families, and I’m not against these stories being told. However, I do think it was a poor fit for the tone otherwise of the book. It felt like the idea was that there wouldn’t be enough conflict between Charlie and her family without this extra problem. Like Charlie wouldn’t have been at all worried about her sister or about leaving her family behind somehow without this other problem. I think that’s underestimating Charlie and underestimating how hard it can be to grow and change and become different from your family of origin. The rest of the book is so full of beauty and energy, whether it’s in Chinatown or in the ballroom dance rooms. Then this plot comes in and it just feels like it doesn’t belong. While I feel incredible empathy for people in Lisa’s situation, I came to resent her presence in the story because she felt kind of like olives being stuffed into a delicious lasagna. It’s not that olives are bad; it’s just that they don’t belong. I think that these were really two separate stories, and they should have been told separately.
In spite of these feelings about the dual plots, I still really enjoyed the read and would happily read another book by Kwok in the future. I also think this is a great example of a new adult read that’s mostly about the emotional experiences of your early 20s. Recommended to anyone looking to get immersed in Chinatown and ballroom.
4 out of 5 stars
Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter—protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.
Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.
So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and—worst of all—confronting some ugly secrets.
This book would have wound up as a Disappointing Reads Haiku except that I actually didn’t have high expectations for it going in. The description didn’t appeal to me that much, and I had a feeling I might feel lukewarm about it. So why did I read it? I heard one of the two girls was bisexual, and hurting as I am for bisexual literature (it’s hard to find just from book descriptions), I’m willing to give most of it a shot if it sounds even moderately appealing. I do like stories of unlikely friendships and representation of less than ideal parenting situations (the realistic kind, not the fantasy kind of conveniently dead parents). I also liked the representation of not just bisexuality but also someone who is legally blind. I found the writing to be clunky, though, and the ultimate plotline to be a bit puzzling, rather than moving.
Agnes is written better than Bo. The depictions of her over-protective parents, what it is to be legally blind but not 100% blind, how others treat her, particularly in her church as an angel and not as a regular person, these were all great. The author is herself legally blind, and you can really tell. I’ve read many books about blind characters by people who were not themselves blind and the depiction was nowhere near as realistic as in this book. I think it speaks a lot to why own voices literature matters.
This realism doesn’t come through in Bo though. Bo reads like a two-dimensional caricature with the quick correction that oh hey I know I’ll make her bisexual but not a slut and that makes her seem sensitively written. Bo whose family is known in the small town as the trouble-makers, the no-goods. Bo with rumors spread about her and no-good drug-addict mom. Bo who, unlike Agnes, doesn’t speak mainstream English but mostly just in the sense that she says “ain’t” a lot. Bo who’s terrified of foster care so runs when her mom is arrested again. What bothers me the most about Bo (this may be a minor spoiler) is the book seems to think it gives her a happy ending. Like everything is ok now. But it’s clearly not. Speaking as a bisexual woman who had a less than ideal living situation in rural America in her teens, nothing about Bo strikes me as realistic. She reads as fake. She sounds fake. Some of her actions themselves are realistic but there’s no soul behind them. It might not have stuck out so badly if Agnes hadn’t been so well-written or perhaps if I wasn’t able to relate to well to who Bo was supposed to be.
One of the lines that I think demonstrates this problem that I couldn’t stop re-reading is below. It should have made me happy because Bo actually says the word “bisexual.” (Very rare in literature). But I was just irritated at how fake it all sounded.
“So … you’re all right with it, then? Me being … bisexual, I guess? I ain’t never used that word before, but … you’re all right with it?” (loc 2359)
It bothers me on two levels. First, rural people don’t just decorate their sentences with ain’t’s and double negatives. There’s more nuance to the accent than that and also Agnes and her average blue collar parents would have the same accent as Bo (they don’t). Second, I’ve never in my life heard a bisexual person speak about themselves this way, and I certainly never have. The number of times Bo asks Agnes if she’s “ok with it” (this is not the first time) is unrealistic. You know as soon as you come out if someone is “ok with it” or not and you deal and react to that. You don’t just keep wondering. You know. No amount of inexperience coming out would make you not know.
If Bo had been written as powerfully as Agnes, this would be a very different review, but since that’s not the case I have to say my dislike of the representation of Bo paired with my like of the representation of Agnes left this an average read for me, and it certainly won’t be a piece of bi literature I’ll go around recommending.
3 out of 5 stars
Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.
Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?
Etta is a character I wish I had been able to find in fiction when I was a teenager. She’s unashamedly herself, even when it hurts or it involves some floundering. She’s from a small town with dreams of the big city. She just doesn’t fit in her small town. She is so very real because she is so many intersectional elements at once. Most important to me is that she’s bisexual (and she actually SAYS the word), but she’s also female, black, and suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOs), where the name of the book comes from.
What’s so great though is that, even with being all of these things, her main point of conflict actually has nothing to do with any of them. She desperately wants to live in NYC, and she sees a contest to get into a musical theater high school in NYC as just the chance to do that. She has a huge dream, and that is something any YA reader can relate to. So even if the reader happens to not relate to Etta on anything else (and honestly, who cares? kids like Etta have to reach really hard to relate to most of the literature out there so it’s about time the mainstream kids have to as well), but even if they don’t relate to her on anything else, they should be able to relate to her on this adolescent experience of The Big Dream.
I loved that Etta is allowed to be the person she is without speaking for All Bisexuals™. She very clearly presents herself as a bisexual person who is not representative of all bisexual people beyond the being attracted to more than one gender thing. I also appreciated that the complexity of the queer community is shown. Etta talks about being pushed into being an outsider by both the straights and the lesbians because both of them kind of just want her to “pick a side.” The book begins with the lesbians being angry at Etta for dating a boy. They’re acting like she was a “fake lesbian,” and this is how Etta feels about that:
And bi the way, I was never a lesbian, and I told the Dykes that all the time, but there isn’t a Banjo Bisexuals group or whatever. (location 54)
While a lot of the book eloquently deals with Etta’s sexuality, it also takes time to talk about race and racism. I lost the highlighted passage but essentially Etta is talking with a friend and discusses how hard it is to be part of so many minority groups and how she can never hide being black but she can hide being queer, and how that means she can never escape racism. On the other hand, she also points out how exhausting it can be to constantly be reminding people of her queerness. No one denies that she’s black but people keep trying to take her bisexual identity from her. It’s a non-preachy passage that introduces the complexities of intersexuality to a YA audience.
Finally, there’s the EDNOS. The best part about this is the book come in when Etta is in recovery. Most books about eating disorders come in during the downward spiral, but Etta has already gone to treatment and is working in recovery. We so often don’t get to see recovery and how messy it can be in literature, but we see it here. We get to see how mental illnesses don’t just go away, people just have strategies for staying in recovery.
There’s a ton that’s good about this book, but I must say that I did think the level of partying could sometimes be a bit over the top. While obviously not all kids are straight-edged I was a bit skeptical of the level of partying going on in Small Town USA (including high schoolers getting into a gay bar repeatedly). Perhaps what struck me as a bit less realitic, actually, was Etta’s intelligent and put-together mother who is clearly caring being somehow out of touch about the partying going on, whereas Etta’s sister is 100% aware. It wasn’t enough to truly bother me and I do think on some level some YA readers expect an unrealistic set of partying situations just for the interest level but in a book that had so much realistic about it, it just struck me as a bit out of place.
Overall, this is a great addition to contemporary YA with an out and proud main character and a timeless plot of a small town girl with big dreams. I requested it at my library to be added to the collection (and they did!), and if you can’t buy it yourself, I highly recommend you doing so as well. It bring so much different to the YA table.
4 out of 5 stars
Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge #miarc
Specific Illness –> EDNOS
Workaholic attorney Samantha Sweeting has just done the unthinkable. She’s made a mistake so huge, it’ll wreck any chance of a partnership.
Going into utter meltdown, she walks out of her London office, gets on a train, and ends up in the middle of nowhere. Asking for directions at a big, beautiful house, she’s mistaken for an interviewee and finds herself being offered a job as housekeeper. Her employers have no idea they’ve hired a lawyer–and Samantha has no idea how to work the oven. She can’t sew on a button, bake a potato, or get the #@%# ironing board to open. How she takes a deep breath and begins to cope–and finds love–is a story as delicious as the bread she learns to bake.
But will her old life ever catch up with her? And if it does…will she want it back?
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’m a Sophie Kinsella fan, so it should come as no surprise that I liked this book. But let me say I love love loved this book. It’s my favorite Kinsella book I’ve read so far. It was funny but also a beautiful love story and also great commentary on life and priorities. It gave me the warm fuzzies, you guys.
I think one of the things I like best about Kinsella books is how they present all of women’s life options as totally valid ones, even if the heroine herself doesn’t realize that at first. What matters most is the heroine doing what makes her happy, and often the drama comes from the heroine forcing herself to be something she’s not or align herself with life values she doesn’t have. In any case, this book walks a great line of neither demonizing career women nor women who stay at home. It also doesn’t present doing a high-powered, high-education track as better than doing a traditionally blue collar job like housekeeping or cooking. Yes, at first Samantha thinks one of them is better and looks down on the other, but ultimately she realizes the pluses and minuses of both types of jobs, and I really like seeing that in chick lit. A lot. I also really enjoyed seeing the struggle Samantha has between part of herself wanting the high-powered career and part wanting the quiet life at home. I think that’s a feeling many modern women can relate to.
The romance is also quite sweet. The early on playing between Samantha and her man and how that progresses made me feel like I was cozied up in a just the right temperature bath. But I also really liked that the book shows that compromise in a relationship is necessary. Both of them have to adjust their perceptions to fit the new reality of each other and both are willing to make compromises and meet in the middle.
Of course it’s also funny. What’s not funny about a lawyer trying to keep house when she doesn’t know anything about cleaning or cooking? At some point though the humor transitions into scenes that I can only describe as warm and glowing. That focus in on what really matters in life.
I was entertained. My life goals and ambitions were strengthened and validated. And I (maybe) (ok, definitely) cried happy-ever-after tears at the end of the book. I suppose if you’re a reader who doesn’t understand people who want to work a job they at least moderately enjoy and live life at a reasonable pace with lots of time with those they love then you might not enjoy this book. But I’d also say you need to read it and take a hard look at Samantha’s life before and after her lessons.
5 out of 5 stars
Eve has been patient with Liam. They’ve been together nine years and have two children but he has yet to marry her and gets defensive anytime the topic comes up. Her sister, Sam, has never liked Liam and has become suspicious about all his business trips outside of Ireland, particularly the ones to Australia.
On the other side of the world in Australia, Brook is dating an Irishman who’s frustratingly periodically unavailable, in spite of what she thinks are their strong feelings for each other. She tries to distract herself reading a new manuscript that’s been left for her, but the manuscript might be less about a book deal and more about making sure she’s not the last to know something….
If you have ever seen Futurama, you’ll be aware of the utterly campy and ridiculous robot soap opera named “All My Circuits.” It’s known within the world of Futurama in particular for its over-the-top plot twists and yet somehow still being something entertaining that you can’t stop watching. When I read a book that goes a bit off the rails, I refer to it as being very All My Circuits. That is this book. If you love campy soap opera plots and ridiculous situations and twists that make you audibly gasp, you’re going to love this book.
I was suspicious of at least one upcoming twist from the very beginning from the description and set-up alone. The narration alternates between Brook’s life and the manuscript that’s been submitted to her for a while. At a certain point, it moves to include some thoughts from the person (or people) who wrote the manuscript. Brook is likeable. Eve and Sam are likeable. They’re all three well-rounded women with very different goals in life and life situations. Any reader of chick lit will be able to relate to one of them. I think that’s really all that a potential reader who doesn’t want spoilers needs to know about the book. If you are intrigued and don’t want spoilers, go on and pick it up! Those interested in the delicious ridiculousness of the twists should read further.
It completely seems in both the description and the beginning of the book that the twist is going to be that Brook’s boyfriend is Eve’s baby daddy, and Eve’s author sister Sam is revealing this as gently as possible to Brook via the manuscript. HOLD UP THOUGH. Partway through the book, you find out that Liam has a thing for Eve’s best friend who is in a relationship with Liam’s best friend. I can’t for the life of me remember these characters’ names, so I’m going to call them EBF (Eve’s Best Friend) and LBF (Liam’s Best Friend). EBF is considering leaving LBF but then she finds out she’s pregnant and decides to stay and have a family with him. They have a baby girl. Then Liam DIES IN A CAR ACCIDENT ALONG WITH BOTH OF EVE’S CHILDREN. At this point the reader is like hold the fucking phone, Brook’s boyfriend isn’t dead so wtf. Wtf is the connection with Brook?
Eve finds out about the feels between EBF and Liam and in her grief becomes convinced that EBF’s baby is actually fathered by Liam and not LBF. For some unearthly reason, LBF and EBF ask her to babysit while they go to a wedding, and when they get back she and the baby are gone. Eve decided in her grief that she deserved this baby, so she absconds to Australia. So Brook is EBF’s baby. And she was raised by Eve. If you’re wondering how they pulled this off, the explanation is that the manuscript has been taking place decades ago so it was easier to run off with a baby then. Especially around the world.
Guys, I gasped audibly when I figured out where this story was going. Seriously. whoa I just really did not see those plot twists coming! Really did not. I was irritated at myself for never figuring out that the Ireland in the manuscript was from decades ago and not present-day. (I did keep wondering why it was such a big deal for women not to be single moms and why no one seemed to have a cell phone but I brushed over it). I thought that Brook dating an Irish guy was a bit too cute for the red herring, but I’m willing to let it slide. I wasn’t looking for great literature here. I was looking for All My Circuits. And oh man did I get it!
Overall, if you’re looking for a light-hearted yet drama-llama read full of plot twists that just might make you gasp out loud, this is the read for you. A few plot devices are a bit convenient and might make the reader eye-roll but not enough to detract from the enjoyment.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Won in a giveaway
Now that Polly’s daughter has left home, she finally decides to follow her long-time dream of living on the Greek islands and moves there. But she finds even moving to another country can’t help her escape the memories of her ex-lovers (or, in the case of her daughter’s father, their actual presence). As she ruminates on her life and deals with the difficulties of aging, she wonders if her life has brought her the fulfillment she was after.
I picked this up during one of Smashwords’ annual summer/winter sales because the premise vaguely reminded me of Under the Tuscan Sun, a movie I’ve always enjoyed. What I got was an older heroine with a more honest mouth and a dirtier past. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting and I wouldn’t choose to live my life the way the main character lived hers, but I certainly enjoyed it.
The author clearly has either lived in Boston or has done a lot of research. Polly grows up in New England and then lives in either Cambridge or Boston for the early parts of her life. Everything written about Cambridge/Boston is quite accurate, although definitely not always flattering. Since this is the case for the setting of Cambridge/Boston, I came to trust the narrator regarding her experiences in California, Las Vegas, and finally the Greek islands.
Polly is unapologetically crass. Given that this is a fiction book written in the style of an older person’s memoir, I can see how this may be jarring to some readers anticipating a more…grandmotherly style story. Personally, I enjoy the brutal honesty Polly brings to everything. She paints neither herself nor her family nor her lovers in a positive light. She verges on the side of pessimism. But there’s something I like about that level of honesty.
The edge of his tallis, the prayer shawl worn by Jewish men [Polly is Jewish and raised in a religious home], was folded back over his shoulder, so it wouldn’t touch me. Women aren’t allowed to touch this sacred garment because we’re considered unclean. The folded eight inches of fabric reminded me of one of the reasons why I couldn’t believe in this religion, or any religion. I wanted to crush the tallis with my hands, rub it over my face, arms, along my naked body and against my genitals. (loc 970)
If that passage offends you, the book will most likely offend you. If you enjoy the visceral passion Polly shows in rejecting the religion of her childhood, you will most likely enjoy the book.
The plot mainly revolves around Polly adapting to life in Greece and being haunted by visions of her ex-lovers. Basically, she will think she sees one of her ex-lovers and then tell the story of her time with him. The overarching plot is she is wondering if seeing these hauntings means her life is almost over. Also scattered throughout this plot is Polly coming to terms with being older, her body failing her, the fact that she doesn’t have a constant true love, and accepting that she is nearing the end of her life. Polly has many lovers throughout her life, and it’s clear that sometimes she was seeking one out to use him. Similarly, she is the other woman at least once and not in an accidental way. In a I hope you’ll leave your wife for me way. Polly admits she was bad at love but is also unapologetic about it. She seems lost as to how she could have done better, even right up to choosing her most recent lover.
I wanted to love Andreas. I needed to love him; I needed to love someone, anyone, and he happened to be available. (loc 5985)
While I appreciated Polly’s voice and passion, I also felt extremely sad for her. She never seems to have figured out how to be both passionate about her beliefs and also willing to listen to others. She never seems to have grown beyond the first rebellion stage into self-actualization. In a way, then, while the book has amusing scenes, overall, I found it to be a sad, cautionary tale about how failing to work on yourself, simply letting yourself muddle along, can lead to a wasted life.
Overall, this is an interesting book that features a plot I haven’t seen before. Readers interested in reading something featuring an older person who failed to actualize or even really realize their mistakes late in life should definitely pick this up. It is well-done.
4 out of 5 stars