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Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)

February 12, 2017 1 comment

Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)Summary:
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.

Review:
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.

*spoilers*
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.
*end spoilers

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

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

January 22, 2017 3 comments

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo LeeSummary:
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

Review:
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.

Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.

One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:

Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)

I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.

I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.

Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:

There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)

The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

January 8, 2017 2 comments

A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

A feature for the disappointing reads: I spent enough time reading them. The reviews shouldn’t waste more time. See all haiku reviews here.

A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

Winter’s Bone
By: Daniel Woodrell

Summary:
The sheriff’s deputy at the front door brings hard news to Ree Dolly. Her father has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab, and the Dollys will lose their house if he doesn’t show up for his next court date. Ree knows she has to bring her father back, dead or alive.

Haiku Review:
How could a book with
Meth and gangs and a strong lead
Be very boring?

2 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

Little Lady Agency
By: Hester Browne

Summary:
Melissa Romney-Jones can bake a perfect sponge cake, type her little heart out, and plan a party blindfolded. But none of that has helped her get far in life or in love. When she gets fired — again — she decides to market her impeccable social skills to single men. To avoid embarrassing her father, a Member of Parliament, Melissa dons a blond wig and becomes “Honey,” a no-nonsense bombshell who helps clueless bachelors shop, entertain, and navigate social minefields.

Haiku Review:
Everything that makes
Browne’s other books good is just
Missing. Try again.

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

Martian Time-Slip
By: Philip K. Dick

Summary:
On the arid colony of Mars the only thing more precious than water may be a ten-year-old schizophrenic boy named Manfred Steiner. For although the UN has slated “anomalous” children for deportation and destruction, other people–especially Supreme Goodmember Arnie Kott of the Water Worker’s union–suspect that Manfred’s disorder  may be a window into the future.

Haiku Review:
Using the n-word
For Martians. Fear of mental
Illness. Doesn’t age well.

2 out of 5 stars
Source: Audible
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Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

October 9, 2016 4 comments

Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate HamerSummary:
Carmel Wakeford becomes separated from her mother at a local children’s festival, and is found by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. He tells her that her mother has had an accident and that she is to live with him for now. As days become weeks with her new family, 8-year-old Carmel realises that this man believes she has a special gift…

While her mother desperately tries to find her, Carmel embarks on an extraordinary journey, one that will make her question who she is – and who she might become.

Review:
I picked this book up after seeing the title for kind of a ridiculous reason. I’m a big fan of the tv show Pretty Little Liars, and at the time I was in the season where the Big Bad is known as “Red Coat.” I was so stoked to see another mystery surrounding a woman/girl in a red coat that I just had to investigate it. Of course I discovered that it was also a missing/abducted child mystery/thriller (one of my favorite mystery/thriller subgenres), so it quickly ran up my tbr list.

This book tells the missing/abducted child story from both the grieving parent’s and the child’s point of view simultaneously. This is interesting because we can see how they are both changing as time passes, and the mystery becomes not “what is happening to so-and-so” but more “will these two ever find each other again and will they be able to salvage their relationship if they do?”

The mother’s storyline deals with parenting, guilt, and complicated grief. It acknowledges her faults without demonizing her for them. I truly found reading about her struggle to accept and move on without losing hope to be heart-wrenching.

The daughter’s storyline deals with a small girl feeling angry at her mother, grief at her supposed injury and death, and then dealing with having everyone around her believe she has the power to heal through laying on hands. Laying on hands in Evangelical Protestantism is the belief that God can work miracles through you if you lay your hands on a sick person and pray for them. What’s interesting here is that the book takes the position that Carmel does have some sort of mystical healing power, it’s just that it’s not directly related to Jesus and shouldn’t be used to get money from people, the way the man who abducted Carmel uses her to get money out of people. It’s an interesting position to take — that some people can just heal others. I’d say this might be the first magical realism book that worked for me. Because I was really ok with Carmel having this ability just randomly in our world. I also thought that the book manages to not demonize religion. It’s not that religion is bad per se it’s that bad people can twist it to harm others (ain’t that the truth though).

What I found most interesting was the underlying question throughout the book. Carmel and her mother were just not getting along before she was abducted. They didn’t get each other. Is that something they would have been able to get past? Is it something they could get past now if they find each other again?

I think the book answers the most straight-forward questions but it stopped too soon to answer my questions about particular relationships. I think the book either needs a sequel or needed to continue along longer. The point isn’t will this child return physically but rather is this a relationship that could ever be healed.

Recommended to those looking for a child abduction story told from both the parent and the child’s point of view.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

September 28, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Tara Road by Maeve BinchySummary:
Ria lived on Tara Road in Dublin with her dashing husband, Danny, and their two children. She fully believed she was happily married, right up until the day Danny told her he was leaving her to be with his young, pregnant girlfriend. By a chance phone call, Ria meets Marilyn, a woman from New England unable to come to terms with her only son’s death and now separated from her husband. The two women exchange houses for the summer with extraordinary consequences, each learning that the other has a deep secret that can never be revealed.

Review:
Is “two women swap houses and their lives change” a subgenre of women’s fiction? Because I feel like it should be. I have a real soft spot for house swap stories, starting back when The Holiday came out (one of my favorite romcoms). I was excited to see one featuring both Ireland and New England (Connecticut, specifically), and I sensed that the drama would be pretty high in this story. I wasn’t disappointed.

I learned a lot about recent Irish history from this book. For instance, I had no idea that divorce wasn’t legal in Ireland until 1995! The whole culture, too, wasn’t just that divorce wasn’t legal but that young marriage was expected. This directly impacts Ria’s life and her decisions. Learning this recent Irish history through Ria’s eyes helped make it more real and reminds the reader that these cultural norms and laws have a real impact on real people.

The settings were beautifully rendered. From Tara Road to the home in Connecticut, I felt completely present in each. I could hear the noises and smell the cooking at Tara Road and feel the cool pool water in Connecticut. The rich settings helped me take the perhaps at times ridiculous plot with the grain of salt such a story warrants.

Many issues are covered without ever feeling like the book was written just to talk about them. Rather, the issues exist because they just happen to in real life so why wouldn’t they in this book. Among the issues: alcoholism, domestic violence, grief, infertility, and more that I can’t mention without being plot spoilery.

Still, though, in spite of the strong setting and interesting plot, I did feel that it ended a bit too abruptly. I felt as if I was left hanging, wondering what ultimately was going to happen with these women. Being left wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing but after investing so much into these two women, I would have enjoyed at least an epilogue.

Overall, a strong entry in women’s fiction. It’s a house swap story that stays unique with the house swap not being about romance but rather about dealing with personal issues and where you want your life to go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire (Series, #5)

July 22, 2016 1 comment

Book Review: One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire (Series, #5)Summary:
Someone has kidnapped the sons of the Duchess Dianda Lorden, regent of the Undersea Duchy of Saltmist. To prevent a war between land and sea, Toby must not only find the missing boys, but also prove that the Queen of the Mists was not behind their abduction. She’ll need all her tricks and the help of her allies if she wants to make it through this in one piece.

Review:
I’ll keep this review short and sweet, because if you’ve made it to book 5 in this series, you already know if the writing style works for you or not. So specifically, how did this particular plot work out?

This is the Toby Daye book I’ve liked least so far in the series. Part of that is probably for personal reasons, but part of it is for repetitive plot reasons. Toby just….seems to have to save children an awful lot. Now, I’m not saying that an urban fantasy that basically involves someone solving crimes in a world where there’s a huge taboo on murder of immortals won’t repeat some crimes. I am saying that I think doing abducted children again right after a book that did that theme so incredibly well (Blind Michael is the ultimate in creepy) is just too repetitive. There are actually some sly nods to the reader that the author knows abducted children plots are happening a lot. Toby comments something along the lines of gee she’s sure sick of saving children. If your main character is sick of saving kids, maybe the readers are tired of reading it. Just saying. Beyond that, there were two other things that made me meh about this plot.

First, we’re clearly supposed to sympathize with Toby in the whole “whyyy does everyone think I’m a terrible mother” plot, but honestly I don’t sympathize with her, and I do think she’s a terrible mother. So. There’s that. But I fully admit to having some of my own mom issues, so it might be harder for me to see this with a neutral viewpoint. Other readers may have a different experience. But be prepared to possibly like Toby less.

Second, you know how most romances have various love interests and you’re on a certain team? Well, I am 100% #TeamTybalt, and I was not pleased by all the Connor scenes. I just find him dull and drab and I am massively creeped out by the webs between his fingers that never go away. Plus…male selkies….eh. This book could easily be called the #TeamConnor book so readers who like him….enjoy. For the rest of us, you might find yourself rolling your eyes a bit.

I know that sounds like a lot of negatives but it is the book I’ve liked least in the series so far, in spite of really enjoying the series, so it seemed apt to discuss at length why it didn’t work so well for me. All of that said, I read it quickly, and I fairly soon picked up the next book in the series, so I certainly didn’t hate it. A lot about the series works really well for me, there are just certain aspects of this book and plot that I think might make it less enjoyable for certain readers compared to the rest of the series.

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Rosemary and Rue, review
A Local Habitation, review
An Artificial Night, review
Late Eclipses, review

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

January 4, 2016 2 comments

cover_birdboxSummary:
Malorie thought the hardest thing she was going to have to face was dealing with her pregnancy and impending single motherhood.  She thought the warnings about seeing something that makes you go crazy and become violent was just the news blowing things out of proportion, or at least just hysteria.  Her sister believed in it, but not herself.

But that was all years ago, and now Malorie is alone in a house with her two children. Children who have never been outside without blindfolds on. She only leaves the house blindfolded, tapping the ground with a stick to find the well.  But now it is time for her to be brave and to take a boat on the river, just she and her two children, blindfolded, in the hopes of finding salvation.

Review:
I was drawn to this book for two reasons.  First, the mere thought of a mother and two young children boating down a river blindfolded had me intrigued.  Second, it’s set in Michigan, which is where my husband is from, and honestly I can’t recall the last time I saw a book set in Michigan.  These two elements came together to tell me this book is probably unique.  So when I saw the kindle version on sale on Amazon, I snatched it up.  What I found was a chilling tale that could easily fit within the Lovecraft mythos.

The order the story is told in helps build the suspense and keeps it from being a same old apocalypse and survivors’ tale.  The book opens with Malorie and her two children living alone in the house.  It opens post-apocalyptic.  Through flashbacks we learn various things such as who used to live in the house with Malorie, why there are certain parts of the house she doesn’t like to go to, and why neither she nor the children leave the house without blindfolds on.  From here, the reader is then taken forward into Malorie’s action onto the river, going down it trying to find a safe haven of other survivors that she knows used to be there years ago.  It’s a nice combination of flashback and plot progression forward that keeps the suspense interesting.

It is no spoiler to say that what caused the apocalypse is something that causes people to go stark raving mad when they see it.  This is included in the official book blurb.  What was interesting to me was how Malerman kept this from being purely straight-forward. Some characters believe in the mysterious creatures right away, others don’t.  Some think that merely believing it will cause you to go crazy makes you go crazy.  Some think that some are affected and others aren’t.  Some wonder if animals are affected too, and no one knows where the creatures came from or, if you don’t believe in the creatures, how the phenomenon started.  The lack of clear-cut answers reflects reality.  In general, with large-scale catastrophes, it’s hard to know exactly what happened or what is going on.  This lack of knowing made the situation read as real, even if the exact situation is an absurd sounding one at first.

I was also struck by how well Malerman wrote a female version of experiencing the apocalypse.  Malorie is both focused on surviving for herself and her baby but also distracted from the apocalypse because she is having normal hormonal reactions to pregnancy.  Similarly, while some characters embrace her as a symbol of hope, others see her as a burden.  Malorie was a refreshing change from the young, virile, kick-ass heroine often seen in post-apocalyptic books.  She is strong, yes, but not in a kick-ass way.  She is strong in a she’s doing her best to be a good mom and still survive type way.  And that’s a nice thing to see in post-apocalyptic horror fiction.

The book naturally ends up pondering “madness” a lot.  The creatures drive any who see them into near-caricature depictions of madness. Sometimes the person becomes violent against others. Sometimes the person turns on themselves, killing themselves or self-injuring to the extent that they die.  There are a lot of questions about what the human mind can handle.  There is a lot of argument in the book for agency against all odds.

It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces. (loc 4034)

On the one hand, I appreciate the argument for agency and fighting for your sanity and humanity.  On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a metaphor where madness happens to people who just aren’t careful enough or don’t have enough of a plan.  While it’s valid that a mental illness must be fought every day and some have more natural resiliency than others, there’s a tone of blame to the theme that strikes me the wrong way.

*small spoiler*
At one point, it is postulated that perhaps the only ones immune to being driven mad by the creatures are those who are already mentally ill because they are already mad.  There is no science behind this thought.  There is simply a character who appears to have paranoid schizophrenia who firmly believes the creatures are not actually dangerous because he has seen them and is fine.  Yet he is a character who ends up instigating an incredibly violent scene.  While it is true that there are violent extremes of mental illness, there are also those that are not.  The book fails to bring out the subtleties and varieties of mental illness.  Imagine the power that could have been from a character who had, for instance, OCD and was able to see the creatures and interact with them without harming anyone and able to understand that others cannot see them safely.  Imagine if it was simply that seeing the world differently already, being abnormal, protected one from being driven truly mad by the creatures.  What an interesting direction that could have taken the story.
*end spoilers*

Thus, in general, while I appreciate the more unique and interesting things the book did, such as focusing on a pregnant woman and then a young mother as the main character and telling the plot in a non-linear way, ultimately the book did not push the boundaries or the ideas far enough to truly enrapture me.  Recommended to horror, Lovecraft, and post-apocalyptic fans looking for a read with a young mother as the focus.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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