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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: Run by Kody Keplinger

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Run by Kody KeplingerSummary:
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.

Review:
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

Source: Library

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Book Review: Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Made You Up by Francesca ZappiaSummary:
Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.

Review:
A YA book featuring a main character with schizophrenia has a lot of potential — both to be great and to go awry. While Alex is always written with empathy, something I appreciated, I ultimately found other elements of the story to be too detracting for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Alex, her battle with schizophrenia, and her parents’ attempts yet simulatneous inability to really deal with it fully, are all depicted well in this story. While I think the plot comes dangerously close to making Alex’s parents look like bad guys, ultimately enough other perspectives are shown that it does appear more like a mistake on their part, and a consequence of dealing with such a serious illness and situations for such a long time, rather than something truly mean-spirited or cruel. Alex has enough of a grip on reality to be relatable, while her struggles with aspects of her mental illness are heart-breakingly represented. So why so few stars?

First, while it may be part of her delusions, it’s never made clear if Miles’ grandfather was actually alive during WWII. Alex takes it as fact, and it’s not one that’s ever disputed the way others are. It’s a real stretch for someone Miles’s age to have a grandparent who was alive in WWII as anything other than a baby (and even then, that’s a stretch), particularly since this grandfather is through his maternal line, and women have less of a window in which to have children than men do. It may seem like a small issue, but it’s something that really bugged me. I’m ok with it if it’s ultimately part of one of Alex’s delusions but I do think that should be made clear somewhere in the book.

I also didn’t like the entire plot surrounding Miles’s mother. Essentially, his father falsely convinces the authorities that she’s crazy so that she’ll get locked up in a mental institution and not be able to leave her abusive marriage with her son. The fact that she’s been locked up for years and no one has noticed is just not something I believe could happen in this day and age. The initial mental health screening? Yes. A sane woman remaining in an institution for years against her will? No. It’s clearly established that this is a real thing that happens, not one of Alex’s delusions, and it just had me rolling my eyes.

The ending struck a sour note for me as well. Without giving anything away, Alex is presented as a strong young woman battling an equally strong illness and in the end she kind of just loses her gumption. While I think accepting help is good, the way she accepts it and the way she graduates from it both rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure about the message it’s sending to the YA audience.

So while I really appreciate the character of Alex and seeing schizophrenia represented to realistically and while the plot did keep me reading, enough sour notes were hit for me that I ultimately just found it to be an average read.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge
Specific Illness –> Schizophrenia

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 Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

July 11, 2016 1 comment

Book Review: The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie KinsellaSummary:
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?

Review:
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

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Last to Know by Melissa Hill

Book Review: The Last to Know by Melissa HillSummary:
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….

Review:
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.

*spoilers*
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!
*end spoilers*

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

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Book Review: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles

February 15, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien CharlesSummary:
Daria loves the city of Odessa in her home country of the Ukraine. The history of the city, the architecture, and the food. But she’s a highly educated engineer unable to find a job in her field, so she’s stuck working as a secretary for an Israeli import business, dodging the advances of both her own boss and the boss of the local mob. She takes on a second job translating for an online dating agency that matches Ukrainian women with American men. Soon she gets swept up in the idea of escaping to America, where she could actually work as an engineer and get treated like a queen by a man who won’t drink too much or keep mistresses or leave her. But will the reality of America match her dreams? And will living there ever be able to compare to her life in Odessa?

Review:
Confession. I have a thing for mail order bride / arranged marriage stories. I also have a thing for watching reality tv shows about marriages that will inevitably be trainwrecks (I’m looking at you, 90 Day Fiance). I was expecting this book to basically be the equivalent of 90 Day Fiance only on paper. Delightful, yet trashy. What I found was a book that was indeed truly delightful, but that also brought a realistic, humanizing face to modern day marriages that are not for love.

The book lingers in Odessa much longer than I was initially expecting, and I’m so glad it did. This gives a firm basis for who Daria is before she comes to America and really puts the reader in her shoes. The author clearly has a love for and strong knowledge of Odessa, Ukrainian culture, and the Russian language. Within just a few pages, it immediately becomes clear that Daria is whip-smart. Her understanding of the ins and outs of both English and Russian are amazing. She is witty, and it’s easy to see how she would have succeeded in any life circumstance. But it also quickly becomes apparent that although she loves Odessa, it doesn’t let her truly grow into who she wants to be. Every life experience she has had has taught her that Odessan/Ukrainian men will only use her and leave her, and she wants a lifetime partner and commitment. Similarly, she can’t use her engineering degree in Odessa, due to the economy, and she wants to live someplace where she can. The clear and slow unveiling of these conjoining life situations helps the reader to come to understand why she is willing to have a business-style marriage, rather than a love marriage. The American man she meets needs a wife, and she needs a life partner and a ticket to a better life.

Of course, not all is as it seems with the American man. The second half of the book dives into life in America for Daria and depicts the harsh realities of using a business-style marriage to immigrate. Even if her marriage had been perfect (which wow it isn’t), Daria still suffers culture-shock and the realization that America is definitely not perfect. There are pros and cons to living anywhere in the world.

Although her marriage is on the worse side of the arranged marriage bell curve, the author still shows the variety of marriages that can result from this type of arrangement by having Daria naturally seek out other women who came to America in similar ways. She thus meets women in both better and worse marriages than her own, and so the reader sees how, although it can possibly work out, the whole situation is ripe for abuse. For instance, if a marriage that included a K1 visa (bringing a non-US citizen into the US) is dissolved within 3 years then the spouse who was brought over on the K1 visa loses their citizenship. This means that women in these types of marriages are afraid to leave abusive situations because they believe that they will automatically be deported. There are exceptions for cases of abuse, but the women often do not know that, and the men in these situations often threaten the women with deportation. This information is all given within the book with subtlety and within the context of what will Daria do now, which lends a human face to the situation.

Given how interesting and realistic most of the book was, I must admit that I felt the end of the book went a bit soap opera, and the ending in general left me wanting. I can’t put my finger on what exactly about it left me feeling as if the story was incomplete, but it did. I don’t have any regrets about reading the book, though, because I so enjoyed seeing the world through Daria’s eyes.

Overall, anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction and is interested in either the Ukraine or the modern day “mail order bride” as done through online agencies will enjoy this book. The main character is rich and well-rounded and brings a human face to the often underrepresented immigrant side of the K1 visa story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge