Book Reviews: December 2016

what belongs to you review, here comes the sun review, everything everything, white teeth, in a dark dark wood, december reads

White Teeth

I’m so happy to have read my first Zadie Smith. Reading her work has only deepened my crush on her as an author. She always comes across so intelligently and elegantly in interviews and articles (similar to my other love, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). It was a pleasure to read her first novel and confirm that I enjoyed her writing just as much as I thought I would.

This book follows two families living in London from about 1950-2000. Samad and Archie fought in World War II together and remained friends when Samad moved to London after the war. The book explores race, immigrant experiences, displacement, family dynamics and much more. I loved seeing snippets of what life in London might have been like during this time period.

Smith’s writing is so sharp and witty, and even funny at times, which I wasn’t expecting. Her intelligence seeps through in every paragraph, though not at all in a way that makes you feel like you’re reading a textbook. Zadie Smith discusses Eastern vs. Western ideals and how the two cultures often clash. Samad desperately wants his children to be proper Muslim children, but feels that their lives in London make this impossible.

There’s so much to unpack in this novel that I can’t do it justice here, but I can sufficiently say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

What Belongs to You

I had to add this novel to my list of favorite books of 2016 because I loved it that much. The narrator is an English teacher living in Bulgaria who strikes up a relationship with a young prostitute named Mitko, and the book is mainly about the relationship between these two men.

Greenwell’s writing is simply excellent. It’s so lyrical and flows beautifully, and he does such a wonderful job of capturing human emotions. This story asks how well you can truly know someone. The narrator doesn’t know much about Mitko. He only really knows the face that Mitko has presented to him. He begins to realize, however, that Mitko has many different faces. Perhaps everyone does.

Language is also an important theme. The narrator speaks passing Bulgarian, but isn’t always able to translate everything that Mitko says to him. So there are misunderstandings and meanings that are lost to the narrator because he’s not fluent in the language.

The difficulty with language is only one of the barriers between the narrator and Mitko. The narrator pays Mitko to spend time with him, so he can never really know if Mitko has genuine feelings for him, or if he’s simply there to complete their transaction. Mitko invites the narrator to get to know him and makes him feel important, while at the same time, keeps parts of his life and background hidden.

This book is worth reading for the writing alone, but in addition, there are so many interesting topics discussed in this novel. If you haven’t already read this one, I’d highly recommend that you do.

Everything, Everything

Madeline is the girl who lives in a bubble. She has a severe autoimmune disease and contact with anything in the outside world could cause a reaction and kill her. So she lives in carefully controlled environment and is content with her life, until a new family moves in next door. She starts talking to the boy next door, Ollie, and begins to dream about what life is like outside her four walls.

I thought this was a sweet and charming story. I enjoyed Maddie as a character; she’s mixed race (and it was great to read a novel with a mixed race protagonist) and bookish. The book also features different mediums (there are emails, notes, handwritten illustrations, and more) and I thought the incorporation of those formats was well done. I was really enjoying it and thought it was light-hearted and fun until a thing happened. And after the thing, I liked the book less. Not to the point where I wanted to stop reading, but still, the thing threw me for a loop. Even now, I’m trying to untangle my feelings about the thing and I think my problem is that it felt very inauthentic. Overall, I still liked the novel and I plan to read Nicola Yoon’s other book.

Here Comes the Sun

This was another excellent read that nearly made my favorites of the year. It’s set in Jamaica and tells the story of three women: Delores and her daughters, Margot and Thandi. Each woman has struggles to overcome and goals that they want to achieve.

Delores and Margot have placed all of their hopes and dreams on Thandi because she’s book smart. Both of them work really hard to provide for her because they believe that if she does well in school, she can become a doctor or a lawyer and really make something of herself. Meanwhile, Thandi feels this immense pressure and is apprehensive about sharing her own dreams.

The characterization is excellent in this novel. I felt like I really knew each of these women and understood what motivates them. I also loved the setting and getting a taste of life in Jamaica. The author discusses race and beauty and the idea that darker skin is ugly, while light skin is beautiful. Delores even says something along the lines of, “There is nothing worse than being dark, poor, and ugly” and this idea is ingrained throughout the community.

The author also explores the lives of the residents of this town in Jamaica. The jobs at the resorts are considered cushy jobs because they pay relatively well, but at the same time, the development of new resorts is driving people out of their own homes.

I thought this was a fascinating, well-written novel, filled with true, yet heartbreaking observations. It’s definitely one to add to your TBR if you haven’t read it.

In a Dark, Dark Wood

Nora is invited to the hen (bachelorette) weekend for her friend Clare, but it’s strange because she hasn’t spoken to Clare in nearly ten years. She decides to go anyway, at the very least to find out why Clare has decided to reach out after all these years. The invitees travel to a house in the woods in the English countryside, where things take a dark turn…

Meh. I felt pretty ambivalent towards this book. About two-thirds of the way through, I noticed that I kept putting the book down and tuning into something else. It just wasn’t holding my attention anymore. But I still finished it because it was an easy read and I wasn’t that far away from the end.

This was so predictable, to the point where things happened exactly as I thought they would. I didn’t care about any of the characters or their relationships because they were all one-dimensional. Also, Nora is supposed to be a crime writer in this book, but I just didn’t buy it. I think that if she were a good writer, she’d also have been able to predict where the story was headed. I enjoyed the setting and thought the premise had promise, but this book didn’t thrill me.

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017

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Well, we made it. The clock has turned, the calendar’s been flipped, and it’s officially 2017. You know, I’ve been reflecting on 2016 and it wasn’t the worst year in regards to my personal life. I think 2016 was an absolutely terrible year for humanity in general, but personally, 2015 was much worse for me. So let’s just say that it’s been a rocky two years and I’m ready for better times to come around again.

Best of 2016

In the spirit of focusing on the good, here are some of my 2016 highlights:

Weddings: 2016 was the year of weddings for me (they were right when they said that the number of weddings really starts to pick up in your late twenties). I was able to see my cousin get married, as well as a close college friend, and best of all, I was a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. Such good times and I have so much love for my friends and family that got married.

Family Vacation: I love traveling and exploring new cities and this year we decided to go to Seattle and Vancouver for our family vacation. It was my first time in Canada and my first visit to Seattle. I really enjoyed both cities and the time we spent there was a good mix of exploring and relaxing. I suppose it’s not too early to start planning our 2017 vacation!

Christmas: I spent Christmas in London with my immediate family and London fam and it was so much fun. I hadn’t seen some of my cousins in ages and I loved being able to spend time with them. And I’m so happy I got to see all of my immediate family. Before we’d figured out all of our plans, I wasn’t sure that I’d get to see everyone and it made me really, really sad. But it all worked out in the end and even for those I only saw briefly (my mom only had a layover in London), a little time spent together was certainly better than nothing. As you know, I absolutely love Christmas, but I’ll admit that Christmas 2015 was really, really rough (it was our first Christmas without him). This year was better though and reminded me that I’m so grateful for the family that I have.

Looking forward in 2017

I like to set goals at the beginning of the year and I usually post them on the blog (I missed last year, but here’s 2015 and 2014). I’ve tried to keep my resolutions short and sweet this year:

Creativity: Last year, my energy really faded when it came to my blog and booktube channel, but I’d like to get back into my creative mode. I still enjoy blogging so much (obviously, or I would have shut this down a long time ago) and whenever I’m not working on a creative project, I really miss it. So in 2017 I’d like to get back to pursuing my creative passions because they continue to be important to me.

Movement: I tend to settle into a routine and get stuck in it. This year, I want to break out those ruts and push myself out of my comfort zone a bit.

Travel: All of my 2016 highlights involved traveling and in 2017, I’d really like to take advantage of any opportunity I have to get out and explore the world. In particular, I’d love to go on a solo trip. This was one of my goals last year, but I didn’t get the chance to make it happen. This year, I’d love to save up some money and go somewhere. It doesn’t even have to be far away- I’d just love to plan and experience a solo trip.

What was one of your 2016 highlights? Do you have any goals for 2017?

(image via Death to Stock Photo)

London, Here I Come!

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I’m so very excited- a week from today, I’m jetting off to London to spend Christmas with my family! My family is flying over from California and we’ll be visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins who live there. It will be so great to see my relatives again and to meet my littlest cousins, who weren’t around yet when I last visited.

I’ve been to London twice before and the last time was in the summer of 2010. This will be my first time going as an adult though and I can’t wait to do some exploring. Just thinking about seeing London all dressed up the holidays brings a happy tear to my eye!

Since we’re going to visit family, I imagine a good chunk of time will be spent at their home, but there are a few places I’d like to visit if we have the time. I’m still putting together my list, but here are a few of the spots on my radar:

Sketch (afternoon tea): This place is pretty pricey, but also very pretty. Also, I’ve never done a proper sit-down tea before and I feel like it would be really fun.

Persephone (books): You know there will be at least one book store on any travel list I’m making! This company publishes really beautiful books and I’ve always been jealous of my bookish friends in the UK who have easy access to their store.

National History Museum: I’d love to go to a museum or two while I’m there and my cousins suggested that we go to one with an ice rink outside. Museum-hopping and ice skating sounds like the perfect winter day to me.

If you have any London recommendations, I’d love to read about them in the comments below. What do you have planned for the holidays?

(image via)

Book Reviews: October and November 2016

we love you charlie freeman review, eligible review, reading wrap-up, october reads, halloween reads

Eligible

I’ll start right off by saying that this was a disappointing read for me. I expected to like this novel much more than I actually did. I will also state that my reading experience may have been colored by my troubles with the ebook. I borrowed this ebook from the library and constantly had trouble loading the chapters. Since this book is split up into more than one hundred short chapters, you can imagine how stilted my reading experience was.

Plot-wise, you’ll already know what happens in this retelling of Pride and Prejudice if you’ve read the original. The story pretty much sticks to the original script, except that it’s set in the present day in Pittsburgh. In a recent review, I mentioned that my main criteria for a retelling is that it remain respectful of the original story, while adding a new twist. In this aspect, Eligible really fell short for me. Yes, the location was changed and the setting updated, but it wasn’t enough to make the story feel new and fresh. Structurally, as I mentioned before, the novel is divided into many short chapters. Because of this, I felt that the reading experience wasn’t smooth because the story was constantly stopping and starting. In addition, some of the chapters didn’t seem to add anything to the story and I was left wondering why they were included in the first place.

Let’s talk about the characters too. Most of the characters were terrible people. You know I don’t mind an “unlikeable” character (in fact, give me a twisted, diabolical main character any day), but my cardinal rule is that a character must be compelling. I didn’t find these characters very compelling. In fact, they were rather tiresome. I believe that they were purposefully written this way, but I still grew weary of these characters. The character that concerned me the most was Mrs. Bennet. She’s described by her own daughter as racist and makes offensive comments. The other characters react to her statements with embarrassment, but I felt that they should denounce her, or at least call out her bad behavior. I guess what bothered me the most was that Mrs. Bennet has this huge character flaw, but it’s written off as a kooky character quirk.

I guess I’ll stop carrying on about what I didn’t like in this book, but I was just really disappointed. To give the author credit, P&P is a difficult story to tackle. My disappointment in this book won’t prevent me from trying one of her other novels to see if the author and I might get along better with a different story.

In the Woods

I am now one of the many people who sing Tana French’s praises. October was the perfect time to tackle my first Tana French novel, which was sitting on my TBR shelf for months.

When Adam is a young boy, he goes into the woods with his two best friends, but he is the only one to make it back out of the woods. The disappearance of his friends is investigated, but the case is never solved. Several years later, Adam has become a detective, and picks up a case that brings him in contact with his past.

Oooo, this was so good. The pacing is slow and steady, but so engrossing throughout. More than two-thirds of the way through the novel, I still had no idea who did it and only slowly began to understand what happened at the very end. The book is set in Ireland and the descriptions of the setting are vivid. With the woods in particular, I could feel some of the terror that Adam felt on that fateful day when his friends disappeared. French’s characters are rich and I felt like I was investigating this case alongside them. I was wholly invested in the story and felt each defining moment keenly.

In this book, French explores relationships between family members and between friends. There is definitely an air of nostalgia here, as the novel switches back and forth between the present day, the recent past, when Adam is investigating the case, and the more distant past when Adam was a kid. There is much more I could say about this, but I don’t want to discuss anything that might give away the plot. If you’ve read this novel, let me know, so I can talk about the thing that I’m dying to talk about! This was the perfect blend of literary fiction, mystery, crime, and suspense, and I cannot wait to read the rest of the novels in this series.

Through the Woods

I picked up this graphic novel based on a recommendation from Book and Quills in her video on Halloween Reads and I’m so glad I did. This is a collection of short stories with spooky, supernatural elements. I think I’d psyched myself out and expected the stories to be scarier, but actually, I think they had the perfect amount of creepiness. I loved the style of the illustrations as well, and the bold, vibrant colors utilized in some of the stories. One page in particular did give me a real fright- I turned the page and flinched! Anyways, I really enjoyed this book and it made me decide that I need to add more graphic novels to my TBR.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Tales

I hadn’t read Poe since high school, but I remembered being introduced to his work for class and loving it. October seemed to be the month of switching up my reading habits, as I don’t read many graphic novels and I don’t read many short story collections. I was craving some old school horror though and decided that Halloween was the best time to read the master of the creepy short story.

I’d read a few of these stories before, but many were new to me. Even for the stories I’d already read, I found myself delighted by the twist, as if it were all new to me. The stories that I enjoyed the most are some of the most well-known ones, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Cast of Amontillado.” I also loved the stories that reminded me of the classic detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie (although I suppose Poe came first!). Since the language is a bit dense, I decided to read one or two of these stories a night, and I really enjoyed dipping in and out of the collection.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The only thing I knew when I started this book is that is much beloved. I was excited to read my first Shirley Jackson novel and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Since I didn’t know anything about the plot, I didn’t know what to expect. I was soon captivated by the voice of our narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood. After finishing the novel, I was surprised to discover the she is 18 years old when she recounts this story, even though it’s one of the very first things she tells us. However, her voice in the novel feels much younger, which I believe works well with the background story we are given.

Since this is such a brief novel, it’s hard to talk about it without giving things away. I will say that Jackson has a way of making the ordinary seem very interesting. I also had a hard time narrowing down the exact time period and the setting, although the introduction in my edition led me to believe that the setting is somewhat obvious if you are more familiar with the area or Jackson’s work than I am. It’s a story about people who are odd ducklings, who don’t fit in, which is a feeling that I think we’ve all felt at one time or another. At first, I couldn’t believe the behavior of some of the characters in this novel, but then I thought about it a little more, and I could. Jackson’s novel clearly contains a timelessness that makes this story as pointed today as it was when it was first published.

A Monster Calls

This book made my heart ache. At the beginning of the novel, Conor’s mother is very sick, and recently he’s been having the same nightmare each night, in which a terrible monster appears. This is a beautifully written story about grief and pain. I found this so moving (yes, I did cry) and so adept at capturing the feelings that you experience if you’ve ever been in a similar situation as Conor. The book is written in a storytelling style which I found very engaging, with conversations between Conor and the monster and stories told within the novel itself. I believe this book is technically middle grade, but I think it would be compelling to readers of all ages. I definitely want to see the movie, but I’ll be sure to have my tissues handy. If you’re in the mood for a lovely and heartbreaking story, then I highly recommend that you pick this one up.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

I’ve been meaning to read this book since the beginning of this year and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. The Freeman family has been selected by the Tonybee Institute for a unique opportunity. They will adopt a chimpanzee into their family, treat him like a family member and teach him sign language. As you can imagine, each member of the family feels differently about this experience and we follow them as they begin their new life at the Institute.

The premise is certainly wacky and different, which is what drew me in initially. The author uses this premise to explore race. The Freeman family is black and hearing that they’ve been selected to participate in an ‘experiment’ automatically raises some flags, as we know that horrible things have been done to black people in the name of science. There’s a fascinating overlap between race and language in this novel as well. Greenidge writes about the way that race can affect the way that your words are interpreted, and how language can be racially coded. There is language both spoken and unspoken, since the family communicates orally and with sign language. In one anecdote, we learn that the mother of the family stopped speaking for a period of time when she was younger. When she spoke, her words could be twisted or misinterpreted, so instead, she communicated with handwritten notes.

The novel is also about growing up, and how lonely and confusing it can be. Compound that with the fact that they’re black and newcomers, and you can understand why Charlotte, the teenager in this family, feels so isolated. It’s human nature to want to be seen, known, and loved, and Charlotte tries to navigate those feelings throughout the book.

I thought this was a well-written, insightful debut novel. The book is written from various perspectives, including members of the Freeman family, and a character in the past. Race is one of the main themes, but the author also discusses class, family relationships, sexuality, and more. I was reading this book right before and after the election and it felt really timely. I identified with the “otherness” that the characters were experiencing because I was feeling it too. I found this to be a very compelling read and I think that if the premise interests you, you should definitely give it a try.