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Review: Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen

The book in three sentences: As sisters Van and Linny grew up, they also grew apart. To take care of their father, they must learn to reconcile their differences. Short Girls is as much a novel about complicated familial relationships as it is about the immigrant family experience.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long (no spoilers): Short Girls is a unique story about the challenges of growing up as a first-generation Vietnamese-American in the United States. Although the pacing is slow and the characters are not particularly likable, I enjoyed the book because I saw some of my childhood and my friends’ childhoods reflected in this novel.

The story is told through both Van and Linny’s perspectives, each chapter alternating between the two sisters. The more you read, the more you begin to develop a fuller understanding– a more complete picture– of what is going on in their family. I liked this narrative technique because both characters have an opportunity to speak or stand up for themselves, and also offer an outsider’s view of the other.

As the title implies, Van and Linny are short girls. Their father is overly obsessed by this, and when they were young would constantly remind them that there were plenty of famous short people and if they worked hard to prove themselves, they could be well-off too. It doesn’t take long to work out that the sisters’ lack of height is a proxy for their lack of whiteness. Van herself makes the connection when she comments that being Vietnamese in Michigan is like being short in a room full of tall people.

Continue reading “Review: Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen”
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Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser

The book in two sentences: Devoney Looser explores Jane Austen’s long and lasting legacy as one of the most brilliant novelists to ever exist. In this book, we see Austen illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and schooled in ways that give voice to Austen’s lesser-known authorities.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long: I made it through a whopping four pages of Pride and Prejudice the first time I picked it up. I was in sixth grade and figured it was about time I started reading “the Classics” (whatever that meant). I wouldn’t end up finishing the book until two or three years later.

Since then, Pride and Prejudice has become my favorite novel. I have read it nearly 20 times, listened to the audiobook version almost twice as much, collected fan-fiction and spin-off books, and been to a number of stage adaptations.

There are many reasons I love Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s biting social commentary on class, marriage, and wealth, to say the least—but the most meaningful to me is that it has helped me track my growth as a reader, and as a person, over the past 18 years. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I’ve either learned something new about myself, or something new about the book and the author; it never ceases to surprise me!

Devoney Looser’s novel The Making of Jane Austen is a wonderful continuation of this tradition. Her book explores the legacy of Austen in four parts through lesser-known historical figures. In the first part, she wonders how “illustrations seen by Austen’s first generation of readers shaped then-developing understandings of the author and her fiction” (15). A number of artistic choices made in the 19th century carry weight even today, and have influenced early stage and screen adaptations of Austen’s novels.

Continue reading “Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser”

Review: Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

The book in two sentences: This collection of short stories centers around the lives of Haitian women, across space and time, in a dialogue about identity, autonomy, suffering, and strength. It is a thematically “heavy” conversation, and gives the reader an opportunity to sit in their discomfort.

Rating: ✈  Travel companion

Long story short (no spoilers): What I enjoy most about short story collections is trying to figure out how each story connects to the others. Sometimes these connections are obvious, and other times they are more obscure.

At its core, Krik? Krak! is about the lives and deaths of Haitian women, their communities, whether real or imagined, and their relationship with violence. There are times when characters from one store appear, however briefly, in another, or when a character in one story alludes to a character in a another story. There are also a number of crosscutting themes throughout the book—self-preservation, how identity is strongly tethered to a place, the power in ancestral lineage—that surface frequently.

One theme that stood out to me was the rendering of time. It is difficult to know when exactly Danticat’s stories take place and over what period of time (e.g., days? weeks? months?). This gives a sense that these stories (and subsequently the violence, pain, suffering, and hope) are both eternal and fleeting. I haven’t quite decided what that means yet, but perhaps in my next reading of Krik? Krak! I can tackle that question.

Have you read this book or another by Danticat? What did you think? Comment below!

Review: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

The book in two sentences: Nadifa Mohamed weaves a beautiful and haunting tale of life in a Somalian city as the country is on the brink of civil war. As refugees, soldiers, and rebels pour in, the lives of three women—a widow, an orphan, and a soldier—are bound forever.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers): In her novel, Mohamed captures the senselessness of war from the perspective of ordinary people. Even Filsan, the soldier, has never been in combat before and is more a civilian in that sense than the widow Kawsar and even the young orphan girl Deqo, both of whom have lost their families to the growing political turmoil.

You see the buildup towards what will eventually become a civil war from the viewpoint of these three women. The increased presence of soldiers and checkpoints, the arrests of students, the kidnapping and killing of intellectuals, the banning of outside news outlets and journalists, the rationing of food and water, all signs of an increasingly totalitarian government. If you are wondering how things can even get this far, this book begins to answer that question, and it is equal parts compelling and terrifying.

Continue reading “Review: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed”

Currently reading: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

Review: The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The book in three sentences: After graduating from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony begins her apprenticeship in paper magic with Magician Emery Thane. Her studies are interrupted when Thane’s heart is ripped from his body by a magician who specializes in blood magic. In order to save his life, Ceony gives chase and ends up in a place she never saw coming—Thane’s heart (literally).

Rating: 🏡  Left behind

Long story short (spoilers): Though I heard lots of positive things about the Paper Magician series, I am really disappointed in this book.

  • Characters are poorly written: I just didn’t care about any of them, there’s nothing special about them, they are so common; Ceony is 19 but acts like she’s 13; there is no chemistry between her and Thane; Ceony cooks, cleans, and even does Thane’s laundry though these are not part of her apprenticeship (your story has magic in it, and your female character still does all the emotional and physical labor?? That’s just unimaginative writing).
  • The plot is poorly developed: the first third of the book breezes through an introduction to Ceony and her world, and sets up a weak relationship between her and Thane, which results in an implausible love sub-plot (which is made more creepy by the fact that they are student and teacher and she is 19 and he is in his early 30s). The pacing in the last two-thirds of the book is equally jarring. Holmberg gives Ceony an inadequate and ill-defined backstory which meant nothing to me when it was revealed because of how little time we have to get to know (and care about) Ceony.
  • The world-building is non-existent: we hardly see what “magic” means in this world; the author breaks her own universe rules; there is no sense of wonder because the story is preoccupied with itself.

Not only does the book fail to meet many of my criteria for strong storytelling, but on top of than that, it also feels like a blatant rip-off of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the original animated series). People can cast spells with specific elements (including blood)? Though it was thought impossible, the protagonist in this book is somehow able to master other elements as well (that’s in book 3 of the series)? Um…no.

It’s safe to say that I won’t be reading the rest of the series, which is a bummer because I’m in the mood for alternatives to Harry Potter. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments below!

Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The book in two sentences: It’s 1921 and Parveen Mistry joins her father’s law firm as one of the first female lawyers in India. Her past comes back to haunt her as she investigates three widows who left their entire inheritance to a mysterious charity.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short: I had a great time reading this book. While it was a little slow to start, the pacing picks up after the first few chapters and I found it difficult to put down.

Parveen is a wonderful protagonist, and as the story jumps back-and-forth between her past and present selves, she grows as a character. The plot is also very intriguing, and introduces readers to the eccentric blend of ethnic and religious communities in 1920s Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). Having spent childhood summers in that city, it was exciting and emotional to imagine myself and Parveen going to the same places decades apart.

This book is the first in a new series, and I’m looking forward to reading the next when it’s out in early 2019. Have you read The Widows of Malabar Hill or another work by Sujata Massey? What did you think?

Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

Rating: ✈ Travel companion

Long story short: I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The concept is something right up my alley, both interesting and enthralling, and featuring strong characters, but the pacing is too slow and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. There are some great action and suspense sequences throughout the book, places where I could feel my heart pounding and goosebumps forming, but the ending left me feeling adrift.

Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, but I’m not motivate to read the next two books. I watched the movie and have mixed feelings about it, too. Have you read or seen Annihilation? What did you think? Does the rest of the trilogy flesh out the story some more? Is it worth reading?

Review: Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Brief synopsis (back cover): When prototype models for a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, employees soon learn that someone is using these new machines to drive them all insane. Brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba—whose alter ego is a dream detective named Paprika—realizes she is in danger. She must venture into the dream world in order to fight her mysterious opponents. Soon nightmares begin to leak into daily life and the borderline between dream and reality grows unclear. The future of the waking world is at stake.

Rating: ✈ Travel companion

Long story short: Science fiction and mystery are two of my favorite genres, and I really enjoyed the way they intersect in this book. Other things this book does well:

  • It is convincing. The new technology that allows people to enter each other’s dreams is legitimized in the book in the form of buy-in from the scientific community. Even without their endorsement, the concept is weird and “out there” enough to be believable. Also, considering the book was first published in 1993, it has aged well.
  • The plot moves along. Though a little slow at first, it picks up about a quarter of the way in and is a thrilling ride till the end.
  • It offers some social commentary. While it focuses on the challenges of scientific research, asking questions like Who is research for? and Can you have research for research’s sake?, it also explores the way in which we treat mental illness and therapy.

Some minor critiques:

  • There is some sexual exploitation and violence. However, it is not necessarily gratuitous; that is, it speaks to characters’ mindsets and serves as an explanation for their motivations.
  • There are a lot of characters. Not quite Game of Thrones style, but at times still distracting.

My next step is to watch the anime movie based on this book that came out in 2006. Have you read the book or watched the movie? What did you think?

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