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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.

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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: 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.

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Currently reading: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

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?

Review: Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Orphaned, raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin, Weylyn Grey knew he wasn’t like other people. But when he single-handedly stopped that tornado on a stormy Christmas day in Oklahoma, he realized just how different he actually was.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance tells the story of Weylyn Grey’s life from the perspectives of the people who knew him, loved him, and even a few who thought he was just plain weird. Although he doesn’t stay in any of their lives for long, he leaves each of them with a story to tell. Stories about a boy who lives with wolves, great storms that evaporate into thin air, fireflies that make phosphorescent honey, and a house filled with spider webs and the strange man who inhabits it.

There is one story, however, that Weylyn wishes he could change: his own. But first he has to muster enough courage to knock on Mary’s front door.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short: It’s not every day that I spend precious study hours reading for fun (okay, it’s most days, but usually not the few before a midterm).

This book has everything I enjoy in a good story: a new and unpredictable plot, suspense, interesting and relatable characters, and vivid imagery. It’s also one of those books that I simultaneously wanted to finish and hoped it would never end (to be honest, I’m a little sad that it did).

Since it’s past my bedtime, I’m only going to add: go read this book.

Review: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina García

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): National Book Award finalist Cristina García delivers a powerful and gorgeous novel about the intertwining lives of the denizens of a luxurious hotel in an unnamed Central American capital in the midst of political turmoil. The lives of six men and women converge over the course of one week. There is a Japanese-Mexican-American matadora in town for a bull-fighting competition; an ex-guerrilla now working as a waitress in the hotel coffee shop; a Korean manufacturer with an underage mistress ensconced in the honeymoon suite; an international adoption lawyer of German descent; a colonel who committed atrocities during his country’s long civil war; and a Cuban poet who has come with his American wife to adopt a local infant. With each day, their lives become further entangled, resulting in the unexpected—the clash of histories and the pull of revenge and desire.

Rating: ✈  Travel companion

Long story short: I really enjoyed The Lady Matador’s Hotel. The plot is slow-moving, but that works in the book’s favor, since the characters are far more interesting and are ultimately what make the book a compelling read. In addition, the writing is charming; it has a poetic cadence that juxtaposes provocatively with the occasional gore and violent imagery.

If you’re on vacation or at the beach, I recommend picking it up! Keep reading for a more in-depth review:

Continue reading “Review: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina García”

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