reviews

Self-Portrait with Boy // Rachel Lyon

Thank you to Scribner, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon, which will publish February 6, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet.  Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation.  One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death.  The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made.  It’s an image that could change her life…if she lets it.

But the decision to show the photograph is not easy.  The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together.  It especially unites Lu with his beautiful grieving mother, Kate.  As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to use the photograph to advance her career, and to protect a woman she has come to love.

Set in early 90s Brooklyn on the brink of gentrification, Self-Portrait with Boy is a provocative commentary about the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success, a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship, and a brilliant debut from novelist Rachel Lyon.


I have to be honest, I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into with Self-Portrait with Boy.  I was initially drawn in by the stunning cover, and I’ve been craving an artistic read since I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson a few years ago, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

One of the things I appreciated most about this novel was the characters.  None of them were exactly likable, and Lu was probably the biggest anti-heroine I’ve ever read, but I became invested in each character and their relationships.  They felt remarkably real; even Lu’s loft came across as a character of its own.  For me, the best kind of story is that in which the atmosphere feels essential, and Self-Portrait with Boy is definitely one of those tales.

It was difficult to adjust to the quotation-less dialogue, but once I got past it I was able to immerse myself into the story and fully enjoy it, if “enjoy” is the right word.  Self-Portrait with Boy was slow moving at first, but it eventually picked up at full speed and I found myself flying through it.

What really worked for me was the supernatural element.  Lu is haunted by the ghost of the falling boy as she struggles to decide what to do with her self-portrait, either destroy it or find a place for it in a gallery; I believed this haunting to be a manifestation of her guilt, having grown close to the boy’s mother, Kate.  It was a nice addition to the story, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

All in all, Rachel Lyon’s debut, Self-Portrait with Boy, makes her a powerful voice to look out for.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Everything Here is Beautiful // Mira T. Lee

Thank you to Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin Viking, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, which will publish January 16, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Two sisters- Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the headstrong, unpredictable one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing.  When their mother dies and Lucia starts hearing voices, it is Miranda who must find a way to reach her sister.  But Lucia impetuously plows ahead, marrying a bighearted, older man only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant.  She moves her new family from the States to Ecuador and back again, but the bitter constant is that she is, in fact, mentally ill.  Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until, inevitably, she crashes to earth.
 
Miranda leaves her own self-contained life in Switzerland to rescue her sister again- but only Lucia can decide whether she wants to be saved.  The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans- but what does it take to break them?
 
Told in alternating points of view, Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its heart, the story of a young woman’s quest to find fulfillment and a life unconstrained by her illness.  But it’s also an unforgettable, gut-wrenching story of the sacrifices we make to truly love someone- and when loyalty to one’s self must prevail over all.


Everything Here is Beautiful is simply a beautiful book, inside and out.  Mira T. Lee writes with a style reminiscent of Celeste Ng and Hanya Yanagihara; she clearly knows how to craft a story.  The book is told from multiple points of view, including the two sisters, Miranda and Lucia, as well as Lucia’s husband Yonah and later her boyfriend Manuel.  Lee changes her writing style according to the character- she jumps from short, abrupt sentences, to long, flowery ones.  She even changes between first and third person at several points during the novel, which is a pet peeve of mine and normally seems too stylistic, but here it’s smooth and successful.

At its heart, Everything Here is Beautiful is about the sisterhood between Miranda, the hardworking and reliable older sister, who is seven years senior to her younger counterpart Lucia, the energetic, enigmatic one of the pair.  Miranda has always acted as Lucia’s caretaker, from their immigration to America to their mother’s death to Lucia’s battle with mental illness; Miranda feels haunted by the promise she made to her mother before she died, that she would always look after her baby sister.  In a way, Lucia almost resents Miranda for this, and the seemingly perfect life she has with her husband in Switzerland.  It’s a complicated relationship, both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

Mira T. Lee’s debut novel Everything Here is Beautiful is eye-opening, introspective, and moving.  The portrayal of Lucia’s illness, a complicated combination of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and manic disorder, is alarmingly accurate, and Lee handles mental illness as a real health problem without being too preachy.  The themes of sisterhood and mental illness lie at the forefront of the story, but Everything Here is Beautiful is also about immigration and the struggle to obtain a green card in America.  With these major themes, Lee packs a lot into one novel, but it never seems like too much.

Mira T. Lee is definitely an author to look out for, as Everything Here is Beautiful might just make my 2018 favorites list!

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Queen of Hearts // Kimmery Martin

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin, which will publish February 13, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Zadie Anson and Emma Colley have been best friends since their early twenties, when they first began navigating serious romantic relationships amid the intensity of medical school.  Now they’re happily married wives and mothers with successful careers- Zadie as a pediatric cardiologist and Emma as a trauma surgeon.  Their lives in Charlotte, North Carolina are chaotic but fulfilling, until the return of a former colleague unearths a secret one of them has been harboring for years.

As chief resident, Nick Xenokostas was the center of Zadie’s life- both professionally and personally- throughout a tragic chain of events in her third year of medical school that she has long since put behind her.  Nick’s unexpected reappearance during a time of new professional crisis shocks both women into a deeper look at the difficult choices they made at the beginning of their careers.  As it becomes evident that Emma must have known more than she revealed about circumstances that nearly derailed both their lives, Zadie starts to question everything she thought she knew about her closest friend.


Kimmery Martin’s charming debut, The Queen of Hearts, has been pitched as Grey’s Anatomy meets Big Little Lies, a statement that could not be more accurate.  It’s a smart, sweet, and witty novel about friendship and forgiveness, with emergency room trauma at the center of it all.

The Queen of Hearts is real and refreshing, but it has its faults.  One thing that stuck out to me immediately was Martin’s overuse of SAT vocabulary, which made for awkward language and broke the flow between sentences.  The pretentious-sounding diction didn’t mesh well with the otherwise not-so-pretentious story, and the story itself is full of predictable plot twists.  Not only that, but Martin jumps right into it, which may be a great strategy to captivate the audience, but it severely hindered the character development.  I found that by the end of the novel, after all the major events had happened, I didn’t exactly care about the characters and their tragedies.  Perhaps I am just spoiled by long, character-driven novels in which there is nothing but pages and pages of development.

However, what The Queen of Hearts lacks in style and strategy, it makes up for in humor.  Martin writes dialogue-heavy prose that’s sure to make you laugh out loud at least a few times, most likely due to Zadie’s interactions with her three year-old daughter Delaney.  The Queen of Hearts is light and airy, and a quick, easy read; I devoured its entirety in just a few hours.  It’s a perfect book to pull you out of a reading slump.

Fans of medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy will fall in love with The Queen of Hearts.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Little Fires Everywhere // Celeste Ng

In this sophomore novel, Celeste Ng returns with her elegant, clear, and concise writing style.  Little Fires Everywhere is literary without being dry, and thrilling without being trite.  It’s highly engaging, and a quick read, but it’s still slow paced (which sounds contradictory but somehow applies).  Ng is an enormously talented writer; she is brilliant at sneaking little details into the story, and revealing the underlying motivations of each character.  Little Fires Everywhere took me on a roller coaster of emotions, from joy to confusion to pure anger, but I believe that to be part of the reason it’s so enjoyable.


“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over.  After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.  People are like that, too.  They start over.  They find a way.”

-Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere


From the jacket:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned- from the layout of the winding roads to the colors of the houses to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead.  And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren- an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble wit her teenage daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons.  Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair.  But Mia carries wit her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town- and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past.  But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.  Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood- and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.


“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother?  Was it biology alone, or was it love?”

-Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere


Ng uses an assortment of events in this novel to tell the real story: that of the relationship between mothers and daughters.  The theme of motherhood is explored through Mia and her daughter Pearl, through Elena and her four children (centered around Izzy), and through the custody battle that divides the town and makes everyone question what makes a mother.  Looking back, I realize that I didn’t exactly like any of the characters- Elena was cruel, Izzy was annoying, and Mia was frustrating… but in some way their unlikeability made the story more impactful.  Since there was no clear favorite character, I could separate myself from any bias I might’ve had to truly understand the messages Ng meant to portray.


“The problem with rules… was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things.  When, in fact, most of the time they were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure what side of the line you stood on.”

-Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere


Overall, I really enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, but I don’t think it measured up to the sheer brilliance of Ng’s 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, which just so happens to be one of my all time favorite novels.  In comparison, Little Fires felt a bit more disorganized in terms of plot, with a less memorable story and bland characters.  However, Ng’s writing in this second novel is stronger and and even more skillfully constructed.  Though Little Fires Everywhere was a slight disappointment, Celeste Ng remains a favorite author of mine.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Interestings // Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is one of those novels that you either love or hate, and after turning the last page, I can happily say that I fell in love with this book.  I found it to be highly captivating, with memorable and, yes, interesting characters that seemed so real to me.


From the back cover:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable.  Decades later the bond remains, but so much else has changed.  Not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence.  The kind of creativity rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty- not to mention age fifty.  Wolitzer follows her characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, resigns herself to a more practical occupation.  Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing guitar and becomes an engineer.  But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful- true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding.  Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters, The Interestings explores the way that class, power, art, money, success, and friendship can shift and tilt precariously over the course of a life.


“People could not get enough of what they had lost, even if they no longer wanted it.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings


The Interestings follows a group of six people from their teenage years at a summer camp in the Berkshires to complicated adulthood in their fifties.  Jules Jacobson is the main voice of the story, though friends Ethan, Ash, Jonah, and camp directors Manny and Edie make frequent appearances.  One of the things I appreciated most about these characters is that they felt so natural and realistic; each person had their imperfections, and those flaws made them who they are.

The only complaint I have about The Interestings is that I wanted more, specifically more on Jules’s teenage life outside of Spirit-in-the-Woods camp: more of her life during the school year, more of an explanation of her father’s death, etc.  Though the novel is over 500 pages (depending on the edition), I believe it was missing some key background information that could have gone to great heights to improve the story.


“You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation.  You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings


Meg Wolitzer expertly captures the human experience and the flaws that sometimes, unfortunately, define who we are.  The Interestings is a novel about art, love, life, and death told through an ensemble of characters who have certainly experienced them all.  I would highly recommend this novel and I look forward to reading more of Wolitzer’s work!

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Homegoing // Yaa Gyasi

I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing during finals week, which was probably a mistake on my part because once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.  It is incredibly powerful and engaging, a heartbreaking family saga with rich characters and an even richer story.  Homegoing takes you on the journey of seven generations, each scarred by fire either literally or figuratively, and with every tale intertwined and connected.


From the back cover:

Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other.  One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle.  The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem.  Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed- and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.


“Evil begets evil.  It grows.  It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”

-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing


Homegoing may be a novel, but it reads like a collection of fourteen short stories; there are two stories from each generation, alternating back and forth between bloodlines.  I found it a bit difficult to keep track of the descendants at first, and I kept flipping to see the family tree in the beginning of the book, but after a few chapters I got to know the characters and it became easier to tell who was related to who and in what way.  As with any book built this way, I enjoyed some stories more than others; I flew through the chapters of Ness, Abena, H, Yaw, and Marjorie, but I could’ve done without Akua’s and Sonny’s.  However, the ending truly made up for it!  Although I did predict it shortly after I started reading, it was still SO satisfying.  The ending was the happy conclusion the book needed, tying it up with a nice, pretty bow.


“You want to know what weakness is?  Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing


Homegoing covers about 250 years of both Ghanaian and American history, a tremendous feat for a debut novel.  It hits on most of the important time periods in black history, from the slave trade and the American Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance and modern civil rights movement.  It is not just a family saga but a harrowing story of escape and hardship.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Modern Lovers // Emma Straub

With end-of-semester demands drastically increasing, I found myself craving a light, easy read, and the bright turquoise spine of Modern Lovers seemed to be calling my name.  Thus, I escaped the university insanity and transported myself to summertime Brooklyn in the hopes of enjoying a cute summery story.  But Modern Lovers was a bit different than what I anticipated.


From the back cover:

Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth.  But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch to their own offspring.  Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease.  But the summer their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose can never be reclaimed.


“Choices were easy to make until you realized how long life could be.”

-Emma Straub, Modern Lovers


Quirky yet one-dimensional hipsters make up our cast of characters.  There is Elizabeth, a near-50 year old real estate agent stuck in a rut, and her husband Andrew, who faces a mid-life crisis and, during an attempt to find a new life’s purpose, becomes entranced by a hip new co-op in the neighborhood.  There is former college bandmate Zoe, grappling with the fact that her marriage is in shambles, and her wife Jane, an eccentric chef with whom Zoe operates a trendy Brooklyn restaurant called Hyacinth.  Adolescent Harry, son of Elizabeth and Andrew, experiments with becoming the “cool” teenager his parents once were and begins a relationship with childhood friend Ruby, daughter of Zoe and Jane and a recent high school graduate struggling to decide how she wants to spend the rest of her life.  Together, these characters represent the complexity of human relationships, but individually, they lack development and seem engulfed by a singular aspect of their personality.

The plot of Modern Lovers seemed a bit confused.  Without getting into spoilers, I feel like a lot of different events were haphazardly thrown in but not fully explored like they should’ve been.  I enjoyed the book and its quick wittiness, but I think it could’ve been more than just a “beach read” had it gone into a bit more depth and gave more background on the various characters and their complicated history.


“Why couldn’t everyone just stay young forever?  If not on the outside, then just on the inside, where no one ever got too old to be optimistic.”

-Emma Straub, Modern Lovers


Modern Lovers truly is a book about (yes, you guessed it) modern lovers, in every sense of the word.  Straub deeply explores every kind of relationship: husband and wife, friend and lover, even cat and owner.  She expertly examines human nature, what drives and motivates us, in a way that helped me gain perspective on some of my own relationships.  Overall, I can say that I enjoyed Modern Lovers for what it is: a light beach read, but I went into it hoping for more and came out disappointed.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.