Call Me Zebra // Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Netgalley for an early review copy of Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, which will publish February 6, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts.  When war came, her family didn’t fight; they took refuge in books.  Now alone and in exile, Zebra leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago.

Books are Zebra’s only companions- until she meets Ludo.  Their connection is magnetic; their time together fraught.  Zebra overwhelms him with her complex literary theories, her concern with death, and her obsession with history.  He thinks she’s unhinged; she thinks he’s pedantic.  Neither are wrong; neither can let the other go.  They push and pull their way across the Mediterranean, wondering with each turn if their love, or lust, can free Zebra from her past.
 
An adventure tale, a love story, and a paean to the power of language and literature starring a heroine as quirky as Don Quixote, as introspective as Virginia Woolf, as whip-smart as Miranda July, and as spirited as Frances Ha, Call Me Zebra will establish Van der Vliet Oloomi as an author “on the verge of developing a whole new literature movement” (Bustle)


I tried.  I really, really did.  But I just couldn’t do it.

When I saw Call Me Zebra on The Millions’ Great First-Half of 2018 Book Preview, I thought it sounded amazing.  A romance in a European city with a main character who loves literature?  Check, check, and check.  However, this book ended up being extremely disappointing and I stopped reading around a quarter of the way through, which says a lot because I generally like to stick it out and finish every book I read.

I think the main problem for me was how disconnected I felt from the narrative.  Van der Vliet Oloomi’s writing style was enough to give me a headache, simply because I found it so difficult to decipher the complicated language she used.  And the thing is, it wasn’t complicated in a beautiful way, like reading eighteenth century literature, but it was complex in the way that it seemed like she was trying too hard to make it sound introspective and quotable, and it came out disorganized and confusing.

Overall, I don’t have much to say other than Call Me Zebra just wasn’t for me.  It’s categorized as “absurdist fiction” in the likes of Camus, Kafka, Vonnegut, etc., so if you’re interested in works by those authors, I’d suggest picking up Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra.  Perhaps I am just not a fan of the genre.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

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.

On My Nightstand: January 2018

So many books, so little time!  Here’s a look at some of my upcoming reads, which are currently sitting on my nightstand, demanding to be devoured.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid’s Exit West was one of the most talked-about books last year, so it’s about time I read it!  I’m currently two chapters in and I’m finding it hard to put this one down.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Smith’s newest, Swing Time, has been on my radar since it was first announced, though I have to admit I’m a bit skeptical because it’ll be my first Zadie and I’ve heard it’s not her best.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers is probably the book I’m most excited about on this list!  Not only is the cover absolutely stunning, but so is Bennett’s prose.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls was the book of the summer in 2016, and for some reason I never got around to it.  I’m still looking forward to this Manson-esque coming-of-age story that Random House reportedly acquired in a seven-figure, multi-book deal (quite a feat for a debut novelist).

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Goon Squad is one that I really don’t know too much about other than it won a Pulitzer, but the publication of Egan’s newest release, Manhattan Beach, has gotten me curious about Goon Squad.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Kavalier and Clay will be my first Chabon, and it’s an absolute behemoth, but it’s his most popular and I’ve heard it’s a good one to start with.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Groff’s Fates and Furies seems like the quintessential love-it-or-hate-it book, but I’m hoping my own reading experience is the former!

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Beatty won the 2016 Man Booker Prize with The Sellout, so it’s been on my to-read list for a while.  As with Goon Squad, I know virtually nothing about it, so I’m anxious to pick it up.

Have you read any of these books?  Which one do you think I should read first?  Let’s chat in the comments!

xx,
Hannah

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.

My Favorite Books of 2017

I didn’t read as much as I would’ve liked to this year, between adjusting to college and starting my first part-time job, but the books I did manage to read were some that will definitely stay with me.  Below are four of the best books I read in 2017.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is hands down the best book I read this year, and one of my all-time favorites.  It’s been nearly a year since I first picked it up, but I can’t stop thinking about it, and I’m dying for a reread.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix is brilliant and unputdownable, an outstanding, well-crafted debut novel from a talented new writer.  It absolutely blew me away!  More thoughts here.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings is my most recent read, and one that surprised me in the best way possible.  A compelling story complete with memorable characters, The Interestings kept me reading well into the morning hours.  More thoughts here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is the ultimate campus novel, an engrossing and eerie tale.  I read it during an eight-hour train ride through upstate New York, perhaps the best setting to engage in Tartt’s work.  The Secret History will suck you in and keep you hooked until the end.

Cheers to a great reading year!

xx,
Hannah