book blog

The Great Believers // Rebecca Makkai

Thank you to Penguin Viking and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery.  Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him.  One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself.  Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult.  While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter.  The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.


I was excited to receive a copy of The Great Believers just a few days ago (thus it wasn’t included in my Summer 2018 ARC List!).  It’s a thought-provoking reflection on relationships, how they change and grow over time, what they can survive and what they can’t, with the 1980s Chicago AIDS crisis at the center of it all.  Two seemingly unconnected characters are tied together through their relationship to one person, Nico, who has passed away when The Great Believers opens, and through the art world their stories become surprisingly related.  It just about broke my heart into a million pieces.

The Great Believers smoothly transitions between two stories, the first being Yale’s point-of-view in 1985 Chicago, as he begins to see AIDS affecting his life with the death of his mutual friend Nico and slowly says goodbye to everyone he loves; we also visit Fiona, Nico’s sister, in 2015 Paris, as she struggles to come to terms with her life and her relationship with her daughter.  Each section ended on a little cliff-hanger and then the story would return to the other time period, so I always wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen.  I truly became invested in the characters and was interested in their lives, which is one of my favorite things about reading and made this book memorable for me.

The Great Believers is a sweeping, heart-wrenching story about love, loss, and identity.  As it deals with such a tough topic, I wouldn’t call it an “enjoyable” book, but it’s well-written and well-researched with memorable characters and two interconnected stories.  Reading it now during Pride Month will make it all the more powerful.

Want to support a great cause?  Post a photo of your copy of The Great Believers using #TheGreatBelieversDonate.  For every use of the hashtag, author Rebecca Makkai will donate $1 (up to $5,000) to Vital Bridges, a Chicago-based food pantry supporting people living with HIV.  For more information, click here.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Number One Chinese Restaurant // Lillian Li

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for an early review copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades.  When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.  Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one.  Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart.  Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble.  And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.


Number One Chinese Restaurant has some of the most realistic characters I’ve read in a long time.  I have to say, the first chapter was a bit overwhelming as everyone was introduced at rapid fire, but once I grew to get to know everyone individually, I had no trouble at all working my way through the novel.  This book is less a saga than a quick glimpse into the lives of restaurant staff as something unspeakable happens to their second home.  Thus, the characters felt a bit under-developed, and not much time was spent explaining the motivations behind their actions, but I think this story is more about the restaurant collectively than the individual people inside of it, so Number One Chinese Restaurant was successful in sharing the story Li meant to tell.

Li really emphasizes the strong, intimate connections between restaurant staff workers and the unique, family-like bond that they share.  The restaurant itself felt like a character, and that’s one the the things I loved most about the book.  The ambiance that Li created surrounding the Beijing Duck House (and later the Beijing Glory) was truly phenomenal and unlike anything else I’ve read.  This ambiance paired with a complex ensemble of characters resulted in a heavily enjoyable reading experience.  The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about what an amazing film Number One Chinese Restaurant would make.  Li really sets the scene and makes you feel a part of the story.

Lillian Li’s debut is a quick, fun read that will have you ordering dim sum faster than you can say “Number One Chinese Restaurant!”

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Reading More Women Accidentally on Purpose

This year is almost halfway over, and yet I’ve only read one (!!!) book by a male writer: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  Of course, this doesn’t count the assigned reading for my British literature class this past semester, which represented the sexist literary canon of the nineteenth century.  I did buy some books by men, but I haven’t picked up any of them because a book by a female author always piqued my interest more!  Even all of the advanced copies I’ve requested have been written by women, with two exceptions: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen and Ohio by Stephen Markley.  But the best part is the fact that it’s purely accidental; I didn’t plan on focusing on reading women writers this year, it just happened!

It’s difficult to capture why my reading has changed this way.  In high school, I adored young adult writers like Sarah Dessen, Morgan Matson, Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer E. Smith, etc., but I enjoyed John Green just the same.  My tastes definitely catered to the women writers but never intentionally.  (I think the majority of authors in the young adult genre are women, but that’s a story for a different day.)  As I matured into reading fiction and literary fiction, I started with Celeste Ng, Donna Tartt, and Hanya Yanagihara (some of the heaviest hitters, I know).  I also read Anthony Doerr and Nathan Hill, but my excitement for new books was mostly for those written by women.  I picked up Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and others for the immense praise and recognition their novels received, but I’m not sure I would’ve been that excited for them had they not been so revered by my bookish friends.  And I certainly wasn’t excited before their releases, like the dozen or so early copies I’ve requested by women writers so far this year.

Of course, it’s important to mention I have absolutely nothing against male writers, or any kind of writer in that case.  I’m currently reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and I’m absolutely loving it.  To me, the writing and the story are the most important aspects of a book.  However, I also think it’s time to support every type of writer imaginable, no matter the gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.  Because wouldn’t it be boring if every book we read was by a straight white man?  If we don’t support diverse authors, then we’ve got multiple problems on our hands: (1) that literature is valued by how white a person is, (2) that not every reader will be able to identify with a book, and (3) that writers will see only white men succeeding in the book world, and they’ll stop writing if they don’t fit that description.

All of this brings to mind the #ReadMoreWomen campaign by Electric Lit, which aims to diversify our reading lists and start a conversation on our white-male ideals on literature.  It mentions the sexism behind The New York Times’ “By the Book” column, which, if you aren’t familiar, is basically a series of mini interviews with writers.  Most of the writers featured are men, but lately they’ve been trying to up their game and include more women (which is something you really shouldn’t have to work that hard to do…).  Recently, I read Lauren Groff’s By the Book, and I think her thoughts perfectly sum up the importance behind reading both male and female writers.  Groff says,

“When male writers list books they love or have been influenced by- as in this very column, week after week- why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives?  It can’t be because men are inherently better writers than their female counterparts . . . And it isn’t because male writers are bad people.  We know they’re not bad people.  In fact, we love them.  We love them because we have read them.  Something invisible and pernicious seems to be preventing even good literary men from either reaching for books with women’s names on the spines, or from summoning women’s books to mind when asked to list their influences.  I wonder what such a thing could possibly be.”

I’ll leave it at that.

What books have you read by women lately?  Have you noticed any changes to your reading tastes?  Let’s chat!

xx,
Hannah

Summer 2018 ARC List

I’ve been a slow reader lately, but I’m pretty excited about the ARCs I received to read this summer, so I thought I’d share them with you!  I’ve been trying to exhibit self control when it comes to requesting ARCs so, thankfully, I only have six to read.  I’m hoping to crank them out this month before my literary agency internship starts in July and reading becomes my actual job!

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

June 19, 2018 from Henry Holt & Co

I generally adore everything Henry Holt publishes, and Number One Chinese Restaurant sounds like it will not disappoint.  It takes place at the Beijing Duck Restaurant in Rockville, Maryland and follows a family of waiters and kitchen staff after “disaster strikes” at the restaurant.  I love multi-generational, multi-voiced stories, so I’m looking forward to this ensemble story, the debut novel from author Lillian Li.

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

July 10, 2018 from Penguin Viking

A Terrible Country is Gessen’s first novel in ten years, and it’s been praised by George Saunders and Elif Batuman, which I’ll admit swayed me into requesting it.  Russia has been popping up everywhere in literature lately, and this novel is no exception: it follows Andrei Kaplan, whose older brother Dima convinces him to leave New York and go to Moscow to take care of his elderly grandmother.

The Family Tabor by Cherise Wolas

July 17, 2018 from Flatiron Books

Wolas is the author of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I haven’t read but heard great things about.  Her sophomore effort is about the Tabor family: Harry, Roma, and their three children, as the patriarch, Harry, is about to be named “Man of the Decade,” but is suddenly haunted by a secret from his past that will change everything.  My favorite kind of book explores a unique family dynamic, and The Family Tabor sounds like exactly that.

The Bucket List by Georgia Clark

August 7, 2018 from Atria Books

I love the idea of bucket lists (and I’ve even tried to make a few of my own through the years), and this novel by Georgia Clark, author of The Regulars sounds like such a cute read!  It follows twenty-five year-old Lacey Whitman, a small-town girl juggling two careers in New York, who learns she has a high risk for developing breast cancer.  Before a possible double mastectomy, Lacey wants to fulfill what she calls her “boob bucket list.”  Despite the cancer background story, The Bucket List seems silly and fun, perfect for fans of Sophie Kinsella and the like.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

August 14, 2018 from Ballantine Books

A River of Stars has been generating steady buzz since it made a few book lists back in January, and I’ve had my eye on it for a while.  Once I saw that Celeste Ng praised it (and Emma Cline too), I knew I needed to request it!  It’s a road-trip story about immigration and motherhood, following two expectant mothers from a secret maternity home in Los Angeles: Scarlet, fresh from China, where she got pregnant with her married boss’s child, and Daisy, an unwed American teenager.  Scarlet hijacks a van and flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with Daisy as her unexpected passenger, each with their own competing motives.  Asian women have been slaying the lit game lately, so I’m excited to dive into this one by Vanessa Hua!

Ohio by Stephen Markley

August 21. 2018 from Simon and Schuster

Ohio is another majorly-buzzed-about debut, so much so that I was shocked to receive it.  I don’t know too much about it, just that it’s about four former high school classmates, now in their 30’s, who return to their hometown one night, each on their own mission.  It’s been called “a murder mystery and a social critique,” which in itself sounds entirely intriguing.  Though I don’t read many dark books, I’m curious about Ohio, which is already getting an overwhelming amount of rave reviews!

What books are you looking forward to this summer?  Are you excited about any of these?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

xx,
Hannah

Invitation to a Bonfire // Adrienne Celt

Thank you to Bloomsbury and Netgalley for an early review copy of Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

In the 1920s, Zoya Andropova, a young refugee from the Soviet Union, finds herself in the alien landscape of an elite all-girls New Jersey boarding school.  Having lost her family, her home, and her sense of purpose, Zoya struggles to belong, a task made more difficult by the malice her peers heap on scholarship students and her new country’s paranoia about Russian spies.  When she meets the visiting writer and fellow Russian émigré Leo Orlov- whose books Zoya has privately obsessed over for years- her luck seems to have taken a turn for the better.  But she soon discovers that Leo is not the solution to her loneliness: he’s committed to his art and bound by the sinister orchestrations of his brilliant wife, Vera.

As the reader unravels the mystery of Zoya, Lev, and Vera’s fate, Zoya is faced with mounting pressure to figure out who she is and what kind of life she wants to build.  Grappling with class distinctions, national allegiance, and ethical fidelity- not to mention the powerful magnetism of sex- Invitation to a Bonfire investigates how one’s identity is formed, irrevocably, through a series of momentary decisions, including how to survive, who to love, and whether to pay the complicated price of happiness.


Invitation to a Bonfire is one of those books where the summary is entirely misleading.  Reading it, I thought I was in for a immigrant’s story, or a boarding school book, or even a crazy sexy romance/survival book.  Nope.  Sure, the book has elements of all of the above, but it’s mediocre compared to the way it’s described.  The first half is unnecessarily slow, and it was hard for me to distinguish between the voices.  Invitation to a Bonfire is told in first person from Zoya and Lev’s points-of-view, but they are both written with the same language and style so it was difficult at first to remember who was narrating.  It eventually became easier to decipher.  Zoya’s POV is told through her diary entries, and Lev’s is told through letters he wrote to his wife, Vera.  Vera herself never narrates, though various newspaper clippings and testimonies reflect on her character.  It was interesting for the book to be told in a diary-like format, because that’s not common in “adult” fiction, so I appreciated that, but it also made for a lot of “telling” not “showing,” which I think took away from the story.

I don’t mean to rant, but bearing this in mind, I think Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire is truly one of those love-it-or-hate-it books.  I loved the writing style, it was lyrical and endearing, but I didn’t care too much for the story itself or its execution.  When I finished it, I couldn’t help but feel it was missing something.  The ending was underwhelming and left me feeling “meh.”  I can say that this book just wasn’t for me, but if you like love triangles or historical thrillers, give Invitation to a Bonfire a try.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Female Persuasion // Meg Wolitzer

After Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel The Interestings became one of my favorite books of last year (I was a little late to the game), I was eager to pick up her newest, The Female Persuasion, when it released last month.  Inspiring and compulsively-readable, The Female Persuasion is truly a book for its time, showcasing life as a woman in the modern world and exploring the many facets of feminism that exist today.


“I sometimes think that the most effective people in the world are introverts who taught themselves to be extroverts.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion


From the jacket:

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life.  Faith Frank, dazzingly persuassive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others.  Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up.  She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up.  Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name.  And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening.  Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it wings toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined.  As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want.  What does it mean to be powerful?  How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another?  Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?

With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.  At its heart, The Female Persuasion is about the select figures and experiences that shape our lives.  It’s about the people who guide and the people who follow- and how those roles evolve over time.  And it acknowledges the flame we all want to believe is flickering inside of us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time.


In the vein of The Interestings, the book follows a handful of characters: Greer Kadetsky, a shy college student who blossoms into a young feminist role model; Zee Eisenstat, longtime activist, lesbian, and Greer’s college best friend, who has long been betrayed by the women in her life; Cory Pinto, Greer’s high school sweetheart who takes over his mother’s roles as caretaker and housekeeper after the tragic dispensation of his family; and finally Faith Frank, the famous feminist who offers Greer a job straight out of college and mentors her into becoming the woman she is through their work at Faith’s women’s foundation.

Though the novel tells the story of these four characters, there is a heavy focus on Greer, and she is, in a sense, the main character, especially in the beginning of the novel.  She was by far my favorite character, simply because we share so many qualities.  Like me, Greer is quiet and introspective, but as she progresses through college she becomes bolder and less afraid to share her opinion.  I haven’t read many college-age narratives so I enjoyed reading about Greer’s life as a college freshman particularly because I just finished my freshman year!  Furthermore, Greer moves to New York after college, and that’s exactly what I want to do!  Recognizing myself in the main character definitely made this novel a page-turner for me.


“If the twenty-first century taught you anything, it was that your words belonged to everyone, even if they actually didn’t.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion


The Female Persuasion is the perfect book to lose yourself in.  It’s an easy read, not necessarily a beach read but more like a book club read, in which there’s plenty to discuss and most readers will find something they like.  It’s dialogue-heavy with simple readable prose, but the insights Wolitzer provides are what makes it such a powerful read.  The Female Persuasion will definitely stay with me for a long time.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Ensemble // Aja Gabel

Thank you to Riverhead Books and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, which will publish May 15, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Jana.  Brit.  Daniel.  Henry.  They would never have been friends if they hadn’t needed each other.  They would never have found each other except for the art which drew them together.  They would never have become family without their love for the music, for each other.

Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful and quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who’s always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest and an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader.  Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet.  After the group’s youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty.  They are always tied to each other – by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again.


Aja Gabel’s debut novel, The Ensemble, had me from the start.  Do you ever read the first few pages of a book and just know that you’re going to love it?  That was my experience with The Ensemble.  Every word, every paragraph, every page gripped me indescribably.  It’s been a while since I’ve been truly pulled into a book.  The Ensemble was my most anticipated release of this year and it did not disappoint!

Music plays a big role in The Ensemble– not just in its plot, but in its development too.  The story ebbs and flows like the most beautiful of melodies, and Gabel’s writing style has a distinct musical quality; it’s lyrical and streamlike but abrupt at all the right places, just like the music her characters play.  Not only that, but it moves at the perfect pace: fast enough to suck me in, but slow enough to enjoy every single word.

The four main characters, Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry are written in harmony of one another; they are all heavily flawed but those flaws help to complement the other characters.  I can’t say I fell in love with them, but I was definitely able to relate to each of them on some level.  The novel spans about twenty years or so, and I enjoyed seeing how Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry changed over time.  I was particularly drawn to Henry, the young prodigy who never makes mistakes, who has it easy, until suddenly he doesn’t.  The book is divided up pretty evenly in terms of which characters the chapters focus on, but I’d say the main focus was on Henry and his many struggles.

I adored Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and looked forward to any spare time I had so that I could return to it!  Fans of character-driven novels will fall in love with The Ensemble.

Read if you liked: (1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara for its intense quartet of characters and exploration of deep-rooted relationships; (2) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer for the New York City ambiance and long-standing friendships followed through decades; (3) The Secret History by Donna Tartt for its vivid coming-of-age story and true-to-life characters.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.