book review

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.

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.

The Comedown // Rebekah Frumkin

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Comedown by Rebekah Frumkin, which will publish April 17, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

I’ll admit to struggling a bit with Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, The Comedown.  Initially it was a bit slow, and I felt caught up in confusion over the characters.  I had a hard time keeping everyone straight, especially when there were four characters with the same name; I resorted to drawing up a family tree, which was a huge help in the long run.  You know how a writer can get so familiar with their own story that they forget how to explain it to their readers?  It’s just become so clear to them that they assume everyone else is at the same level of clarity?  I figure that’s what happened to Frumkin.

Once I got past the initial character confusion, it was relatively smooth sailing.  Frumkin has that unique quality to her writing that makes you revisit paragraphs and offer up a resounding “yes.”  The Comedown defines her as a promising new voice in literature and a skilled storyteller.  It’s a decent debut effort though I can’t say I was particularly blown away, and I did struggle to finish, skimming the last few chapters.

Despite the lack of “wow” factor overall, there were many individual pieces of The Comedown that I admired tremendously, one of which being the timeline.  Frumkin jumps around in time brilliantly; the book is a collection of character studies, and bits and pieces are gradually revealed with each character to create the bigger story.  The Comedown also features some nice commentary on police brutality; it’s subtle but still very much there.

In general, Rebekah Frumkin’s debut is bold and refreshing, a slow burn character study written with mesmerizing prose.  Fans of family sagas will love The Comedown.

Note: The Comedown contains trigger warnings for suicide and drugs.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Alternate Side // Anna Quindlen

Thank you to Random House and Netgalley for an early review copy of Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen, which will publish March 20, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Some days Nora Nolan thinks that she and her husband, Charlie, lead a charmed life- except when there’s a crisis at work, a leak in the roof at home, or a problem with their twins at college.  And why not?  New York City was once Nora’s dream destination, and her clannish dead-end block has become a safe harbor, a tranquil village amid the urban craziness.  The owners watch one another’s children grow up.  They use the same handyman.  They trade gossip and gripes, and they maneuver for the ultimate status symbol: a spot in the block’s small parking lot.

Then one morning, Nora returns from her run to discover that a terrible incident has shaken the neighborhood, and the enviable dead-end block turns into a potent symbol of a divided city.  The fault lines begin to open: on the block, at Nora’s job, especially in her marriage.  With an acute eye that captures the snap crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife, and a woman at a moment of reckoning.


Alternate Side was my first Quindlen, but it won’t be my last.

The book begins with an “alternate side” street parking debate and quickly grows into something much more complex, as the parking situation heats and sparks a conflict between two members of the street’s tight-knit community- a conflict that shakes the Nolan’s marriage and puts them on “alternate sides.”  (See what I did there?)  A chain reaction of events slowly puts Nora Nolan over the edge as she comes to realize just how unhappy she truly is.

From the summary, Quindlen’s latest seems like a fluffy women’s fiction selection, chock full of upper-class problems in an affluent neighborhood, but it’s more than that; Alternate Side briefly touches on ideas of racism and sexism.  In one instance, Nora contemplates why each homeowner is white and all of the “help” (i.e. housekeepers and handymen) are POC; in another case, Nora considers taking a different job and struggles deciding what to do when her husband, Charlie, says he would prefer if she didn’t take it.  These insights aren’t a main part of the book, but Quindlen shares enough to spark conversation.

My only complaint with Alternate Side are the abrupt transitions between past and present.  There is no clear distinction between flashbacks and the present-day narrative; Quindlen would jump to the past, and I could only tell from the ages of Nora’s children, Oliver and Rachel, who are college-aged in the present.  It’s a small detail, but it did become frustrating.

Overall, Alternate Side was a pleasant surprise, and I’ll be looking out for more from Quindlen in the future!

Read if you liked: (1) Modern Lovers by Emma Straub for its realistic cast of characters, its meager marital drama, and the indescribable ambiance of New York City; (2) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer again for the New York atmosphere and enigmatic ensemble, but also for the plot involving a sudden conflict with long-lasting consequences.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.