Run Towards the Danger

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Polley
Genres: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022 on Audible)

Run Towards the Danger is a book I totally picked up because of the hype. It’s not the kind of book I normally read, but I’ve been seeing it get fantastic reviews everywhere, so I decided to get an audiobook copy and give it a listen. I’m not sure I would have finished it had I read a physical copy (just because I struggle with non fiction), but it works great as an audiobook and I loved that it was narrated by Sarah. The book only has 6 essays, but it’s undeniable that Polley is a very accomplished writer and her essays are quite compelling. I struggled a bit with the first one, but it’s very smartly structured in that, while each essay tackles a different topic, they are woven together to promote Polley’s overall ideas and theme. 

Sorry to Sarah’s ego, but I am one of those people who wouldn’t recognize her, nor had any idea who she was. This is a bit of a disservice to myself because I’ve always been a huge Anne fan, but to be honest, I didn’t even know Road to Avonlea was a thing. I think it was probably an age thing for me, but I’ve since done a bit of digging through the youtube archives.  

The core theme throughout this book is about the struggles and long term impacts of being a child actor, as well as the ethics of having children work at all. I really felt for Sarah because it seems like she really can never catch a break. She has had so many health issues thrown at her throughout life, on top of the emotional trauma of losing her mother as a young girl and essentially raising herself in a volatile film industry that didn’t care about her safety or well being. 

The first essay was probably my least favourite because it was significantly longer than the rest and I thought she expanded on a lot of areas that weren’t that compelling, but it did really set the scene for the rest of the book and I thought the essays got stronger and stronger throughout. My favourites were probably Mad Genius, High Risk. and the final essay, which the book is named for, Run Towards the Danger. 

Mad Genius calls out many of the prejudices that exist in the film industry and how the behaviour’s of so many men are excused, putting others at risk, and High Risk highlights the inherent sexism built into our health institutions. It’s harder to pinpoint what I liked so much about Run Towards the Danger, other than that I found it to be extremely compelling storytelling and I was fascinated to learn about concussions. 

So overall, this is a bit of an odd essay collection, but I would definitely recommend it. Sarah is a great writer and storyteller.

Disorientation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Elaine Hsieh Chou
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022)

I was largely drawn to Disorientation by the cover art and then when I read the synopsis and saw buzzwords like “hilarious”, “satirical”, and “chaotic”, I was easily convinced I needed to read it.

I’m so glad I did because I am entirely blown away by this book! Not only could I not put it down, but I am in awe of how clever and thoughtful and funny the writing is. This is absolutely not a book for everyone and I could see how some people would very easily not like it. But everything about the insane plot and characters works so well for me and I know I will be thinking about it for a while.

Disorientation is told from the point of view of Ingrid Yang, a PhD student in her 8th and final year. Ingrid is working on her dissertation, but feeling thoroughly bored and uninspired by the whole thing. She’s a Taiwanese-American student in the East Asian Studies Department and has spent her entire academic career studying the poems of Xiao-Wen Chou, America’s most lauded Asian-American poet, and a previously tenured professor at her alma-matter prior to his death. However, when Ingrid digs deeper into some comments she finds written on her notes in the Chou Archive, she investigates and makes a truly shocking discovery.

From there the novel plunges into chaos, using humour and satire to highlight the plight of the Asian-American woman, the concept of freedom of speech, and the idea of the melting pot in American culture. Elaine Hsieh Chou masterly crafts the plot and the characters around her exploration of race and culture, presenting a very nuanced look at identity politics. It’s a very smart book, to the extent that I find it hard to articulate what the author is able to accomplish with this kind of writing style. She takes every scene and idea and pushes it just to the brink of being unbelievable, but the extreme just serves to highlight how ludicrous some parts of our culture and society really are.

It’s a political book, but it’s made so much more nuanced by our protagonist being against political correctness and dismissive of activism. She doesn’t realize the extent to which she’s been indoctrinated into white nationalism and initially, her internal monologue might serve to make white readers feel at home or more comfortable in her thoughts. But as Ingrid has her own self awakening, so too should the reader. Several of the goodreads reviews I’ve read mention that readers that aren’t female Asian-Americans probably won’t like this book, but I think that’s part of what makes it so brilliant. Of course Asian-Americans will relate to this more than any other individual because of the representation, but I loved the way Chou presents conflicting viewpoints and takes us on a journey with Ingrid. She didn’t have to present her ideas that way, but I think it makes this book so much more reflective than it would have been otherwise. 

Often protagonists come into the story with their politics mostly fully formed, as a pretty liberal person, it’s easy to come into a liberal story and relate with the character’s politics. But the conflicting politics between Ingrid and Vivian served to present a much more thoughtful exploration. I feel like I got to walk a mile in Ingrid’s shoes and I liked the way this challenged my thinking. It doesn’t present a simple black and white scenario for the reader and I liked going on that journey with Ingrid.

This is really satire at it’s best and I loved the juxtaposition Chou creates by going to such extremes with each of her characters. I’ve read other reviews complaining about how awful Michael is, but my friend, is that not the entire point?! He goes to the complete extreme – it’s completely unbelievable, and yet, somehow a bunch of white people screaming about the defense of freedom and wearing merchandise broadcasting an oversimplified 4-letter acronym could not be more relatable and terrifying. This is the world we live in.

Likewise, other reviews complain that the narrative becomes too unhinged towards the end of the novel, to which I agree, but also, given the rest of the story, I really couldn’t see this book ending any other way. It’s not a very satisfying ending, but sadly, it’s one of the most believable parts of an unbelievable story. Institutions will continue to go on operating in much the same way they always have, which begs the question, what can we ultimately do to change them?

Honestly, this book has so much depth I could expand on so many more elements. The discussion of yellowface; Ingrid’s exploration of fetishes and how power and privilege tie into how we perceive them; the satirization of academia; and everything about Vivian, who is the perfect foil to Ingrid. Every character is so imperfectly, perfect. But I’ll end my review here and just encourage you to go read it instead. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it was a perfect 5 stars for me. My favourite book of 2022 thus far!

Portrait of a Thief

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Grace D. Li
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2022 (read Apr. 2022 on Audible)

I’ve seen Portrait of a Thief popping up a few places, but for some reason I wasn’t very interested in it until I learned it was being published under Tiny Rep Books, which is Phoebe Robinson’s publishing imprint. I love Phoebe Robinson, so I took another look at the synopsis and discovered it’s about a heist and is actually fascinating! The museum heist vibes reminded me of The Feather Thief, which is non fiction that I read a few years ago and really liked, so I decided to pick up the audio version of Portrait of a Thief and quickly devoured it over one long weekend.

The comparisons to The Feather Thief pretty much end after the words “museum heist”. Portrait of a Thief is a fictional account of a 5 person crew of Chinese-American university students who decide to try and steal back a bunch of Chinese Art that has been taken by western countries throughout history as part of the spoils of war. It begs a very interesting question about art and museums and who should really be the keeper of history. The historical narrative and record has always been determined by the victors of war and colonialism, but in more enlightened times, should we re-examine who the purveyors of those artifacts are in a modern world?

This is the biggest theme raised within the book, but we also get to know 5 protagonists of Chinese ancestry and get to explore what it means to be both Asian and American – to belong to multiple identities, but to struggle to access either. Art frames the plot, but it’s really a story about diaspora.

I read this immediately prior to reading Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, and though I really liked Portrait of a Thief when I read it, I’m struggling to review it now because Disorientation attempts something similar but totally different. Both books are a lot of fun and also slightly insane, but they are too entirely different beasts, so it’s unfair to compare them. Portrait of a Thief doesn’t strike me as such a strong read having finished Disorientation, but I’ll do my best to review it justly.

The element of fun in Portrait of a Thief comes from the heists. Its ludicrous to think of a bunch of university students robbing some of the most prestigious museums in the world, but after having read The Feather Thief, I have to conclude that it’s definitely possible, especially if you have limited connections to tie you to the crime. Without concrete DNA or video evidence, how are you really going to get caught as long as you make it out of the building before the cops arrive? (it’s probably a lot more complicated than this, but I can hypothesize).

I also liked that Portrait of a Thief has 5 very different, but interesting characters. I loved the exploration of the Chinese diaspora, but I have to admit that none of the characters really had as much characterization as I would have liked. It’s a great book, but beyond the initial presentation of the main theme – who owns art – I found the author didn’t actually explore the idea in as much depth as I would have liked. She doesn’t fall into the trap of telling instead of showing, which I always applaud in a debut. The reader is left to consider their own conclusions, I just wanted a little bit more meat to chew on while I contemplated this.

The characters, though interesting, were sadly a bit one-dimensional. The audiobook was well narrated, with the exception of how the male narrator read the female characters. I despised how meek and breathy he made the women sound and it really bothered me. They had both a female and male narrator, so I don’t understand why they didn’t just have the female narrator read the dialogue in the male narrator scenes. Furthermore, I wish this book had had 5 narrators, one for each character. I know this probably complicates production and budget, but I think it would have taken this audiobook from good to great.

Anyways, despite my complaints, I do think this is a very strong debut novel with an excellent premise. It’s not perfect and I’m definitely nitpicking having followed it up with Disorientation, but still a great book and I would recommend!

Heartstopper

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alice Oseman
Genres: Graphic Novel, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. Date: Feb. 2019 (read Apr. 2022)

Heartstopper has been on my TBR for literally years, so the new TV show was what I needed to finally read it – that and I was able to get all 4 volumes at once from my local library. I read Radio Silence a few years ago and really liked it, so I knew I would like this, especially based on all the hype.

I admit, it did take me a little bit to warm up to the story. I wasn’t immediately sold on the artwork or the characters because I felt like not a lot happened in the first volume, but the story very quickly grew on me in subsequent volumes. I wrote part of this review before watching the show, but decided to hold off on posting it until I’d seen it, and I’m so glad I did, because I am now 100% obsessed and invested in this series!

I like that Oseman addresses issues which a lot of teens struggle with – not just in terms of figuring out your sexuality and coming out to your friends and family, but also in regards to mental health. The first 3 volumes are extremely feel good. It’s what makes the series and the show such a triumph. We know that Charlie had a very hard time coming out and we are repeatedly subjected to homophobic characters, bullies, and micro-aggressions, but at its core, this story is a joyous celebration of queer love.

It’s filled with a diverse cast of characters and for every bully, there are multiple loving and supportive characters. Many people have very difficult experiences with coming out and I feel like there’s already a lot of trauma porn about those experiences, so I appreciated Heartstopper for its lighthearted approach, that coming out is also something to be celebrated and doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Nick still struggles with identity, but I liked that his experience contrasted to Charlie’s and that isn’t it beautiful to have allies and safe spaces in which to open up about who you really are.

For this reason, Nick really wormed his way into my heart, especially thanks to Kit Connor’s portrayal in the TV series, which I thought was phenomenal (all the performances were excellent, but I particularly loved Kit’s). He’s a very soft character, unsure of himself in some ways, and very sure of himself in others. Mostly I just loved his self-awareness, which I think is even more pronounced in the show and I liked the subtlety in how Kit portrayed Nick’s internal conflicts. His fear that he’s treating Charlie the same way as Ben, when in reality he’s just taking the time he needs to figure out his own identity.

Why I think this series and show is getting such universal approval comes down to how centered in reality it is. These kids act like proper teenagers and I appreciate the show so much for deciding to cast actual teens in all their awkwardness. So many depictions of high school settings are so overly dramatized and sexualized, I felt very grounded by this depiction of high school, which is what makes it so relatable to any individual, queer or not. I also have to acknowledge that my initial comment about how not a lot happens in the first volume is actually part of what makes the story so lovable.

We get three whole volumes just about coming out, identity, and self discovery. Coming out is not just a one-time thing, it’s something gay people have to do over and over again. Likewise, identity and self discovery are an ongoing process, and the more I think about it, the more I appreciate that Oseman dedicates the time and space to this exploration. For straight people, learning that someone is gay is a one-time thing, you adjust your perception and try to be supportive (hopefully), but for these queer teens, it is an ongoing and monumental thing to manage. So I appreciate that Oseman gives it the gravitas it deserves and makes her entire narrative a celebration of that process.

I only mention the first 3 volumes because the 4th volume is a bit of a departure from her initial themes. It is darker and explores some of the more challenging struggles that teenagers often face, including depression, eating disorders, and self harm. Like many teenage relationships, in their all-consuming passion, Charlie and Nick begin to develop a bit of co-dependency and their families quite wisely advise them to focus on balance in their lives. Charlie learns that he can’t ignore all of his issues and Nick has to come to terms that he can’t be the one to fix all of Charlie’s issues either. Both characters still need to be able to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for their own struggles. It doesn’t mean they can’t support and be there for one another, but each needs to take ownership over their own mental health as well.

I thought there was only 4 volumes, so I was a bit disappointed when I couldn’t finish the series in one go, but I’m stoked I still get to look forward to spending more time with these characters. I whole heartedly recommend both the graphic novels and the Netflix series to everyone!

Beach Read

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emily Henry
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: May 2020 (read Apr. 2022)

I read and loved People We Meet on Vacation earlier this year, so I was excited to pick up Beach Read this month. The two books together have firmly cemented Emily Henry as a “auto buy” author and I’m looking forward to her 2022 release, Book Lovers, coming out next month.

The two books are rated almost the exact same on Goodreads, but most people I know that have read both preferred Beach Read. I kind of wonder if it matters which one you read first (everyone seems to love their first pick), because as much as I liked this one, I did still like People We Meet on Vacation better. I feel like friends to lovers is an underdone trope (enemies to lovers seems very on trend these days, at least according to Booktok), so that’s why I liked People We Meet on Vacation so much.

I must conclude though that Emily Henry (or her publisher?) is not very good at naming her books. Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation are both kind of misnomers to me, what are we actually going to get in Book Lovers? A book bonfire? But I guess I can overlook it because I love her approach to romance writing. Both are very much romance books, but they have a lot going on for them beyond just the romance. Plus the smut is limited, which some people will like and others won’t, but for me it just helps to present the book as more than simply a romance.

Anyways, let’s talk about Beach Read. It was quite emotional for what I thought was going to be a light read. Our protagonist, a novelist by the name of January, is reeling after the death of her father and the realization that he was living a double life. She decides to spend the summer in his secret beach house to write her next book while cleaning it out to sell. The problem is that she is a romance writer and with the disintegration of her relationship, along with the death of her father, she’s feeling a little low on inspiration.

Along comes Gus, another writer trying to pen the next great literary novel. The two decide to trade genres and Gus attempts romance while January makes a run at literary fiction. Of course drama ensues as the two get to know each other better and address the pre-conceived notions they had about one another.

I liked it – it’s fun and thoughtful, though ultimately a bit forgettable. I would love to know what kind of literary fiction these two are reading though (or Emily Henry is reading), because I read A LOT of lit fic, and nothing either of these two characters proposed sounded anything like lit fic to me. Gus’ cult family drama sounded more like mystery or horror, while January’s circus saga belonged somewhere in the historical fiction genre. But I guess they’re both literary in their own way, I just gravitate to contemporary lit fic I suppose.

On another note, it just about killed me when these two went off into the wilderness in street clothes. Thank goodness Gus knew what he was doing and brought a tent, but as an avid backpacker, it was high-key unbelievable to me that these two wouldn’t have spent a freezing, soaking wet night in the tent with only one blanket. Trust me, in reality it’s not quite the romantic scenario you’re envisioning. But I guess I live in a much colder climate, so what do I know?

Anyways, I’m going off on a lot of tangents because I don’t really have a lot to say about the book overall. It’s fun and sexy, it has emotional depth, but it didn’t sing to me the same way People We Meet on Vacation did. January and Gus are two complex individuals, but they did both have a lot of shit to work out, although I did like that it wasn’t a “ride off into the sunset” type of ending. I feel that Emily Henry’s romances have a strong dose of realism in them and I think that while this wasn’t quite as strong a novel for me, it’s what will keep me coming back to her books. 4 stars – a solid read, despite there being no actual beach reading to speak of in this book.