On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ocean Vuong
Genres: Poetry, LGBTQIA+
Pub date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Ocean Vuong

I was intrigued by this book, but it wasn’t super high up my TBR. However, I loved listening to the author’s voice in the audiobook sample, so I decided to read it. I’m so glad they got the author to narrate this one because I’m not sure anyone else could really have done it justice.

Initially I really liked it. The writing is poetic and it flowed really nicely. The author’s reading is emotional and I enjoyed listening to it, but I must admit, parts of the book were over my head and left me wondering how I should feel about it.

The book is crafted as a letter to the protagonist’s mother. It’s unclear to me whether this book is fiction or non-fiction, so I’d love some insight from other readers if you have it. It certainly read like non-fiction and I internalized it as such, but it could have been fiction.

Initially I liked that it was a letter from son to mother, Little Dog talks about the relationship he had with his mother and how it impacted him emotionally as he grew up. How their Vietnamese past influenced his childhood in America and shaped all of his relationships with his family members.

From there, Vuong moves on to the relationship Little Dog had with his friend Trevor and the struggle of being not only an immigrant, but a confused gay teenager. I found many parts of the story upsetting, but really appreciated their inclusion in the book and thought it brought a great depth to Vuong’s story. However, it did affect my reading of the book as a letter from son to mother. This format worked really well when confronting his childhood demons and the relationship with his family, but I thought the format had less meaning when it got into Little Dog’s exploration of coming to terms with his homosexuality. I don’t have the lived experience to really comment on its effectiveness, but personally I just found the ‘letter to mother’ format lost some of its potency in this part of the book. Just a comment on format, not content.

Mostly I’m left confused on how to rate the book though because parts of it were definitely over my head. I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately (I used to never read it), but I definitely still struggle with the accessibility of poetry. I want to love it, but I think I just haven’t spent enough time reading poetry to really understand the nuance of it. I really enjoyed the writing, it was flowery, but not overwhelmingly so, but sometimes it’s just so overloaded with metaphors that I kind of missed out on the point. I really liked a lot of this book, but there were definitely some sections where I found myself tuning out.

Overall though, a very thoughtful book and debut for this young author, so well done! I would not be deterred from reading his stuff in the future.

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Life Update

I know, I know, it’s been a hot minute since I last posted a review, but I have a good reason! That reason being that… I got married! If you’ve planned a wedding before, you’ll understand just how much planning goes into a wedding, if you haven’t… it’s a lot!

But I have still been reading! June was a bit of a rough month for me, but thanks to Audible I still managed to somehow read 9 books in July while putting the final touches on all my wedding plans. I got married on August 10th, so August has been a bit of a dud, but it felt great to return home and finally pick up a new book with no other obligations to bog me down.

Our wedding was seriously the best day of our lives though and as much as I hated planning it (can’t lie, it was not fun), it was totally all worth it! I do want to give a plug here for one wedding book that helped us out in case any of you fellow readers have a wedding on the horizon. My friend got married a year ahead of me and raved about A Practical Wedding, by Meg Keene, and loaned us her copy.

I read the first half of the book early in my engagement when I was feeling overwhelmed by all the decisions and the budget (weddings are crazy expensive) and it helped me re-focus on what’s really important when you’re planning a wedding and how to balance so many different expectations about what your wedding will be from all the people who feel invested in it (i.e., parents).

I didn’t fully read the second half of the book, but we did revisit it as a reference throughout the rest of the wedding planning and again when we were writing our vows. So I never read it cover to cover, but overall I did read most of the book and found it to be a great reference throughout the planning process. I decided to give it 4 stars and would absolutely recommend if you’re planning your wedding. It really gets to the root of what matters!

Anyways, like I said, I have been reading, even though I haven’t been posting. I do have a backlog of about 5 books that I would like to write reviews for, so look for those coming soon! Hopefully I can still remember the books well enough to write meaningful reviews!

I’ll leave you with this photo of me and my husband right after we were pronounced married!

Much love,
Maria

Ask Again, Yes

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pub. date: May 2019 (read Jul. 2019)

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love to read. After last year’s fantasy-fest, I’ve been reading a lot of different stuff, much of which falls into the general and lit fiction genres and I’ve really been enjoying it. Ask Again, Yes gives me so many vibes from Little Fires Everywhere (even the cover looks the same!), but it definitely holds its own in the genre.

Ask Again, Yes tells the story of two families that grew up together in New York state and the impact and consequences of their actions over 4 decades. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope worked together for a brief time in the police force and end up living next door to one another in Gillam. Both their wives are pregnant around the same time and while Lena Gleeson gives birth to 3 daughters, Anne Stanhope struggles with fertility before eventually giving birth to a son, Peter. Anne never got along with the Gleeson’s and when her son, Peter, and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, become best friends, all parents struggle with it, eventually leading to a tragic event in Peter and Kate’s 13th year.

Eventually everyone goes their own separate ways, but the consequences of that night ripple through everyone’s lives for years after. It’s not a fast moving story and I could definitely see some people struggling with it, but Keane explores a lot of different themes and I thought the book was super insightful into different human behaviours.

Ask Again, Yes explores a lot of different questions. Can we ever escape the past? Can we learn to forgive those who have hurt us? Are we really capable of change? Are our behaviours learned or inherited? It’s a sad read at times and hopeful at others. But what I really loved was how well developed and how genuine every single character was. When it gets down to it, I didn’t actually have very much in common with any of the characters, but their thoughts, emotions, and reactions are all incredibly relatable. On paper their relationships look great and if you try to articulate how they aren’t, it’s really hard, and yet you understand why some of the characters make such bad decisions.

As someone who is getting married within the month, I was so anxious reading about some of the relationships and marriages in this book. More than one marriage is challenged; some of them fail, others survive. But what made it so scary was that I felt most of the problems in the relationships were solvable, and yet I understood why someone might choose to walk away from that relationship anyways. A scary thought when you’re getting ready to walk down the aisle yourself, but impressive for an author. She has incredible insight into human nature and I had no trouble believing that the characters would act the ways they did.

Overall I didn’t think this book had quite the charm of Little Fires Everywhere. I think they both had a lot of interesting things to say, but Ask Again, Yes does drag in some parts, whereas I always felt propelled forward by the narrative in Ng’s books. But it still explores a lot of relevant themes and I found it a little more realistic in its character portrayals. Mental Illness is a big part of this book, although I struggle to verbalize what the theme was. Mostly it was just something that was present throughout the book. Keane never tells us how to feel about it, but does demonstrate how our feelings on mental illness have grown over the decades. It’s not something to be ignored and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Recommend to lovers of character-driven stories.

Home Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2017 (read July 2019)

While Home Fire was already on my TBR, it was a bit of an impulse purchase on Audible for me because I liked the narrator (so important!). I’m not sure what I was expecting from it, but I ended up being really impressed by this book.

Home Fire tells the story of an immigrant family that struggles to overcome the heartbreak of the past and be accepted as immigrants in the current political climate in the UK. After the death of her parents, Isma is forced to put her dreams on hold to take care of her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. But now that the twins are grown, she decides to pursue greater education in America, where she meets Eamonn, son of Britain’s home secretary.

The narrative follows Isma, Eamonn, and each of the other family members in turn. Isma is detained at the airport on her way to America, thanks to the tight security standards of the home secretary and her status as the daughter of a known jihadi. She befriends Eamonn and is confused by her feelings for him knowing the impact of his father’s policies on her and her family. But when Eamonn returns to the UK and is introduced to the rest of Isma’s family, the lives of these two very different immigrant families becomes further entwined.

Home Fire was a lot more political than I was expecting and super relevant with what is happening under Donald Trump’s policies in America and in the UK, post Brexit. But it also had a lot of heart and despite it being a relatively short book, Shamsie writes some deep and nuanced characters. I liked that this examined both sides of immigration policies, looking at a really controversial topic like jihad and the far-reaching impacts. I definitely didn’t go into this expecting to feel empathy for someone who leaves the UK to join ISIS.

What made this such a strong read for me was the characters (I live for character driven stories, so no surprise there). Initially I was frustrated when the perspectives kept switching, because I wasn’t expecting it and wanted to return to earlier characters, but looking at this one family and their story from so many perspectives is what gave the book such depth. They had a richly imagined history and each character already felt like a fully formed individual by the time I first met them. They are all extremely flawed, but it’s really what made them so believable as individuals.

To add another level to the story, Home Fire is parroted as a “modern day Antigone”. Now I read Antigone in high school, but I’m pretty foggy on the details so I had to do a bit of googling to remind myself. It is pretty loosely related, but does raise some relevant points from this ancient play. To what level will our xenophobia and othering go so that we can’t even see those who are different as human anymore? Can we not grant someone their humanity even in death, having no empathy for the people the dead leave behind?

A thoughtful and cleverly written book. I sped through it as an audiobook.

The Grace Year

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kim Liggett
Genres: Sci-fi, Dystopian, Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 8, 2019 (read in July 2019)

Special thanks to Netgalley and Wednesday Books for providing me with a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

I was halfway through this when I had to set it aside to read my book club pick for the month, No Exit by Taylor Adams. Both of these books are f***ed and I feel like I’ve been so anxious for the last two weeks because of it.

Both of these books succeeded in racking up my blood pressure, but that’s about where the comparisons end. No Exit was not a good book, this was.

The Grace Year is dystopian fiction about a society that believes women have a powerful magic that they grow into when they get their first period and that they must be sent away for a year to burn off that magic before they can be welcomed back into the community as wives. It’s a total wild ride that had me enthralled from the very beginning. It’s a dark read with a lot of violence, but unlike some other books I’ve read, the violence achieves something. Liggett uses that violence to make powerful social commentary on the roles of women in society, the way we treat one another, and how things could be different.

The Grace Year refers to the year when the girls are sent away to live in the woods and burn off their magic. The society is very much controlled by men who believes women need to be punished for Eve’s original sins. The Grace Year is never spoken about in the community, but is a grim time in every women’s life. Many come back missing body parts or emotionally scarred, and that’s just the girls that return. Many never return and are instead taken by poachers who harvest their body parts because the community believes in the medicinal properties of the dead girls magic.

While all the other girls are concerned with landing a husband before their grace year, Tierney is perfectly content to labour in the fields when she returns, not wanting the be controlled by a man. But once the girls begin their grace year and discover the freedom they have for the first time in their lives, they start to turn on one another and realize the real danger is not the poachers, but the pain they will inflict on one another.

It’s a dark book and I did struggle with it at some points, but like I said, I think the violence serves a purpose in this book, which is why I was able to read through it. Liggett has an interesting writing style and the book itself has a really interesting structure. The girls take out their frustrations on one another because they’ve never been allowed to express emotion before or learned healthy ways to deal with their anger. They have allowed the men to control them for so long that they’ve completely lost any sense of compassion and have never experienced the beauty of female friendship and empathy.

Liggett keeps us guessing throughout the novel and I thought she did a great job with world building. At first things are a little confusing, but the confusion makes it more engaging because you don’t really understand the terrors lurking in the woods or why they exist. The narrative doesn’t follow the traditional storytelling structure, yet the concept of moving through the seasons of the grace year provides enough structure to guide us through the story.

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a standalone or not. I went into it thinking it was a standalone, but now I think it could go either way. It still works as a standalone, but I could also see the author expanding the story. There’s lots of room to continue developing the ideas of this book, but sometimes it’s not needed. The ending is ambiguous and I kind of like it that way.

The Grace Year will be available in stores Oct. 8, 2019.