The Last Story of Mina Lee

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Aug. 2020)

Special thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with an advance copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for an honest review.

I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee because it sounds like everything I love in a book – a multi-generational family drama about an immigrant family trying to fit in in America. It instantly reminded me of Jean Kwok’s books, which I love, and is quoted as being great for fans of Celeste Ng, whom I also love.

It tells the story of korean mother and daughter, Mina and Margot Lee. Mina moved to America in the late 1980’s to escape the trauma of losing her family in Korea and ends up living in LA, becoming pregnant with Margot. 26 years later Margot is living and working in Seattle and comes home to find her mother has passed away. Margot believes there may be something suspicious in Mina’s death and begins to investigate, discovering along the way that Mina had a lot of secrets. Margot struggles to come to terms with what she learns as she mourns the death of a mother she feels like she never knew.

The story takes place across two timelines. One is the story of Mina’s arrival in America and the first year of her life in LA. The second is modern day Margot trying to find out what happened to her mom. It’s a great family drama about the challenges of bridging two cultures and what drives people to seek a challenging undocumented life in America. It’s about how you never really know the history people are carrying with them and the way in which our secrets can haunt both us and the ones we love.

I thought this was a great debut novel, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped. I felt the author struggled to keep the story moving at times and that the dual timeline wasn’t as well executed as it could have been. I was enthralled with Mina’s story and found it fascinating to learn about what drove her to America and the challenges she faced once arriving. It sheds a lot of light on how undocumented individuals are taken advantage of and can easily become trapped. How employers can abuse and manipulate their workers under the threat of reporting them to ICE. Unfortunately I didn’t find Margot’s story quite as engaging.

I struggled to understand why Margot was so suspicious of her mother’s death, I understand it was her own way of grieving her mother, but I didn’t really love the decision to try and link the present and the past. Mina’s life in the 1980’s was in most ways totally separate from her present day life, and I didn’t like how the author tried to link these two timelines so closely when they were so far removed from one another. The mystery element just didn’t really work for me and I think I would have preferred a more simple family drama about Mina’s life and Margot mourning the loss of someone she thought she knew but discovered she really didn’t. The right elements were all there, I just would have like to see some greater emotional exploration over the mystery.

But overall, it was a solid debut and I would give it 3.5 stars. Despite finding some weaknesses in the plot, I thought the writing was good and I’ll definitely be interested to see what else Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes in the future. I thought it was actually being released today and timed my review as such, but I see now on Goodreads that it actually released a week early, so happy 1 week since publication!

Where the Crawdads Sing

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Delia Owens
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2018 (read Apr. 2020)

Where the Crawdads Sing is another book I wish I’d written a review for back when I actually read it. This book has been on my TBR forever. It’s gotten consistently high reviews and was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2018. I can see that at the time I gave it 4 stars on goodreads, but this sticks out in my memory now as more of a 3 star read. I think this book had a strong sense of setting and I would say that the author did this very well, but as far as a compelling read, I was bored for a lot of the book.

Where the Crawdads Sing is about “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark. Kya had a very sad childhood growing up in the coastal wetlands of North Carolina in the 1960’s. She was the youngest of several children and her mother left when she was only a child. Her father was abusive and so the rest of her siblings quickly cleared out after that and she is eventually left home alone with her father. He is away a lot and eventually stops coming home at all, so Kya is forced to learn to take care of herself. She makes a living fishing along inland rivers of the marsh and becomes an expert at the flora and fauna that can be found in the marsh, a place that was little explored, or valued, at the time.

Kya’s mystique as the “marsh girl” draws the attention and intrigue of some of the local townspeople and when Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya finds herself at the centre of a murder trial. Can Kya overcome the prejudices of the townspeople in 1969? Will she ever find love and happiness? Or is she destined to be forever alone on the marsh.

The book passes back and forth between the present (1969) and the past (from the day her mother left to 1969). She does have interactions with several other characters and becomes successful in her own way, but she always feels a keen sense of loneliness at having no one to share her home on the marsh with. I can see why people like the book, the writing is thoughtful and the plot has all the makings of an enthralling whodunnit, complete with the righteous indignation that comes with watching someone who has been beaten down by life be wrongly accused.

The story felt kind of like 2 separate parts for me. Kya’s history, though SLOW, was compelling. It was interesting to watch how she made a life for herself in the marsh, and like I said, the author does a really good job of capturing the setting. But eventually the story descends into the murder trial, which in many ways felt to me like reading another book. I felt the tone didn’t fit in with everything that came before, and I’m sad to say it, but I just felt like it was a story I’d read many times before. The wrongfully accused individual who can’t overcome the prejudice of their time. Something about it just didn’t work for me. The setting and writing were pretty enough, but mostly I was just bored.

So overall I was left feeling a little bit disappointed with this book. It may be a problem of over-hype and ultimately it just didn’t live up to it. If you loved this book, I’m happy for you and really mean no offense, I guess it just wasn’t for me.

The Dutch House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Apr. 2020)

I read The Dutch House way back in April and I really wish I had reviewed it back when I read it. But it was in the middle of Covid back then and I wasn’t feeling much motivation to do anything, so I let it slide, which is a shame because I really loved this book. I’m going to do my best to review it now, but I apologize if some of the details are now a little foggy.

I read The Dutch House as an audiobook, which was a real treat because it is narrated by Tom Hanks! I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s touted as a family drama that spans 50 years, so I was definitely intrigued. The story is about brother and sister Danny and Maeve – from their childhood right up to their late adulthood. At the center of the story is the Dutch House, an old and extravagant manor that was purchased by their father when they were children. Through a serious of events and misunderstandings, Danny and Maeve find themselves kicked out of the Dutch House, and though it’s decades before they ever cross the threshold again, the house and the fall out from the house still dominates their lives for many years to come.

It’s really a fascinating concept for a story. You don’t think of a house as being a protagonist to a story, but I also read Melina Marchetta’s, The Place on Dalhousie, last year and it’s interesting how much value we’ve learned to place on our childhood homes and how those spaces can influence us far into our adult years. Houses are after all so much more than just buildings, they are homes and the memories and feelings we attach to them are powerful driving forces.

At it’s heart I think this is really a novel about the influence our parents have on us and how powerful family bonds can be. Danny grew up tagging along after his father, Cyril, who was a self made business man who finds wealth in owning and renting real estate. Cyril thought he had finally escaped the cycle of poverty for his family, so it comes as a shock to Danny when he finds himself at the bottom and forced with making his own way in the world. At the same time, Maeve’s childhood is defined by the disappearance of her mother. Her mother never loved the extravagance of the Dutch House and leaves to volunteer in India. Danny and Maeve are always told about their mother’s goodness, but all they can see is the woman who was never there.

Both struggle from abandonment in different ways and the eventual falling out with their stepmother Andrea over the ownership of the Dutch House casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. Maeve is discontented at being cut out of the Dutch House and puts all her effort into helping Danny become as successful as possible, despite how miserable it makes him. Each character’s greed over the Dutch House ultimately consumes their lives, with each thinking that wealth will make them happy, when really it’s only the family that lived in the Dutch House that could do that.

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love and reminds me that I really should read more family dramas. Each character is enormously flawed and nuanced. To the outsider it’s so obvious that Maeve needs to let go of the Dutch House and Danny to start pursuing his own happiness, but each continues down their own path of destruction, completely blinded by their feelings of injustice. Every character is complex, as are their relationships with one another. I suppose some people might find the plot lacking in drive, but these characters and their relationships with one another were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.

Tom Hanks narration is excellent and I think this is one book that time has improved for me. The characters were definitely frustrating at times, but looking back on it, the whole song and dance and obsession over the Dutch House was just so enthralling. Families can pick you up, but they can also let you down, and I loved watching how Danny and Maeve both grew and were stunted by their emancipation from the Dutch House. Would definitely recommend this book!

Maybe in Another Life

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jul. 2015 (read Jun. 2020)

I liked this. It definitely can’t hold a candle to Evelyn Hugo or Daisy Jones, but it was a quick, feel good read that was less predictable than I thought it would be.

Maybe in Another Life explores a simple premise around parallel universes. I’ve read some pretty complicated books about parallel universes (looking at you Blake Crouch); this isn’t one of them. It explores one choice that results in two separate timelines for 29 year old Hannah Martin, who has just moved back to LA and is trying to get her life together.

I won’t say anything more about the plot beyond that. It’s predictable in the ways you’d expect, but unpredictable in other ways. What I liked is that her choice had far reaching consequences, but also far reaching rewards. It’s easy to think of one choice as having a good and bad outcome, but the world is never that simple or that black and white. While that choice does result in both good and bad outcomes, everything about life is dynamic and both choices force Hannah to grow in ways she never anticipates.

I expected a story about romantic love, but this book is filled with all kinds of love. I love how it also explores family and friendship. Despite some of the heavy topics Reid introduces to the plot, it always stays lighthearted, yet I found myself reflecting a lot on familial love and I appreciated the importance Reid placed on friendship. While she is still selling a romance, Gabby was the person that I fell the most in love with.

The book is not without its failings, it is heavy handed towards the end where I found the author relied a little too heavily on ‘telling’ her audience instead of ‘showing’. I actually wished for a non-perfect ending in this book. The writing is good, but not great. It’s a thoughtful story, but it’s not great literature. What it is though is a promising early novel and since I’ve read what Reid went on to write after this novel, I can say with certainty that both her writing and story-telling have greatly improved.

The exploration of family was one of my favourite parts of the book, aside from Hannah and Gabby’s loyal friendship. I liked that Hannah had conflicts with her family, but that her relationship with them grew stronger in both timelines. I thought her conversation with her Dad in the hospital when she asks him to leave is heartbreaking but so honest and beautiful. In the same way I loved her Mom’s unexpected excitement over something Hannah thought would be shameful. I loved how Gabby’s parents were portrayed as well and how complicated, yet simple, loving people can be. The book was full of slightly flawed, but inherently good people, and I liked that.

I rolled my eyes at some parts because it was cheesy, especially towards the end, but overall it made me feel good. Could this book have offered more? Absolutely, but that’s not why I picked it up. I was looking for a quick, feel good book and this delivered. I appreciate the ideas the author put forth and can see now how her earlier books helped her grow as a writer.

Such a Fun Age

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kiley Reid
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Dec. 2019 (read May 2020 on Audible)

Such a Fun Age was totally not what I was expecting, but it was so good! A great look at race, the white saviour narrative, and that no matter how “woke” you are, you still can’t speak for someone else.

Such a Fun Age is about Emira Tucker, a black 25 year old who recently completed her university degree, but has been struggling to find a job in her field. To make ends meet, she takes a part time job as a babysitter for the wealthy Chamberlain family. She develops a great relationship with the child she babysits, Briar, but then one night when she’s at the grocery store, another customer and security guard accuse her of having kidnapped Briar and wont let her leave the store.

Though it was embarrassing, Emira would prefer to move on from the incident without making waves. Here we’re introduced to two other characters, Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s wealthy boss who has made her career as a lifestyle blogger who promotes “letting women speak”, and Kelly Copeland, a guy who witnesses what happens to Emira in the grocery store and speaks up for her – they eventually start dating.

I thought the dynamics of this book were fascinating. Alix is a well meaning white woman who does her best to be an ally to all women and applauds herself on her openness and acceptance, but has a lot of blind spots when it comes to class, race, and privilege. She has a tendency to play the victim and is more than happy to write whatever narrative best suits her purposes. She’s controlling and entitled and fails to see how her money and upbringing have blinded her to others experiences.

Similarly, Kelly also believes himself to be a great ally to black people. She sticks up for Emira when she’s accused in the grocery store and is kind and charming to her. He’s more familiar with the stereotypes and injustices that Black people have to fight against every day, but also has a blind spot in how he might appropriate black culture and fetishize black people. He acts like he knows what Emira is going through and how she should respond, but gets so caught up in “justice” that he loses sight of what’s actually in Emira’s best interest.

As the book goes on we learn more and more about Emira, and more and more about the history of these two white people who have taken over a large part of her life. Alix and Kelly are both extremely critical of the other – seeing only each other’s flaws, without being able to recognize that they are both painted from the same brush. Their perspectives are different, but they both have the same confused notions about race. What I loved is that as the story is revealed to you, you go back and forth questioning both Alix and Kelly – who is right and who is wrong. But there’s no easy answer. In some ways they are both allies, while in other ways they are both trying to be saviours to someone who doesn’t need saving – at least not in the way they think.

I love books that are not clear cut. So many narratives are dichotomic, you can’t help but side with one of the characters, but I was both intrigued and disgusted by both of these characters. There were times when I understood where Alix was coming from and thought she was unfairly judged by Kelly, but she was also so manipulative and used any situation to try and make herself look good. Then there were times when I thought Kelly was a stand up guy, but got frustrated with how little he really tried to understand Emira. They were both so caught up in trying to be allies, that they completely missed the point that black people don’t need white people to speak for them.

I’m sure there’s a lot of context in this book that I missed as a white person, but I really enjoyed coming along for the ride. It’s an interesting kind of story because I couldn’t tell whether it was the plot or the characters that carried the book. The character development was as much about the ways in which the characters grew as it was about the ways that they didn’t. In many ways, Emira doesn’t grow that much throughout the story, but she becomes okay with that. The acknowledgement that life is hard and sometimes just surviving is enough.

Then there’s Alix and Kelly. You would think that they would both come out of the experience having learned something, but neither really did. They both maintained their messed up views about race without stopping to think for one minute that maybe there was something they were missing. Both saw themselves as heroes and failed to recognized the same flaw in themselves that they condemned in each other.

Anyways, I feel like I’m getting a bit repetitive. There’s a lot more social commentary to unpack from this book and I liked how organic the writing was. I felt like I was living Emira’s life with her. There’s a lot of avenues that went unexplored throughout the novel, but that’s okay because its too exhausting for one person to address every single injustice in their life. A subtle, but powerful story and an impressive debut.