Book Lovers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Emily Henry
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: May 2022 (read May 2022)

It’s been almost 2 months now since I read this and I’m really regretting not writing a review about it then…

Emily Henry is quickly becoming an auto-buy author for me! I read People We Meet on Vacation and Beach Read earlier this year and am even debating reading some of her YA backlist. Of the 3 books I’ve read, I think Book Lovers might be my favourite! Beach Read had some definite flaws, but I really liked the friends to lovers aspect of People We Meet on Vacation. The plot of Book Lovers sounded a bit cheesy to me, but the story is so well crafted that I ended up loving it!

Nora Stephens is a literary agent for authors and has a tenuous relationship with Charlie Lastra, an editor who once passed on one of her biggest client’s bestselling book. Nora’s sister Libby convinces Nora to join her on a getaway to the small town in which her bestselling book is set, where they continually run into Charlie and learn the real reason why he passed on editing the book. But what Nora’s more curious about it why her sister really wanted them to take this trip and has a sneaking suspicion she won’t be very pleased when she uncovers the truth.

So the book has a pretty standard romance setting and plot, but what makes it stand out is the dialogue and characterization. First off, this is really a story about sisterhood, which is one of my all time favourite themes, and the romance that blooms during the sister trip is super organic and fun. Nora and Charlie have chemistry and I was really impressed with all of their banter. Emily Henry is quick witted and her dialogue is sharp. There’s no awkwardness and it’s a lot of fun to read. Like most enemies to lovers stories, Nora and Charlie are barely enemies, but I liked how quickly they become friends. There was an authenticity in easily sorting out your differences and acknowledging that your first impressions were misplaced.

I’ve said this of Henry’s other books, and it holds true in Book Lovers, that she is really great at bringing a strong dose of realism and depth to her romances. There’s always something going on in the story beyond just the romance and her characters are always realistically flawed, but in a way that is believable. Too many romances feature unrealistic men and while it’s nice to dream such a “perfect” man might exist, I like my love interests a little more nuanced.

What I liked about this one was that Nora and Charlie were very much the anti-heroes. Nora believes that she’s the high-powered, but lonely woman that always gets left behind in the city for the easy-going country girl, whereas Charlie’s the guy who always puts other people’s needs and happiness before his own. I loved that this book was basically in defense of all those women who like city life and pursue their careers over love. It’s about knowing who you are and what you’re willing to compromise.

As a side note, I’d also like to say that I loved that Nora was tall! I feel like almost all romances these days feature giant men and tiny women and I loved Henry’s exploration of height in a relationship and how little Charlie cared about it. The whole line about “there’s no such thing as a ‘too tall’ woman, only men who are too insecure to date them” had me swooning over Charlie! So I appreciate the realism since the average height for men and women is 5’9″ and 5’4″.

Then there’s a whole other element of this story that looks at Nora’s internalized guilt and responsibility. She’s taken on a lot of ownership over her sister’s happiness and this is very much about learning to let the people you love go. Letting them be responsible for their own success and happiness and being okay when your dreams don’t necessarily align with one another.

To conclude, I really liked it and read the entire thing over the span of 2 days. If you’re looking for a fun summer read, definitely pick up Book Lovers! 

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!

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.

The Cartographers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Peng Shepherd
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022)

I was super excited when I first read the synopsis and saw the cover art for The Cartographers! Everything about the blurb appealed to me and I was stoked to jump into this one. Since its release, it’s getting some pretty mixed reviews, which I can definitely understand. It’s a very compelling story and there’s a lot that I liked about it. Initially I gave it 4 stars, but upon closer reflection, I have to admit that parts of the book are pretty flawed and that I loved the premise of the book more than the execution, so I decided to bump my review down to 3 stars. Still a great read, but not everything it could have been. So let’s talk about it.

The Cartographers features protagonist Nell Young and opens with the death of her estranged father. He passes away at work and when the police notify her of the incident, she discovers a map hidden in his office and sneaks it away with her. She quickly discovers that despite the unassuming nature of this cheap gas station map, it appears to be extremely desirable and is the only remaining map in existence. A shadowy group called the Cartographers appears to be after the map and Nell is quickly catapulted into a mission to unravel the maps secrets before the dangerous cartographers find her.

Sounds great right? It is. I found the writing to be pretty fast paced and the mystery super compelling. There’s a fantastical element to the story as we discover some of the secrets that maps can hold and slowly get answers about who the Cartographers are as we unravel Nell’s family history. I loved the idea that maps can be portals and that some places exist only within the maps on which they are shown. I got totally caught up in the story, in solving the mystery and exposing the secrets.

Unfortunately, as smart as the premise of the plot is, the execution and backstory are so flawed that it does take away from my overall impression of the book. Without getting into spoilers yet, a lot of the characters make questionable decisions, portions of the story are left unexplained, and the ending is perfect and messy in a way that doesn’t really make sense. We are introduced to a lot of characters, but many are left only partially developed. The premise of the plot is excellent, but it’s left unsupported by weak characterization and themes.

I would still recommend this book because of how fun it is. It really captured my imagination and it is very fast paced and I found it hard to put down. It’s just not quite as good as I believe it could be and beyond the extremely creative premise, I felt the author lost that creativity in telling the rest of the story. So I’d still encourage you to check it out, but for now, I’d like to jump into the spoiler part of the my discussion because I want to further explore some of the plot points and would love to hear opinions from others who have read the book.
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My main criticism relates to the Cartographers and their motivations. I feel like Shepherd created this wonderful idea of having the errors on maps become real places and I loved the discovery of Agloe, I just didn’t understand the choices the rest of the characters made. I didn’t understand why Nell’s mother opted to stay in Agloe for 30 years. Actually, I understood it in theory, it’s more that I didn’t believe it.

I didn’t believe that her motivations for deciding to stay in Agloe were strong enough. To say she is hiding from, or afraid of Wally is unfair. While he did become an extremely unstable character, I believe this was mostly due to his grief and ongoing fanaticism about the map. Had Tam simply left Agloe and not been presumed dead, he would not have spent 30 years trying to get back to her and I believe the combined effort of the Cartographers could have managed and support Wally in his grief. Instead they stood idly by for 30 years – allowing Wally to become more and more unhinged and permitting a young girl to grow up without her mother. This is selfish and irresponsible. I could excuse some of the Cartographers since it was only Daniel that knew Tam was still alive, but together Nell’s parents are a bunch of idiots.

Secondly, I didn’t believe any sane individual could stay in a fictional town for 30 years. The perceived danger wasn’t real, but even if it was, what person wouldn’t risk it to be with their husband and daughter. There’s no way Tam would still be sane after 30 years in a make-believe town, but clearly she wasn’t sane to begin with if she thought self isolating for 30 years was a good idea.

So all of the decisions made by the Cartographers were based on this flawed fear of an unhinged individual that they themselves created. It just wasn’t a good enough motivator for me to understand of empathize with their decisions. Tam made the decision to abandon her daughter and Daniel made the decision to ruin her career and slander her. What kind of life are they even trying to protect for Nell? A life where she is estranged from her family and forced to work in a dead end job, never having known a mother or father’s love? What is even the point? Leave Agloe and burn the map. No one should love cartography this much.

Tam being alive explains the motivation for hiding the map for so long, but honestly I thought this book would have been a lot stronger if Tam had actually died in the fire. It would explain why the rest of the Cartographers repressed the entire ordeal out of grief and I would have understood better why they hid it from Nell. Tam being secretly alive for 30 years just made me mad about Nell’s abandonment and weakened the premise for the rest of the story.

Anyways, overall this is leaving me thoroughly confused about the book. Like I said, I can’t deny I had a lot of fun reading it, my frustrations are mostly because I thought it could be stronger and I was sad to end the book feeling disappointed when I wanted so badly to love it. I didn’t quite understand the ending, but it was a wonderful blend of magical realism and I would read it again in hopes of picking up on some other subtleties about how the map magic system works. If you want to enjoy it, you just have to be willing to accept the story for what it is. A great idea, just maybe not perfectly thought out. 3.5 stars