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.

If I Had Your Face

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Frances Cha
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Jan. 2022 on Audible)

If I Had Your Face has been on my radar since it was nominated in the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2020, but a year later I felt like I suddenly started seeing it pop up everywhere, so I decided to listen to the audiobook while puzzling one weekend. I ended up listening to the whole thing in just 2 days!

As with most audiobooks with multiple character perspectives, I did find it a little challenging to keep track of all the characters at the beginning. I wasn’t sure if the four women featured were all connected with one another and it was hard for me to keep the protagonists straight from the side characters (because I kept expecting some of the side characters in the early chapters to also be protagonists). But I made a few references to the synopsis and eventually I was able to sort everyone out.

I really liked this book. I can see how it won’t be for everyone. Some of the characters are kind of polarizing and this is a really different perspective from what you get in a lot of mainstream literature. White people (and I’m including myself in this) – you probably aren’t going to have a lot of reference for some of the content of this book, which for me made it a bit unrelatable, but was ultimately why I enjoyed it so much. That’s the benefit of having access to all sorts of stories from all over the world. This gave me a perspective I definitely didn’t have before. I honestly felt at times like I was reading dystopian fantasy with all the talk of changing faces and I appreciate that this broadened my world view.

If I Had Your Face is set in South Korea and focuses on 4 women living in the same apartment building. Some of them know each other and are friends and they flit in and out of each others lives. Ara works in a hair salon while supporting her friend through extensive cosmetic surgery and fantasizing about meeting her favourite K-Pop band. Kyuri has already had cosmetic surgery to transform her face and works in a “room salon”, entertaining business men to pay off the debt for her surgeries. Miho is classically beautiful and works as an artist after studying abroad in New York. And Wonna is a young mother-to-be struggling to decide what to do about her upcoming maternity leave.

The author covers a lot of ground in a short period of time and I liked that she explores so many different perspectives. Wonna’s storyline felt a bit out of place compared to the others since she was the only one who didn’t really know the other women, but I thought her perspective was just as interesting and brought something different to the table. Beauty and sexism are key themes in the novel and I LOVE the title of this book and how well it ties into the story, because I think “if I had your face” really captures the entire essence of this book. Every single one of these women is chasing after some kind of ideal and it hasn’t made any of them happy.

I know people have cosmetic surgery all over the world, but it’s not really something that’s talked about in any meaningful way rather than to be dismissive about it. For Kyuri, changing her face was a way to chase a better life for herself, while also keeping her more entrapped than even. I thought that the room salon would be a rather shameful place, yet here’s Ara’s roommate, saving up to change her face so that she can have the opportunity to work in one! Then there’s Miho, who is already classically beautiful. She has the envy of her friends that she doesn’t need to change her face and that she has the privilege to make art (something she loves) and get paid for it. Yet Miho is unhappy too and mistreated by her boyfriend.

Wonna gives us one more perspective of life after marriage, yet even with a husband, she struggles to get pregnant and then faces terrible discrimination at her work. It’s almost like if you’re a woman, who can’t win. And that is kind of the point in a lot of the world isn’t it. Wonna reminded me a bit of Kim Jiyoung, which is another novel that came out of South Korea and examines the sexism women face on a daily basis.

If I had one complaint about this book, it would be that it’s not long enough. I rarely say that about any book, if anything I think a lot of books are longer than they need to be. But for so many characters and such a short book, I don’t think the author was able to truly give each of these characters the depth they deserve. I felt like some aspects of the plot were skipped over and I wasn’t given enough context to understand all of the characters motivations. But I also appreciated that this was really just a snapshot into the lives of 4 different women. I felt a bit like a fly on the wall during a moment in time.

So don’t go into this looking for a plot driven, fully fleshed out story, but take it for what it is – a brief glimpse into the lives of each one of these fascinating women.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: T.J. Klune
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Aug. 2021)

The House in the Cerulean Sea is definitely a book that came to me very heavily hyped. I feel like this book is all over goodreads and tiktok it’d been on my TBR for a while before I finally picked it up with my book club.

It’s a middle grade read that is highly accessible to an adult audience and features themes that are relatable to any age group. It’s set in a fantasy world similar to ours, but with magical beings. Linus works for the department in Charge of Magical Youth as a case worker for orphaned children. Everything is highly regulated by the government and he checks in on children to make sure they are receiving proper care. Then one day, he is approached to go a highly unusual assignment where he meets some of the department’s most high risk children.

These children all live on an island with their caretaker, Arthur. At first Linus is extremely weary of the children and their abilities, as are the villagers in the mainland town next to the island. However, as Linus gets to know the children, he sees that he may have been unfairly prejudiced against them and recognizes the unfairness of how these children are treated by everyone around them. 

It’s very much a feel good novel about belonging. The ways we treat and perceive those who are different than us and how much we stand to gain and can learn from them if we only treat people with respect. It draws so many parallels to our society and the way some people view and treat others who are gay, or immigrants, or a visible minority. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this novel, but it is a heartwarming book if you’re looking for a pick-me-up. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as most people seem to be loving it, but I did think it was a solid 4 star read and the majority of my book club enjoyed it.

Five Little Indians

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michelle Good
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Jun. 2021)

It’s been months since I read Five Little Indians, but I think it is a very important book and I do want to take some time to review it. It’s been getting a lot of press since over 200 children were found buried at the Kamloops Residential School (and thousands more since), shocking many Canadians, but not many indigenous people.

As the title suggests, Five Little Indians follows the lives of 5 survivors of a residential school on the north part of Vancouver Island. Some of these children aged out of the school, while others ran away or were smuggled away by family members. All suffer trauma as a result of the experience and many of the survivors end up in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver.

This is not an easy book to read and that is the way it should be. It doesn’t focus so much on the atrocities committed within residential schools (though they are still featured), but more on the long term trauma that comes with having survived such an experience during your most formative childhood years. The impact the schools had not only on the children, but on parents and entire communities.

When the children leave the school, some of them are lucky enough to have families to return home to, while others have no one and are forced to try and make it on their own at just 17 or 18 years of age. Some of the teens find each other in the DTES and create a new little family, but struggle emotionally and financially, turning to alcohol, drugs, and sex to cope with the trauma and memories they are saddled with from school. Those that are able to return home find that they are returning to families that have been just as broken by the loss of their children to the schools.

Family members turn to their own coping mechanisms and the teens find it hard to return to a culture and community that they now feel divorced from. The role of residentials schools was to “kill the Indian” in the child. The government and the Church succeed in this mission by cutting out the heart of indigenous communities and creating shameful cultural associations in the children. This separation traumatizes the community and the shame of the abuse perpetrated against the children makes it hard for many to return home at all. They have been abused mentally and physically and no longer have any kind of self worth, making it hard to be with the people who love them, even if those people have suffered in their own way.

The writing is simple and I found it effective in that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The storyline does a great job of shining a light on the long term impact of residential schools and how many aspects of the schools are still alive in society today. Many would argue that our child welfare system has basically just replaced the schools, with indigenous children still regularly being removed from their families at disproportionate rates – families still suffering from the trauma of residential schools. I recently finished reading The Strangers by Katherena Vermette, which I also think does a really good job at exploring the ways in which indigenous people are still marginalized today.

Everything about this book made me feel uncomfortable and that is kind of the point. Reconciliation is a big and uncertain topic and to think we can attempt it without feeling very uncomfortable is folly. I’ve been trying to work my way through more indigenous literature this year and welcome any other recommendations.

Luster

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Raven Leilani
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2020 (read May 2021 on Audible)

It’s been too long since I read this for me to write a proper review for it, but I do want to write a short one to capture my thoughts.

I saw lots of buzz about Luster and read that it was a bit of a polarizing book. It was compared to Queenie, which is also somewhat of a polarizing book, but I read it several years ago and loved it, so I thought I might enjoy Luster as well. Sadly, I did not. I can see why this is compared to Queenie, but in my opinion it had none of the charm of Queenie.

Both books feature black women trying to find their way in the world while simultaneously combatting racism and micro-aggressions at every turn. Both women pursue (often abusive) sexual relations to avoid their personal trauma, but that is pretty much where the comparisons end. Despite Queenie raging against herself and looking for love in all the wrong places, she still had so much charm and spunk. A lot of people didn’t like the comparison of Queenie to Bridget Jones, but I actually thought it was pretty apt. Queenie struggled with her mental health, but she very much used that wry British humour as a coping mechanism.

Luster is a different beast than Queenie entirely. Queenie was trying to mend her broken heart with bad sex, whereas Edie pursues an entirely inappropriate relationship with an older white married man. Eric has a somewhat open marriage and when things fall apart for Edie, she finds herself living in Eric’s house with his wife and discovering they have an adopted black daughter.

While I did find the exploration of Akila’s character (the daughter) really interesting, a black girl fighting the same racism Edie is used to, but without the acknowledgement or understanding of her parents, this novel made me entirely too uncomfortable. I get that that’s kind of the point of the book, but the casual violence in Edie and Eric’s relationship, and the bizarre relationship with his wife, were just too much for me to handle. I desperately wanted to like it because I generally love books with unlikeable characters, but I had to acknowledge this book wasn’t for me.

I didn’t enjoy the writing and despite some good themes, I wasn’t quite sure what Leilani was trying to say with this book. I acknowledge this book wasn’t written for me though, and that’s okay. But given the choice between the two, read Queenie instead.