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! 

In the Dark we Forget

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Sandra S.G. Wong
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. Date: Jun. 21, 2022 (read Jun. 2022)

Thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of In the Dark We Forget in exchange for an honest review. I don’t read a lot of mystery books, but I was really excited for this one because it’s by a Canadian author and set in the Canadian Rockies!

The premise of the book is very intriguing. A young Asian-Canadian woman wakes up in the woods with no memory of where she is or how she got there. As she starts to remember some of the details, including that her name is Cleo, we learn that her parents recently won the lottery and that they are now missing too. As the police delve deeper and find little information, we begin to question Cleo’s relationship to both her parents and their disappearance.

Sadly the premise was the most compelling part of the book. This is being sold as a mystery-thriller, but I think it would have worked a lot better as literary fiction (and to be honest, I think that’s what the author was going for as well). Wong had some great ideas in terms of theme and characters, but the plotting of the book really just didn’t work for what I felt she was trying to accomplish. This could have been a moderately interesting book about diaspora and Asian-Canadian culture if it had been further and better developed, but instead it’s a poor mystery novel that bogs itself down with poor writing.

I do really hate to rag on the book because it is a debut, but I can’t deny the writing wasn’t strong. I was expecting this to be really fast paced, but it’s actually incredibly slow and boring because the author insists on taking us on an almost totally linear trajectory, with no time jumps between scenes to move the story along. While everything before Cleo’s accident is foggy in her memory, every second after is accounted for in great detail. I felt like there was a lot of pointless filler and it really made the book drag. It took way too long for us to find out anything meaningful about Cleo. If you’re going to center a mystery around a family dynamic, you can’t waste 100 pages before even revealing who any of the characters are.

I honestly felt like barely anything happened in the entire book. The author gives up absolutely nothing in terms of the mystery element, which is why I questioned why it’s shelved as mystery. You have to give your reader some details to keep them interested and guessing, but this book presents the scenario and then does almost nothing to advance the details. It has a very ambiguous ending, which can work in a literary fiction, but I thought felt very out of place in a mystery. It’s not ambiguous in the way that it leaves me wondering which of 2 scenarios might have occurred, but ambiguous in the way that I have literally no idea what actually happened. I feel that there should be some kind of payout at the end of the book, but I didn’t even get that, so it really left me frustrated at why I had invested so much time in the book when absolutely none of the questions presented in the synopsis of the book are answered.

Anyways, I don’t want to go on and on. It was a disappointing read for me, but others might like it. Go into this knowing it’s definitely not a thriller and only partially a mystery. If I’d taken a different approach I might have liked it a bit more.

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!