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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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.

Miracle Creek

Rating: ⭐
Author: Angie Kim
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. date: Apr. 2019 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I heard really good things about Miracle Creek, which is what inspired me to pick it up, but I was still totally blown away by this book! I like mystery/thrillers,but they don’t normally stand out in the way a good literary fiction or historical fiction book does. Miracle Creek was everything I didn’t know I was looking for in a mystery novel.

What makes this such a great read is that the author weaves so much nuance into the rest of her story. It’s primarily about solving a crime, but there’s so much else going on and the characters are incredibly well developed and have a huge amount of depth. Kim tackles everything from alternative medicine, to parenting less-abled children, to cultural diaspora, to the challenges of simply growing up.

Miracle Creek is primarily about the Yoo family. Pak, Young, and their daughter Mary, moved to the United States from Seoul, Korea. Each character faces their own challenges in moving to America and their new routines start to create a distance between each of the family members. Pak decides to start up a new business called Miracle Submarine, which is all about the healing powers of hyperbaric pressure chambers, or HBOT. HBOT is a pressurized chamber that allows the patients to breathe in pure oxygen, which is touted as having all kind of medical benefits. However, the benefits are not totally proven and it is a controversial practice.

Pak, Young, and Mary’s lives, as well as the lives of their friends, are totally torn apart when one evening, someone lights a cigarette outside the chamber and blows it up, killing two of the patients inside. The rest of the book is a courtroom drama, investigating who was responsible for the explosion and what exactly happened to lead up to that moment.

The courtroom drama is the focus of the novel, but everything else that happens outside the courtroom is really what makes this read so thrilling. We get to experience the trial from a number of different perspectives. We are never really sure who actually committed the crime, with new evidence continuously keeping you guessing. But the decision to tell this story through multiple perspectives is super effective. Kim humanizes every single one of her characters, making it easy to empathize with them, even when some of their actions shock you.

Outside of the courtroom, she explores so many different conflicts that each character is facing. I loved that I got to explore what it was like for Young living within the confines of a traditional Korean marriage and the impact that moving to America had on her family. I sympathized with Pak being a goose father and the perceived loss of his wisdom when he could no longer communicate himself eloquently. I was captivated by Elizabeth and the other autism moms – the level of responsibility that was thrust upon them and the continued heartbreak every day as they had to watch their children be only a fraction of who they knew they could be. The conflict they felt about HBOT and all the treatments they put their children through and whether it was really worth it and who they were doing it for? I felt bad for Janine as she struggled in her relationship with Matt and the fetishization of Asian women and her indignation that being attracted to Asian women could even be considered a “fetish”, like it was something dirty.

Every single character in this book is so nuanced. I constantly marveled at the author for how she played with so many different social issues and commentaries, all while maintaining an equally thrilling courtroom drama. I loved how she played with regret and “what if’s. How things could have been so dramatically different had one character taken a slightly different action. I wasn’t particularly surprised with the solving of the crime, but I was impressed with how Kim decided to end her novel. In the same way that the story was filled with moments of frustration, bitterness, and anger at the hand that had been dealt to each character, the ending carried on the same theme of cold, hard reality. It reminded me at times of a Greek tragedy in that you saw how easily things could have been different, but the characters, blind to their own shortcomings and missing information, barrel into the unknown, only increasing their mistakes. This book had a lot of irony and that’s what really sticks with you. It get’s under your skin and you get caught up in the what ifs.

I can’t believe this is a debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Angie Kim writes next. Highly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling book!

The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.

Daisy Jones & The Six

Rating:
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019 on Audible

I did everything I could to get my hands on an early copy of Daisy Jones & The Six, but friends, I’m so glad I was unsuccessful because that would have deprived me of the joy of listening to this as an audiobook! I usually prefer to read fiction that I think I’m going to love as a paperback because it’s almost never quite as good as an audiobook. But this is one case where I would absolutely recommend reading the audiobook! Audible sold me on this book with the 5 minute sample because it’s read with a full cast, meaning a different voice actor is cast for every single character! It adds so much life to the story when every character is read by a different person and I really felt like listening to this book was an experience in itself. It also works particularly well as an audiobook because the story is written as an “oral history”, meaning almost the entire book is dialogue from the characters as they recount the story. So absolutely read the audiobook, you will not regret it!

For a little background; Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which was published in 2017 and took the book world by storm in 2018. I read it with my book club and LOVED it, so I was really excited to finally get my hands on this book. Daisy Jones & The Six is set in present day, but tells the story of the rise to fame of fictional rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six in the 1970’s, leading up to the break up of the band in 1979 at the height of their popularity. No one knows the true story of why the band broke-up, but for the first time, the members of the band have agreed to tell their story. So the whole thing reads like an MTV-type documentary, where an interviewer has compiled everyone’s accounts of the band’s rise to fame and break-up to finally give readers the full story.

What makes it so interesting is that because the story actually happened 40 years in the past, the band members are, of course, fuzzy on some of the details and many of their stories contradict one another. Because we don’t really know the truth or the motivations of each of each of the characters (some might be motivated to lie for example), it’s up to the reader to decide where the truth actually lies, which the interviewer postulates, is likely somewhere in the middle.

I can see how this book wouldn’t be for everyone – I personally don’t care about 1970’s rock and roll, although I can see how this topic would be an incentive to pick up this book for other readers – but I was captivated from start to finish! I thought the way Jenkins Reid crafted the story was brilliant, as was her writing. Any author that can tell a story this well written and crafted is definitely talented. Plus the voice actors should really be commended because they did a wonderful job capturing the angst and emotion of each character. This is one book I would recommend listening to at normal speed because the actors really are quite talented and absolutely bring this story to life.

One of the best parts of this book is just how real the characters feel. Dialogue can be tricky to write and some authors are just not good at it. But I genuinely felt like every single one of these characters was a real person and it’s hard to believe that Daisy Jones & The Six are not actually a real band. It’s hard to believe someone could bring music that doesn’t even exist to life in such a real way in a book. The most upsetting part is that none of the music in the book actually exists, because I wanted so badly to be able and go and listen to the album that Daisy and Billy wrote together. I kept thinking during the book that the band reminded me of Fleetwood Mac, even though I don’t even know very much about Fleetwood Mac, but I have heard that some of the story is loosely based on that band, although I’m not sure how much truth there is to that rumour.

The overall story is not that different from any other rock story. It has many of the same themes that we regularly see in stories about musicians. The book is filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the characters and their relationships are really what bring the story to life. However, while the general themes were pretty standard, I did not find the plot predictable. So many of these kinds of stories involve drug abuse and forbidden relationships that tear our artists apart – this book had those elements, yet it still felt fresh and surprising.

Daisy Jones was a solo artist and The Six was a 6-person rock band led by singer Billy Dunne. Both achieved some level of success on their own, but together they were magic. Daisy and Billy had a tumultuous relationship. They both had very strong personalities and opinions about the music they wanted to create, but when they were able to work together, what they created was magical. Likewise, a distinct personality emerged for each of the individual band members and the producers and family members that surrounded the band. I loved the dynamic between Daisy, Billy, and Camila, as well as the dynamics between other band members such as Karen and Graham, Eddie and Billy, and Teddy and Billy. Plus each character had a really well developed sense of self and struggled as much with their own personal demons as they did with the people around them.

I loved the evolution of each character. Everyone had great personality traits and everyone had flaws. You’d start off loving a character, then find them to be quite unlikable, before finally understanding what they’re going through and liking them again. I’ve heard reviews that some people loved Daisy Jones, while others hated her. I was firmly in the middle. She definitely had a spirit that was to be commended, especially for a woman in the 70’s, but she was also undeniably privileged and entitled and often made bad decisions.

Likewise, I loved and hated Billy. Billy had an obvious conflict with Daisy, but his character was really driven by his personal conflict and fight with addiction. Daisy and Billy definitely brought out each other’s flaws, but they also helped one another to grow in ways they never would have without each other.

I’ve heard some people call this a love story, but it was never really a love story for me. It was more a story about people and relationships. Relationships were central to the story, but it wasn’t always about love. It was also about the power of music as a method of expression and the different ways that we express ourselves and learn and grow from our mistakes. Although I will say, I always look for love triangles where you love everyone in the triangle because I think it brings so much more emotion to a story when you want all 3 characters to be happy, but you know only 2 of them will be together. Daisy Jones & The Six has that kind of love story and it will tear your heart out, but it’s so much more interesting to read about.

There’s more men than women in the story – we’re limited pretty much to Daisy, Karen, and Camila as our female characters – but I loved every single one of them. Daisy had a lot of faults, but I loved how unapologetic she was. She refused to be anyone but who she was and even though she was portrayed by the media as a sex icon, she was an icon on her own terms. She dressed for herself and made decisions for herself, she was always focused on her own gaze rather than those around her. But I loved that Jenkins Reid also drew attention to her privilege. She never really had to work for anything and I loved how her character was challenged throughout the book, both as a musician and as a person.

Karen was probably my favourite female character though and I loved how Judy Greer portrayed her in the audiobook. Karen was another character who knew what she wanted and what she didn’t want and she was never going to apologize for it. Her character was in contrast to what most people would expect from a woman in this era and I loved the way the author contrasted Karen and Camila. Karen wanted to be a successful musician, she was interested in love and sex, but never at the expense of her career, she was comfortable being alone, and she never wanted kids. In contrast, Camila was happy to sit back and support Billy as a musician. She wanted nothing more than to be a mother, and though it was hard, she was content in her life and trusted her husband.

They were both completely different people, who had very different thoughts on what they wanted to achieve in life, but they were best friends and neither was threatened by the other’s ambitions and how they differed. I think a lot of mothers are threatened by women who don’t want kids. I don’t really know why, it’s a personal decision and both are right. But Camila was never threatened by Karen’s differing values and never tried to convince her to feel otherwise. They both accepted and respected the others desires.

I don’t want to spoil what happened to break up the band, but I really liked that it was never really about one specific thing. It was a culmination of all the different relationships in the band. There were different catalysts for different people and I loved how this was a study of all of the band members rather than just Billy and Daisy.

I want to get into some spoilers now, so I’ll just say I absolutely loved this book from start to finish and would highly recommend the audiobook! If you haven’t read it yet, tap out now to avoid spoilers, if you have, let’s keep going!

SPOILERS BELOW

So first of all, because I was just talking about Karen and Camila, I want to say that I loved the abortion scene in this book. It was lovely to see a woman put in a tough situation, but confident enough in herself and her dreams to make the right decision for herself and to not regret it. Karen understood that she wouldn’t have the same luxury to continue her career as Billy and Graham would have if they all were parents. Graham clearly didn’t understand and as much as I liked the two of them as a couple, they weren’t meant to be. I also loved that Jenkins Reid took the typical gender dynamic and flipped it in Karen and Graham’s relationship. So often it’s the girl chasing after the guy, but I loved that Karen was one of the few women portrayed as actually being comfortable alone. I loved how she was contrasted to Camila in terms of their personal goals, and how she was also contrasted to Daisy, who hated being alone.

Finally, I want to talk about that killer spoiler at the end where we discover that the person interviewing the band is actually Julia, Billy’s daughter, and that Camila has passed on since being interviewed. The interviewer tells us at the beginning that some of the individuals have sadly passed on, so at first you’re kind of expecting the typical tragic “musician dies from drug abuse and overdoes” story, but because everyone is being interviewed, you understand that means they’re all still alive. It’s not until later that you realize Teddy was never interviewed because he passed away in the late 70’s. Then we’re thrown for a total loop when we discover Camila passed away mid-interview and that the interviewer is actually hers and Billy’s daughter.

To be honest, I didn’t think that much of it, I was just like, okay, that’s kind of weird, but whatever, doesn’t change that much, just makes it seem weird that everyone was talking about her and her parents in the third person. But I watched Hannah’s (A Clockwork Reader) review on Youtube and she brought up a great point about how that shines a different light on absolutely everything that precluded it. Keeping in mind that everyone is telling their story to Billy’s daughter would absolutely change how they would tell their story and should make us question even further what the actual truth is.

It explains why no one every really says anything bad about Camlia, because people don’t really talk bad of the dead and it makes you wonder what Daisy and Billy’s relationship actually was like since it was probably really difficult for them to discuss the topic with Billy’s daughter. Throughout the whole book, I thought that Billy and Daisy had great chemistry, but I was somewhat surprised with their love story. Billy seemed to genuinely love Camila and Billy and Daisy both hated each other on so many different occasions, that it made you wonder if the music was really enough for them to overcome that. But knowing they’re telling their story to Julia paints everything in a different light and kind of makes me want to go back and listen to the whole thing again.

It speaks volumes about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s talent. She really did bring these characters to life in the most impressive way, it’s genuinely a bit jarring to me that none of these people are real. There were no throw-away characters, even annoying characters like Eddie were still incredibly relatable. A lot of the characters made bad decisions, but they were so well developed, it was easy to understand why they made the decisions they did.

Phew, well that was the quite the review and I think it’s actually made me appreciate the book even more than I did when I finished. I love when writing a review helps you confirm how you actually felt about a book and this review definitely helped me. I also love when a book makes you feel so much you can write a review this long. So definitely check out this book and audiobook. I know some people haven’t been loving this book as much as they hoped, but I definitely did!