Top 5 Reads of 2018

This is the companion post to my Top 10 Books of 2018, which features my favourite reads of the year that were actually published in 2018. This post will feature my top 5 books of the year that weren’t published in 2018. This works out well for me because its hard to narrow it down to just 10 books and the majority of the books I read are new releases. So here’s my top 5 reads of 2018 in no particular order:

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

You know how sometimes you read a book and you really like it, but then the more time passes, the more unsure you are of whether you actually liked it as much as you thought? This book was the opposite of that for me. I really liked it when I read it, but the further removed I’ve gotten from reading it, the better I think I actually like it. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tells the story of Julia, the teenage daughter of Mexican immigrants, and how she deals with the death of her older sister Olga. I know some people aren’t a fan of this book because honestly, Julia is super unlikable and confrontational in the story, but I thought it was such an accurate portrayal of a raging, rebellious, grieving teenager. Julia is struggling with accepting the death of her sister, who was the perfect daughter in her parents eyes, and she acts out against her parents traditional Mexican values. She struggles to understand her parents and her parents struggle to understand her. It’s ultimately a coming of age story about grief and the struggles of immigrant families. I listened to it as an audiobook and I would highly recommend this format – the narrator was fantastic and the whole reading experience was super enjoyable, despite the heavy topics.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

This was probably my most unexpected read of the year. I set an informal goal for myself to start reading more classics. I tried some Jane Austen and wasn’t the biggest fan, but I found Wuthering Heights on audiobook for a really cheap price and decided to give it a go. I’m not sure whether to credit Emily Bronte or Joanne Froggatt (the narrator) for how much I liked this, but together they made me absolutely LOVE this book. I don’t always love classics because they tend to wane on too much about nothing, but I loved the drama of Wuthering Heights. Evidently I have a thing for unlikable characters because NO ONE in this book is very likable. I think most people are familiar with the plot, so I won’t get too into it, I’ll just say that it’s an inter-generational story about the cycle of abuse and the human ability to both love and hate. I’ll still give Bronte most of the props, but Froggatt’s narration definitely played a role in making me love this as she does a fantastic job with all the characters and accents!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation was one of the first books I read this year and while it was a slow-read novel, I really loved it. This book tells the semi-autobiographical story of 10 year old Kimberly Chan and spans about a decade in scope. Kim and her Ma are sponsored by her Aunt and move to New York from China. It’s based off the author’s experience immigrating to America and I thought it was such a well crafted story about the struggles immigrants face to build a new life and climb their way out of poverty. Kim and her Ma live in a run down apartment and work in her Aunt’s sweat shop sewing clothing. It’s technically Ma that works in the shop, but the workers regularly enlist the help of their children since they work on commission and it’s the only way they can make decent money. Kim attends school during the day and is driven by her desire to learn and get a job that will enable her to lift her family out of poverty. Like I said, it’s a quiet sort of story, but powerful and I really loved Kim’s character and perspective.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

I’m just now realizing that I read 3 of the 5 books on this list as audiobooks (this being the third), which is actually super impressive since I tend to dislike audiobooks a lot more than I love them. But I guess I found some real winners on Audible this year! The Nowhere Girls tells the story of 3 very different high school classmates: Grace, Rosina, and Erin. The biggest thing I can say about this book is: great representation. Grace is a fat, Christian girl; Rosina is a gay, Mexican girl; and Erin has Asperger’s. Grace is new to town and when she learns that the former resident of her bedroom was a high school girl who was essentially driven out of town when she claimed she was raped at a party the year before, she starts a secret club to do something about it. I really liked this book because it was diverse and it addressed relevant social issues that any teen girl can relate to. Plus, it has another great narrator!

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

I’ve been raving about this series since I read it back in August. I included the sequel Wundersmith in my Top 10 Books of 2018 post, and I have to include the first book in this list. I can not say enough good things about this series. It is the smart, fun middle grade book that I’ve been looking for since Harry Potter. It tells the story of cursed child, Morrigan Crow, who is whisked off to the magical land of Nevermoor on the eve of her death day by the enigmatic Jupiter North. There she participates in the trials to become a member of the prestigious Wunder Society, all while trying to hide the fact that she’s an illegal immigrant to Nevermoor. This book is so whimsical (it has a giant, talking cat and flying umbrellas), but what I love most about it is that it has depth. It’s so well written and crafted that this magical world pretty much builds itself. It’s obvious that there’s a lot more to the plot than Townsend reveals upfront and I think we’re in for a multi-layered, multi-book series that has the potential to be just as popular as Harry Potter. I really, really loved this and I can’t wait to see what Jessica Townsend publishes next!  

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November Summary

November has been the BEST reading month! Last month I sent a new PB for most pages read in a month, but it didn’t last long because I beat it again this month. I always read a lot of books in November because I get really into the Goodreads Choice Awards and always try and read as many of the nominees as I can (I decided to make this my November monthly challenge). This month I read a whopping 17 books, granted 6 of them were graphic novels and short stories, but it was still a new personal record for most books read in one month. Here’s what I read:

Books read: 17
Pages read: 5,221
Main genres: Graphic Novels, Fantasy, Fiction
Favourite book: So many good books! So hard to choose, but probably Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

So, like I said, a lot of the books I read this month were nominees in the Goodreads Choice Awards. I read a lot of books, so I won’t spend too long on each one. To start things off I read two books by V.E. Schwab, Vicious (⭐⭐⭐⭐) and it’s sequel, Vengeful (⭐⭐⭐⭐), which was nominated in the Sci-fi genre. Vicious was published 5 years ago, but it’s only just geting a sequel, so I decided to read them back to back and really liked them. I don’t think the second book was quite as good as the first, but they’re fast-paced novels that examine morality and the things that drive good people to do bad things.

I also read a few non-fiction books, which is a genre I don’t normally read. I decided to read Phoebe Robinson’s new book, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay (⭐⭐⭐⭐), which was nominated in the humour category, and absolutely loved it! I read Phoebe’s debut novel in 2016, which was pretty good, but I think she really upped her game in this book and I would totally recommend the audiobook. I also received a free copy of Abbi Jacobson’s new book, I Might Regret This (⭐⭐⭐), from Hachette, which I was thrilled to read, but ended up not loving quite as much as I’d hoped. Through I’m still a huge fan of Abbi and Broad City. Hatchette also sent me an early copy of Wundersmith (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐), the sequel to Jessica Townsend’s debut novel, Nevermoor. I read Nevermoor a few months ago and was pretty much obsessed with it, so I immediately jumped right into the sequel and was delighted that it was just as wonderful as the first book! It’s a middle grade fantasy series full of whimsy that gives me huge Harry Potter vibes. A solid 5 stars – this series is incredible and I would recommend to everyone!

I read a few very short books, Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini (⭐⭐⭐), which is a short illustrated picture book that he wrote for charity (which I didn’t review), and For Every One by Jason Reynolds (⭐⭐.5), which was nominated in the Poetry category. Both books were nice, but honestly, I thought they were both a little too short to pack that much of a punch.

For graphic novels, I read the latest volume of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (⭐⭐⭐⭐). I absolutely love this graphic novel series, but the latest volume pretty much killed me, and it appears Vaughan and Staples may be going on a bit of a hiatus over the next little while, so that kills me even more. I also devoured the first 3 volumes of a new graphic novel series called Fence, by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad (⭐⭐⭐⭐). Only the first volume is published at this time, but there are 12 issues available and I liked the first volume so much I actually had to seek out the individual issues instead of waiting for the next two volumes. It’s a series about a high school boys fencing team, which sounds kind of boring, but it actually excellent!

In addition to Phoebe Robinson’s new audiobook, I also listened to Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix (⭐⭐), which is the second and final book in Julie C. Dao’s dualogy. I really liked the first book, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, which I also read as an audiobook, but the second book was a huge disappointment. The narration changed characters and I found this one pretty boring compared to the delightful nastiness that was the first book. The first one was a retelling of the evil queen in snow white, where as this was one a more traditional snow white retelling, although they were both sent it an asian inspired fantasy world, which I liked. Speaking of asian- inspired fantasy worlds, I read R.F. Kuang’s debut novel, The Poppy War (⭐⭐⭐⭐), which was nominated in the fantasy category. It is a heavy book, but wow! Kuang’s story is rich is depth, setting and history. It examines the Sino-Japanese war and the atrocities people commit against one another in war and how we justify them. A heavy hitter, but very well written and plotted.

My book club’s November pick was You by Caroline Kepnes (⭐⭐⭐.5). I’ve been trying to get to this one for a while and with the TV series being released on Netflix in December, it was good timing. You is a mystery/thriller novel told from the point of view of a stalker and boy, is it creepy. I didn’t like it quite as much as I hoped, but it is still very well written and quite different than most other books out there. I finally finished reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith (⭐⭐⭐.5), which I started reading way back in July (shocking I know). I had put it aside around the 300 page mark, but I finally picked it up and read the last 150 pages. I quite liked this book, but it is not very compelling, and for that reason it was hard to pick up, despite liking the story.

Finally, two of my favourite books of the month, along with Wundersmith, were The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐) and Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐). The Simple Wild was nominated in the romance genre and I was instantly motivated to read it when I found out it was about Alaska (I have a bit of an obsession with Alaska since reading The Great Alone earlier this year). It had a bit of a slow start and the main character was a little vapid at times, but I ended up loving this book! The main character was 26, which is refreshing since most of the books I read feature teenagers or families. I’m starting to really appreciate family dramas, and this one was a mix of family drama and romance that really worked for me.

Our Homesick Songs was my last read of the month and it was also a family drama, but this time historical, that completely captivated me. It’s about the disappearance of cod in Newfoundland in the early 1990’s and the impact it had on rural communities. It’s a simple story about a family living in a remote fishing town, but it is so beautiful written and evokes a strong feeling of homesickness and loneliness. Newfoundland is where I was born and raised, so it had particular meaning for me and I was incredibly impressed by Emma Hooper’s prose. I devoured this book and it is definitely going to be one of my top picks of the year.

So there you have it, all 17 of the books I read this month. There were some really great books. The fact that I rated three of them 5 stars is very rare since I sometimes go months without rating anything 5 stars. I feel like I’ve finally escaped the book slump that I was in over the summer and I’m feeling very inspired by all the great books I’ve been reading!

I’d love to know, what books did you read and love this month?

The Poppy War

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Pub date: May 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

Disclaimer: Spoiler Review

I’ve been postponing writing this review because I’m not quite sure how to rate or review this book. I read a lot of YA Fantasy and this was so different than everything else I’ve read, it was really refreshing.

The Poppy War falls into the historical fantasy genre. It is set in the fictional Nikan Empire, who has survived two Poppy Wars and is on the brink of a third war with the Federation of Mugen. This world is very much based off of China and Japan and the Second Sino-Japanese War. I think one of the reasons I’ve been postponing this review is because this is based on a conflict I’m not very familiar with and because I think that it’s important to recognize that the author did not write this book for me. I’ve heard that this book is super important and meaningful to many Chinese people and I think the author is really trying to be a voice for that pain in this book.

Because this is such a historically significant book, and there are a lot of plot elements I want to discuss, I can’t write a spoiler-free review for this book. So please don’t read any further if you’re trying to avoid spoilers for this book. In addition, I wanted to acknowledge S. Qiouyi Lu’s review that was posted on Barnes and Nobles website. Because I wasn’t at all familiar with the history behind this book, I had to do some research for this review, and her article was a great starting point for me and influenced my own review. Her review is also a great example of how this book may be more meaningful for Chinese readers and that I likely missed a lot of the cultural and historical context and nuances.

First off, I have to applaud Kuang for this book because it is extremely impressive in scope. It’s a 500+ page novel and I believe it covers about 5 or 6 years of plot. The story starts with our main character Rin at 12 years old. She is a war orphan who wants to prove herself by passing the Keju (national exam) and being accepted into Sinegard, the elite military school. The first half of the book follows the traditional fantasy format, with Rin acing her exam, but then struggling to be accepted among the wealthier students at school. Nikan is on the brink of war and it looms over the students as they study and prepare for eventual positions in the military.

The story followed a pretty predictable arc until the end of Rin’s first year of school. It’s not until Rin pledges Lore that the plot starts to take a turn and you realize that you’ve stumbled upon something totally new. There’s a lot of elements going on in this book and there is really a lot of depth to the plot. In addition to the historical retelling of the Sino-Japanese war, Kuang also weaves a huge element of religion and shamanism into the story, as well as China’s history with opium and drug use. After Rin pledges lore, we learn that, despite what the empire claims about Shamanism being a myth, Rin is indeed a shaman and has the ability to commune with the Gods.

This book has 3 parts, but it kind of felt like 2 separate books to me. The first half of the book is all about Rin getting into school and surviving her studies, but around the 50% mark of the book Nikan is finally catapulted into a war with Mugen. The school term ends abruptly and the students are called upon to defend Sinegard and are assigned to various divisions of the military, This is where I felt like I was starting a new book because the plot changed so drastically in the second half.

The rest of this story is about war and it is gruesome and bloody. Rin’s mentor, Jiang, has always advised Rin against actually calling on the Gods, but in her desperation at the battle of Sinegard, she calls on the fire power of the Phoenix to help the empire win and is subsequently assigned to the special assassination unit of the Nikan Empire. This division is essentially a troop of about 12 shamans, all of who are able to call upon various Gods, with the help of psychedelic drugs, which are illegal in the rest of Nikan, but permitted for the Shamans. I wish I understood enough about Chinese culture to understand the parallels and historical context of religion and drug abuse in China, but unfortunately it was a little over my head, but interesting nonetheless.

It’s a very multi-layered book and the more I reflect on it, the more impressed I am with the author’s ability to weave so many subplots into one novel. I’ve read she actually studied military strategy herself, and it definitely shows. In addition to recounting a piece of history, she also explores many dark themes about power. Rin is conflicted for most of the second half of the book because she spent her entire time at school being taught how to enter the Pantheon (where the Gods live), but is resolutely forbidden from actually calling on the Gods for power. Her and Jiang spend years debating the meaning of life and power. Jiang is reverent about power – there is always a consequence for taking from the Gods and he warns Rin against it.

This contrasts with her commander Altan in the second half of the book, who routinely gets mad at Rin for failing to call on the Phoenix. Rin relates to Altan – she doesn’t understand the point of accessing the Pantheon if not to take a little piece of that power for herself. It is very much a book about war and power. The atrocities of war, the loss of humanity, and how grief and loss can consume a person, transforming them into their very worst nightmare. It explores why genocides are possible and why wars continue to happen over and over again. We never learn from our mistakes. Grief can be blinding and the allure of power can cause people to lose all sense of humanity and commit the same atrocities that caused them the grief in the first place. Rin knows deep down that the power of the Phoenix is too all consuming, that the price will be too high. But there’s only so much pain a person can take before they need to reach out, if they can, and take a piece of that power for themselves. Throw it back at their oppressors.

This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. It is gruesome. Kuang is not afraid to paint the realities of war and the impact it has on the human psyche. In the plot, she explores several real historical events, including the Nanjing Massacre (Golyn Niis) and Unit 731 (human experimentation). Knowing that these events are based in reality is horrifying and it does make for a very sobering read. I had to do some research about these real life events afterwards, and again, I’ll refer you to Lu’s review for more information.

There were some other smaller plot points that I found really interesting and just wanted to quickly draw attention to. First off, I really liked that this book didn’t have a love story. I kept waiting to see who was going to emerge as the love interest, and no one ever did! In line with this, The Poppy War included the most ballsy discussion of reproductive rights that I think I’ve ever seen in a book! Rin gets her first period at Sinegard at 14. She has no idea what’s happening and is horrified to discover she will have to put up with it once a month. She makes an impulsive decision to have her womb removed to avoid menstruation in the future. It was an interesting portrayal because I think generally a 14 year girl requesting to forfeit her potential to bear children would never be handled like this. Women are pretty much prized in society above all for their ability to bear children, and there’s almost no way any doctor would encourage sterilization on a 14 year old… except if they were poor or a minority, which Rin was (she was darker than many of the other students at Sinegard). Canada and America both have a sad history of forcing or tricking poor and minority women to get sterilized, so I found it believable that the government would be encouraging a peasant girl like Rin from Rooster province to part ways with her fertility. I also appreciated Rin for knowing what she wanted and not regretting the decision later.

But alas, I must admit that I did struggle with the story at times, which prevented me from fully loving it. There was a lot going on in this book, but I found the writing a bit detached at times and sometimes I struggled with picking it up again after putting it down. I think this was mostly related to structure. I said earlier that this felt more like 2 books to me than 1, and for that reason, I think it dragged. It was a little on the long side and I struggled with it after a while. However, I can’t deny the importance of this book and overall, I was incredibly impressed with it. Like I said, this book was not written for me, and I appreciate the author for her unflinching look at this piece of Chinese-Japanese history.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017

 

Where do I start with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane? There was so much going on in this book – the plot was so layered and there were so many interesting themes underlying the story, but somehow it all worked and was immensely compelling. (disclaimer: there may be a few spoilers in here, but I think most of what I talk about is covered in the synopsis, which is pretty detailed)

Goodreads has been selling this book to me hard all year with their advertising, but for some reason I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I read Dragon Springs Road earlier this year, which I liked but didn’t love. It’s probably unfair to compare the two books, just because they happen in China, but I found the pacing slow in Dragon Springs Road and I expected The Tea Girl to have a similar pacing, but I found this one so much more compelling. I don’t know a whole lot about Chinese culture, so I appreciated both novels and learned a lot, but there was a lot more going on in See’s novel.

Starting with the narrator, I absolutely loved Li-yan. She had such ambition, despite the constant belittlement from her family and the refrain that she was unimportant because she was a girl. Li-yan was born into the Ahka culture, which like many cultures, values boys far beyond girls. The Akha are a very tight knit people and view the village more as a collective than group of individuals. They believe everything has a spirit and they have many customs to protect against bad spirits and encourage good spirits. They believe it is everyone’s job to bring more children into the community and everyone always hopes for the birth of healthy sons.

I appreciated See’s writing because in the beginning the Ahka seemed so backwards to me and some of their practices were extremely horrifying. But throughout the course of the novel See was able to make me really appreciate their way of life and they did progress to abandon some of their more troubling customs (namely the killing of “human rejects”).

But I loved Li-yan because despite being told she was worth nothing, she had such ambition to pursue a better life through education and a desire to be someone. She convinces the village and her father to allow her to pursue her education and becomes the first educated person in the village. She faces so many struggles, but she always persevered and made choices (some of which were very tough) on what she felt was best for herself. Some readers might condemn her for giving up her child, but I didn’t fault her. She really would have had no life if she had decided to keep Yan-yeh. In many cases she was forced into some of her decisions, but I especially loved her decision to leave San-pa. I fully expected her to stick things out no matter how toxic things became, but when she finally recognized what was going on, she made a decision for herself to leave, even though she risked being sold or killed if she was caught.

She made so many wrong choices and at times really disappointed me, but I could sympathize with her decisions and forgive her for them. I was sad when she got distracted from her studies and ignored the advice of her family about San-pa, but she was so young and blinded by love, which I think we’ve all been at the young age of 16. She punished herself for so long after her failed marriage though and I was glad to see her find the strength to love again. 

I thought her relationship with her mother was beautiful. In the beginning I didn’t like A-ma because she was so harsh with Li-Yan, but she really grew on me and it was wonderful to watch their relationship grow and to see the softness in A-ma after the birth of Yan-yeh. I really enjoyed all the mother/daughter relationships in this book and the relationships between all of the women.

I didn’t enjoy the format of Hayley’s story as much (I think I would have preferred 1st person POV), but I learned a lot from her experience as well. I’ve thought about the challenges immigrants face in moving to America/Canada, but I haven’t put much thought into what it must be like to have parents that don’t look like you and to have so many stereotypes forced upon you. You always expect that your parents would be people that you could relate to and take advice from, but when your lived experience is so different from theirs, it must be so difficult not to have that shared experience and reassurance from your parents.

It was also interesting to learn a little bit about the one-child policy. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Chinese mothers and it’s upsetting to see girls so little valued in a culture. It was interesting to read about Li-yan’s experience giving up her daughter and I’d love to learn more from other perspectives of women who’ve had to make decisions to give up their daughters.

And of course there was the tea. I didn’t think I could find tea so fascinating! I had no idea there was so much history behind tea and I’d never heard of Pu’er tea, so it was interesting to learn about how tea production changed Yunnan province, world tea markets, and became such a phenomenon. What I really liked about this book is that it started in the 90’s. I couldn’t believe there were villages in China that were so remote and unconnected to the world within my lifetime. It was fascinating to see how they evolved and changed as the modern world came to them in search of tea. It gave me a whole new appreciation for tea!

There is so much going on in this novel, but it all worked and was immensely compelling. It was a beautiful novel about the struggles women face, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which we change and adapt to the world around us. Would definitely recommend!