The Last Story of Mina Lee

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Aug. 2020)

Special thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with an advance copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for an honest review.

I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee because it sounds like everything I love in a book – a multi-generational family drama about an immigrant family trying to fit in in America. It instantly reminded me of Jean Kwok’s books, which I love, and is quoted as being great for fans of Celeste Ng, whom I also love.

It tells the story of korean mother and daughter, Mina and Margot Lee. Mina moved to America in the late 1980’s to escape the trauma of losing her family in Korea and ends up living in LA, becoming pregnant with Margot. 26 years later Margot is living and working in Seattle and comes home to find her mother has passed away. Margot believes there may be something suspicious in Mina’s death and begins to investigate, discovering along the way that Mina had a lot of secrets. Margot struggles to come to terms with what she learns as she mourns the death of a mother she feels like she never knew.

The story takes place across two timelines. One is the story of Mina’s arrival in America and the first year of her life in LA. The second is modern day Margot trying to find out what happened to her mom. It’s a great family drama about the challenges of bridging two cultures and what drives people to seek a challenging undocumented life in America. It’s about how you never really know the history people are carrying with them and the way in which our secrets can haunt both us and the ones we love.

I thought this was a great debut novel, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped. I felt the author struggled to keep the story moving at times and that the dual timeline wasn’t as well executed as it could have been. I was enthralled with Mina’s story and found it fascinating to learn about what drove her to America and the challenges she faced once arriving. It sheds a lot of light on how undocumented individuals are taken advantage of and can easily become trapped. How employers can abuse and manipulate their workers under the threat of reporting them to ICE. Unfortunately I didn’t find Margot’s story quite as engaging.

I struggled to understand why Margot was so suspicious of her mother’s death, I understand it was her own way of grieving her mother, but I didn’t really love the decision to try and link the present and the past. Mina’s life in the 1980’s was in most ways totally separate from her present day life, and I didn’t like how the author tried to link these two timelines so closely when they were so far removed from one another. The mystery element just didn’t really work for me and I think I would have preferred a more simple family drama about Mina’s life and Margot mourning the loss of someone she thought she knew but discovered she really didn’t. The right elements were all there, I just would have like to see some greater emotional exploration over the mystery.

But overall, it was a solid debut and I would give it 3.5 stars. Despite finding some weaknesses in the plot, I thought the writing was good and I’ll definitely be interested to see what else Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes in the future. I thought it was actually being released today and timed my review as such, but I see now on Goodreads that it actually released a week early, so happy 1 week since publication!

The Dutch House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Apr. 2020)

I read The Dutch House way back in April and I really wish I had reviewed it back when I read it. But it was in the middle of Covid back then and I wasn’t feeling much motivation to do anything, so I let it slide, which is a shame because I really loved this book. I’m going to do my best to review it now, but I apologize if some of the details are now a little foggy.

I read The Dutch House as an audiobook, which was a real treat because it is narrated by Tom Hanks! I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s touted as a family drama that spans 50 years, so I was definitely intrigued. The story is about brother and sister Danny and Maeve – from their childhood right up to their late adulthood. At the center of the story is the Dutch House, an old and extravagant manor that was purchased by their father when they were children. Through a serious of events and misunderstandings, Danny and Maeve find themselves kicked out of the Dutch House, and though it’s decades before they ever cross the threshold again, the house and the fall out from the house still dominates their lives for many years to come.

It’s really a fascinating concept for a story. You don’t think of a house as being a protagonist to a story, but I also read Melina Marchetta’s, The Place on Dalhousie, last year and it’s interesting how much value we’ve learned to place on our childhood homes and how those spaces can influence us far into our adult years. Houses are after all so much more than just buildings, they are homes and the memories and feelings we attach to them are powerful driving forces.

At it’s heart I think this is really a novel about the influence our parents have on us and how powerful family bonds can be. Danny grew up tagging along after his father, Cyril, who was a self made business man who finds wealth in owning and renting real estate. Cyril thought he had finally escaped the cycle of poverty for his family, so it comes as a shock to Danny when he finds himself at the bottom and forced with making his own way in the world. At the same time, Maeve’s childhood is defined by the disappearance of her mother. Her mother never loved the extravagance of the Dutch House and leaves to volunteer in India. Danny and Maeve are always told about their mother’s goodness, but all they can see is the woman who was never there.

Both struggle from abandonment in different ways and the eventual falling out with their stepmother Andrea over the ownership of the Dutch House casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. Maeve is discontented at being cut out of the Dutch House and puts all her effort into helping Danny become as successful as possible, despite how miserable it makes him. Each character’s greed over the Dutch House ultimately consumes their lives, with each thinking that wealth will make them happy, when really it’s only the family that lived in the Dutch House that could do that.

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love and reminds me that I really should read more family dramas. Each character is enormously flawed and nuanced. To the outsider it’s so obvious that Maeve needs to let go of the Dutch House and Danny to start pursuing his own happiness, but each continues down their own path of destruction, completely blinded by their feelings of injustice. Every character is complex, as are their relationships with one another. I suppose some people might find the plot lacking in drive, but these characters and their relationships with one another were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.

Tom Hanks narration is excellent and I think this is one book that time has improved for me. The characters were definitely frustrating at times, but looking back on it, the whole song and dance and obsession over the Dutch House was just so enthralling. Families can pick you up, but they can also let you down, and I loved watching how Danny and Maeve both grew and were stunted by their emancipation from the Dutch House. Would definitely recommend this book!

Searching for Sylvie Lee

Rating: ⭐
Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Aug. 2019)

I really like Jean Kwok’s writing style. I read Girl in Translation last year and loved it and have been dying to read Searching for Sylvie Lee since I first read the synopsis. Both books are quite different, but left me with similar feelings. I feel like both were probably 4 star books, but something about the writing and the characters just makes me feel very strongly about them and in the end, I rated both books 5 stars. Searching for Sylvie Lee does get a little dramatic and unbelievable towards the end, but because the book was really about character development for me, I can let it slide.

Searching for Sylvie Lee is told from multiple perspectives, with the most dominant (for me anyways), being told from the point of view of Amy. Amy is younger sister to Sylvie and both are daughters of Chinese-American immigrants. Their parents moved to America and struggled to survive, deciding to send their first daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother until they could afford to give her a better life. She returns at the age of 9 (I think, can’t quite remember), after the birth of the second daughter, Amy. The story is narrated by Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, so we get many perspectives from this small family.

To Amy, Sylvie is the epitome of accomplishment and she greatly looks up to her, considering herself the lesser sister. To Sylvie, Amy is the image of innocence. She works very hard to be successful because she feels her parents will never love her as much as Amy since she was raised away from them for the first part of her life.

When their grandmother becomes ill, Sylvie returns to the Netherlands to say goodbye, but disappears before returning home. No one knows what happened to her and Amy’s dutch relatives don’t seem too concerned about Sylvie. But Amy knows Sylvie would never just disappear like that, so she jumps on a plane for the first time in her life and travels to the Netherlands to search for the truth.

This is the prefect family drama about all the feelings of love and resentment that exist within the family dynamic. Everyone has their own secrets and the unspoken past has had longstanding and far-reaching consequences on the entire family. Sylvie has a life in Holland that none of her family in America could really understand and the impact of growing up under the thumb of her Aunt impacted her in ways the sisters don’t understand until much later. Sylvie struggles to be the daughter she thinks she should be, while Amy is afraid to live her life the way she would like to.

Everyone has secrets and they have been tearing the family apart for decades without them even realizing it. This is very much a book about the immigrant experience, but also a book about living courageously. I thought that each character was well realized and developed. Everyone had flaws, but it only made them more relatable and served to make me empathize more with each character.

Like I said, it’s a character driven book, but it does have a strong plot to support it. We’re propelled by the mystery element of what happened to Sylvie, but discover so many secrets and deceptions along the way. That said, don’t come to this book looking for a mystery/thriller. It’s not the driving force of the story, but rather a tool to connect with the deeper pain and anguish of each of the characters. The ways they’ve been wronged, the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways in which they’ve been misunderstood.

Ask Again, Yes

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pub. date: May 2019 (read Jul. 2019)

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love to read. After last year’s fantasy-fest, I’ve been reading a lot of different stuff, much of which falls into the general and lit fiction genres and I’ve really been enjoying it. Ask Again, Yes gives me so many vibes from Little Fires Everywhere (even the cover looks the same!), but it definitely holds its own in the genre.

Ask Again, Yes tells the story of two families that grew up together in New York state and the impact and consequences of their actions over 4 decades. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope worked together for a brief time in the police force and end up living next door to one another in Gillam. Both their wives are pregnant around the same time and while Lena Gleeson gives birth to 3 daughters, Anne Stanhope struggles with fertility before eventually giving birth to a son, Peter. Anne never got along with the Gleeson’s and when her son, Peter, and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, become best friends, all parents struggle with it, eventually leading to a tragic event in Peter and Kate’s 13th year.

Eventually everyone goes their own separate ways, but the consequences of that night ripple through everyone’s lives for years after. It’s not a fast moving story and I could definitely see some people struggling with it, but Keane explores a lot of different themes and I thought the book was super insightful into different human behaviours.

Ask Again, Yes explores a lot of different questions. Can we ever escape the past? Can we learn to forgive those who have hurt us? Are we really capable of change? Are our behaviours learned or inherited? It’s a sad read at times and hopeful at others. But what I really loved was how well developed and how genuine every single character was. When it gets down to it, I didn’t actually have very much in common with any of the characters, but their thoughts, emotions, and reactions are all incredibly relatable. On paper their relationships look great and if you try to articulate how they aren’t, it’s really hard, and yet you understand why some of the characters make such bad decisions.

As someone who is getting married within the month, I was so anxious reading about some of the relationships and marriages in this book. More than one marriage is challenged; some of them fail, others survive. But what made it so scary was that I felt most of the problems in the relationships were solvable, and yet I understood why someone might choose to walk away from that relationship anyways. A scary thought when you’re getting ready to walk down the aisle yourself, but impressive for an author. She has incredible insight into human nature and I had no trouble believing that the characters would act the ways they did.

Overall I didn’t think this book had quite the charm of Little Fires Everywhere. I think they both had a lot of interesting things to say, but Ask Again, Yes does drag in some parts, whereas I always felt propelled forward by the narrative in Ng’s books. But it still explores a lot of relevant themes and I found it a little more realistic in its character portrayals. Mental Illness is a big part of this book, although I struggle to verbalize what the theme was. Mostly it was just something that was present throughout the book. Keane never tells us how to feel about it, but does demonstrate how our feelings on mental illness have grown over the decades. It’s not something to be ignored and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Recommend to lovers of character-driven stories.

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!