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!  

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?

Our Homesick Songs

Rating: ⭐
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

I loved everything about this book.

I saw it floating around on Netgalley and Goodreads over the past year and I thought it had the most gorgeous cover, which reminded me of my home in Newfoundland, but I guess I never read the synopsis because when one of the book bloggers I follow posted a review about this book, I couldn’t believe it was actually about Newfoundland. (not that there’s any shortage of books about Newfoundland, I just wasn’t expecting to find one in the mainstream book world).

Our Homesick Songs is by Albertan author, Emma Hooper, and is about the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery in 1992 and the struggle many Newfoundlanders went through in making a living after their traditional livelihood was decimated. The story focuses on the Connor family, who lives in a small town called Big Running, on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. It tells the story of Aidan Connor and Martha Murphy – how they fell in love and were later forced to travel to the Alberta camps to find work – and their two children, Finn and Cora. It’s a family drama at heart, but setting and culture play a huge role in the story.

I grew up in Newfoundland, moving to BC after I finished university. My parents and grandparents are from rural Newfoundland communities and my maternal grandfather was a fisherman. Stories about Newfoundland always hold a special place in my heart because, I think more than anywhere else in Canada, Newfoundland has a very distinct sense of culture and belonging. I was too young to understand the cod moratorium in the early 1990’s, but I’ve witnessed the impact in had on rural Newfoundland, and how the return of the food fishery in 2007 was like a right of passage and a homecoming for many people. Everyone has friends and relatives who were forced to move out west in search of employment – it’s why I have so much family located in Alberta – but there is usually a keen desire to return home.

I was a bit nervous to read this book, seeing as it’s not actually written by a Newfoundlander. I mean, I know people write books all the time about places they’re not from, but you can’t help but feel a little bit nervous about having your beloved home recounted from the point of view of someone else. But Emma Hooper did a wonderful job with this book. Her writing is lyrical and beautiful and it really does evoke a strong sense of homesickness as you read her writing. I think she did a wonderful job capturing the love people feel for Newfoundland, and communicating how heartbreaking it is for people when they are forced to leave. I’m sure I related to it a little bit more as a Newfoundlander, but I really think that anyone can love and enjoy this book.

There’s two main stories being told throughout this book. There’s a current day story set in 1992. The fish have disappeared, and as such, so have the people. Big Running gets smaller every day as families take off for the mainland in search of work. There’s an abundance of jobs in the work camps up in Northern Alberta, so this is primarily where people flock. In an attempt to stay, Martha and Aidan share a camp job on rotation, with each of them doing a month on and a month off. Their children, Finn and Cora, struggle with the loss of one of their parents each month and the disappearance of their community. Cora escapes from her broken family by studying travel guides from the library and re-creating each country in one of the abandoned homes. Finn laments the loss of their way of life and comes up with a plan to try and draw the fish back to their shores. Both children are lonely, as are their parents, who are forced to live apart indefinitely.

The second story is recounted by Finn’s accordion teacher, Mrs Callaghan. She tells Finn the story of his parents and how they met and came to fall in love back in the 1970’s. The stories contrast each other in that one tells the story of how love began, whereas the other tells the story of how it starts to fall apart. And woven through both stories is the music that calls us all together and the importance it plays in Newfoundland culture.

I actually really loved the way Hooper wove music in through the story. Music is an incredibly important part of Newfoundland culture and I thought she really showcased that and linked it in really well with her themes of homesickness and loneliness. Finn plays the accordion, Cora plays the violin, and everybody sings or plays one musical instrument or another. Aidan and Martha sang to each other over the water for years without even being aware of the other. Music plays an important role in bringing people together and reminding them where they come from and I thought Hooper showcased this multiple times throughout the book. I loved when everyone showed up to Finn’s community meeting with their instruments. They knew they might be forced out of their homes, but saw the meeting as a good opportunity for one last community kitchen party.

This book also touches on the issue of government resettlement. It’s a heavy issue in itself and has been the focus of more than one book in the past, but I thought it worked well in this story and wasn’t overdone. It’s another important historical part of Newfoundland that is ongoing to this day, and I think it’s great to inform more people about it. Rural communities are very much disappearing in Newfoundland and it is heartbreaking. It’s difficult for the government to continue maintaining services to small backwater communities and it does happen where residents are encouraged by the government to relocate. For Finn, the deadline to decide on re-settlement was a catalyst to do something. He doesn’t want to leave his home or have his family be separated any longer, so he hatches a plan to try and bring back the fish.

This is a classic kind of slow-burn family drama, but no part of this story read slowly to me. Hooper does a great job on characterization and character development and even though it’s not a plot driven book, I could not put it down. I picked this one up with the intent of reading it simultaneously with a mystery novel, but once I started this one, I literally couldn’t bear to put it down and didn’t touch my other book once until finishing this one. I can see how this kind of writing isn’t for everyone, but I personally loved it.

In conclusion, I can already tell that this is a story that will stick with me and that I’ll be recommending to my family. Everything about this book worked for me and I loved how evocative and introspective the story was. The name Our Homesick Songs is the perfect name for this book because the writing, the setting, and the characters all evoke a very keen sense of longing. 5 stars, no question.