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!

Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Pub date: Sep. 4, 2018 (read Oct. 2018)

The most overwhelming feeling I have upon finishing this book is that I’m just so glad it exists. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is about Boko Haram and the many girls and children they have abducted to their cause since 2009. You may recall in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students from their dormitory in Chibok, Nigeria. Because of the large number of girls that were kidnapped, the crisis finally garnered international attention and forced the Nigerian Government to take real action in rescuing the stolen girls.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a one off event. Boko Harem has been pillaging and killing in the North of Nigeria since 2009 and while many of the Chibok girls have escaped, been released, or been rescued since then, many have not. Boko Haram is a radical Islamic group that believe in Sharia law and absolute Islamic government. They kill men and kidnap girls, women, and children, forcing them to convert to islam and act as slaves in their outposts hidden deep in the Sambisa Forest. The boys are radicalized and the girls either act as slaves or are married off to Boko Haram fighters called the Rijale.

Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is a short book told from the point of view of a kidnapped young girl. She is not one of the Chibok girls, but she was stolen from her village along with several of her friends. She dreams of winning a scholarship to attend university and become educated, but instead she is forced to convert to Islam, change her name, and marry one of the Rijale and attend to his home. Her dreams sustain her through the ordeal and remind her of who she is and that Boko Harem does not adequately represent Islam. But it kills her to watch her best friend lose her grip on reality, fall for her new husband, and begins touting the benefits of Boko Harem and Sharia Law.

There’s nothing I would change about this book. I thought it struck a wonderful balance between introducing us to Nigerian village life and the hopes and dreams of these young girls to the devastating contrast of life under Boko Haram. It’s easy for Westerners to become desensitized to these stories, and I loved that Nwaubani spent the first half of the book developing characters before focusing on the girls kidnapping. It’s an upsetting read, to be sure, but an important one to remind us of the atrocities that Boko Harem has committed, and that are still ongoing.

Thanks to HarperCollins Canada and HCC Frenzy for providing me with a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is currently available in stores.