Transcendent Kingdom

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.

Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.

Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.

I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.

That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom. 

But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place. 

But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.

Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.

Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing. 

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 Beekeeper of Aleppo

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Christy Lefteri
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Jul. 2020 on Audible)

I read The Beekeeper of Aleppo for my July book club meeting. I was super excited when I first heard about this book because it sounded really compelling. It’s about the war in Syria and focuses on the journey of one couple as they decide to leave Syria and flee through Europe to the UK.

Nuri is a beekeeper with his cousin Mustafa and his wife, Afra, is an artist. They are happy in Syria and want to stay, but when war breaks out it becomes unsafe to do so and Afra becomes blind. So they finally decide to leave and try to make it to the UK, where Mustafa, who left earlier, is also trying to go. The book follows their journey across Turkey and Greece and eventually England. They face many struggles along the road, but the real struggle comes when they finally stop moving and are forced to come to terms with everything that happened to them before and along the journey.

I really wanted to love this. There were parts that I really liked and it was an interesting enough story, but I felt like it maybe could have benefited from a stronger author. The story had a lot of potential, but it was just lacking, both in writing style and intrigue. The story moved extremely slowly, which can work in a book like this, but it just didn’t have the writing to carry it through. The author has Greek/Cypriot parents and volunteered with a refugee NGO in Greece, which is what inspired her to write this story. I felt that the author had a story to tell, but unfortunately she just didn’t really have the prowess or the skills to tell it. I feel bad saying that because I’m sure her intentions were good, but the writing just didn’t work for me. I really wanted more from the story.

She does create some interesting characters, but they kind of all fell flat to me, like no one lived up to their potential. For example, why the obsession with bees? Like I get it, but what did the beekeeper story really add to this book? It was overdone with limited meaning. I also found the deeper themes to be lacking. I get what Lefteri was going for with Muhammed and Nuri, but it felt too forced to be natural or cathartic. I felt like she was trying to force an emotional reaction rather than one that would naturally occur from good storytelling and lived experience. Likewise with the symbolism of Afra being blind – it just felt kind of basic to me and I’m not totally sure what it added to the story. Like I get it – I just wish there was more to it.

Which raises the age old question of whether Lefteri was the right person to tell this story. I really do believe that people can and should tell stories that they haven’t been directly impacted by, but in 2020, it is starting to get a bit old reading so many modern day stories not told by own-voices authors. Jeanine Cummins got all kinds of flak for writing American Dirt – I’m not saying it wasn’t justified – but I don’t see how Beekeeper is any different. It just hasn’t been as big a seller I guess and so it hasn’t drawn the same backlash. Personally though, of the two, I thought American Dirt was the better story. But there’s no denying both books could have been written by different authors.

It’s really a hard question about where the line is. Lefteri got published where another Syrian author likely didn’t. I’m sure there are other authors writing these stories and I would love to see them in the mainstream. But honestly – that’s on me as a reader too. As a co-chair to my Book Club it’s something I need to reflect on more and take more ownership over. We are 10 individuals committing to read a book, it’s important that we pick the right ones, even if they’re not always bestsellers…yet. I will try to do better.

American Dirt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2020 (read Apr. 2020)

So I know this book has had its fair share of good and bad reviews. We threw this one on our book club list right after it came out because the synopsis sounded so compelling and it wasn’t until later that I heard about some of the criticisms surrounding the book. Between then and now I forgot completely everything I’d read about the book and ended up going into it completely blind. For some reason I thought this was a book about adjusting to life in America after immigration – that is clearly not the case.

American Dirt tells the story of mother and son, Lydia and Luca, as they are forced to flee across their home country of Mexico to escape the violence of the big drug cartel in Acapulco, Los Jardinos. They end up joining the many migrants who make the epic journey across Central America in the hopes of finding sanctuary on the other side of the American border.

I can see why the book is popular – it’s been compared to a modern day Grapes of Wrath and deals with a topic close to the heart of all Americans – not just those in the United States who’ve taken ownership over the term. The catch is that the book is written by a white American woman with no first hand experience of what it means to be a migrant.

Honestly, I think that even 5 years ago few people would have raised a flag about the author. Unfortunately most mass consumed literature is written by white people, but I think there has been a real shift in recent years to highlight other authors and other stories – that representation matters and that’s there’s so much value to be gained from Own Voices writers. Obviously there’s a whole genre of historical fiction where this is largely impossible and I don’t think that we shouldn’t write about that which interests and inspires us. But it’s definitely a sensitive topic and I understand why the book has been criticized for this fact.

I’d like to try and explore both sides of this issue in my review. I cannot deny that I loved this book. I am the exact intended audience. A white woman that cares about social justice but is woefully ill-informed about the migration crises south of the American border. Whether the author correctly captured the migrant experience or not, I found this book incredibly eye-opening and though it describes something I knew was happening, it really drove home the plight of migrants. I think it will likely draw attention to this injustice and hopefully inspire people to become better informed and take action on it.

That said, as a reader, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge where this account may have its shortcomings. For this I look largely to the internet, from people who have had first hand experience of migrating to America. American Dirt has a very dark plot and I found the characters had almost no positive experiences. I’m sure this is largely the case for a lot of migrants, but I also wonder if in an effort to shock and engage – Cummins took every traumatic experience she’d ever heard of and combined it all in to one book. I did worry that she was stealing from the migrant experience to create an edge of your seat social justice thriller. While this trauma is likely all based in reality, its not meant for entertainment. I thought Cummins did maintain a good hold on this balance for most of the novel, but veered a bit to the extreme towards the end. Lydia’s interaction with Javier at the end of the book and what happened to Beto really pushed it over the edge for me into the use of someone else’s trauma for the sake of a dramatic climax.

The other area where I questioned Cummins authenticity on the subject was in her portrayal of America. I read in other reviews that her rudimentary use of Spanish in the novel is belittling and that she was ignorant to large parts of Mexican culture. I’ve seen it criticized that Lydia seemed way too shocked about the things that happened in her own country, things that any other Mexican would not find shocking but be well aware of. What I did note was the consistent portrayal of America as the ultimate salvation. It took on a bit of a mythos among the characters, though I think we all know America is still hugely flawed. Cummins did capture this somewhat better towards the end with the introduction of Marisol and other deportees. but I think there needs to be some sense of reality that even people fleeing to America recognize its shortcomings.

So the book is not without flaws. To further educate myself, I did some research on other existing literature about the experiences presented in this book that are actually based on first hand knowledge. I decided to add the following books to my TBR to hopefully get a broader and more accurate perspective of the issue: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, which was actually already on my TBR.

Moving on to what I liked about the book. I can’t deny I liked the writing. I connected with these characters. Not because I pitied them, but because they had such rich and emotive back stories. I liked the depth that Cummins brought to Lydia’s character and her relationship with Javier, Rebeca’s depiction of her mystical village in the cloud forest, Soledad’s quiet and reverent love for her sister and father, and the relationship that developed between Lydia and Luca, born of the grief they shared. I liked the exploration of how the immediate need to survive can overpower trauma and the fear that arises out of having no one you can trust – when anyone could be a potential informant. How violence can make you doubt even the authenticity of a 10 year old boy and how even in periods of extreme stress, people are still willing to sacrifice anything to help someone else in need.

Once I started this book, I struggled to put it down. I was on edge the entire time I was reading it and even though this will never make the reader understand how it feels to be in the characters situation first hand, I really felt the sense of urgency, the fear, and the unknown plaguing these characters throughout the course of the book. I don’t regret reading it, in fact I am definitely glad that I did. I lament that Latinx writers are not getting the same exposure as Cummins did, but I am glad to have been exposed to this story. I will try and do my best to pick up some other books on the subject with authors more closely connected to their subject matter. Looking forward to discussing this one at book club!

February Summary

You wouldn’t think that 3 days would make that much of a difference, but only having 28 days in February always makes the month go by so quickly!

I’m really happy about the 3 books I challenged myself to read in February as part of my goal to read to 3 books about Canada. I think it would have taken me a while to get to any of these books if I hadn’t publicly challenged myself to do so. To be honest, I even debating dropping the last one from the list and just reading 2, but I’m glad I pushed myself to read all 3 because I really liked them all! It’s only been 2 months, but actually taking the time to do some research and thoughtfully pick my challenges has been paying off with some quality literature.

Anyways, let’s jump right in with my February Summary:

Books read: 9
Pages read: 3,276
Main genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Favourite book: Saga, Volume 8

February started off with a stream of half-star reads. I don’t like giving half star ratings, but it’s a fine line between 3 stars and 4 stars and sometimes you just need to compromise. So I gave my first 3 reads of the month all 3.5 stars.

I started off with Tiger Lily, which is a re-telling of Peter Pan from Tinkerbell’s perspective, featuring Tiger Lily as the main protagonist. I thought this book was actually fantastically written, Jodi-Lynn Anderson’s writing is very beautiful and lyrical, but I struggled to get into the story, hence the 3.5 star rating. I already bought a copy of Anderson’s latest novel, Midnight at the Electric, and I’m excited to check out some more of her writing.

Next I read an advanced reader copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest book, Then She Was Gone, that I got from Netgalley. I’ve been dying to read some of Jewell’s stuff, so I was happy to give this one a try. I liked it in that it was formatted quick differently from any other mystery/thriller that I’ve read, but it was a little bit predictable in parts and I also found it extremely disturbing. However, like Tiger Lily, I’m intrigued to try some more of Jewell’s work next time I’m in the mood for another mystery!

The last of the 3.5 star reads was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have to admit, I really didn’t want to read this one. It sounded a lot like The Rosie Project to me, which I didn’t like, but my book club picked it for our February read and I’ve been seeing a lot of good press about it, so what could I do? This was probably my least favourite of the 3. I found it kind of boring, but I do think it was a well written book (definitely better than The Rosie Project) and I appreciate what the author was trying to do with this novel.

As you can see, I was kind of putting off tackling any of my Canadian reads for my Monthly Challenge, so after I finished Eleanor I decided to tackle The Boat People and The Break. Both of these books were fantastic! I feel like it took me forever to get through The Boat People, but it was a fascinating read about immigration and morality and it really made me think. In contrast, The Break is a family drama about a Métis family and all the hurts and grievances they’ve weathered together over the years. It was a inter-generational read that was just so well written and had so much depth, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Actually, in between those 2 books I snuck in a quick reading of the latest Saga volume, which came out at the end of December. I slowly worked my way through the first 7 volumes of Saga last year, and while I really liked them all, this one affected me more than the rest. I think Brian K. Vaughan actually went a little more heavy-handed than usual on the social commentary in this one. At first I thought it was a bit much, but I guess I was wrong because this volume just stands out more than any of the others for me and it was pure enjoyment from start to finish. Vaughan tackles abortion, miscarriage, and grief in this volume and it really packed a punch, especially at the very end when parts of the cast are finally re-united.

I was avoiding starting the final book in my February Challenge all month, mostly due to length, so I fit in a quick read of The Lightning Thief. This is the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and I’ve been wanting to read this for ages because everyone seems obsessed with everything Rick Riordan writes! This was another book that was just a lot of fun. The writing was hilarious and there was so much action packed into this middle grade book! Percy was witty and I loved his sidekicks, Annabeth and Grover. I would like to read more of these, but I suspect it may take my a while to get to them, but they’re definitely good if you’re looking for a laugh.

The final book in my Monthly Challenge was The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston. I admit, I did not want to read this one, but like I said, I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it. I had a lot to say about this one that I don’t want to get into again, so I’ll just say that it’s historical fiction about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, who helped usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. Check out my full length review for more details. This book was meaningful to me as a Newfoundlander and I’m really proud that I finally read it. I gave it 4 stars.

And the last read I squeezed into February was The Power. I’ve been wanting to read this one since it came out at the end of last year since it’s been called the new ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ (along with Red Clocks). It’s dystopian science fiction where women develop the ability to produce electricity and use it through their hands. The book has such a great premise, but I was really disappointed with the author’s follow-through on the premise; I thought the book lacked focus and was poorly executed. It still make me think a lot though, so I gave it another 3.5 stars.