When All is Said

Rating:
Author: Anne Griffin
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read in Aug. 2019)

I’d heard such wonderful things about When All is Said that I convinced my book club to read it… and then missed the discussion for it! Turns out, they all loved it! It was our highest rated book so far this year and a much needed “good read” after a bunch of disappointments.

That said, while I liked this one, I think it might have been slightly overhyped to me and it wasn’t quite as good as I was anticipating. It definitely delivered on the heartwarming novel I was expecting, but there wasn’t really anything unexpected in the plot, which ended up being a tiny bit of a disappointment. I kept hoping for just a little bit more, but I guess that is the beauty of the book too. It’s narrated by Maurice as he looks back on his life after the death of his wife. What makes it beautiful I guess, is that his life is both remarkable and unremarkable at the same time, much like most of us that live on this earth.

The story is told through a series of 5 toasts to 5 of the most important people in Maurice’s life. There’s a real feeling of nostalgia and finality throughout the course of the book as Maurice toasts all the people that had an impact on his life to his son. Each toast reveals a different part of Maurice’s life, from his childhood, to the courtship of his wife and birth of their children, to the great sadness of his life, the death of his wife. Throughout his life story, he also reveals the impact that some of his early interactions working for a rich Irish family, the Dollards, had on both his life and on the Dollards. How one action can have long lasting impacts and influence your outlook on life for years to come.

The story with the Dollards was quite interesting and I liked how the author wove it into the rest of the novel. It’s never the center of the story, but it pulls it together. I thought the writing was good and I’m impressed that this was a debut novel. But like I said, nothing really unexpected happened in this story and I kept wanting just a little bit more out of it. It reminded me of other books I’ve read that have featured senior protagonists (A Man Called Ove is the most popular book that comes to mind), and while I love all these books, I would have liked to see this one do something a little bit different with the story, although the storytelling through toasts was undeniably creative.

An excellent debut though and I’m excited to see what Anne Griffin writes next!

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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.

Magic for Liars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Gailey
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019)

I’ve been on a fantasy hiatus for the last 6 months, so well done Sarah Gailey on writing a book that finally inspired me to break the fast! I’ve been really dis-enchanted with YA fantasy lately, but this adult fantasy finally piqued my interest!

Everything about Magic for Liars seemed interesting and unique. On the surface, it sounds like the same tired Magic School trope, but it has a lot else going for it. Yes, it is set in a magic school, but the premise of the story is about private investigator Ivy Gamble being asked to investigate a gruesome murder that took place at the magic school.

Ivy herself is not magic and lives firmly in the non-magic world. However, her twin sister, Tabitha, is magic and has been working as a teacher at the school for several years. Most non-magic folk are unaware of the existence of magic, but Ivy has been in the know since Tabitha was first invited to attend magic school and she was not. Since then, there has been a bit of resentment between the sisters and they have grown apart.

The magic system in this book was quite different than other fantasy books I read, which I really liked. People with magic are still very much ensconced in the real world, with the study of magic being very deeply ingrained in other fields, such as medicine, math, and science. Some branches of magic are little understood and the magic itself seems to be in some ways much more unstated then similar books, but in other ways much more intense.

What I liked about Magic for Liars is that Gailey takes many fantastical tropes and integrates them into their story, while at the same time, poking fun of them. The most obvious is the “chosen one” trope, but we also have the childhood misunderstanding, the competitive sisters, the psychopathic cool girls, the PI who has to solve their own childhood crime, and a misleading romance, just to name a few. I also liked the diversity that Gailey tried to include in the story. Gailey is non-binary and I thought they did a good job at including diverse relationships, without throwing them in your face.

Despite all the great things Gailey tried with this novel though, sadly I still didn’t love it. Something about the writing just didn’t flow that well and I felt pretty disconnected to the characters throughout much of the novel. I wanted to empathize with Ivy, but I did think she was unnecessarily harsh with Tabitha when they were younger and the misunderstanding between them seemed too obvious to have been the misunderstanding that it was.

So overall, this was a 3 star read for me. I definitely liked it, but I didn’t love it. I am impressed with it as a debut novel though and I’m excited to see what Gailey writes in the future!

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ocean Vuong
Genres: Poetry, LGBTQIA+
Pub date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Ocean Vuong

I was intrigued by this book, but it wasn’t super high up my TBR. However, I loved listening to the author’s voice in the audiobook sample, so I decided to read it. I’m so glad they got the author to narrate this one because I’m not sure anyone else could really have done it justice.

Initially I really liked it. The writing is poetic and it flowed really nicely. The author’s reading is emotional and I enjoyed listening to it, but I must admit, parts of the book were over my head and left me wondering how I should feel about it.

The book is crafted as a letter to the protagonist’s mother. It’s unclear to me whether this book is fiction or non-fiction, so I’d love some insight from other readers if you have it. It certainly read like non-fiction and I internalized it as such, but it could have been fiction.

Initially I liked that it was a letter from son to mother, Little Dog talks about the relationship he had with his mother and how it impacted him emotionally as he grew up. How their Vietnamese past influenced his childhood in America and shaped all of his relationships with his family members.

From there, Vuong moves on to the relationship Little Dog had with his friend Trevor and the struggle of being not only an immigrant, but a confused gay teenager. I found many parts of the story upsetting, but really appreciated their inclusion in the book and thought it brought a great depth to Vuong’s story. However, it did affect my reading of the book as a letter from son to mother. This format worked really well when confronting his childhood demons and the relationship with his family, but I thought the format had less meaning when it got into Little Dog’s exploration of coming to terms with his homosexuality. I don’t have the lived experience to really comment on its effectiveness, but personally I just found the ‘letter to mother’ format lost some of its potency in this part of the book. Just a comment on format, not content.

Mostly I’m left confused on how to rate the book though because parts of it were definitely over my head. I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately (I used to never read it), but I definitely still struggle with the accessibility of poetry. I want to love it, but I think I just haven’t spent enough time reading poetry to really understand the nuance of it. I really enjoyed the writing, it was flowery, but not overwhelmingly so, but sometimes it’s just so overloaded with metaphors that I kind of missed out on the point. I really liked a lot of this book, but there were definitely some sections where I found myself tuning out.

Overall though, a very thoughtful book and debut for this young author, so well done! I would not be deterred from reading his stuff in the future.

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.