Take A Peek Book Review: A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In a powerful debut novel about motherhood, immigration, and identity, a pregnant Chinese woman makes her way to California and stakes a claim to the American dream.

Holed up with other moms-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory job and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, he’s overjoyed because the doctors confirmed he will finally have the son he has always wanted. To ensure that his son has every advantage, he has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van–only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. They flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit. It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

My Thoughts:

A River of Stars was my book group’s pick this month, and I ended up listening to the audiobook. So, some pluses and minuses: The narrator was pretty good, doing (I’m assuming) a good job with the Chinese phrases, which gave the story a nice, rich feel as a “listened-to” book. While the initial set-up — an off-the-books maternity home for Chinese women of wealth, to ensure that their children would have the advantage of US citizenship — is interesting, the story really picks up once Scarlett and Daisy flee and have to fend for themselves, using their wits and friendship to survive on the run.

When Scarlett and Daisy finally arrive in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the heart of the story really develops. There, they rely on community bonds to make a home for themselves, deliver their babies, and figure out a way to start a life in America while cut off from family, financial stability, and legal status. Scarlett is determined, protective, and entrepreneurial, all traits that can be seen in memories of her earlier years, when she fled her peasant village to seek the opportunities of factory work in a city. Scarlett is inventive and daring, never accepting no for an answer when there’s a way she might better the lives of the people she considers family.

On the negative side, the ending is increasingly implausible (for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into why), and I did feel that the book spends too much time on chapters from Boss Yeung and others’ perspectives, rather than keeping a tighter focus on Scarlett and Daisy.

As a resident of San Francisco, I enjoyed the peek behind the scenes of life in Chinatown, with its rich community and traditions that casual visitors and tourists aren’t privy to. And as a reader who appreciates strong women as main characters, I was fascinated by Scarlett’s determination and ambition, and how these brought her from her poor village to her brand new life in America.

A River of Stars is an engrossing read about unusual characters, and I ended up really liking the story of their search for a good life for their babies. Well worth checking out!

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The details:

Title: A River of Stars
Author: Vanessa Hua
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Olive is always unlucky: in her career, in love, in…well, everything. Her identical twin sister Ami, on the other hand, is probably the luckiest person in the world. Her meet-cute with her fiancé is something out of a romantic comedy (gag) and she’s managed to finance her entire wedding by winning a series of Internet contests (double gag). Worst of all, she’s forcing Olive to spend the day with her sworn enemy, Ethan, who just happens to be the best man.

Olive braces herself to get through 24 hours of wedding hell before she can return to her comfortable, unlucky life. But when the entire wedding party gets food poisoning from eating bad shellfish, the only people who aren’t affected are Olive and Ethan. And now there’s an all-expenses-paid honeymoon in Hawaii up for grabs.

Putting their mutual hatred aside for the sake of a free vacation, Olive and Ethan head for paradise, determined to avoid each other at all costs. But when Olive runs into her future boss, the little white lie she tells him is suddenly at risk to become a whole lot bigger. She and Ethan now have to pretend to be loving newlyweds, and her luck seems worse than ever. But the weird thing is that she doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, she feels kind of… lucky.

My Thoughts:

Over the past year, I’ve become a fan of the writer duo known as Christina Lauren. Their books tend to be light and breezy, with lots of sass and romance, and The Unhoneymooners fits the mold. Olive ends up on an all-inclusive 10-day luxury vacation in Maui after the disaster of her sister’s wedding reception, and figures she’ll just grit her teeth and put up with Ethan’s company if that’s what it takes to enjoy some gorgeous beaches in paradise. Naturally, she and Ethan begin clicking in all sorts of ways, and before long they discover that their mutual dislike is founded on misunderstandings, missed cues, and some deliberate misdirection from an unlikely source.

Olive and Ethan are, naturally, totally adorable together, and their island escapades are silly and sexy. My quibbles with this book are around the unlikeliness and sheer ridiculousness of some of the set-ups for the plot. Ami’s obsession with freebies is, well, odd, and the fact that no one blinked twice about going along with her schemes is a little worrying. I found it really unlikely that Olive’s new boss — from back home in Minnesota — would show up at the exact same Maui resort as she did, and I just didn’t think her reasons for deception were all that convincing. (I’m also not convinced that his later decision to fire her for dishonesty based on something that happened in a casual setting prior to employment would really hold up, but hey, that’s me allowing my day job to creep into my book enjoyment!).

My main quibble with The Unhoneymooners, and with Christina Lauren books in general, is the tendency to create female characters with awesome professions and then never see them actually doing much in a work setting. Olive never makes it farther than the HR office in this book, and while we learn that she’s a virologist with a Ph.D., we mainly just see her awkward, ditzy self. Even when contemplating work and career, it’s not particularly serious or the topic of much discussion beyond a brief mention or two. Okay, yeah, this is a romance, so career is SO not the point, but still — I’d prefer to see these accomplished women doing what they’re great at!

That aside, the authors are great at building a mood, playing up passion and romance, and not being afraid to inject humor into any setting. In fact, humor and snark are really cornerstones of Olive and Ethan’s relationship here. and that’s part of what makes them so cute together. I also loved Olive’s big, over-involved, supportive family… and how could I not enjoy the hell out of a book that includes a passage like this one:

I stare up at him, hating the tiny fluttering that gets going in my chest because he knows the Harry Potter reference.  I knew he was a book lover, but to be the same kind of book lover I am? It makes my insides melt.

Sigh. Now THAT’s romantic.

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The details:

Title: The Unhoneymooers
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.

Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward – with hope and pain – into the future.

Once again, my book group has chosen an emotional, thought-provoking book that’s sure to prompt some passionate discussion. We seem to really know how to pick ’em this year!

In An American Marriage, Celestial and Roy are a devoted couple, but they’re still finding their groove as husband and wife after a year and a half of marriage. Their levels of trust seem to rise and fall, and in some ways, despite the obvious love between them, they’re still learning and growing together and establishing who they want to be together.

When Roy is accused of a violent crime and then convicted, they end up separated by his incarceration, facing a sentence that’s many years longer than their time together as a married couple. At first, Celestial visits regularly and they communicate constantly through letters, but over time, the physical separation becomes emotional separation as well — and when Roy’s conviction is overturned, he no longer knows if he has a wife to return to.

This book contemplates marriage, love, commitment, as well as the role of race in American society and the American justice system. Roy and Celestial are young, upwardly mobile African American professionals, but their run-in with the law in rural Louisiana — while awful and ghastly and unjust — doesn’t seem at all far-fetched in today’s society. Sadly, as shown through the experiences of the characters in this book, the threat of incarceration for African American males is very real and not avoidable simply by living a good and honest life.

Spoilery bits ahead:

I’ve said in other reviews that truly thought-provoking books evoke emotions, then make us question our emotions and get involved in internal debates. An American Marriage definitely had that effect on me.

Here come the spoilers:

While Celestial and Roy seem committed at the beginning of his prison time and determined to stick together no matter what, their relationship is eroded by time, distance, and the simple fact that they no longer share a life and experiences. After a few years, Celestial reaches the point where she stops visiting and finally tells Roy that she can no longer be his wife, even though she does not file for divorce. When Roy is released, he takes the lack of divorce papers as a sign that he has a marriage to return to, although he finds out soon enough that Celestial is in love with another man and planning to remarry.

Part of me was really angry with Celestial. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. The reader, and Celestial, know absolutely that Roy is innocent of the rape for which he’s convicted. He’s sent away from her through a miscarriage of justice, not through any fault of his own. It made me really upset to see Celestial abandon Roy. BUT, at the same time, every time the narration switched to her point of view, I began to (unwillingly) feel sympathy. Celestial and Roy had only a short time together as husband and wife, and by the time a few years of his sentence passed, they’d been apart longer than they’d ever been together. They never really got to find out what sort of marriage they’d have. Roy is stuck in prison for all those years, but Celestial is out in the world, pursuing her artistic passions and starting to make a name for herself. Maybe if they’d been on this journey together, their marriage would have grown along with their developing talents and careers, but here, every change for Celestial means a change away from the marriage that’s had no chance to be anything other than stagnant.

It’s not at all fair to Roy — nothing that’s happened is fair in any way — but I had to grudgingly admit that Celestial had impossible choices to make and didn’t deserve to face what was supposed to be a 12-year sentence with no life of her own.

So while I was often angry with Celestial, I also made a point of trying to understand her actions and to feel pity for her experiences, not just for Roy’s. It was hard, because he’s the one victimized by a false conviction and my sympathy was naturally drawn to him. As I said, I had a full-fledged internal debate going on, and it was next to impossible to fault one or the other without also immediately feeling sorry for them.

In terms of the plot itself, I did have one minor quibble — Roy was convicted on rape charges, and the woman who accused him was raped by someone, just not by Roy. Why wasn’t there a rape kit done? Shouldn’t a DNA analysis have been able to clear him right away?

Even so, the story is tragic and so, so sad. Roy has a moment when he’s thinking about the trial and how the woman who accused him looked straight at him while describing the attack in the courtroom, telling her terrible story while being 100% sure that Roy was the rapist. Roy remembers feeling shame and guilt, despite knowing that she has the wrong man, simply from realizing how strongly the woman is convinced that this is who Roy is.

The book is told from multiple perspectives, mainly Roy’s and Celestial’s, and the audiobook uses different narrators for their pieces. Both do a very good job conveying their personalities, although it’s sometimes disconcerting hearing the “Roy” narrator doing Celestial’s voice when narrating a conversation between the two of them, and vice versa.

Overall, I’m very happy to have had the experience of listening to An American Marriage, and recommend it highly, whether in print or audio. There’s much to think about and digest, and I think this story will really stick with me. Looking forward to discussing it with my book group!

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The details:

Title: An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Narrators:  Sean Crisden, Eisa Davis
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 29, 2018
Print length: 308 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 59 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Readers of Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty will also like this tenderhearted debut about healing and family, narrated by an unforgettable six-year-old boy who reminds us that sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.

Be careful reading Only Child. There’s a good chance it’ll rip your heart out.

As Only Child opens, six-year-old Zach is crammed into a closet in his classroom, listening to popping sounds from somewhere outside the door his teacher is desperately holding closed. When the police finally move in and escort the children to safety in a nearby church, Zach can see that there are some people lying on the floor in the school hallway, and he sees splashes of red, even though the police officer keeps telling the kids to keep their eyes forward and not look around. When Zach’s mother arrives at the church to get him, we hear the terror in her voice as she asks Zach where his brother is. At that moment, the world begins to fall apart for Zach and his parents.

Zach’s older brother Andy is one of nineteen fatalities in a horrific school shooting, along with many of Andy’s classmates and the school principal. The shooter is the mentally ill adult son of the school’s long-time security guard Charlie — a man who has cared for the children of McKinley Elementary for 30 years.

How do we learn about these events? Through Zach. Only Child is narrated throughout by Zach Taylor, so we see all events unfold from this six-year-old’s perspective. We’re with Zach as he undergoes confusion, discomfort, misunderstanding, and terror. Zach’s first-person narration lets us into his thoughts, as he sorts through his feelings about Andy, who wasn’t always the kindest of brothers. We also can feel Zach’s terror at thoughts of returning to school, his boundless loneliness in his house, and his need for parents who are so wrapped up in their own grief and horror that they can’t always see what’s going on with Zach.

Look, this book is heart-breaking, no two ways about it. At the same time, I found it hard to spend the entire book looking at the world through Zach’s eyes. I had a similar response to Room. It’s a powerful story, but the limitations caused by having a child narrator can be frustrating. We never know more than Zach knows. We can only participate in conversations that Zach’s present for, so even though he does a fair bit of lurking in hallways to hear what his parents are talking about, we only ever get bits and pieces.

I had a hard time too suspending my disbelief in places where Zach recounts what he’s heard on TV or comments made by adults he’s overheard. His inner thoughts are a little precious on occasion, and maybe a bit more sophisticated for his age than is truly believable. My other complaint (sorry, I realize I’m being a curmudgeon): As you might expect in a story told by a six-year-old, I think I heard more than enough about pee, poop, snot, and puke. Oh my, little boys can be gross. (Sorry, truly.)

Still, I was very engaged by the story and the characters throughout. I had the unusual experience while reading this book of trying to analyze why I felt certain ways about characters, and forcing myself to embrace empathy even when I was having a visceral reaction against a particular person. For example, Zach’s mother comes across as pretty awful for much of Only Child, when viewed through the lens of Zach’s fears and unmet emotional needs. She’s unable to see past her own fury and loss to truly see Zach’s suffering, consumed by the need to get revenge on the parents of the shooter, pursuing TV interviews and making  lots of noise about their role and their responsibility for the children’s deaths.

Meanwhile, I typically have little sympathy for unfaithful spouses in novels, but despite the fact that we learn that Zach’s dad was having an affair prior to Andy’s death, he comes across as the supportive, loving, gentle parent who’s present for Zach and who attempts to find a way toward healing. I ended up liking the father much more than the mother, and had to continually remind myself that there’s no wrong way to grieve. She was not being a good mother to Zach following the shooting, but who among us can say how we’d behave in that unimaginable, terrifying type of situation? As much as I wished for better for Zach — like for his parents to be on the same page long enough to get him counseling — I couldn’t hate the mother for being swallowed up by her pain and grief.

Kudos to the talented young narrator of the audiobook, Kivlighan de Montebello, who does a terrific job with Zach’s voice, really giving life to Zach’s emotions. The audiobook is an immersive listening experience, and in places the raw emotions of the characters are almost too painful to hear.

I’m thankful to my book group, as always, for choosing terrific books to read and discuss. I finished Only Child right in time for our discussion, and can’t wait to share impressions and thoughts with my bookish friends. Only Child is a powerful, timely, deeply affecting book, and I strongly recommend it.

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The details:

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Narrator: Kivlighan de Montebello
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Print length: 304 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 10 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Shelf Control #158: Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

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Title: Definitely Not Mr. Darcy
Author: Karen Doornebos
Published: 2011
Length: 374 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

There’s no place for pride in this Austen misadventure. Chloe Parker was born two centuries too late. A thirty-nine-year- old divorced mother, she runs her own antique letterpress business, is a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society, and gushes over everything Regency. But her business is failing, threatening her daughter’s future. What’s a lady to do?

Why, audition for a Jane Austen-inspired TV show set in England, of course.

What Chloe thinks is a documentary turns out to be a reality dating show set in 1812. Eight women are competing to snare Mr. Wrightman, the heir to a gorgeous estate, along with a $100,000 prize. So Chloe tosses her bonnet into the ring, hoping to transform from stressed-out Midwest mom to genteel American heiress and win the money. With no cell phones, indoor plumbing, or deodorant to be found, she must tighten her corset and flash some ankle to beat out women younger, more cutthroat, and less clumsy than herself. But the witty and dashing Mr. Wrightman proves to be a prize worth winning, even if it means the gloves are off…

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

After last week’s Shelf Control post — featuring a horror story about the Donner party — I thought it might be a good idea to switch things up and go for light and fluffy. Can’t get much lighter or fluffier than an Austen-inspired story involving reality TV! I’d never heard of this book before I stumbled across on the paperback fiction table at the library sale, but something about the cover and description reeled me in and made me NEED to take it home with me. And hey, I’m always up for some good Austen fangirl reading!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Shelf Control #156: The Reminders by Val Emmich

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Reminders
Author: Val Emmich
Published: 2017
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Grief-stricken over his partner’s death, Gavin sets fire to every physical reminder in the couple’s home. A neighbor captures the ordeal on video, turning this unsung TV actor into a household name. Now, Gavin is fleeing the hysteria of Los Angeles for New Jersey, hoping to find peace with the family of an old friend. Instead, he finds Joan.

Joan, the family’s ten-year-old daughter, was born with the rare ability to recall every day of her life in cinematic detail. In seconds, she can tell you how many times her mother has uttered the phrase “it never fails” in the last six months (27) or what she was wearing when her grandfather took her fishing on a particular Sunday in June years ago (fox socks). Joan has never met Gavin until now, but she did know his partner, Sydney, and waiting inside her uncanny mind are half a dozen startlingly vivid memories to prove it.

Gavin strikes a deal with Joan: in return for sharing all her memories of Sydney, Gavin will help Joan win a local songwriting contest she’s convinced could make her unforgettable. The unlikely duo sets off on their quest until Joan reveals unexpected details about Sydney’s final months, forcing Gavin to question not only the purity of his past with Sydney but the course of his own immediate future.

Told in the alternating voices of these two irresistible characters, The Reminders is a hilarious and tender exploration of loss, memory, friendship and renewal.

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

I really didn’t know anything about this book before picking it up, but the bright cover caught my eye and I remembered hearing about it from a blogger friend. Turns out, the synopsis makes The Reminders sound like a great read for me — it sounds funny, quirky, but also with emotional impact. I like the description of the two main characters and the unusual plot set-up, so now that I’ve reminded myself that I own a copy, I’m eager to read it.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman

Katya, a rising ballerina, and Sasha, a graduate student, are young and in love when an unexpected tragedy befalls their native Kiev. Years later, after the couple has safely emigrated to America the consequences of this incident cause their son, Yuri, to be born with a rare health condition that isolates him from other children. Maggie, a passionate and dedicated teacher agrees to tutor Yuri at his home, even though she is haunted by her own painful childhood memories. As the two forge a deep and soulful connection, Yuri’s boundless curiosity and unique wisdom inspires Maggie to make difficult changes in her own life. And she’ll never realize just how strong Yuri has made her — until she needs that strength the most…

A novel that will make readers examine what it means to live life with a full heart.

The Secret of Clouds is about a young teacher, Maggie, whose enthusiasm for her middle school students and her passion for introducing them to the joys of reading and writing seems limitless. Maggie is asked to take on an additional role, tutoring a 12-year-old boy named Yuri who is unable to come to school because of a health condition. Hesitantly, Maggie agrees, but soon is completely charmed by this lonely boy and becomes determined to help him regain an interest in the world around him.

Bonding through his love of baseball, Maggie slowly draws Yuri out of his shell of apathy, and soon has him engaging with her and the worlds of literature she’s introduced him to with real interest and insight. As she begins to earn Yuri’s trust, Maggie also learns more about his parents, Katya and Sasha, and their desperate love for their ill son.

Katya and Sasha lived in Kiev at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, and while they themselves suffered no adverse effects, like so many others, their offspring suffered birth defects — in this case, a rare heart ailment — due to their own radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, as Maggie witnesses Yuri’s struggles to live his limited life to the fullest, she reassesses her own life and relationships, seeing where her true happiness lies and making the changes needed to live life to her best ability.

The Secret of Clouds is touching and appealing in many ways, yet something about the writing style let me down. It’s the old “show, don’t tell” issue: I felt like Maggie was sharing a summary of her experiences, rather than drawing me in enough to see the events myself. The writing kept me at a distance throughout, as entire months or sometimes years went by in the span of a few paragraphs. There was no sense of immediacy; I rarely felt as though I had entered into a scene or had a genuine moment of emotional connection. For example, when Maggie meets and falls in love with a new man in her life, it’s very nice for her, yet I’d be hard pressed to tell you a thing about him other than that he’s a musician and seems to be a really great guy. Granted, their love story was not the main point of this book, but he feels like a cipher to me.

From the synopsis, I expected Katya and Sasha to have equal time in this novel alongside Maggie, but that’s not the case. While we see their lives in Kiev in the early chapters, once it’s been established that they were exposed to fallout from Chernobyl, the story shifts entirely to its 1999/2000 setting, focusing on Maggie and Yuri. Katya and Sasha become supporting characters, in the background as Yuri’s parents, but not central point-of-view characters.

The Secret of Clouds is a fine read with an interesting story to tell, but unfortunately the writing style kept me from feeling truly emotionally invested. I will say, though, that if every student had a teacher as committed, idealistic, and compassionate as Maggie, the world would be a much, much better place!

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The details:

Title: The Secret of Clouds
Author: Alyson Richman
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 19, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Roomies by Christina Lauren

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Marriages of convenience are so…inconvenient.

For months Holland Bakker has invented excuses to descend into the subway station near her apartment, drawn to the captivating music performed by her street musician crush. Lacking the nerve to actually talk to the gorgeous stranger, fate steps in one night in the form of a drunken attacker. Calvin Mcloughlin rescues her, but quickly disappears when the police start asking questions.

Using the only resource she has to pay the brilliant musician back, Holland gets Calvin an audition with her uncle, Broadway’s hottest musical director. When the tryout goes better than even Holland could have imagined, Calvin is set for a great entry into Broadway—until his reason for disappearing earlier becomes clear: he’s in the country illegally, his student visa having expired years ago.

Seeing that her uncle needs Calvin as much as Calvin needs him, a wild idea takes hold of her. Impulsively, she marries the Irishman, her infatuation a secret only to him. As their relationship evolves and Calvin becomes the darling of Broadway—in the middle of the theatrics and the acting-not-acting—will Holland and Calvin to realize that they both stopped pretending a long time ago?

My Thoughts:

Yet another sweet, wish-fulfillment romantic story by the amazing writing duo Christina Lauren! There’s not much of a shred of realism in the plot, but it’s oh so fun to just kick back and go with the flow.

We have Holland, mid-twenties, with an MFA that she’s not using, living a comfortable New York life (thanks to her amazing, generous uncles) — who decides that marrying her crush is the best way to help him get legal residence in the US so he can pursue his musical career. Of course, Calvin is both incredibly gorgeous and unbelievably talented, as well as being sweet, smart, and a considerate and passionate lover. Of course, Calvin shoots to instant stardom. And of course, their fake marriage turns into a real marriage, although not without the requisite trust and communication issues that plague any good contemporary romance.

It’s all good fun, and the happy ending is never in doubt. It’s an entertaining, sexy romp, and even though we know that these two crazy lovebirds will end up together, the excitement is in seeing how they get there. The book is quick and light, and despite the moments of emotional turmoil and illogical behavior, the characters are always likable (and have enough of a sense of humor to get past some super awkward situations.)

This is my 4th Christina Lauren book, and I have yet to encounter a dud! Not exactly deep reading, but great for when you need something cheery.

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The details:

Title: Roomies
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 5, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, The Nowhere Child is screenwriter Christian White’s internationally bestselling debut thriller of psychological suspense about a woman uncovering devastating secrets about her family—and her very identity…

Kimberly Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-six years earlier, Sammy Went, a two-year old girl vanished from her home in Manson, Kentucky. An American accountant who contacts Kim is convinced she was that child, kidnapped just after her birthday. She cannot believe the woman who raised her, a loving social worker who died of cancer four years ago, crossed international lines to steal a toddler.

On April 3rd, 1990, Jack and Molly Went’s daughter Sammy disappeared from the inside their Kentucky home. Already estranged since the girl’s birth, the couple drifted further apart as time passed. Jack did his best to raise and protect his other daughter and son while Molly found solace in her faith. The Church of the Light Within, a Pentecostal fundamentalist group who handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship, provided that faith. Without Sammy, the Wents eventually fell apart.

Now, with proof that she and Sammy are in fact the same person, Kim travels to America to reunite with a family she never knew she had. And to solve the mystery of her abduction—a mystery that will take her deep into the dark heart of religious fanaticism where she must fight for her life against those determined to save her soul…

The Nowhere Child is a contemporary mystery with a premise that reminded me of some teen thrillers that were popular in the early 2000s. What happens to a person who discovers that the life she thought she knew is built on a lie? What if it turns out that your parents aren’t really your parents? How would you handle finding out that you were kidnapped, way back before you were old enough to remember, and that you have an entirely other family out there in the world?

Kim’s life is turned upside down when a stranger shows up claiming that she’s his long-lost sister. DNA testing quickly proves that they are in fact siblings. But Kim knows that her mother was a good, loving person — how could she be a kidnapper?

Kim agrees to go to the United States with Stuart to meet her biological sister and parents, to see the Kentucky town where she was born, and to try to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. What happened all those years ago? Who took her, and why? And how did she end up growing up in Australia with woman she believed to be her mother?

The town of Manson, Kentucky has its own creepy secrets, among them a formerly popular pentecostal congregation with an outsized influence on its members, including Sammy/Kim’s mother Molly. Church members bear their snake bite scars as badges of honor — those who survive, anyway. As the narrative switches back and forth between Kim’s present trip to Manson and the past, almost thirty years earlier, when Sammy disappeared from her home, the clues and connections start to add up. And while Kim/Sammy’s kidnapping happened so many years ago, there’s still a threat lurking in the town when she comes too close to uncovering the truth.

I enjoyed the story and the puzzle of trying to figure out exactly what happened to Sammy, and the description of the different family members, townspeople, and their secrets. Some of the threads between “then” and “now” seemed a little flimsy to me, but overall, the plot is pieced together in such a way that the answers aren’t too obvious. I had a pretty good idea of whose stories had holes and where the missing connection might be, but it was still interesting to see it all come together.

We never really see much of Kim’s life in Australia, and I would have liked that piece of her life to be better fleshed out, especially to have seen more memories of her time with her mother. It felt like an important piece was missing, to see how Kim was raised and what her relationship with her mother was like. Likewise, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why some of the people in Kentucky in the “now” timeline acted as they did, and even once we had all the answers about the kidnapping, I’m not convinced that the motivation for taking and keeping Sammy made a whole lot of sense.

There’s a truly disturbing scene toward the end of the book that absolutely made my skin crawl. I mean, super icky and scary. Let’s just say that if you have a problem with reptiles and rodents, you should proceed with caution!

Overall, The Nowhere Child is a good, solid read that held my interest, even when I didn’t quite buy every element of the story. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The details:

Title: The Nowhere Child
Author: Christian White
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

My Thoughts:

While I love the premise of this book, the execution screams “literary fiction” rather than “science fiction”, and that may be why The Dreamers didn’t thrill me in the end. It’s an awesome set-up: A mysterious illness begins spreading through a remote college town, with no known cause or cure. People infected simply fall asleep, and stay that way. Without medical care, they’d die of malnutrition and dehydration, and soon the hospitals and emergency triage centers are overflowing with these strange sleepers. As the weeks drag on, those who remain awake find themselves trapped within the quarantined area, living in an eerie world of deserted homes and stray dogs.

Should be exciting, right? And yet, the narrative isn’t focused on the epidemiology or the science, but rather on the individuals, their relationships, and their meditations on the meaning of life, connection, time, and reality. How do we know that what we think is reality isn’t really a dream? How do we know that our dreams aren’t an alternate reality? When does the passing of time represent a loss? Can we mourn what we’ve never had? Is it more ethical to save many strangers than to save one person that you love? On and on.

While there are some interesting developments and characters, the metaphor-heavy presentation didn’t particularly work for me. As with this author’s previous novel (The Age of Miracles), I felt that a nifty sci-fi scenario became the canvas for a meditative literary piece, and that just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Perhaps this author just isn’t for me. I don’t regret reading The Dreamers, but I can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if written by a more action-driven, science-driven sci-fi writer.

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The details:

Title: The Dreamers
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction/comtemporary fiction
Source: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway

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