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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Shelf Control #40: Frog Music

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Frog MusicTitle: Frog Music
Author: Emma Donoghue
Published: 2014
Length: 416 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead.

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice–if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue’s lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other.

How I got it:

I bought it!

When I got it:

Last year (I think), when the paperback was released.

Why I want to read it:

To be honest, I’d kind of forgotten about this book until I was putting together my TTT list this week, which includes Emma Donoghue’s upcoming new release. Before I go out and get her new book, I should probably take the time to read one I already have! I think the plot of Frog Music sounds amazing, and I especially love reading historical fiction set in my adopted hometown.

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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 below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!


For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

Flashback Friday: Tales Of The City

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

Tales of the City (Tales of the City, #1)

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

(first published 1978)

From Goodreads:

San Francisco, 1976. A naive young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous – unmistakably the handiwork of Armistead Maupin.

Author Armistead Maupin originally wrote this book — and the next several in the series — as a serialized column appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle beginning in May of 1976. (You can read the first installment here.) Each chapter represents one newspaper column’s worth of story — so each is quick, zippy, full of fun, and perfectly bite-sized.

This book and the books that follow capture life in San Francisco at a particular time, blending hippies and disco, sexual freedom and discovery, the city’s aristocracy and the bohemian fringe. It’s fun, often hilarious, surprisingly touching, and must have been, for its time, a real shocker — at least for those not a part of the San Francisco “scene”.

There are now eight published volumes in the series, with a ninth, The Days of Anna Madrigal, due out in 2014. (‘ll ‘fess up and admit that I’ve only read the first six books; someday, I intend to catch up!)

Tales of the City continues to fascinate. Since its publication as a newspaper serial, it has been published as a novel (obviously), became a very successful PBS TV production in 1993, and in 2011 debuted on stage as a musical (which I was lucky enough to see — it was wonderful!).

Tales of the City is a ground-breaking portrait of 1970s San Francisco — and also just a really entertaining piece of fiction. Check it out!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love (please mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the Flashback Friday host!) and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!

Flashback Friday: Bloodsucking Fiends

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

(published 1995)

From Goodreads:

Jody never asked to become a vampire. But when she wakes up under an alley Dumpster with a badly burned arm, an aching neck, superhuman strength, and a distinctly Nosferatuan thirst, she realizes the decision has been made for her. Making the transition from the nine-to-five grind to an eternity of nocturnal prowlings is going to take some doing, however, and that’s where C. Thomas Flood fits in. A would-be Kerouac from Incontinence, Indiana, Tommy (to his friends) is biding his time night-clerking and frozen-turkey bowling in a San Francisco Safeway. But all that changes when a beautiful undead redhead walks through the door … and proceeds to rock Tommy’s life — and afterlife — in ways he never imagined possible.

OK, I’ll just say right up front that I love absolutely everything by Christopher Moore. I’ve yet to read a book of his that didn’t make me choke on my coffee from laughing too hard.

This is not your average vampire book. No sparkles, no teen angst, no brooding. It’s laugh-out-loud funny (spit-out-your-coffee funny), and deserves a gold star for best use of San Francisco settings and lore in a way that’s totally off the wall. And if you like Bloodsucking Fiends, check out the sequels, You Suck and Bite Me.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday bloghop, post about a book you love on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!

Book Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

Book Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Author Stephanie Perkins has done it again! Her first novel, Anna and the French Kiss (reviewed here), is a refreshingly sunny story of contemporary teens finding their way toward first love. Nothing explodes, the world doesn’t end, there are no technological breakdowns or repressive forms of government. What a nice change for readers of YA fiction! Instead, in Stephanie Perkins’s novels, we’re treated to teens facing real-life problems, negotiating the perils of growing up and finding their way, struggling with big and little decisions, and figuring out what’s really important to them. In other words, characters who feel true and convincing, and who earn the investment a reader feels by the end of the book.

In Lola and the Boy Next Door, we meet the delightfully quirky Lola, a 17-year-old San Francisco native, growing up in the Castro district in the Victorian home she shares with her two dads. Lola believes in self-expression through costuming, and arrays herself in a never-ending rainbow of vintage dresses, multi-hued wigs, glitter and make-up, boots and raincoats, as she tries on different personae and presentations. Lola has learned to tolerate the slings and arrows of her more conformist-minded classmates, and bounces through her life with a couple of close friends and her supportive but very protective parents.

Lola is dating Max, a 22-year-old rock musician whose bad boy outside masks a more sensitive inner core. Max is surprisingly agreeable to the strictures imposed by Lola’s dads: mandatory attendance at the weekly grilling otherwise known as Sunday brunch, non-negotiable hourly phone calls during all dates and outings. This, however, does not prevent Lola from losing her virginity to Max during their supposedly “safe” sanctioned dates. After all, Lola thinks Max is “the one”. She’s in love, and all is well…

… Until the day that Lola’s former neighbors move back into the Victorian next door. The Bells moved away two years earlier in pursuit of daughter Calliope’s figure skating career, taking with them Calliope’s twin brother Cricket (the titular boy next door). Cricket and Lola had been inseparable for one wonderful summer, until a series of miscommunications and the family’s sudden move ripped the two apart and left Lola with a major hole in her heart.

Now Cricket is back, and Lola has to figure out whether she can let him back into her life. (Hint: the title pretty much lets us know that she does.) Lola and Cricket are rather adorable. Their bedroom windows face one another, and they have nightly conversations across the narrow gap between their houses. Cricket is sweet, smart, and head over heels for Lola. Lola wants to be friends… but can she really be happy with Max when Cricket is waiting in the wings?

All this sounds much shallower than it actually is. Both Lola and Cricket have inner doubts and demons to face. Lola’s birth mother Norah was a troubled teen who found herself with an unwanted pregnancy and gave the baby to her brother and his partner to raise. Norah pops back into their lives whenever she’s down and out, which is often, and is an ongoing source of embarrassment and self-questioning for Lola. Cricket has discovered some unsavory truths about his family’s past which make him doubt his own talents. On top of that, Cricket lives in his sister’s shadow, supporting her and cheering for her, but destined to have his life uprooted based on Calliope’s needs.

Lola has to make some big decisions, and I give Stephanie Perkins a lot of credit for not making these decisions easy or free of fall-out. Lola doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but it’s inevitable that she will. She doesn’t want to let down her fathers, but she ends up breaking their rules unintentionally. Even when Lola does what she needs to do, she doesn’t immediately bounce back and move on. We see a real teen dealing with real emotions, and even when it’s hard, it feels true.

As an added bonus, Anna and St. Clair from Anna and the French Kiss are supporting characters in Lola and the Boy Next Door, and it’s quite fun to see them moving forward with their life plans (although they do kind of feel like an “old married couple” in this story, despite only being a year older than they were in their own book). Additionally, I personally got a big kick out of the San Francisco setting. It’s always fun to read fiction set in my town, and I loved the descriptions of the neighborhoods and various landmarks that figured into Lola’s story.

I enjoyed Lola and the Boy Next Door very much. Even though the title pretty much tells you how Lola’s story will end up, it’s the journey that’s so much fun. Lola is a terrific main character — not flawless, but fresh, honest, and individual, with her heart in the right place even if it takes her a bit of trying to figure out her actions. Stephanie Perkins’s writing is lively and the dialogue sparkles. I’m looking forward to reading more by this talented YA author: Her next book, Isla and the Happily Ever After, is due out in May of this year.

Wishlist Wednesday

And now, for this week’s Wishlist Wednesday…

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to pen to paper (http://vogue-pentopaper.blogspot.com) somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

From Amazon:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an old school mystery set firmly in tech-loving, modern day San Francisco. Clay Jannon (former web designer) lands a job at a bookstore with very few patrons and even fewer purchases. His curiosity leads him to the discovery of a larger conspiracy at play, one exciting enough to rope in his best friend (CEO at a startup) and love interest (works at Google). As Clay and company unravel the puzzles of Mr. Penumbra’s book shop, the story turns into a sort of nerdy heist, with real-life gadgets, secret societies, and a lot of things to say about the past, present, and future of reading. Sloan originally self-published Mr. Penumbra as a short story through Kindle Direct Publishing, before expanding it to its current form with a traditional print publisher–a fitting trajectory for a fast, fun story that has so wholly and enthusiastically embraced the tension between the digital and analog books.

Why do I want to read this?

Because it sounds wacky and exciting and it fits (I think) into one of my favorite categories: books about books! The fact that it’s described as a “nerdy heist” won me over immediately, and I love that it has to do with the “past, present, and future of reading”. All that, plus a San Francisco setting, makes this a book I’d love to dive into.

Has anyone read it yet? What did you think?

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!