Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Trigger Warning: Non-explicit sexual assault, death of children, racism, homophobia, representation of dementia, depictions of the refugee asylum process that may be especially difficult for those impacted by family separation through deportation

I read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen to fulfill the “read a book about a refugee” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

This novel is comprised of a series of vignettes featuring characters whose lives were impacted by the Vietnam war. There is little I can say about the book without spoiling it but I can say that it is incredibly well written and heartwrenching. Nguyen gives the reader glimpses into the lives of different characters who live in varying degrees of separation from the Vietnam war. Some characters are Americans who served, some are direct refugees from the conflict, some are second generation Vietnamese Americans trying to grapple with the ghosts of their past. Nguyen himself is a refugee and the two essays at the end of the novel provide excellent context for the novel itself and I highly encourage you to read them though they are not directly connected to the novel itself.

This book is important to read even years past the Vietnam war because it is easy to draw a pattern in how America reacts to refugees. America is quick to create or join a conflict that suits its needs but the fallout from those conflicts, namely human lives, is left to others. I remember studying how America has treated immigrants in the past and this maltreatment is always treated like a sin we’ve atoned for and moved away from instead of a continued policy we weaponize against people of color. Vietnam refugees, like the characters in this book, are facing a backlash as are Syrian and Mexican refugees. There is no doubt in my mind that these actions will one day be taught with the same detached criticism that our treatment of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century are today. But it is not enough to look back and be regretful. The only genuine apology is changed behavior and if the US does not change its inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers we will continue to be a shameful mockery of the values we claim to represent. Worse, more and more human lives will be traumatized and lost.

Review: The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

I read The Governess Game by Tessa Dare to fulfill the “romance about a single parent” category of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This is the second book in the Girl Meets Duke series, I reviewed book one, “The Duchess Deal” last year and really enjoyed it. This book continues that trend and also furthers my love of Tessa Dare.

The premise: Chase Reynard is a rake who has been tasked with two young wards – 10 year old Rosamund and 7 year old Daisy – after he jumps from being fourth in line to the heir apparent. Desperate to find a nanny until he can send the girls to a boarding school he turns to Alexandra Mountbatten, a woman he literally ran into months ago at a bookshop who has shown up to set his clocks (not a euphemism). After she gives him a scathing takedown for his poor taste in creating a Cave of Carnality (complete with mirrors and nude portraits) he insists she is the right one for the job. She accepts the position for the money but quickly learns that there are depths to this scoundrel and that his posturing and attempts to but distance between himself and those around him speaks to a depth of feeling that he fears after past heartbreak.

One thing that I loved about this novel was that both characters have clear, well-paced growth. Chase doesn’t just fall in love and suddenly lose all of his fears surrounding attachment and Alexandra doesn’t magically get over her terror of being on boats just because he’s there. Love is not treated like a magic cure all, it just shows how choosing to accept the love you feel for others can help give you support to face down your fears and grow through them. Dare also does an excellent job showing how children can react to trauma and grief, one growing rigidly practical and the other falling into the continued roleplaying of funerals. The girls also grow in the novel and the reader is left knowing that they will be ok and this will mostly be because they will be allowed to grieve and be loved unconditionally instead of them just suddenly being “happy” or “ok.”

Despite its take on many painful issues, the novel made me laugh repeatedly and balanced its poignant and humorous moments well. In my opinion, Chase is the quintessential rake. He has a healthy sexual appetite and makes no bones (lol) about feeding it. He is a generous lover and a conscientious one as well. He is talented through practice and just the right amount of cocky. And, most importantly, he has that wonderful quality of being roguishly unaffected on the outside with a soft, creamy, marshmallowy inside of affection. Alexandra is also a great heroine and they make an excellent match. While (spoiler alert) their epilogue does include a reveal of the fact that she is pregnant, I didn’t get the sense that this baby is what would make them a family. Chase, Alexandra, Rosamund, and Daisy are already a complete and happy family and the baby would only grow what is already there. That’s not common in romance, particularly historical romance, and as the daughter of two people who were adopted into their families, I really appreciated this respect given to the legitimacy of a family created through nontraditional means.

I will be reading book three, The Wallflower Wager, coming up sometime but in the meantime I am going to be reading Darkfever and A Kiss for Solstice so keep an eye out for those reviews.

Review: More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh

Continuing with the Reading Embrace I read More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh for the “Dueling, Bring It Back” category. This might be a bit of a meander-y post because honestly you guys I’m still not sure how I feel about this book.

This is my second Balogh read. Before this I read Someone To Love which I also felt confused about. Like that one, I really liked the heroine and I thought the side characters were compelling and endearing, but I hated the hero. In both books the hero was a haughty, arrogant dick who intimidates everyone with a squint through his quizzing glass.

Please go with me on this quizzing glass journey because guys, I’m lost.

This is a quizzing glass:

quizzing-glass-closeup

I always called it a monocle but here we are. Maybe if I did more research I would understand why a man looking through his quizzing glass at you could be intimidating but reader, I do not understand. If a man raised his quizzing glass and peered at me like a grumpy owl I would simply laugh. And be a little embarassed for him. But this is the second time Balogh has used The Quizzing Glass as a tool of intimidation so it clearly is A Thing for someone or the period or etc.

Let’s get the plot out of the way though and I am going to use the synopsis on Goodreads because I tried explaining it to my boyfriend last night and there was so much I kept forgetting.

“An arrogant duke does the unthinkable-he falls in love with his mistress.
She raced onto the green, desperate to stop a duel. In the melee, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, was shot. To his astonishment, Tresham found himself hiring the servant as his nurse. Jane Ingleby was far too bold for her own good. Her blue eyes were the sort a man could drown in-were it not for her impudence. She questioned his every move, breached his secrets, touched his soul. When he offered to set her up in his London town house, love was the last thing on his mind….
Jane tried to pretend it was strictly business, an arrangement she was forced to accept in order to conceal a dangerous secret. Surely there was nothing more perilous than being the lover of such a man. Yet as she got past his devilish facade and saw the noble heart within, she knew the greatest jeopardy of all, a passion that drove her to risk everything on one perfect month with the improper gentleman who thought love was for fools.”

I liked that the heroine refused to be cowed and was doing what she needed to be safe. I liked some of the banter between the main characters. I loved Tresham’s sister and brother, both very lively and funny characters that I would happily read more about. I liked the loyalty his friends showed even if they were kinda gross when they talked about women. I like that the hero does genuinely apologize at one point. I like that this book was chock-o-block full of dueling to more than hit the requirement for this category. That might be where what I like ends.

I did not like the hero who was an emotionally stunted prick with a Tragic Backstory that is supposed to excuse his behavior. I did not like the relationship as a whole. The author didn’t seem to know how she felt about it either based on how between “I’m pregnant so I’m forced to marry you” and “we’re married guys surprise and also we are in love” there is absolutely nothing to segue the parts. The characters bounce between being angry with each other (and having people say that’s proof of their love, which – ugh DON’T) and confessing their deep love and back to the fighting. I didn’t see growth from either character. He learns how to express emotions which is good but he was still by and large an ass. Also, the dueling is genuinely stupid and I know Jane is there to be that voice going “hey maybe don’t almost die or murder a person because of Honor” but it’s never taken seriously and he sure seems down to duel still at the end.

I struggle because I want to like Balogh’s work. There’s always some stuff in them that I like that keeps me wanting to return and try something else. But so far (and admittedly, only two books out of her catalogue isn’t a huge sample) the heroes seem very similar and very obnoxious. Also the descriptions and language around sex is ludicrously flowery. There was a lot of talk about Becoming One and Mounting and Making Love when I mostly wanted to know where was what and what impact was that having on people beyond a metaphysical sense of Bonding and Togetherness.

I don’t know, you guys. Maybe I will try another Balogh next year but I think one a year is a good rate of sampling for me unless one of you has a rec for one you think I’ll enjoy.

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

I jumped back to the HB Reading Embrace to read Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick to fulfill the Competency Boner category of the embrace. Amanda Quick was actually the first romance novelist I read. I snagged my mom’s copy of I Thee Wed as a young teen. I don’t remember how I felt about it. I know I didn’t read romance again for years but that certainly wasn’t a reaction to the book. In any case, I was excited to give this author another read as an adult who has a bit more romance experience under her belt.

Slater Roxton has a reputation that precedes him, most of it lies, some of it truth. He’s been rumored to be mad since he spent a year on an island after a cave-in during his expedition and now leads a quiet but much storeyed life retrieving artifacts and cataloguing them. Helping him with this is Ursula Kern, widow and owner of the Kern Secretarial Agency. When an employee and friend turns up dead and is shrugged off as a suicide, Ursula takes it upon herself to pursue what she knows has been murder. Slater helps her and along the way they find the truth and fall in love in Victorian England.

I enjoyed reading this book, but there were definitely some things that got in the way of my enjoyment. Slater apparently loved Ursula at first sight and is very protective and a little bit possessive of her in ways that are totally inappropriate, especially because he doesn’t actually relay his feelings until well into the book. Ursula’s past is hinted at as very shocking and maybe I’ve just grown snobbish about my Secret Past backstories but the reveal was kind of anticlimactic in my opinion. Also the sex is written in a very hyperbolical, every-touch-sets-someone-on-fire way that felt almost satirical with how elaborately it was described. But I recognize that is in part just a hallmark of the time and there definitely weren’t any descriptions that thoroughly turned me off (see “hot honey” from Once Burned). However, there were some delightful side characters. The pacing and the writing were both good and I was happy for the characters. It also definitely qualified for the Competency Boner category because both characters are smart and talented and good at their jobs.

Review: Texts From Jane Eyre by Daniel M. Lavery

I read Texts From Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Daniel M. Lavery (Goodreads needs to update his name on their site) to fulfill the Debut novel by an LGBT author category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

I knew I was going to love this book because I have loved Ortberg’s works for years. For those of you who may not know them, they current write at The Shatner Chatner and co-founded The Toast. They also run the Dear Prudence advice column at Slate.

Reading Lavery’s works always make me so angry because I want what he has. He is a goddamn genius with words. He’s also brilliant and more well read than I shall ever be. He’s also hilarious. He’s the total writing package and it’s a package God could have delivered to me but did not and I will never be over it. Except for the fact that I get to read it so, at the end of the day, I cannot be too mad forever.

Or can I?

In any case, I loved this book. It’s what it says on the tin, a bunch of text conversations between various literary characters ranging as far back as literature itself goes up to more modern works. The pieces are quick and hilarious. Of the books I’ve read so far this year, this is the first I’ve known I need to get a physical copy for my home library. I may actually get it as a present for my boyfriend because I know he’ll love it as much as I did if not more because he actually did most of the assigned reading in college.

If you were an english major or have just read a lot of sparknotes of classic works or just appreciate funny things, please do yourself a favor and read this book and check out Lavery’s other works.

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

Trigger Warning: Death of an animal, racism, hate crimes, death of children

For the “book about a natural disaster” category of the Book Riot Reading Challenge I read Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee.

The book is set in San Francisco in the year 1906. It follows 15-year-old Mercy Wong, a second generation Chinese American who lives with her parents and younger brother Jack. Mercy’s parents own a laundry business and she is determined to find a way to help them be more financially stable and to leave the business that is ruining her family’s health. She gets her break in the form of a businessman who agrees to sponsor her stay at a prestigious girl’s school in exchange for her securing business dealings for him in Chinatown. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Mercy is able to broker the deal and begins pursuing what she hopes will be a life changing education for her family. But being the only Chinese American in a school full of privileged, white girls and the unexpected catastrophe of an earthquake will push Mercy farther than she thought possible and force her to uncover hidden strength.

Lee does not shy away from depicting the racism faced by Chinese Americans in the early 20th century. It is a thread that follows Mercy through her experiences in the book. She also shows the sexism within and without her cultural community, allowing the reader to witness the many barriers Mercy faces in her quest to secure a stable future for her family. Mercy is given some allies in the school, but even they have their biases that they have to put aside or confront before they can be her friend. It’s important that readers, specifically YA readers as this book is marketed to, understand these barriers and are able to identify the many ways institutional racism still exists in our society.

I was surprised that I had to get almost halfway through the book before the natural disaster occurred. I’m happy, though, that the author gave us time to get a sense of Mercy’s life and relationships. The reader cares about her family and her friendships and her plans. And then everything is taken from her and the reader and Mercy have to pick through what’s left to determine what life will become when everything you’ve worked for feels irrelevant. The writing was poignant and well paced. Lee shows how horrible, traumatic events can bring people together who would never have associated before, but also how this will never be the case for some people. It’s important to recognize both of these things are true and that it isn’t as simple as The Human Race all being in it for each other when the chips are down. Allies and friends are important, but Mercy has to be cautious in who she trusts and that’s treated with the respect and understanding it deserves.

I almost cried a couple of times in the book. The writing is really good and even though multiple horrific and tragic things occur, Lee still manages to end the book on an upward note. Mercy has hope for her future and even with all of the challenges she will continue to face, both the reader and the protagonist know that she will find a way through. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in early 20th century American history, especially as it pertains to the treatment of Chinese immigrants and the barriers of sexism for women of all races with specific attention paid to the unique positions of non-white women facing sexism.

Review: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

Trigger Warning: Child murder, torture, gruesome descriptions of violence, a mother attempts repeatedly to kill her child, mental institution setting, and repeated descriptions of corpse mutilation

Last week I completed the “retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge by reading The Girl from the Well by Chinese Filipino author Rin Chupeco.

Those who have watched either Ju-On or the American remake The Grudge will be familiar with the protagonist of this story, Okiku. Okiku is the vengeful spirit of a murdered young woman who now goes after murderers of children and kills them in gruesome ways. The iconic horror figure of the dead woman with long hair who makes creepy gurgling sounds is the reader’s POV throughout the novel. I’ve never read a young adult horror novel or a novel where the protagonist and viewpoint of the book is the ghoulish anti-hero. The author presents Okiku’s vicious acts, and her own feelings about her acts, as matter of fact without remorse. I love a remorseless anti-hero, particularly one who is seeking vengeance on behalf of herself and other victims of injustice.

The main plot surrounds Okiku’s interactions with a boy named Tark, his father, and his cousin Cassie. Tark and his father have moved to be closer to his mother who is a patient at a mental institution since she tried to murder the teenager. Okiku is drawn to Tark because she can tell there is another entity attached to him, something dark. As the secret behind Tark’s strange, sigil-like tattoos and what they’ve bound to him is revealed, Okiku and Cassie become Tark’s allies in saving himself and many others.

As I said earlier, this is the first book of its kind that I’ve read so it already has my interest and appreciation. I’ve read criticisms of the book not being scary but I don’t expect horror to be scary necessarily. It is horrifying, the actions described are graphic and haunting, but the figure that is doing most of these actions is one whose head you’re in so you understand the reasoning. I didn’t find the lack of scariness a bad thing by any means. It was a genuinely entertaining read and I was invested in the characters and how the issues would be resolved.

I am not a fan of the use of the mental institution in this story, but I’m torn about this as well. If someone tries to murder their child while screaming that they have to do it to save them and acting in delusional ways, they would probably be hospitalized. But the description of the hospital is very archaic asylum Ken Kesey-esque except even Ken Kesey acknowledged that mental illness doesn’t mean you’re always acting out in outrageous, spooky scary ways. In the brief tours we get of the mental hospital here every mentally ill person is a caricature of insanity. And I don’t say that meaning that the way characters behave aren’t ways that real people can behave with certain conditions, I just felt that Chupeco was relying a little too much on the stigma and stereotype of the mentally ill patient to do the grunt work of setting the scary tone. I also always grow a little wary of plotlines where the “insane” person is actually right and it’s the world that just doesn’t understand. It feels dangerous to me. The history of mental healthcare is, to say the least, fraught with issues and unjust hospitalizations and cruel, inhumane acts. But there are times a person needs to be hospitalized for their own safety. I don’t know you guys, it just didn’ts well with me. I know I have my personal biases and issues with this topic that others may not have. Also, Chupeco doesn’t really present Tark’s mother as someone who should be out of the hospital as she is clearly a danger to herself and others. So I have to give her that.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy YA horror and aren’t troubled by descriptions of graphic violence or child murder/endangerment. It’s a compelling story and a new take on a classic figure in horror. I can’t speak to the accuracy or care of the setting or the belief system represented in Japan and would be interested in perspectives on this part of the book. I may pick up the second book in the series, The Suffering, but it won’t be for a bit because I do need a palate cleanser after this one.