Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

You can find You here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

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Review #88

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed towards the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth located in the Marinas Trench. Sometimes. Other times he is a fifteen-year old high school kid who is beginning to have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. Caden Bosch is elected the ship’s artist, whose job it is to document the ship’s crew with pictures. Sometimes. Other times he is a boy who cannot stop moving, who quits the track team and instead wanders for miles around his neighborhood. Caden Bosch is beginning to contemplate mutiny against the ship’s captain but is still holding on to his allegiance. Sometimes.

Neal Shusterman dives deep into the heart of mental illness with Challenger Deep, and explores how a person’s mind can begin to betray them. Caden Bosch is never diagnosed with anything specific, but his symptoms exhibit signs of schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. He begins to feel constant paranoia and anxiety, and his social functions plummet as he loses the ability to hold a sustained conversation. Shusterman, who uses many personal details from the life of his own son, portrays Caden as someone who has great inner strength but finds that all the perseverance in the world cannot always combat the continuous onslaught of mental illness.

Shusterman depicts the confusion that Caden feels by ensuring that his readers have some difficulty discerning exactly what is going on at any given time. His chapters are short, only three or four pages long, and vary from Caden on board a sailing ship in the middle of the Pacific to Caden trying to hold on to the pieces of his life while his illness threatens to consume him. The first fifty or so pages of Challenger Deep twist into a big jumble before settling into a more straightforward narrative. In this way Shusterman helps us to empathize with his protagonist.

Challenger Deep represents a brutally honest, yet ultimately sensitive portrayal of mental illness. Caden’s struggles are never glamorized or dramatized for effect. We identify with his struggles and rejoice with his rare glimmers of hope. He understands that he will never be “cured” and instead has to come to terms with the fact that his mental illness with be with him for the rest of his life. Instead of this being a sour note, Caden is able to meet it with resignation.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Challenger Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Persepolis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018)

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Review #72

Vietnam POW Ernt Allbright is struggling to adjust to post-war life. In the summer of 1974, unable to hold a job and struggling with anxiety and anger issues, he makes the impulsive decision to move his wife Cora and thirteen year old daughter Leni to the wilds of Alaska. His plan is to live off the grid, away from the eyes of the government he feels has betrayed him.

The Great Alone focuses on Leni Allbright as her family struggles to adjust to life on the last frontier. Upon their arrival in Homer, it becomes readily apparent that they are woefully unprepared for life in the unforgiving Alaskan environment. The tight-knit community of locals pitch in to help the Allbright family prepare for the eight month winter that looms large in the minds of all. More troubling for Leni is the turbulent and often violently passionate relationship between her parents. The endless nights bring a return to Ernt’s anxiety, and he becomes increasingly volatile as his mental state deteriorates.

This novel by author Kristin Hannah is first and foremost a story about love. Romantic love plays its own role as we are exposed to the tangled codependency between Ernt and Cora. But it is also the story of the love between a mother and daughter, a community towards one another, and a person towards the wilderness that comes to define them. Leni’s confused and often desperate love for her father is mixed with fear and eventually hatred. Her love for her mother is a constant thread through her life, even when Leni begins wishing she could extract herself from the increasingly toxic relationship between her parents. There are so many intertwined relationships represented in The Great Alone that they become impossible to separate, which gives this novel its emotional core.

With this book, Kristin Hannah has written a love letter to Alaska. Numerous descriptions of endless days where the sun never sets, majestic mountains in shades of purple and gray, and orca whales diving in azure waters all come together to make some of the most breathtaking imagery I’ve read in a book for a long time. I’ve never really thought of Alaska of being a place that I wanted to visit. At one point while reading The Great Alone, I began looking up Alaskan cruises.

I  had been hearing about Kristin Hannah for a few years now, and this is my first novel by the bestselling author. I immediately knew that I was going to have to read some more of her works. Similar to my first experiences with Kate Morton, Tana French, and Mira Grant, I immediately knew that I had found a new author to add to my “must-read” collection.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Great Alone here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)

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Review #53

 

This graphic novel consists of five eerie short stories, all centered in some way around the woods and the terrors that lie within. Written and illustrated by Emily Carroll, she invites us to take a walk through the woods, but beware of what we may find in the darkness.

I have a strange love affair with the macabre. From the time I was very young, I’ve been drawn to the dark and scary things in life. I’m well versed in the world of horror films, novels, and podcasts, but Through the Woods represents my first foray into the world of horror-themed graphic novels. Needless to say, I’ve been thoroughly hooked. I’m already on the prowl for more graphic novels like this one.

Part of what makes Emily Carroll’s collection of short stories so mesmerizing is that she uses very simple language to convey a sense of dread and suspense. I always feel that horror writers have a tendency to go into too much detail about their various dreadful creatures. This bogs the narrative down and doesn’t leave enough room for that feeling of unease to creep in. Carroll takes inspiration from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. She keeps her sentences short and to the point, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, understanding that a person will always draw the conclusion which they fear the most.

Then there are the illustrations. While the narrative structure of the story was haunting in a subtle and lyrical way, the pictures are genuinely unsettling. I found myself staring at each individual panel for long moments, trying to soak in every single aspect. As a newcomer to the horror genre of graphic novels, I was surprised by how powerful the graphics were at provoking a reaction. I would not have pictured the events of Through the Woods in the same way that there are depicted in Carroll’s illustrations. Reading these stories in graphic novel form was like crawling inside of someone else’s brain for a few hours. The brain of a brilliant and disturbing individual.

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Source

 

If you’re a fan of the horror genre, I would absolutely recommend this book. I am already sad that I had to return it to the library, as I wanted the chance to re-read it and look more closely at the illustrated panels. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for more graphic novels like this one.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Through the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

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Review #47

‘Odysseus then you are, o great contender,
of whom the glittering god with the golden wand
spoke to me ever, and foretold
the black swift ship would carry you from Troy.
Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.

Homer’s Odyssey Book 10, lines 371-77

Circe is one of the lesser known goddesses of the Greek pantheon. The daughter of the Titan Helios and a water nymph, she is best known for her part in aiding Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Author Madeline Miller envisions the life of an immortal who has been condemned to a life of banishment and loneliness after daring to defy her father and choosing to live her life free from the demands of divinity.

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, made my list of the favorite books that I read in 2017. There, she took a few small passages from Homer’s Iliad and turned it into a beautifully written novel about love versus honor. With Circe, Madeline returns to the world of ancient Greece and delves into the history and life of a goddess who, in the words of one character “hates her own divinity”.

Circe is born in the hallowed hall of her father, the Titan Helios who draws his golden chariot across the sky to bring the day. She strives to be an obedient daughter in order to win the affection of her self-absorbed father and her vain mother, the sea nymph Perse. Belittled as the least of his many children, Circe eventually discovers a mystical plant which can change the form of others, and uses it with disastrous results. As punishment, she is banished by Zeus to the lonely island of Aiaia (sometimes spelled Aeaea), condemned to live out the rest of her days in isolation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Madeline Miller’s is the way she takes a relatively throwaway character from antiquity and fleshes them out into a three dimensional person with hopes and goals. In the legend of Odysseus, the story of Circe is minimal, with far larger sections devoted to the slaying of the Cyclops and the seductive song of the sirens. Since the reader is already prepared for his arrival, we eagerly await the moment when Odysseus lands on the shores of Circe’s island. The fact that he is depicted here in quite a different manner as in Homer’s great epic is a delight. I for one always felt Odysseus to be a bit too perfect, he lacked the weaknesses of some of his fellow Greek heroes. Here he is shown as a man who has lost his moral center and is now desperate to return to Ithaca no matter what the cost to his crew.

But this is not the story of Odysseus, this is the story of a sorceress. Circe is an empowering heroine because her humanity shines through despite her immortal status. She yearns for love ,and acceptance, and occasionally bestows her affection on those unworthy of her. She finds a purpose in a world that has ostracized her, and seeks out happiness in whatever circumstances she is given.

For thousands of years the Greek pantheon has held a special place in our collective imaginations, in part because it’s denizens are so wonderfully and terribly human. They lie, cheat, steal, and meddle in the affairs of mortals and non-mortals alike. Madeline Miller weaves Circe’s tale together with the stories of the great Greek heroes. Making an appearance are such celebrated characters as the Minotaur, Daedalus, Scylla, and Ariadne. Even Jason (of the Argonauts) makes a cameo. Miller uses all these interesting and ultimately fallible characters to create a solid world behind the familiar myths.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Circe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. If you are not terribly familiar with the convoluted chaos that is the Greek pantheon, it might help to have a flow chart available while you are reading Circe. Most people are reasonably well acquainted with the Olympians, but how many have ever heard of Glaucus?

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2) by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Review #36

 

Orphaned and ostracized by her community after her encounter with the Bear, Vasilisa Petrovna flees her village. She is now faced with the only two options available to a Russian maiden, allowing her sister to arrange a marriage to a strange noblemen or retiring to a convent. Scorning either, Vasilisa dresses as a boy in the hopes of traveling outside of Russia and seeing the world. But a chance encounter with a group of bandits in the forest finds her in the service of the Crown Prince of Moscow. Now she must carefully guard her secret even as a larger threat begins to loom over the kingdom.

I reviewed the first installment in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, last month and absolutely loved it. Author Katherine Arden created a stunning world of deep winter and deep magic. The heroine Vasilisa was a lovely mixture of vulnerability and defiance. Overall, I was enchanted by the world that Arden wrote and eagerly awaited the second novel in her Winternight trilogy. I was definitely not disappointed.

While The Bear and the Nightingale was a dark and lyrical fairy tale, The Girl in the Tower is a little more plot-driven. Vasilisa Petrovna exits the cold and cloistered village of her childhood and bursts into the wider world with equal parts determination and naivety. This is a girl who considers a tiny mountain town to be a “city” because it has wooden walls. You can imagine her surprise when she is finally presented to the city of Moscow. There are numerous action sequences in this novel, all of which unfold in a straightforward and easy to follow manner. Too many fantasy and fairy tales rely heavily on deux ex machina and surprise plot twists. Katherine Arden avoids all of this.

But Arden also does not stray far what made Nightingale so enchanting. The numerous Russian spirits still play a major role in the proceedings, as do ghosts, frost demons, and one very opinionated horse. Together they form a world that I was excited to revisit and reluctant to leave.

Also, major props go to illustrator Robert Hunt for yet another gorgeous cover design.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Girl in the Tower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Review #30

 

In 13th century Russia, the world is ruled by icy grip of winter. Into this cold and unforgiving world, a young girl named Vasilisa Petrovna is born utterly at home in the forests and snowdrifts around her village. She lives her days roaming the forests against the wishes of her father and her nights curled up listening to the fairy tales spun by her nursemaid. But her life changes forever when two new people show up in her village. The first, her new stepmother Anna, fears and hates the wild streak that runs in her young stepdaughter. The second, a priest named Konstantin, is determined to turn his new flock away from the worship of the old spirits and towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He too is threatened by the defiance and spirit shown by the young Vasilisa. She has also captured the attention of one far more dangerous, a dark figure with piercing blue eyes who becomes bolder as midwinter approaches.

Everyone knows the old platitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well I love judging books by their covers. Especially when the cover is as mysterious and beautiful as Katherine Arden’s debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. When I decide to judge a book by its cover, I generally refuse to read even a short synopsis, so I went into this novel with absolutely zero expectations. Within the first chapter I felt myself entwined and entranced in this dark and romantic fairy tale, so much that I could almost feel the howling winds of Russian winter outside my window.

At its heart, The Bear and the Nightingale is about the struggle between the old ways and the new. In the Middle Ages, as Catholicism slowly but thoroughly steamrollered its way across Europe, how many of the ancient spirits were left to wither in its wake? In this way I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel, American Gods. But while Gaiman deals in the bitterness of those abandoned gods, Arden’s novel instead focusing on their sadness and confusion as they find themselves rejected by those who had left them offerings for generations.

Arden’s prose is dark and lyrical and completely mesmerizing. Her heroine, Vasilisa, is strong and independent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability. She behaves in the only manner she knows how, and is utterly bewildered when people begin to whisper that she is dabbling in witchcraft by continuing to practice the old ways. How can it be witchcraft to hold to the same traditions that her people had held to only years before? I also loved the descriptions of the numerous little sprites and spirits that inhabit Vasilisa’s world. There are spirits that tend the oven, spirits that protect the horses, and so on, all of which have their roots in Russian folklore. Because Vasilisa is the only one who can see these entities (at first) it comes as no surprise that she seeks to aid them when they begin suffering from lack of care.

I would highly recommend this book for any audience. I am greatly anticipating the sequel.

My rating; 5/5

You can find The Bear and the Nightingale here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (2017)

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Review #24

 

Li-yan lives a secluded life in the mountains of southern China. A member of the Akha ethnic minority, the upheavals of the Communist Revolution have left her isolated community relatively untouched, and her people still adhere to the ancient spirits and rituals that have been practiced for generations. But as the modern world begins to encroach on their lives, Li-yan and her family are all affected by the changes that begin sweeping into their quiet village.

I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s work since I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan almost ten years ago. Her novels tend to focus on the lives of Chinese women and the struggles that they undergo, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is no exception. It is a powerful story of the bonds between women and how even under the oppressive thumb of a strictly patriarchal society, women will always find a way to express themselves independently.

I had never heard of the Akha tribe before reading this novel, and I highly recommend that you do a little bit of research into this fascinating minority culture. The Akha managed to remain almost completely ignored by society until the 1990’s. Their belief system is a mixture of ancestor worship and animism, the idea that everything on Earth has its own spirit. Their lives are dominated by religion, omen, and tradition, and can seem incredibly backward to our “modern” sensibilities. During one horrific sequence early in the novel, we find out what happens when “human rejects” are born into the Akha community.

The protagonist of the novel, Li-yan, has been raised to believe the same things that her ancestors have believed for thousands of years. But then something happens that opens her eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. Li-yan goes to school. She learns to speak Mandarin Chinese, which makes her the designated translator when a stranger shows up in their village one day. The stranger is in search of a special kind of tea that can only be found in these isolated mountains, and according to him it is worth a fortune. This one event changes the course of Li-yan’s life. I won’t say anything further, but suffice to say that the repercussions of the tea-buyer reverberate down the years and even across the oceans.

It’s difficult to place a theme to this novel. It’s about the bonds of mothers to their daughters. It’s about the inevitable march of progress and how powerless we are to stop it. It’s about trying to find a sense of belonging in a world that is changing too quickly. One of the reasons I loved this novel so much was that it asked so many different questions, and offered a thousand possible answers in return.

This was yet another knock-out story by Lisa See. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!