Book Review: Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

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Review 2.34

*this review contains spoilers*

I just finished this book about ten minutes ago, it’s 1:02 am, and I’ve had two (*cough* three) glasses of wine, but I just had to drag my tired ass over to my computer because I’m legit annoyed and I can’t quite determine why.

Except I do know why.

Kristin Hannah Stepmomed out on me.

I just invented this phrase, so allow me a moment to explain. When I was young, one of my mother’s favorite movies was Stepmom, a 1998 drama starring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. If you don’t remember it, don’t worry. It was an emotionally manipulative tearjerker.

Just like this book.

In the film, Julia Roberts is a young hot-shot somethingorother who is dating some random male who is utterly unimportant to the story except as a plot device for drama. His former wife, Susan Sarandon, is super jealous of Julia Roberts and her shark-smile and the kids are acting out and blah blah blah none of this is really important at all except at some point all hatred and jealousy and teenage rebellion grinds to a screeching halt because of one terrible word…

I’d spell it out, but you can probably guess.

Please don’t take this to mean that I am belittling cancer victims, cancer survivors, their families, or the scientific and medical community; everyone that has been battling this disease with unending hope and bravery and fervor. Or that I mean to disparage the author, who lost her own mother to cancer. I lost my own grandmother this previous summer, and am still reeling from the loss.

I just didn’t like how it was addressed in this book. It felt shoehorned in.

I spent four hundred and fifty pages with Tully and Kate. I got to know them, got to love them. I was heavily invested in their friendship, which felt real and visceral in a way that female friendships are rarely depicted.

And then in the last thirty pages…cancer.

I don’t know why, but it cheapened the entire experience for me. I get that Hannah has felt the personal grief of the disease and wanted to share that with her readers, but it came so late in the game that it felt more like a plot device than a genuine moment in the narrative arc.

Maybe that’s just a horribly cynical thought. If so, sorry? I guess? I don’t know.

I’ve read a lot of really amazing books that deal with cancer and grief and loss. This book was not one of them. It is; however, an amazing portrayal of the lasting power of female friendship and I applaud Firefly Lane for that accomplishment.

Despite the turn towards high melodramatics, the ending was genuinely affecting and well written. This can be judged by the fact that it’s now 1:25 in the morning and I’m still here writing about it. Also, I cried so much I’ll have to put cold spoons on my eyes in the morning. *helpful hint – this reduces swelling and puffiness!*

My rating: 4.5/5 (any book that forces me to face the next day on less than five hours of sleep deserves that much)

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

 

Does Peter Pan Stand the Test of Time?

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Review 2.33

I would be genuinely surprised if there was a child in North America who was not at least passingly familiar with the story of Peter Pan. The enduring quality of the children’s story has led to dozens of film and television adaptations, literary analyses, and reinterpretations over the past century.

I have read and reviewed at least two fairy-tale reimaginings for this website, Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and, more recently, Jodie Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily. I truly enjoyed that latest novel, but it made me realize that I’d never actually read J. M. Barrie’s original source material. So I downloaded the audiobook and got to work.

It is almost impossible to separate our collective understanding of the Peter Pan legend from Barrie’s novel (which was originally written as a play). I will, however; try to focus on the character’s as they are presented in the book, and not how they have been portrayed over the years.

This isn’t even so much a book review as it is a look back to see how the original source material has held up over time. Because let’s be honest, there is a magical timelessness about Peter Pan that has captivated generations of children.

And then there some things that definitely have not stood the test of time.

I would have laughed out loud at the British imperialist attitude that pervades this novel if it weren’t quite so alarming. In some ways, the constant references to “the might of Brittannia” or “King and country” were quaint and almost charming.

But then Barrie spends nearly an entire chapter detailing the ways in which the “red savages” are simply inferior to the white man. There are constant references to the Native Americans as “redskins” or “pickaninnies”. They refer to Peter as their “Great White Father”.

It’s an example of racism that is so startlingly casual it almost makes you understand how the 1953 Disney cartoon adaptation thought it would be okay to include songs such as “What Makes the Red Man Red?” *Note – the movie somehow manages to top the book in terms of blatant stereotyping*

I also have a huge problem with Wendy.

She’s such a fucking sissy.

And I get it. This book was originally published in 1911, when women were kind of expected to be sissies. Wendy’s entire personality is sweet, motherly, and ladylike. That’s all she is, and she has nothing in the way of a character arc. She idolizes and worships Peter as the ruling “father” figure, and caters to his every whim. It is such an outdated portrayal of a young girl that I had to constantly remind myself while I was reading that it is literally antique. If anyone ever suggests that the past one hundred years of feminism hasn’t accomplished very much, I’ll show them this book.

With all of this in mind, would I recommend this book to parents?

Absolutely.

I’ve always been of the mind that reading changes the world for the better far more often than it changes it for the worse. Sweeping the bigoted mindset of the past under the rug isn’t the way to go. Instead, parents could use Peter Pan as a way to start a conversation about how ideas have changed over the past century, and why some people used to think in ways that were and are highly offensive.

Also, the more troublesome aspects of Barrie’s novel are but a fraction of the book as a whole. The excitement and adventure of Neverland is still there, as are the wonderfully silly lost boys, the pirates, and of course Peter himself.

I was personally glad I finally got around to reading the book.

My rating: 3.5/5

* Note: I read an unabridged copy of Peter Pan, which I believe contains a lot more offensive language than the one that is traditionally marketed to small children*

 

Book Review: And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich

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Review 3.34

 

When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too—questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at night… a man no one else can see? [Source]

This novel was all style and no substance. I absolutely loved the visual form of this book. Words shrink and grow, they prance gleefully about the pages in a way that is wildly immersive. It creates a surreal atmosphere where the reader knows that nothing is ever quite what it seems. It was very effective at providing an appropriately spooky mood.

Except when it wasn’t. During the periods when Dawn Kurtagich’s novel is forced to play it straight and actually explain itself, it falls apart. Ultimately, this was a book of elaborate tricks hung upon the thinnest of coat-hanger plots. It’s difficult to pull of a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative for any long duration, and this is where And the Trees Crept In meets its downfall. The uncertain, dreamlike state that pervades this book makes it difficult to know what is real and what is not. This is a frequently used tool in the horror/thriller genre, but it has to be backed up by a story that is at least somewhat logical. Early chapters echo legendary short horror pieces such as The Yellow Wallpaper, but then neglect to devote the necessary time towards character development or a coherent storyline.

The central protagonist, Silla, is almost painfully static throughout the course of the novel. She begins the book in a haze of pain and hunger and anger, and that pain and hunger and anger are the only thing that motivate her through the next two hundred pages. There are occasional scenes with a oddly shoehorned love interest that feel forced, but then it’s right back to anger and obsession and constant, repetitive focus on trees.

Overall, And the Trees Crept In was very hit-and-miss. The ultimate explanation for the horrors visiting the sprawling manor home was both obvious and cliche. I enjoyed the middle third of the book the most, and again the visual style was really interesting, but ultimately that isn’t enough for me to recommend the novel.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find And the Trees Crept In here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.32

 

**contains minor spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend**

The final installment in any trilogy has a lot to live up to. Over the course of two novels, author Kevin Kwan has created a fantastic, opulent, fast-paced, and ultimately charming universe for his increasingly large cast of characters. Now he has to find a satisfying conclusion for all of them.

While RPP doesn’t have the breathless originality of the first novel, it definitely manages to rise above China Rich Girlfriend in terms of plot development. Things begin happening very quickly from the beginning of this book, and from page one I was sucked right back in to the complicated, extravagant lives of the Young/Shang/Leong family.

Rich People Problems does one thing right from the very start. It recognizes that Rachel Chu, the main protagonist from Crazy Rich Asians, has more-or-less played her role as the naive observer. She is largely absent from the bulk of the novel and, due to her complete lack of personality, is hardly missed. This allows Kwan to focus more of his time and attention on more interesting characters such as Astrid, Kitty, and Shang Su Yi, Nick’s grandmother.

The bulk of the plot is focuses on Su Yi, clan matriarch and the current owner of Tysersall Park, the family’s palatial Singapore estate, as she begins plans to draw up her last will and testament. And if the first two books gave us an insight into the behavior of wealthy people at the best of times, woah buddy just wait until a possible inheritance is thrown into the mix. There is also a very Godfather-esque feel to parts of the narrative, as the reader learns more about Su Yi’s danger-riddled youth under Japanese occupation.

Kwan seems to have learned from some of the mistakes of China Rich Girlfriend, and I was glad to see that the obnoxious label-dropping at dropped off to a reasonable amount. That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous glittering descriptions of the splendor surrounding these characters; Kwan knows his readers and continues to embrace the rampant materialism of the first two books. It’s just that this time none of this stands in the way of actual plot development.

It took me almost five years to get around to reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, and once I began it took me less than two weeks to read all three novels. Afterwards, I was consumed by that strange empty feeling that true readers occasionally experience. It’s that weird kind of bittersweet melancholy, because on one hand I had so much fun spending time in Kwan’s world, but it’s mixed with sadness because never again will I be able to enjoy these books for the first time.

I highly recommend the series.

My rating: 4.5/5  (5/5 for Crazy Rich Asians as a complete series)

You can find Rich People Problems here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.31

 

**contains mild spoilers**

Being the second novel in a trilogy is a thankless task. The freshness and originality of the first installment has worn off, and the author needs to lay groundwork and build exposition before the final chapter can answer all the open questions. This is why for so many trilogies, both in literature and film, the second chapter is the weakest of the three.

China Rich Girlfriend sadly falls into this “middle child” sinkhole; it gets bogged down trying to resolve all of the plotlines from the first novel while introducing all the people that will become more important in the finale. That isn’t to say that Kevin Kwan’s second novel isn’t fun; it definitely is. But there’s something missing.

For one thing, there are a lot of new characters to acquaint ourselves with. Having just managed to gain a general understanding of the complicated Shang/Leong/Young/ family tree, now the reader must also get to know Rachel’s newly-found extended family (this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed in the prologue) as well as an absolute entourage of new supporting characters.

Perhaps it is that the “label-dropping” reaches a saturation point in China Rich Girlfriend, though it’s possible that someone who actually knew something about fashion would heartily disagree*. The numerous descriptions of luxurious locations gets a bit ridiculous as well; at one point the male protagonist Nicholas Young notices that a yacht’s barstools were upholstered in “genuine whale foreskin” and I actually burst out laughing. Also, turns out that’s a real thing that actually exists in the world.

China Rich Girlfriend also does an incredibly efficient job of tidying up all of the unresolved plotlines from Crazy Rich Asians. The enmity between Rachel and Eleanor Young is swept away in the first fifty pages as if it never really mattered and is never again mentioned in any real capacity. Considering that I just spent four hundred pages watching Eleanor systematically destroy Rachel’s life, this easy resolution was unsatisfying.

Things aren’t all bad, and Kwan’s delight at bringing this secretive and showy world to life is both obvious and infectious. At the very least, I think we can all agree that no matter what happens to Nick and Rachel (who remain almost painfully milquetoast) it is Astrid who truly deserves her happy ending.

My rating: 4/5

You can find China Rich Girlfriend here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

*full disclosure-my annual clothing budget is somewhere in the range of seventy-five dollars

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.30

I’ve been putting off writing this review for ages, because I can’t think of the best way to describe Kevin Kwan’s debut bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians. There’s been a ton of hype around this book since it was released in 2013, and it’s already been adapted into a film starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding.

So what can I say that hasn’t been said by a thousand readers and reviewers before me? Not much really. But I can say it again, and in slightly different words. What fun!

Speaking of fun, Crazy Rich Asians was a runaway bestseller for a reason; it’s pure unadulterated escapist fun. Instead of trying to avoid all of the cliches associated with the “chick-lit”* genre, it revels in them. At one point, a character literally pulls out an unlimited AmEx card and utters the words, “This is a fashion emergency!” (or some paraphrase thereof).

Crazy Rich Asians is shamelessly capitalist, and I spent the entire novel in a weird swirl of awe and envy that was nonetheless highly enjoyable. The name-dropping and label-obsession went completely over my head most of the time, but it was certainly an education  For example, I had no idea that “Hermes-orange” was its own color.

The thing that really sets this book apart from the myriads of forgettable chick-lit is that it is also opened my eyes to a culture I previously didn’t know much about and will, in all likelihood, never experience. I imagine this novel will do wonders for the Singaporean tourist industry, already a huge part of their economy. Personally, the numerous descriptions of delicious Hokkien street food were enough to have me poking into flights.

The central plot of Crazy Rich Asians is breathless, exciting, silly, and self-indulgent. The central character, Rachel Wu, isn’t terribly interesting at all and serves mainly as our introduction to this world of extravagant wealth. The bustling, busying, nosying, prying members of the Young family are the highlight of the book, and rarely have I enjoyed soap-opera-esque plot developments so much.

I loved spending time in Kevin Kwan’s world of extreme opulence and backstabbing family members. I also feel like I learned a lot about a culture completely different from my own, which is always a good time.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Crazy Rich Asians here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

** Personally, I find this term odious but it is a highly-effective description of the genre.

Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien

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Review 2.28

 

In the tradition of The Glass Castle and A Child Called It, this memoir by Maude Julien is filled with such heartbreaking and harrowing detail that on more than one occasion I had to put it down and walk away. How such people come to abuse their children, and how such children find the strength to survive, are questions often explored in autobiographies and memoirs. But not since Tara Westover’s Educated, which I read and reviewed last year, have I encountered two people less deserving of the word “parent”.

It is obvious from the beginning chapters of The Only Girl in the World that Maude’s father is severely mentally ill. Of course that is just a polite term for “bleeding batshit crazy”, which is closer to the actual definition of Monsieur Julien’s affliction. Years before his daughter was born, he “adopted” a five year old girl from a family that was unable to provide for her. This young girl was groomed in the worst possible sentence of the world; she was indoctrinated to believe that her purpose on Earth was to bear a daughter for her adopted father. She went on to marry Mr. Julien, and bore his child in 1952.

This was a hard read. The entire stomach-twisting saga is narrated in a matter-of-fact manner, as if such things are standard practice. Sadly, the child abuse seen in the introduction it is but the merest inkling of the horrors to come. From the time she was able to walk and speak, Maude Julien was isolated away from the rest of the world in a manor home in Northern France where she was subjected to torture, molestation, starvation, sleep-deprivation, and a childhood deprived of love and affection from any other human.

Thankfully, Maude was born with a deep sense of compassion. Her love for animals and her connection to nature offered some consolation from the rigors of daily life. The second half of the memoir, in which Maude begins engaging in defiance and plans for escape, are much easier to read than the first half. The countless scenes of a small girl being treated with such cruel neglect were often too much, especially combined the rather deadpan narrative work by Elisabeth Rodgers in the audiobook edition. As I said earlier, I often had to pause and resume the story at a later time.

One thing that remains unexplained in The Only Girl in the World is exactly who was Monsieur Julien? With enough money it is said that one is never crazy, only eccentric, and that must have been the only thing keeping him from a mental asylum. But where he was getting all of this money from is never fully explained. I would have liked a little more detail on exactly how someone comes to the belief that their urine has magical properties, but it is more likely that the author simply doesn’t know.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Only Girl in the World here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers and is available here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

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Review 2.27

 

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime. [Source]

Emma in the Night is one of those purely innocuous novels that is perfect for a long airport layover. Between its relatively slim pages is a story that is fast-paced, entertaining, and entirely forgettable. I finished this book three days ago, and I had to read the Goodreads synopsis to remember much of the plot.

Describing this novel by Wendy Walker as forgettable sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant as such. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down a read a book that doesn’t require your full concentration. It does; however, make writing a review more difficult because there isn’t much to say beyond, “Yeah I read that.”

The dysfunctional family relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of Emma in the Night. Walker explores the concepts of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder as they relate to the bonds between the women of the Tanner family. We are told about the psychological strain of growing up in a household ruled over by a manipulative and controlling parent, and how that often triggers a cycle of mental illness and abuse.

I liked that Walker resisted the urge to split her timeline, instead keeping the story in the present tense and delivering important exposition via conversations between Cass and the police. While this does create a distance between the reader and the protagonist, it also avoids the cliche of having constant flashbacks which add nothing to the overall narrative. When the final twist came, as final twists inevitably do in the thriller genre, it didn’t feel like a cheat. Which is high praise from a reader who is thoroughly fed up with unnecessary plot twists.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Emma in the Night here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Wendy Walker’s debut novel, All is Not Forgotten, was reviewed for this website by none other than my momma! Check it out here.

Happy reading everyone!