Books. Opinions. Good times.

Mambo in Chinatown

mambo in chinatown

by: Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown is a book I picked up at the library when I was browsing after replacing my lost card.  I do a bit of Latin dancing off and on (more off recently) so both the shoes and the name caught my attention.  Then I read the blurb and it said it was about a first generation Chinese American woman who grew up in Chinatown, NYC, and ended up working for a ballroom dance studio. I knew I had to read it.

Charlie Wong, daughter of a Beijing Ballet prima ballerina, feels ungraceful and works as a dishwasher in a noodle shop where her father makes money.  She spends her time supporting her family and trying to help her beautiful, intelligent younger sister, whom Charlie hopes to help to bigger and brighter things.  One day, Charlie, who has always longed to feel beautiful, applies for a job as a receptionist as a ballroom dance studio and gets it.  Working at the studio begins to slowly transform her life, but she worries about her sister, Lisa, who is struggling with an unknown illness that seems to worsen as Charlie’s life improves.

I greatly enjoyed this novel.  It was definitely written for a Western audience and Kwok takes plenty of time to explain Chinese beliefs, attitudes, and traditions for a non-Chinese audience.  She always manages to make it feel very natural to the story, partly because it’s written in first person, so it’s always presented as Charlie musing on what she’s looking at. It’s fairly obvious but never overdone and sprinkled evenly throughout the novel.  I genuinely appreciated it – some things I knew and some things I didn’t, but overall the holistic integration of all the components Charlie talked about make me gain an appreciation for her worldview that I think can be challenging to convey in a novel. Kwok also does a good job of letting the bigger cultural notions speak through the actions of the characters – Charlie’s desire to show proper respect for her father is never dissected but is clearly and understandably demonstrated through her actions and concerns.

Charlie herself is a really wonderful character.  She’s kind and tries her best, but struggles with finding herself and self-esteem issues, making her believably flawed but likable.  Of course, part of her struggle is balancing the Chinese and American cultures she exists in, which Kwok does an excellent job with.  I also appreciate that Kwok includes many other Chinese American women, all of whom are finding their own balance in Chinatown.

I loved her descriptions of dancing – she really manages to capture the essence of twirling across the dance floor.  And the book definitely touched on magical realism as shows Lisa’s illness, with her father trusting traditional Chinese medicine and Charlie wanting to try Western.  I will say, if Kwok writes a magical realism novel, I will definitely read it.

The biggest downside to this book is that the plot line is incredibly predictable.  Now, in a book like this, which I’m reading for escapism and for enjoyment of the characters, that’s not a fatal flaw at all.  But I was able to predict every plot twist and turn that happens straight from the beginning of the novel.  The pacing is good and I really wanted to know what happened next, I just already knew what was going to happen next.

Overall, it was a lovely and introspective light read and if you’re looking for something uplifting, a little different, and kind, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for an unexpected turn, or don’t want your escapism novels to deal with the big evils of the world (there’s one in here, though done well), then, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

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southbound

by: Lucy ad Susan Letcher

 

After reading Wild, which I’ve yet to review (but it’s excellent, go read it) I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the hiker memoir subgenre.   I was shopping for microspikes and ran across this book and had to buy it – barefoot hiking the Appalachian Trail?  I don’t think I wore shoes in any sort of consistent manner until I was in college, so I was immediately hooked.

That being said, I have mixed feelings about this book.  It’s by two sisters, Lucy/Isis and Susan/jackrabbit, who, as I said, decided to hike the Appalachian Trail barefoot after graduating college.  Their biggest motivation, I think, was to take some time to figure out what to do with the rest of their life.  The book flows a little too seamlessly between the two sisters’ point of view – their writing styles are so similar that I often lost track of who was narrating, even though each section had a header stating the name of the narrating sister.

There’s very little introspection in the book – perhaps the sisters didn’t have that much to figure out or perhaps they just didn’t feel like sharing.  But either way, it’s not the close personal narrative that Wild was.

Neither is it a book that really connects you with nature.  They seem to spend as much time off the trail as on, and though I know they narrated some of what they saw on the trail, none of it particularly impacted me.  They do spend a lot of time on the various other hikers they met and interacted with, which I found very amusing and engrossing (with one major exception.)   They also don’t spend much time speaking towards their hiking technique, gear, ect… – they talk about their wood-burning snow and brush on the difficulties/advantages of hiking barefoot but not in any technical depth.

I guess my big question after reading this novel was – what kind of book is it?  It’s neither deeply personal, deeply connected to nature, or a hiker’s novel.   It brushes against all three but doesn’t really settle on anything, which left me wanting more depth in one area or another.   I loved all the narratives of the people they met on the trail – I think that was rather the best part – but given that many of these encounters took place in motels, hostels, and towns on the trail, it seems that the best part of the book isn’t actually about hiking.

That being said, the book itself was engrossing.  I wanted to see what happened next, and I loved hearing about the difficulties and ease of life on the trail. I sped through the book – it’s an easy read, though long – and certainly, I think, it’s worth the time spent reading it if the subject catches your fancy.  I would categorize this as a beach read book – light, fun, easy to get through and very enjoyable.  Sometimes lack of depth – though unexpected here – is exactly what you’re looking for in a book.

The biggest caveat about the book is the winter portion, which focuses on their interaction with a family known as The Family from the North.  This family has been evicted from their homestead in Maine due to tax evasion – the parents are fundamentalist Christians and don’t believe in the government – and are hiking the Appalachian Trail south for, I guess, lack of better options.  (Ironically, the father of this family – while HIKING THE AT – says that he doesn’t pay taxes because he takes nothing from the government.)

While the family is certainly sweet and kind, they – along with the sisters – end up hiking through the worst winter in 19 years, starting in south Virginia and continuing on through the Smokies.  I have spent some time winter hiking, and, while I love it, it’s not a sport I would include my two year old child in.  Or, heck, even my twelve year old child, if it were an extended trek.  Though the sisters highlight the many good characteristics of this family, it’s clear that all four of the children’s educations are being neglected for over a year.  More concerning, the entire family nearly dies in a blizzard, multiple people sustain long-term frostnip-induced injuries, and the children are repeatedly placed in extraordinarily dangerous situations where they survive mainly by luck.

I certainly think that adults should do as they please, and the sisters wanted to brave winter hiking with little training and even less preparation.  That’s fine.  And the parents of the family can do the same.  But risking the children’s lives, from hiking in dangerous weather to a lack of cash to purchase quality winter supplies to not having enough money to buy food (the parents were undernourished, especially the mother) is not something I can agree on, in the sense that there were other, much less dangerous options to deal with the problems presented by poverty.  And while the book doesn’t hide the facts, the sisters definitely choose to emphasize the nature of the family over the reality of their decisions to a very extreme degree.  Unlike Wild, which had frank acknowledgement that Cheryl Strayed did not do enough research and was not prepared and was incredibly lucky, I didn’t get the same sense from this book that the people involved regretted and acknowledged their lack of preparation.

So I can’t really recommend this book to non-hikers, because it’s a lot of escaping preventable situations only by luck and I’m not sure I would want anyone to model their behavior off this.  And I can’t really recommend it to hikers, because I imagine it will make most experienced hikers’ heads’ explode.  So what I will say is that it’s a decent story about the trials of hiking unprepared, and if you read it, you should do so realizing that one would actually need to be much more prepared to hike the AT (or the PCT or anywhere, really.)

The Summer Before the War

the summer before the war

by: Helen Simonson

This was the second book I picked up on my vacation.  I was deliberating between a book set in India (that I decided to check out of the library) and a history of New Zealand (also library) when I saw Helen Simonson’s name.  Simonson wrote Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I absolutely loved, enough so that her name makes a book an automatic buy.

The Summer Before the War is set in the summer before the first world war.  It revolves around Beatrice Nash, the first female Latin teacher ever hired by the town of Rye, near Sussex, England.  Recently arrived back in England after the death of her father (they had been living as ex-pats), she’s determined to make it on her own as an independent, successful woman.  She meets Hugh Grange, a surgeon-in-training whose Aunt Agatha was instrumental in Beatrice’s hiring, and in the idyllic countryside summer, begins a slow and wonderful romance.

I really enjoyed this book! I didn’t love it as much as I did MPLS, but I found the tone to be the same kind of inquisitive sweetness – not cloying, just pleasant without glossing over the awful parts of life.  Most of the book is a romance set against a depiction of a small English village. There’s the small town politics; the beautiful summer days and strolls in the gardens; the festivals and fairs; and the small dramas of village life. There’s quirky characters and good food and an idyllic day or two to imagine yourself in.

There’s also the burgeoning feminist movement and a truthful examination of the difficulties of being a single woman in the early 20th century.  There’s the Romani people, who come every summer and have for hundreds of years, yet face incredible prejudice. There’s two men who, at great cost, hide how they truly feel about each other and two women who quietly hide that their relationship is more than society would ever expect.

All in all, it’s a more complete picture than I would normally suspect.  Somerset manages to create a sweet and peaceful village that has room for the daily sufferings and injustices often ignored in idyllic settings. The inclusion of such people adds to the magic, mostly, I think, because they feel real without adding a “dark, seedy underbelly” tone.  (There is no dark seedy underbelly to Rye.)  Instead, it’s a gentle acknowledgement of all that was happening in the village and makes me feel like I was truly seeing a slice of life, rather than the cherry-picked good parts.  It made the escapism of the novel more complete to me and much more emotionally compelling.

Of course, after the summer, the war does break out (and the book does an excellent job of letting the reader feels it’s looming throughout.)  Somerset actually follows the novel through the beginnings of war-time and this leads us to my main issue with the book.  While the pacing in terms of action/not-action was fine, I wish Somerset had let the book play out over a longer period of time.  Everything happens in a 6-month span and it just seems short for the final emotional growth and realizations of the characters.  The last few chapters are jam-packed with important events and I wanted a bit more temporal space between them.  I liked the plot line, I liked the characters’ responses, but for some reason, I just feel she needed to stretch out her timeline by at least another 6 months, if not a year.

I also feel like some of her main characters were a little too good; they needed just a tad bit more flaws for me to really invest in them.  It was such a small imbalance that I didn’t even notice it until I was done with the book.  But it there, just a little. Hugh, in particular, could have done with an unkind thought or two.

If you’re a fan of idyllic British country villages, or if you like small, sweet stories in the face of adversity, or if you’re interesting in a more inclusive historical fiction, this is definitely a book you should try.  If you’re looking for a perfectly idyllic world with no real troubles at all, if you’re a big fan of flawed main characters, or if you don’t like big thematic shifts in books than this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you.

Emma

Emma

by: Jane Austen

I love rereading books by listening to the audio books but I often struggle to find books narrated by women.  I don’t know why, but there are times when I strongly prefer to listen to a woman’s voice over a man’s and while I have plenty of podcasts that fit the bill, it’s harder for me to find audiobooks.  But I decided, after listening to Pride and Prejudice, that I should continue with my Austen adventure and downloaded Emma.

Emma, is, of course, a classic novel by Jane Austen. Written in Georgian-Regency times (thanks Wikipedia!), it follows the titular character through the perils of matchmaking, romance, and growing up.  My audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who was really excellent. Her voice is elegant and has just the tiniest hint of merriment.

When I first read Emma, I was in early high school.  I only read it the once, so while I knew the plot, I really wasn’t prepared for all the comedy I’d missed the first time around.  I had to stop myself from laughing out loud more than once, and I’m sure that I walked around grinning like a fool while listening.  Austen pokes fun at her characters dryly and deservedly, though kindly.  I missed a lot my first read and I remember thinking the plot dragged a bit.  Now, when I can appreciate the subtle satire and the ridiculousness of the scenes, I didn’t think it dragged at all, even though not much happens in the story.

It’s a cohesive story and solid plot, but what I loved best are the individual scenes that can stand on their own.  My favorite scene involved two rather self-absorbed characters, one quite good-natured, engaged in a conversation where each is determinedly wresting the subject back to their favorite brag every time they speak. I was thoroughly entranced and amused the entire scene – it felt real, funny, and I could definitely think of a few people who it reminded me of!  It could have been taken from the story and read just as a scene and been just as satisfying.

Like all Austen books, some of the references and subtle pokes haven’t aged as well – a very few, but there were times when something was clearly supposed to be obvious and I had no clue what was being referenced.  And, of course, there’s a lot of subtlety and unspoken context going on in the novel, as in any Austen novel.

I will say, the ending did feel like it dragged on a bit and then, when it did end, it felt rather abrupt.  It was particularly noticeable because I was listening to it; I couldn’t start skimming over the last bit after I knew the major problems were resolved.  Austen thoroughly ties up every plot line, perhaps a tad too neatly and leaves the reader completely satisfied.  Her characters are believable and engaging. Overall, despite the more complex language, it’s a great escapism novel.

If you like things to happen in your novel, clear and straightforward writing, or a hot ‘n’ steamy romance, this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you. If, however, you like old-fashioned and sweet stories, you love absurd but realistic humor, or you’re just looking for a book to read in a garden with a glass of wine, then I strongly encourage you to give Emma a read.

Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho

(Longest absence yet! But I’m hoping to post more often.)

I was traveling around on a vacation last week and I ended up buying two books quite randomly at a bookstore. This book caught my eye, partially because of Naomi Norvik’s recommendation on the cover. I read the first page and was hooked.

Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho’s debut novel.  It’s a fantasy set in Regency England. Zacharias Wythe, a young African-British magician, has just become Sorcerer Royale of Britain, much to the dismay of, well, everybody. While attempting to solve the problem of England’s fading magical supply, he meets Prunella Gentlewoman, a half-white (her background is a spoiler) charge of a girl’s school with a mysterious past and many unfeminine traits, also to the dismay, of, well, everybody.  Together, they’ll face fairies, ghosts, and Wodehouse-worthy aunts to get England set right again.

This book is amazing. It’s written in a Jane Austen-esque style, enough to put you in the Austen mindset but with full acknowledgement of the modern audience – less convoluted sentences, more nods to modern day improprieties, and less modest vagueness.  (I had actually just finished listening to Emma when I read this; it was shocking how much it sounded like Austen!) Cho writes with a charming lightheartedness. Despite the Austen-like style, this is an adventurous fantasy.  The plot twist and turns and takes you on a merry romp.  I bought in completely to both the period setting and the fantasy elements; not an easy task!  It was the perfect escapism book; I read a lot of it sitting in an outdoor hot tub in a garden and I couldn’t have picked a more perfect book for the setting.

Without ever deviating from tone or style, Cho directly portrays the racism and sexism the main characters face.  The book never becomes about racism or sexism, but it never loses sight of the characters’ experiences as people of color.  As all great fiction should, it immerses you in the experience of living someone else’s life; Cho does this masterfully.

And yet, every book has its faults.  In particular,  the pacing on this book is just too fast.  I was expecting it to turn into a trilogy or at least a duo due to the number of plotlines that were popping up and the air of importance around so many of them.  I figured one would get tied up in this book and we’d get a nice big clue about the next one, but instead, nearly everything gets resolved.  It was too much for the second half of the book and I wanted things to slow down.  Everything was plotted well, but I needed more time to explore each of the plot elements – at least one more book’s worth of time!

In short, this book is both fantastic and highly original.  If you’re at all into fantasy, but especially if you love the style of Regency romances and fantasy, or if you’ve been on the hunt for something new, great, and unusual, this book is definitely for you.  However, if you’re looking for elaborate world-building, really value pacing in an adventure/action story, or want a deep dive into the social justice issues intrinsic to her choice of main characters, this, sadly, may not be  the book for you.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass

aeronaut's windlass

(Long absence again! Can’t promise anything. But – here’s a post for now!)

So I wasn’t going read Jim Butcher’s latest, because it’s steampunk and steampunk really isn’t my thing.  But my mom bought it for me – she knows I love Butcher’s work and very kindly always preorders his stuff off Amazon for me – and I’m so glad she did.  I wouldn’t have given it a chance otherwise and it’s certainly worth reading!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass takes place in an alternate world, where people live on giant, man-made mountains – Spires-, forever under ceilings that cover all the living space.  They travel from place to place via crystal-powered ships (and wear goggles to protect them from the sun.)  The crystals are powered via ether, a magical presence that flows through the world – very much like the Force. The basic premise is that one of the Spires, which struggles economically, has decided that conquering one of the more prosperous Spires (where the heroes reside) is their path to economic success.

Overall, it’s a really fun and light read.  Pure escapism – I was totally absorbed in the book and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  Like most of Butcher’s work, it’s fast-paced with lots of action and a multifaceted plot.  There’s strong hints of plot points that I’m wildly curious about – Butcher introduces a lot and gives a strong base for further books and intrigue – but I know that we can depend on him to follow through and incorporate everything in future books.  I’m super excited about the next book in the series!

In the Dresden Files, Butcher has a definite tendency towards info-dumping, but here it’s actually handled quite well – he reveals things very naturally and the reader has the enjoyable job of puzzling together how the world works.  There are about ten different viewpoints he switches between – maybe more?  Some of them are much more heavily emphasized than others, but though Butcher does it well, if multiple viewpoints are not your thing, this is not your book.  (It’s in third person, not first, if that’s influential.)

My biggest critique is that it’s so fast paced and switches between so many viewpoints that I don’t feel the characters were developed as much as I would’ve liked.   The hardcover was probably 700 pages, so there was a lot of room for worldbuilding and plot development – and the multiple characters’ viewpoints all wound together seamlessly to provide a cohesive plot.  But because there were so many characters, and because Butcher is aiming to develop complex characters with room for growth, there wasn’t quite enough room for character development at the level that I would’ve liked.

That being said, I did enjoy the characters very much! There’s a fair number of female characters, now that I think about it, and they all have important roles to play.  Most importantly, all of the characters whose viewpoint we used were complex and interesting, if not explored in depth.  I want to know their backstory, or see how they develop, or both!  Though a few of the secondary characters tend towards the archetypes – the villains, for instance, are chilling but not terribly original – it’s forgivable in the context of the main characters.

Most of the main characters are late teens, early twenties.  They have a wide variety of strengths and interests and I like that they have lots of room for growth without it actually being a coming-of-age story – the focus is how all the characters weave together, not the growth of one particular character.  Also, in contrast to his previous two series, there is no “Chosen One” (either obvious or implied) in the story and very little room for one to develop. I’m a bit worn out on the chosen character stories, so it’s a nice relief!

My favorite character by far is Captain Grimm, one of the main-main characters.  He’s captain of the Predator, a mysteriously overpowered ship that’s the fastest in the sky.  He’s a good man – not a conflicted good man, but someone who does the right thing because of conviction – but isn’t boring or particularly stereotypical. He longs for freedom, but is not willing to pay any price for it.  Butcher alludes to a mysterious, semi-tragic backstory that I presume will be revealed in the next book or two.

Overall, if you’re into sci-fi/fantasty/steampunk escapism, good world-building, and fast-paced action-packed stories, this is definitely a book I would recommend!  If you’re looking for a deep, introspective read, an in-depth character study, or a totally new take on the sci-fi/steampunk world, this, sadly, probably isn’t your read.