Thursday, July 2, 2020

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

From the publisher: When New Yorker Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and quality time with the man she hopes to marry. But Nick has failed to give his girlfriend a few key details. One, that his childhood home looks like a palace; two, that he grew up riding in more private planes than cars; and three, that he just happens to be the country’s most eligible bachelor. On Nick’s arm, Rachel may as well have a target on her back the second she steps off the plane, and soon, her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives, and scheming social climbers.

Things I liked: 

  • I knew almost nothing about the culture and history of Singapore before reading this, and it taught me a lot about something I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Even though there is a lot of greed and backstabbing in the book, it also describes the natural beauty of Singapore, as well as the amazing food and architecture.

  • It is written by someone of the culture portrayed. Kevin Kwan grew up in Singapore and based much of the book off of stories from his own life.

  • The book is written from multiple perspectives, so you get to meet a wide array of different characters and learn their backstories and relationship to the main characters first-hand.

  • It has fun footnotes. Some of the footnotes further explain the history of Singapore or the main characters, and some are just sassy, funny side comments from the author. (If you read the ebook version of Crazy Rich Asians, the footnotes are all at the end of each chapter rather than on every page. Make sure to check them out!)

  • It was the perfect escapist novel for the current times. It was fun to read about the opulence and grandeur of Singapore, and forget about everything going on in the real world for a little while.

 Things I didn’t like as much:

  • While I liked that it’s told from multiple perspectives, this does mean that there are A LOT of characters, and they can be hard to keep track of. Especially since many of them are distantly related, it can be hard to remember who is related to who and how and which rich grandparents are theirs.

  • Having so many characters also means many are not as well-rounded as they could be, which means sometimes their actions or appearances seem random. Specifically Nick’s father, who only shows up once, says very little, and is never seen again, but is talked about often.

  • A lot of name dropping of brand name designers that became over the top, especially since I hadn’t heard of most of them

  • Up in the air ending. Admittedly, this is because the book is part of a series, but I still would have liked to see more loose ends tied up. 

Despite sometimes having a hard time remembering which character was which, this book was fun, glamorous, and funny. I definitely want to read the rest of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems. I also listened to part of the book on audiobook, and would suggest it if you are looking for a good audiobook. The narrator is amazing, and listening helped with pronunciation of some of the names. I would recommend Crazy Rich Asians for anyone looking for a light summer read, or who likes the Gossip Girl series by Cecily Von Ziegesar. 

The Galesburg Public Library owns this book in print format, as well as an ebook and audiobook. There is also a book club kit for Crazy Rich Asians.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

From the publisher: 

"When a hidden prince, a girl with secrets, a ragtag group of unlikely heroes, and a legendary firebird come together…something wicked is going down.

Many years ago, the magical Kingdom of Avalon was left encased in ice when the Snow Queen waged war. Its former citizens are now refugees in a world mostly devoid of magic. Which is why the crown prince and his protectors are stuck in…Arizona.

Prince Alexei, the sole survivor of the Avalon royal family, is hiding in a town so boring, magic doesn’t even work there. Few know his secret identity, but his friend Tala is one of them.

A new hope for their abandoned homeland reignites when a famous creature of legend, the Firebird, appears for the first time in decades. Alex and Tala must unite with a ragtag group of new friends to journey back to Avalon for a showdown that will change the world as they know it."

Tala Warnock lives in a world where not only are fairy tales real, but The Wizard of Oz was based on a true story. While the kingdom of Avalon has fallen, its heir Prince Alexei lives right down the street from her and is one of her best friends. But then that's no accident:  Tala is a Makiling like her mother, a spellbreaker who has the ability to shut down magic in her immediate area... or would, if she could learn how to do it reliably. Helping to protect Alex from the Snow Queen's minions is sort of her job. 

Magic barely works in Invierno, AZ anyway though, so as long as both of them keep a low profile and she keeps Alex's secrets (he's gay, and his kiss can turn people into frogs), they shouldn't have much to worry about. But of course things don't last, and soon they're on the run from ogres, living shadows,  ICE agents, and worse. Can they make it back to Avalon, set things right, and install Alex as the king he was meant to be? Well, you'll have to read it to find out of course!

Wicked As You Wish blends together fairy tales, political intrigue, witty humor, diverse representation, and an unflinching look at modern social issues into a deep and action-packed story. The book draws inspiration not only from fairy tales and stories like Alice in Wonderland but also Filipino culture, world mythology, and important issues like immigration and prejudice. 

This book will appeal to readers who enjoy seeing a new modern twist on fairy tales, especially those looking for something a bit meatier than Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles series. Chupeco drops readers into the thick of things and only explains a bit at a time, so it can take awhile for readers to understand what's going on. But for those who stick around through the detailed setup will find a solidly plotted, action-packed story that promises to only get better in future books.

Wicked As You Wish is available in Galesburg Public Library's Young Adult collection.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Forgotten Hills by Renee Lake

From the publisher: What do you do when you find a centuries-old dead woman in the basement? Come to Forgotten Hills Cemetery and Mortuary and find out! When Thana and her sisters reclaim their ancestral home, they have dreams of making it a thriving business. Little do they know they’ll also be dealing with a curse and a ghost and will uncover a family legend. Together they must expose the secrets buried in Forgotten Hills—without killing anyone in the process.

Things I liked:

  • An Own Voices title
  • Hispanic main character
  • Bi and lesbian representation
  • Engaging story that was easy to read
  • A predictable but satisfactory HEA ending
  • Deliciously creepy rather than graphically horrible

Things I didn't like as much:

  • Some clichéd language (e.g., “She tasted like booze and cranberry, he tasted like…home.” p. 20 of the ARC)
  • Breaking of the fourth wall (e.g, “Thana reached back out to the police and tried to pester Draven again, but both were, excuse the pun, dead ends.” p. 38 of the ARC, and “‘Earth to Thana,’ Lola said, throwing a flower, but let’s be honest, it was really a weed, at her head.” p. 112 of the ARC)
  • Although it is pretty polished, there are areas that would benefit from a good editorial review

Setting aside some predictability and implausibility (really, your family has a curse and you don’t make sure to pass on all the relevant info to your descendants?), this was a fun read that was spooky without being too scary.

I read an advance reader copy of Forgotten Hills from Netgalley. It is available through the Galesburg Public Library as an ebook, and a print copy is on its way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Lost in Tibet: The Untold Story of Five American Airmen, a Doomed Plane, and the Will to Survive by Richard Stark

Cover image for

From the Publisher:                                                          
Caught in a violent storm and blown far off their intended course, five American airmen--flying the dangerous Himalayan supply route known as The Hump - were forced to bail out seconds before their plane ran out of fuel. To their astonishment, they found they had landed in the heart of Tibet. There they had to confront what, to them, seemed a bizarre - even alien - people. At the same time, they had to extricate themselves from the political turmoil that even then was raging around Tibet's right to be independent from China. Lost in Tibet is an extraordinary story of high adventure that sheds light on the remarkable Tibetan people, just at the moment when they were coming to terms with a hostile outside world.

I read this book as part of my Summer Reading Program; it fit one of the categories, it was relatively short at 210 pages, and it was set in a country that fascinated me.  What’s not to like?  It would open another of those little windows onto one of the endless number of individual stories that are always out there hanging around the edges of history.  This is a World War II tale, but not about the usual big battles with well-known names, or about concentration camps or massive bombing.  Instead, it is connected to one of the theaters of the war that we seldom think of—China. 

China was caught up in World War II before it even actually started, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.  So when WWII erupted, China was already in the thick of it and naturally fell in line with the goals of the Allies.  America stationed troops in China.  To keep them and our Chinese allies supplied with food, medicine and ammunition, we sent our pilots and crews on delivery missions from India, flying  over the Himalayas into China.  Although one seldom hears of these soldiers, many lost their lives flying this dangerous route, plagued by dangerous weather and the psychological trauma of following a route littered with the debris of previous crashes.
This book is about five of these young airmen, whose own plane was blown off course and crashed into the side of a mountain in Tibet.  We follow them in the aftermath of their crash in the middle of wilderness, through their experiences with the Tibetans and Chinese, and finally their long trek to the border of India, barely surviving this part of their journey as well.  Throughout, we see how they are used as pawns in the struggle between Tibet and China over Tibet’s independence, which, of course, Tibet ultimately lost.

A fascinating book about a part of the war seldom covered and the politics of the time.  A brief section at the end tells what happened to each of the young men afterward.  Well worth reading!

The Galesburg Public Library has this title at 951.504 STA.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

From the publisher:

A bold and brilliant new indigenous voice in contemporary literature makes her American debut with this kinetic, imaginative, and sensuous fable inspired by the traditional Canadian Métis legend of the Rogarou—a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of native people’s communities.

Joan has been searching for her missing husband, Victor, for nearly a year—ever since that terrible night they’d had their first serious argument hours before he mysteriously vanished. Her Métis family has lived in their tightly knit rural community for generations, but no one keeps the old ways . . . until they have to. That moment has arrived for Joan.

One morning, grieving and severely hungover, Joan hears a shocking sound coming from inside a revival tent in a gritty Walmart parking lot. It is the unmistakable voice of Victor. Drawn inside, she sees him. He has the same face, the same eyes, the same hands, though his hair is much shorter and he's wearing a suit. But he doesn't seem to recognize Joan at all. He insists his name is Eugene Wolff, and that he is a reverend whose mission is to spread the word of Jesus and grow His flock. Yet Joan suspects there is something dark and terrifying within this charismatic preacher who professes to be a man of God . . . something old and very dangerous.

Joan turns to Ajean, an elderly foul-mouthed card shark who is one of the few among her community steeped in the traditions of her people and knowledgeable about their ancient enemies. With the help of the old Métis and her peculiar Johnny-Cash-loving, twelve-year-old nephew Zeus, Joan must find a way to uncover the truth and remind Reverend Wolff who he really is . . . if he really is. Her life, and those of everyone she loves, depends upon it.

Originally published to critical acclaim by Penguin Random House Canada in September of last year, Empire of Wild will be released by HarperCollins Publishers at the end of next month. I've had Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves on my to-be-read list for quite some time and I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of Empire of Wild. And it is spell-binding.

The novel follows Joan of Arcand (which I confess I didn't pick up on until reading another review) as she still mourns and searches for her husband Victor a year after his disappearance. Discovering a man who looks like him, but isn't him sends her on a desperate quest that touches on belief, history, religion, and exploitation. Mythology and folklore are interests of mine, and I was familiar with the rougarou of Cajun legends. I was absolutely delighted to come across an #ownvoices novel dealing with a similar creature from Canada.

You can place The Marrow Thieves on hold for pick up now. Empire of Wild will be available through Galesburg Public Library as a print book, audio book, and on Overdrive on July 28.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

From the publisher: At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin's early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document from the iconic author of If Beale Street Could Talk and Go Tell It on the Mountain. It consists of two "letters," written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.

James Baldwin is cemented in American literary history both on his strength as a fiction writer and on his contributions to cultural discourse, particularly on issues of racial justice and equity. His most enduring document in this discursive arena is The Fire Next Time, a text built on two linked but disparate letters. The first, only roughly ten pages in length, is a letter written to his nephew. In it, Baldwin relies on intimacy, tracing snippets of his family’s history and conveying his most urgent advice to a nephew coming of age as a black man in early 1960s America. He punctuates this brief letter with a heartbreaking and prescient sentiment, deeply felt in our present time, regarding the nature of American race relations. In noting the context for his writing this letter at all, which was the nation’s celebration of 100 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Baldwin laments: “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

His second letter is more measured treatise than personal relation; a carefully crafted assessment of the racial landscape and a thesis on what must change. What makes The Fire Next Time so powerful, in 2020, is the foresight that Baldwin displays, his words often feeling like something that would be written today, within our specific cultural context, rather than something written nearly sixty years ago. But Baldwin’s text is not a revolutionary one in a literal sense – these aren’t the words of Malcolm X or Stokley Carmichael or even Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, Baldwin relies on a deep humanism, attempting to understand both oppressor and oppressed, calling for a radical re-envisioning of our society through a patient empathy. Obviously, in the struggle for Civil Rights, both past and present, there are many disparate philosophies, prominent leaders regularly were and are in disagreement. Why Baldwin’s work is so impressive, then, is that his words here transcend much of the subjectivity and observation that fuels debate, instead attempting to understand the disease rather than the symptoms, and in so doing proving predictive of our current world. In a world so divided, and encouraged in that division, The Fire Next Time is an important text from a writer and thinker of massive heart and intellect, one that avoids extremes in pursuit of absolutely necessary and foundational truths about who we are as people, both individually and collectively, a sermon for anyone willing to listen.

The Galesburg Public Library owns The Fire Next Time as an audiobook and an ebook.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

From the Publisher: For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.

But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?

In her follow up to her 2012 memoir Brain on Fire, Cahalan flexes her journalism muscles and investigates a topic near and dear to her: psychology vs. psychiatry.

In The Great Pretender, Cahalan presents David Rosenhan, a Stanford psychologist who published a psychiatric (the difference between the two becomes an important aspect of the book and story) study that changed the way mental health has been addressed in the United States and much of the world. It may seem like the title of the book gives away the ending, but Cahalan manages to capture your attention and weave Rosenhan’s tale, while incorporating snippets of her own mental health ordeal, and make you want to know every detail. Of particular interest is the chapter on the impacts of Rosenhan’s study on how mental illness is addressed in the criminal justice system.

“It was better to be mentally ill in the 1970s, in the age of lobotomies and Thorazine, that it is today.”

The book is great for lovers of memoirs, medical journalism, or just general narrative non-fiction. Brain on Fire, Cahalan’s memoir of her battle with the medical system, is one of my favorite books, and this follow up does not disappoint.

The Galesburg Public Library owns this book in print format.