All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (Audio Book — Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

Ky Tran comes back to the violent, drug ridden, largely Vietnamese / Chinese Sydney suburb of Cabramatta when her relatively nerdy, honor student, brother is brutally murdered at a post graduation party. The witnesses won’t talk, the police don’t care, and her parents haven’t the language skills or the will to pursue the matter. Ky tackles the witnesses — most of whom she knows — unable to let the matter rest. The novel structure fills in background, the story each witness reluctantly lets out, and the real story each remembers about while curating what comes out of their mouth. The path of disclosure winds towards a confrontation with Minnie — the best friend Ky hasn’t spoken to in years.

The writing is good and the main reader for the audio book is excellent (I did not love the two minor readers but they only appear once each for a relatively short time). I appreciated the in-depth descriptions of different approaches taken by members of a refugee community trying to make a life in a new country that doesn’t necessarily want them. Insightful commentary on loyalty, friendship, family, justice, and the concept of “being good.”

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 13th, 2022.

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee (Literary fiction / Audio book)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

Casey Han — the daughter of Korean immigrants in Queens — craves a wealthy lifestyle she cannot afford, having been exposed to such while on a scholarship to Princeton. She craves “beauty and the illusion of a better life.” Casey balances pride, deeply embedded family traditions, and her emerging sense of self as she struggles to grow up and be the person she is slowly determining that she wants to be. While we follow Casey from graduation through the next five (or so) years, we are also treated to the developing stories of women who are important to her: her mother, a mentor, an acquaintance who rescues her and turns into a close friend. Rather than following a narrative arc, this book seems to follow a Life Arc — twisting and turning with sometimes rapid and surprising (to us and to Casey) shifts. The first novel by the author of Pachinko, you’ll recognize the style and treatment, while this book focuses on a Korean-American family and Pachinko is focused on 20th century Korea.

Although only covering a few years, this book felt epic because of its size and incredible depth. The characters are far too detailed and deeply introspective to even hint at stereotypes. Psychological analysis, philosophical musings, and cultural context (somehow never the same for any two people) help move the inner story along while the external story is utterly unpredictable.

The prose is beautiful, detailed, and rich. I love the way the author repeatedly and seamlessly contrasts the inner deliberations of each character with how his or her behavior appears to others. We are led through the minutiae of multiple lives that rarely go in the expected direction, but make do with the many, realistic tangents that comprise a life (regardless of any planning!). I appreciated the many domains that were brought to life by Casey’s experiences: investment banking and trading, millinery and fashion, church and faith, weddings, antiquarian books, and probably several others that I can no longer remember.

There were so many good quotes, but I listened to most of it as an audio book while driving and couldn’t write down a single one. 😦

My Seven Black Fathers by Will Jawando (Memoir)

Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando’s memoir of growing up with an absent Black Nigerian father and a white mother is well-written, measured and thoughtful, with constant fresh insights along the way. I loved the overall theme of the book — rather than considering himself a boy raised without a father, he considers himself as having seven fathers — Black men who took the time to teach him how to be a man by mentoring him, serving as role models, and generally giving him the love, attention, and advice he needed. Eventually, this even led to a loving reconciliation with his biological father.

He honestly made me see mentoring in a new light — how mentoring can literally help someone by exposing them to aspects of life that many of us take for granted. How else can a fatherless boy learn to be a man (or a motherless girl learn to be a woman, or an immigrant learn how to be a citizen of a new country, etc.)? I’ve read a number of books recently about children growing up in some of the more gang ridden areas of the country, with very few fathers present. Why wouldn’t they grow up modeling on the adult men available to them — gang members?

Jawando speaks intelligently about issues — not in slogans — and while racism is a factor in the story, it is just one factor of his experience, not the lens through which the whole story is filtered. He did occasionally make unsubstantiated generalizations based on his interpretation of personal experiences, but not very often, and more often referenced studies showing the broader sociological impact of various things he personally saw or experienced on a personal scale.

It would be hard not to immediately think of Obama’s first book — Dreams from My Father — while reading this. There are many parallels between them (both had African fathers, white mothers from Kansas, and wives named Michel(l)e and in fact, Obama is one of Jawando’s “fathers” based on the time Jawando worked on his staff.

Interesting, inspiring, accessible, and with real depth — definitely worth reading.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 3rd, 2022.

Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe (Fiction — Audio book)

Summer 1999 — the Robert Taylor Homes (aka the Projects) on State Street on the South Side of Chicago. 12-year old Felicia (Fefe) is happy jumping rope on the third floor porch with her three friends: Precious, the daughter of a pastor; Stacia, member of the notorious, gang-affiliated, Buchanan family; and newcomer Tanya, the ultra-timid, obviously neglected daughter of a crackhead on the 10th floor. Everything changes during this fateful summer: The Chicago Housing Authority is demolishing all of the Project buildings on State Street, and theirs is slated to go next; her brother, Meechee, is taken by the police in the middle of the night in a warrantless raid; random gunfire becomes more frequent; and Stacia begins to favor the family business over jumping rope.

Labeled a novel, the story reads like a memoir, and it would be easy to believe that much of the story comes from the author’s personal experience as she was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes in this time period. The writing is excellent (I have no quotes as I listened to it on audio), and the reader is absolutely excellent — perfect pacing, differentiated and consistent voices for the multiple characters, and beautifully timbre in her voice. Told in the first person from Fefe’s perspective, we follow her through that summer and then on through her life for the next twenty years, giving her an opportunity to revisit the turning point that summer was and to get closure on some of the events. It’s a gritty and truthful telling with added introspective commentary as Fefe comes of age in the midst of gangs, police crackdowns, drugs, single mothers on the one hand, and a strong community, loving family, and supportive clergy, teachers, and neighbors on the other. I love the advice she is given, the wide array of people from whom she gets it, and what she does with it. Fefe is a success story — she gets out of the Projects and finds her vocation in helping others — unlike some of the friends she had who do not have some of the same advantages offseting the meanness, cruelty, and unfairness of the environment.

This is a coming-of-age story, not a political treatise. Her conclusion near the very end is that “We are not the originator of our misfortunes — we are all the victims of it.” Her point: people do what they have to do to survive. I would have been a little happier with some ideas on what creates these misfortunes and how everyone — including those who live amidst it — could contribute to making it better.

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 14th, 2022.

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang (Audio Book – Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

Fine Chao Restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin, serves mouthwatering Chinese food to the local Chinese American community. While the jacket blurb promises us the dead body of the patriarch and all around not-very-nice-guy, this doesn’t appear until roughly half way through the book. In the meantime, we are introduced to his three sons (Dagou, the brash head chef; Ming, a financial success overcome with self-hatred; and James, home from college for Christmas) along with Katherine, a stubborn but no longer wanted fiancee, and an entire community struggling to define itself in an environment that is not exactly hostile, but isn’t exactly welcoming either.

I listened to this on audio so had more trouble taking notes and identifying quotes. The writing is very good — with an excellent vocabulary and the ability to tease out individual personalities and issues for each of the distinct characters (even the dog!). The racially based and often insidious experiences of each character was felt and reacted to differently for a more subtle and (IMHO) realistic portrayal. I found the book deeply interesting, but not nearly as comic as the marketing blurb suggested. I’m honestly confused about why it is billed as a comedy (I have a hard time laughing at other people’s problems unless they themselves are making a joke of it). I also found it less tense than I expected (which is a plus, as who needs more tension in their life?). I was impressed that the book didn’t resolve in anything even approaching a formulaic way — another big plus!

In summary — definitely worth reading, more family drama than mystery, stereotype busting, and full of character depth.

Thank you to RB Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on February 11th, 2022.

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner (Memoir)

Incredibly well-written memoir by prize winning journalist Dawn Turner. I listened to this on audio books, and the reader — Janina Edwards — was fabulous. I’m not an audio book fan, but it’s hard for me to imagine this book without her voice.

The memoir covers Turner’s life from her earliest memories (late sixties) to the present. Her experiences shaped her lifelong passion for exploring and understanding how people manage to change their lives — a theme that pervaded her journalistic career. The titular “three girls” refers to herself, her younger sister Kim, and her childhood best friend, Deborah, who lived in the apartment literally right above her. While Turner stuck to the straight and narrow path of good behavior, education, and vocation, Kim and Deborah made a different set of life decisions leading one to an unnecessary early grave and the other to a long prison sentence. But while this could be seen as a morality tale, that is not Turner’s intention or focus. She is far more focused on who gets second chances and who is able to make the most of them. Some of the stories she tells in her columns are both inspiring and helped me have a better understanding of the different individuals who find themselves (due to whatever set of circumstances and bad choices) at rock bottom and what some manage to do about it. I was a little disappointed that the book did not address why some people make bad choices when presented with the same opportunities as those who don’t — all three of our Bronzeville girls grew up with strong and supportive families and educational opportunities — what happened? However, Turner’s focus is on the other side — once someone is far off their chosen path, what can they do to redeem themselves and get back onto a more positive track — regardless of how impossible it may seem.

This book was full of exquisitely written and deeply meaningful quotes — I wish I had been able to capture and share them, but unfortunately that is one downside of listening to, rather than, reading a good book! Not easy to highlight!

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow (Fiction / Multi-cultural interest)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

The story covers 70 years in the lives of a family in Memphis ranging from 1937 through 2001. Sisters August and Miriam, their mother Hazel, and Miriam’s daughter Joan are the voices that tell the story with date labeled chapters that jump back and forth across time (which can be confusing — I had to take careful notes). The book is written in a highly emotional style, guaranteed to make you angry at the injustice and hardships these women must suffer through.

I believe this is intended to be a positive novel about the tight knit Black community of women who pull together and give each other strength when needed — and I loved these women characters and would have loved to be a part of the community. But the other side of the coin is that the book is strongly anti-man and pretty anti-white as well. The big sign in August’s hair shop is “NO CHILDREN, NO MEN, & WE EAT WHITE FOLK HERE.” It’s not really a joke.

Through the generations, everything bad possible happens to this family including a child rape, multiple instances of domestic abuse, and lynching. It reinforces negative stereotypes of current Black culture — single mothers and abusive, violent men. The one decent man in the history was lynched, with the strong implication being that he was lynched by his white colleagues (he had made homicide detective — the first Black man in the area to do so). The author took every opportunity to blame whites or men for everything that went wrong, without considering any errors of judgement made by the women. And while she gave each of the violent black men a backstory that might explain their violence, she gave them no path to rehabilitation and completely exonerated the women who may have contributed to their “badness,” whether intentionally or not.

In summary, the story was gripping but I found the writing overly dramatic, manipulative, and full of good messages (be strong, be independent) based on the wrong (IMHO) reasoning. I’m all in favor of women being independent because everyone should be able to take care of themselves — this is not a safe or uniformly just world — but they shouldn’t need to be independent because men are uniformly violent, bad, and untrustworthy.

I know a lot of people love these emotionally heavy-handed books. For me, however, it is too easy to absorb strong, negative, messages without a more nuanced treatment. No, there is no amount of nuance that makes lynching or domestic violence OK, but there are a lot of good men (black and white) out there and lots of good white people, too. Do we really need to fan the flames of racism and sexism (in reverse) by ascribing horrible behavior to every person who appears to be male and / or white? I found the book disturbing — not just for the content (which was disturbing enough!) but for the incendiary way that Black men and all white people (except one nice Jewish store owner!) were painted as irreedemably and unquestionably bad.

Thank you to Random House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on March 1st, 2022.

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi (YA / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Bitter is a quiet, wary, girl who has found a haven in Eucalyptus — a school for artists that is safe from the violence that pervades the town of Lucille. After a harrowing childhood spent in horrific foster homes, Bitter needs this feeling of safety to be able to function. Many of her friends are part of Assata, a group that is willing to use violent means to finally bring justice to Lucille. She is afraid to join, but also feels guilty that she cannot. After one of her close friends is intentionally maimed during a protest, her anger rises and she intentionally uses her blood to call forth a creature she has painted with the intent of Vengeance.

This is a prequel to her last book, Pet, telling the story of Bitter’s first discovery that she can call forth “Angels” from her paintings to help combat the “Monsters” that live in the town of Lucille. In the last book, it is Bitter’s daughter, Jam, who bring the picture to life. You can see my review of that book here: https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2019/08/19/pet-by-akwaeke-emezi-ya/.

Emezi’s writing is always hypnotic — her characters, surroundings, and passion are completely gripping. This book is more political than her last book, and I have a small problem with some of it. She includes the requisite LGBQT characters and does a good job of blending everyone together into a “no big deal” community; she also has a character in a wheelchair who turns down an offer of healing because he already knows he is “whole.” However, I’m not thrilled at her overly simplistic portrayal of all “rich” people being the “monsters,” and Assata feels like a thinly disguised Antifa to me (I am not a fan). Given that the book is geared towards young people who don’t yet have a lot of experience in the world, I would prefer a more balanced depiction of the world with a set of more specific injustices against which they are fighting.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 15th, 2022.

Maud’s line by Margaret Verble (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

This is a beautifully written, character-driven story of Maud, a young woman coming of age in Eastern Oklahoma in 1926 on an allotment parceled out to the Cherokee when their land was confiscated for Oklahoma statehood. It is a hard life, filled with violence, dirt, and hardship but also with family and love. When she meets a white peddler whose cart is full of (among other things) books, she sees a chance to escape her lot.

I love the characters in this book — Maud, her sensitive brother Lovely, and her bundles of relatives — all working to survive in this hardscrabble land. Maud’s voice is clear, compelling, and foreign. This chronicle of life is eye-opening and feels utterly real. There are no ridiculous plot devices and no political agenda — just a richly depicted existence with all the nooks and crannies of both an internal life lived among external circumstances.

This was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2016 (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen won). While I have not read the winner, I would have been very happy to see Maud’s Line win.

Some quotes:

Quotes:
“She liked books, learning, and clean things. She liked folks being nice to one another. But most of all, she wanted to live in a place where people died of natural causes when they were old and were dressed up in suits and laud down in wooden boxes.”

“Maud began to feel a growing hatred for who she was and where she lived. She was sick to death of dirt, sick of dead bodies gnawed by animals. Her only chance for escape had been that bright blue canvas rocking hr way. She cursed Booker out loud. “

“She felt comfortable with her body taking its pleasure and giving it back. And she discovered right there next to the porch that her pleasure was in her own control and not entirely linked to a man who had up and left her with no warning.”

“Yes, Cherokee women have high standards. We only marry into whites to keep y’all from killing us off.”

“Maud thought those kinds of questions were worth asking, but she never came to the same conclusions her friends did. She thought God, if there was one, didn’t give a shiny penny for what they were doing or what happened to them. And he seemed particularly unpartial toward Indians.”

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5 / 5 Characters: 4/5

Lit Hub lists this as one of the “22 novels you need to read this fall,” so I moved it to the top of my review list.

Willa is the bi-racial (Asian dad, white mom) daughter of parents who divorced when she was young and moved on to build new families. Somewhat adrift in New York City after finishing college, she falls into a live-in nanny position with a wealthy family and a precocious child and wonders what life would be like to be part of such a (in her eyes) perfect family. The story alternates between the present day and various experiences in Willa’s past.

What I liked about this book was the content-rich and easily flowing writing style and the high degree of reflectivity on the part of the main character. While at times it appeared to move slowly, that is a good reflection of how normal life proceeds, and I enjoyed the access to Willa’s mind as she slowly came to understand what was important to her and how she could make changes in her own behavior to make her life be what she wanted. I also liked the way the story focused on Willa as an individual and not as a representative of a particular group. It traces the impact of her various experiences (some teasing at school for being Asian, lack of attention in her broken home situation, etc.) without calling attention to an overly dramatic agenda. It’s a personal story of an individual.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 2nd, 2021.