book review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

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THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko
★★★☆☆
Algonquin Books, May 2017

I’m having a hard time getting my thoughts together on The Leavers. You know those books that technically do everything right, but you still don’t love them for some reason? 3 stars feels unfair to the author, who’s created a beautiful story that sweeps across multiple generations and locations, but I’m in the habit of using my reviews and ratings to express my personal experience with books. I’m not trying to reach an objective truth, here, just explain why I wasn’t able to love this book the way I’d thought I was going to.

The Leavers tells the story of Deming Guo, whose mother, Peilan, leaves for work one day in New York City and never comes home. Deming is then adopted by a white family, the Wilkinsons, who live in rural upstate New York. The story then follows Deming, who’s been rechristened Daniel, in the decade following his adoption, as he tries to assimilate to his new life while still searching for information about his birth mother.

If this book had been told entirely from the point of view of Peilan, I probably would have given it 5 stars. I found her chapters riveting; from her early years growing up in a small Chinese village to working in a factory in Fuzhou to her immigration to America, I thought her story was compelling, and I could not put the book down during these segments. Unfortunately, this was a comparatively rather small part of the novel.

I just could not get invested in Deming. While there was a lot that I found intriguing about his character – his insecurity about his cultural identity, never feeling American enough or Chinese enough to fit anywhere, as well as his uncertainty about his future – there was also a lot that just bored me, for lack of a better word. So much of his narrative focuses on his gambling addiction as well as his floundering career as a guitarist, and I just felt detached from a lot of it, like I was viewing the action of this story through a hazy lens and I didn’t care enough to examine it more closely. I was often frustrated by Deming, who made a series of poor decisions without much thought for the consequences, and I think this frustration was partially the point, but this character just never managed to grab me in the way I had hoped for. I pitied him in an abstract kind of way, but given that this is a largely character driven novel, there just wasn’t enough to sustain my interest.

The parts of this novel that deal with the unique struggles of being a Chinese American adoptee – quite literally torn between two worlds – are heart-wrenching and fascinating, but I’m sorry to say that for the most part, this book just left me cold. It’s very technically well made, just lacking in emotional resonance for me. Sometimes certain books just don’t work for certain readers, and there isn’t always a rhyme or reason to it, which I think might be the case here.

book review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

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INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins
★★★★☆
US pub date: May 2, 2017
Publisher: Riverhead Books
My review on Goodreads

As someone who liked but didn’t love The Girl on the Train, my expectations for Into the Water weren’t particularly high. If anything, I was expecting another entertaining but fairly run of the mill thriller with a predictable outcome. (Honestly, I only added Into the Water to this month’s BOTM box because I loved the cover so much.) But I loved this, and if I was secretly expecting Paula Hawkins to rest on her laurels a little bit with her sophomore novel, I was proved very, very wrong. Into the Water outdoes The Girl on the Train in just about every conceivable way.

Into the Water begins when Jules Abbot gets a call that her sister Nel is dead, drowned. This brings Jules back to the small town of Beckford where she grew up, and into a complicated web of small town dynamics, packed to the brim with deceit and betrayal. Before she died, Nel was working on a project about “The Drowning Pool,” a local piece of lore involving the mysterious deaths of women dating back to the 1700s, all of whom died at the same spot in the river. But how many of those women committed suicide, and how many were murdered? When Nel Abbot meets her end there, the mystery surrounding The Drowning Pool takes center stage, as everyone tries to make sense of what happened.

Into the Water is cleverly plotted, intricate, and nuanced; and sure, I was able to guess a few of the reveals, but some of them came as a surprise. I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery/mysteries, but more importantly, I just enjoyed the ride. There are a lot of subplots in this story, but information is consistently revealed at a satisfying pace. Reading this book is like slowly assembling a jigsaw puzzle – it’s slow at times, but steady, and before you know it you’re completely sucked in and you’ve lost track of time, because you’re so focused on finding the next piece. For this reason, there isn’t necessarily one shocking reveal at the end: the final chapter is more of a quiet sort of ‘ah, of course’ moment, the last piece settling into place, but I was okay with that. I think I’ve read too many thrillers where the author tries too hard to be surprising and throws in an outlandish twist at the last moment, so I’ve come to favor this sort of denouement. It probably won’t make you gasp out loud, but it feels appropriate.

This book isn’t going to work for everyone. Keep this in mind: if you are someone who gets confused by a lot of names and frequent POV switches, you will find this book maddening. There are at least 10 different narrators, all of whom have boring names like Mark and Josh and Jules and Sean. I’m good with names, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but I understand why a lot of readers are turned off by the sheer amount of characters to keep track of in this book. It’s actually rather reminiscent of The Casual Vacancy in this regard (small town intrigue with a massive host of characters), so if you were someone who hated The Casual Vacancy for this reason, this probably won’t be for you.

One final note to consider if you’re thinking about reading this: trigger warning for rape. There’s nothing particularly graphic, and I actually thought it was dealt with rather sensitively (bringing to light questions of victim blaming, as well as the importance of educating young people about consent, and about “not saying no does not mean yes.”) That said, it’s a rather omnipresent thread in one character’s narrative, so if you’re triggered by this, you may want to skip this one.

If you were underwhelmed by The Girl on the Train, I’d still recommend giving Into the Water a shot. This is where Paula Hawkins really shows what she’s capable of, both in terms of quality of prose as well as the skillful execution of a much more nuanced story. I’m sure some people who loved The Girl on the Train won’t like this one as much – there’s no denying that it’s quite different, in tone and subject – but it worked for me. I enjoyed reading both The Girl on the Train and Into the Water, but after I finished the former I put it down with a sense of frustration and anticlimax, and with the latter I feel mostly content.

book review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

US pub date: March 7, 2017

★★★★★

Sometimes you encounter a book that’s been so hyped up that you’re almost afraid to read it, because there’s no way it could meet or surpass your expectations, right? But then sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and let yourself believe the hype, and Exit West is the reason why, because this book was every bit as extraordinary as I’d been led to believe.

Exit West is a delicate yet hard-hitting exploration of the immigration experience, and of the strength of character required to leave your home and family, without any guarantee that where you’re going will be safer than what you’re leaving behind. Both hopeful and achingly sad, this short little novel is an absolute tour de force.

Saeed and Nadia, two young people from an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, meet and fall in love, even as they find themselves living in increasingly dangerous conditions as their city is torn apart. Meanwhile rumors start to crop up of doors that can transport you to another part of the world, but not without a price, and not without danger and uncertainty. Left with no choice, Saeed and Nadia pay for a passage through a door, and step through. These doors are not the point of the story, so those who were drawn to this novel for its promise of magical realism may be disappointed; they’re merely the abstract literary device that Mohsin Hamid chooses to employ in order to elevate themes of relocation, alienation, and the commonality of the human experience.

As Saeed and Nadia are bandied about to different locations across the globe, their relationship matures and regresses in accordance with each new circumstance they find themselves in. We follow their journey from the early moments of attraction to the quiet tedium of a love gone stale, as their relationship eventually, inevitably takes a turn that tugs at your heart as a reader, because even in a story characterized by fear and hunger and war and brutality – especially in a story characterized by these things – we want to believe that it’s possible to move forward, that it’s possible that love and normalcy can be retained. Devastating as this story is at times, it’s also not without hope, thanks in part to being grounded so firmly in the lives of these two compelling central characters, who grow and change as needed to survive, but who never become irrevocably hardened by the horrors they experience.

While there’s an undeniable universality to this story, this was a novel written for the times we’re living in, that speaks, most ostensibly, to the Syrian refugee crisis. We can’t turn a blind eye to the millions of families and individuals affected by this crisis, and Hamid uses his narrative to challenge us to inhabit a more compassionate and forgiving world. (More information on the Syrian refugee crisis here: x, x, x.)

Hamid’s prose is exquisite. I can’t conclude this review without mentioning that. This unconventional journey that he takes us on is chronicled in a writing style that’s appropriately wistful, poetic, subtle, and powerful. It’s exactly this effect of the writing paired with the story that makes this novel so unique and striking.

Part literary fiction, part romance, part war story, with a touch of magic, Exit West is the sort of book that has a lot to offer. But it’s also a quiet story, and rather than expecting to be blown away right out of the gate, you have to be willingly to immerse yourself in this novel and allow it to slowly begin to wash over you, until you’re completely submerged.

+ link to review on goodreads

book review: Marlena by Julie Buntin

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Marlena by Julie Buntin

US pub date: April 4, 2017

★★★☆☆

Hmm. I really wanted to love this, but there was something about it that made it difficult for me to really sink my teeth in. I think part of it was just that this story is so familiar. Plain Jane narrator becomes enamored with a mysterious, glamorous, troubled girl. The Girls (Emma Cline). The Strays (Emily Bitto). Even stuff like The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), to an extent. I wanted so much for Marlena to be different, or if not different, at least special, because in theory I have no problem with the bare bones of this story: I like the exploration of female friendships, and I like female coming of age stories. I just didn’t get anything out of this one. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

This is the story of two girls, Cat and the titular Marlena, who are friends for less than a year in high school, after Cat’s family relocates to Marlena’s town. By the end of that year, Marlena is dead, and she’s made an indelible mark on Cat which continues to define her throughout adulthood, as she struggles with an alcoholism that she picked up in her adolescence. This book promises heartbreak and emotional devastation, but doesn’t deliver. I’m left feeling rather apathetic about these characters, and for such a character-driven novel, that’s probably not the best impression to be left with.

For such a short book, there are too many pages of nothing happening. Cat skips school, Cat smokes a cigarette. Marlena pops a pill. Cat’s mom drinks wine before bed. Intriguing characters lurk in the background: Marlena’s father, Marlena’s drug dealer. But every time they appear to get close enough to touch, the narrative is derailed, usually by Cat smoking another cigarette or Marlena popping another pill. This story really goes nowhere; which, again, fine, I do enjoy character studies – but these characters’ entire personalities are captured almost too sufficiently in the first five pages. Cat the reserved, thoughtful one who’s so desperate to fit in she’s willing to compromise parts of herself to do so, and Marlena the wild and reckless one that everyone’s drawn to, even when she treats others terribly. Julie Buntin lays all her cards on the table too early. There’s nothing I got from this book that I wouldn’t have got if I’d stopped reading after the first chapter.

There are two timelines in Marlena, the present, and twenty years ago. Simple, right? Except. Twenty years ago, according to this story, characters all had their own cell phones, YouTube and Facebook were just becoming popular. … in 1997?!? Either this is a glaring error, or the ‘present’ chapters are really taking place in 2027, not 2017 – which would be fine! But there’s never any explicit information given about the date, and given the frequency with which this (anachronistic?!) technology is mentioned, this ambiguity becomes very distracting very fast.

What I did like about this book were the questions it raised about moral responsibility, about survivor’s guilt, about how we either put our teenage years behind us or let them define us. There was a lot of talk about ‘truth,’ as well, and how subjective of a concept that is. If at times a bit heavy-handed, this book was at least thought-provoking in that regard. Julie Buntin is a good writer. This just wasn’t a unique enough story for it to make much of an impression on me.

+ link to review on goodreads