Book Review: A River of Stars

river of starsA River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
Contemporary Fiction
292 pages
Published August 2018

I’ve said many times I don’t tend to like contemporary fiction, but for all that, I’ve been reading a decent amount of it. And liking some of it. In trying to read inclusively, I’ve come across books like this one and Number One Chinese Restaurant. Both books were on my summer TBR/beach read list, but having read them, I’m not sure I’d classify them as such. They are both quite good, though!

Scarlett falls in love and gets pregnant by her boss, the owner of the factory she works in, and he sends her to the US to give birth so their son will have citizenship. Which is a little shady, but I can totally believe it’s done among wealthier families. She’s one of only two unwed mothers at the secret maternity home in LA – the rest are wealthy wives there to get the same benefits for their children. When one woman goes into labor unexpectedly, Scarlett turns out to be one of the few people in the home that know how to drive, and is charged with driving the laboring mother to the hospital. After dropping her and the head of the house off, she simply drives away in the van.

Her first stop is McDonald’s, which is quite believable, from what I understand. (I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I’ve seen the cravings of my friends!) On her way back to the van from the restaurant, she finds Daisy, the other unwed mom-to-be, getting out of the van. The two women make peace with each other and wind up heading for San Francisco, where they get an apartment in Chinatown.

In Chinatown, they dodge private investigators, scratch together rent money for the tiny room they share, and take care of each other through delivery and raising their newborns. Daisy was born in the US, but Scarlett lives in fear of being deported.

The book is a fascinating look at the perils immigrants face, and especially immigrant women, who don’t always move of their own free will but then have to make the most of their situations while taking care of children and loved ones.

The ending seemed a little too…neat. I actually liked the way things were going before the last couple of chapters, even if the way it ends is a happier ending for the two women. I still enjoyed it, but I think it would have been more interesting to end the book in a slightly different way. That’s about all I can say without spoiling things!

From the cover of A River of Stars:

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, Boss Yeung is overjoyed because the doctors have confirmed that he will finally have the son he always wanted. To ensure that his child has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van – only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit by an author the San Francisco Chronicle says “has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions.” It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

number one chinese restaurantNumber One Chinese Restaurant
by Lillian Li
Contemporary Fiction/Family Drama
288 pages
Published June 2018

I don’t tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I had several on my beach read/summer reading list, and this one is set in Rockville, Maryland, which is pretty close to where I live. Having read it finally, I wouldn’t call it a beach read, though!

Number One Chinese Restaurant follows the owners and staff of The Beijing Duck House before and after a devastating fire. There’s a lot of chinese culture revealed in the book, from familial obligation to amending names with an Ah- prefix, to the immigration process to America, to knowing what region someone is from by their accent and forming opinions of them based on that. (Although I suppose we do that in the US, too – that last one might be universal.)

We start with the two brothers, Jimmy and Johnny. Jimmy is the current owner of the Duck House, while Johnny is out of the country for the first part of the book. The two brothers are opposites in most ways, with Jimmy being the back-of-house hardliner and Johnny being the diplomatic schmoozer.

(Speaking of back-of-house, this book PEGGED restaurant life. I’ve worked in food service quite a lot, and from the chaos of rushes to the drug and alcohol abuse, to the confusion between front and back of house but at the same time feeling like you’re all in it together – yeah. This book NAILS it.)

From Jimmy and Johnny, we have their strong-willed mother, Feng, and her cousin, “Uncle” Pang, who has mysterious connections and can get things done but isn’t exactly benevolent about it. The last member of the immediate family is Annie, Johnny’s daughter. There is a staff chart in the inside cover of the book to help keep everyone straight, and it’s quite handy, because then we get into the staff. There’s really two main plotlines going, though they revolve around each other and intertwine in places. There’s Johnny’s efforts to open a new restaurant, and then there’s Nan and Ah-Jack.

Nan and Ah-Jack have both been working at the Duck House for thirty years, and have married other people but have always adored each other. As the restaurant enters crisis, so do their personal lives, and things get messy.

In order for me to like contemporary fiction, there have to be personal hooks that interest me, and this book hit food service, minorities, and the local area. That was more than enough to make it an enjoyable read.

From the cover of Number One Chinese Restaurant:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multivoiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silk-screen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.

Book Review: How to Find Love in a Bookshop

how to find love in a bookshopHow to Find Love in a Bookshop
by Veronica Henry
Contemporary Fiction
340 pages
Published 2016

From the title, you’d think this is a love story – and it kind of is – but not a traditional one. We don’t have a center couple with side characters, and the plot doesn’t revolve around their misunderstandings. No, the main character here is Emilia Nightingale, entrusted with her late father’s book shop, and the romance is with the town. There are several side characters, and while Emilia does get a romance, it’s the side characters’ love lives that we spend the most time with. We have the heiress to the local estate and her devoted gardener, the property developer’s minion and his estranged wife, the housewife longing to be a career woman again and her career husband who wants to stay home, the shy but sweet chef and the cheesemonger. (That one’s my favorite! Bonding over books and food? Girl after my own heart!)

The main conflict in the book comes from the financial straits of the bookshop and Emilia’s efforts to stay afloat – everything else revolves around that. We dip back in time to Emilia’s father’s life to learn about the founding of the shop and his own romances, which helps us see how some characters are emotionally invested in Emilia and the current status of the bookshop.

This is a sweet, gentle book that’s perfect for a rainy day and a cup of tea. Combining characters who love books, the enchanting magic of a good bookshop, and the (mostly) serene atmosphere of a quiet English village, the book is just cozy and comforting and I absolutely loved it.

From the cover of How to Find Love in a Bookshop:

The enchanting story of a bookshop, its devoted new owner, its loyal customers, and the extraordinary power of books to heal the heart.

Nightingale Books, nestled on the main street in an idyllic little village, is a dream come true for book lovers – a cozy haven and welcoming getaway for the literary-minded locals. But owner Emilia Nightingale is struggling to keep the shop open after her beloved father’s death, and the temptation to sell is getting stronger. The property developers are circling, yet Emilia’s regulars have become like family, and she can’t imagine breaking the promise she made to her father to keep the store alive.

There’s Sarah, owner of stately Peasebrook Manor, who has used the bookshop as an escape in the past few years; now it seems there’s a very specific reason for all those frequent visits. Next is roguish Jackson, who, after making a complete mess of his marriage, looks to Emilia for advice on books for the son he misses so much. And the forever shy Thomasina, who runs a pop-up restaurant for two in her tiny cottage, has a crush on a man she met in the cookbook section, but can hardly dream of working up the courage to admit her true feelings.

Enter the world of Nightingale Books for a serving of romance, long-held secrets, and unexpected hopes for the future – and not just within the pages on the shelves. How to Find Love in a Bookshop is the delightful story of Emilia, the unforgettable community whose lives she has touched, and the books they all cherish.

Book Review: Goodbye, Paris

goodbye parisGoodbye, Paris
by Anstey Harris
Contemporary Fiction
277 pages
Published August 7, 2018

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of Contemporary Fiction. This, however, blew me away. Goodbye, Paris, is one of August’s Books of the Month, and as usual, it is outstanding. I don’t know how they consistently pick amazing books, but month after month they bring a bit of magic.

I started this book thinking “oh, she’s a musician, I can get into that,” but I didn’t know how much the author was going to explore that facet of her life. But right away, on page 14, our main character did something that made me gasp aloud and stop and actually write in my book. Which is a thing I don’t do. Grace plays cello the way I play piano. She’s far more skilled than I am, but – well just read:

My knees poke out, bony and white, cushioning the pointed lower bouts of the cello, and the scroll rests, where it belongs, against my ear. The cello takes up its rightful place and I become nothing more than a mechanical part of it.

This is what I have always done, how I have always found myself when I’ve been lost. When I first went to music college, eighteen years old and paralyzingly shy, when ringing my parents from the pay phone in the corridor just made me miss them even more, I would feel the strength in the neck of my cello, flatten the prints of my fingers into the strings, and forget.

I play and play; through thirst, past hunger, making tiredness just a dent in my soul. I play beyond David’s marriage, his holiday, even how frightened I was when he disappeared below the platform.

I play on until the world is flat again and the spaces between my heartbeats are as even as the rhythm on the stave in front of me.

This is how and why I play piano! To see it so gorgeously described on the page was breathtaking. I am not a concert-level pianist by any means, but I’m decent, and playing piano brings me back to myself. When I’m angry or frustrated or hurt or simply feeling down, the music centers me and makes me focus until everything else falls away. From this point on, I was enthralled with this book and with Grace.

Grace’s partner, however, I was not so enthralled with. Grace and David have been together for eight years when the book opens. David has been married for all of those years, which Grace knew the night they met. (Though after they fell in love – it was one of those lightning-bolt-from-above things) He had two children with his wife, though, and a third on the way, and because of the crappy way he grew up, he was absolutely unwilling to divorce and mess up his children’s lives. Which, okay. Noble. (Though honestly, most children know when their parents are unhappy and wish they’d just divorce already, as Nadia, one of Grace’s friends, illustrates.) He and his wife both know their marriage is only for the children at this point, and are totally okay with relationships outside the marriage. Grace, however, is unaware of this arrangement, and THAT’S where my irritation at David comes in.

I don’t talk about it much on this blog, (though I have mentioned it) but my husband and I are polyamorous. He’s had another partner for almost five years now, plus other occasional dalliances. But everyone knows this. His other partner and occasional flirtations all know about each other and about me. David, on the other hand – his wife appears to know about everything, but Grace only knows about his wife. We’re never told what his other girlfriends know about. This isn’t ethical non-monogamy. He lies to everyone about his intentions and relationships. I think he’s probably incapable of monogamy – some people are – but he needs to be truthful about it. There are ways to make that work without ruining peoples’ lives and breaking hearts!

So David is not a character I like.

Mr. Williams and Nadia, however, are amazing. So besides playing the cello, Grace also makes cellos. And violins, and double-basses. Nadia is her shopgirl, and Mr. Williams is an old man who brings her a violin to repair. These three become such an incredible little trio! Nadia and Mr. Williams are the ones who put Grace back together when her life gets turned upside down, and are saved themselves in turn. Nadia is a little prickly, but I think it was her way of protecting herself. Mr. Williams is too old for games – at eighty-six, he doesn’t fool around anymore.

I loved this book. Book of the Month has once more made an outstanding pick. The characters and emotions are beautiful and heart-rending and magical. I think this is one of my favorites of the year!

From the cover of Goodbye, Paris:

Will Grace Atherton fall out of love . . . and into life?

From the simple melody of running her violin shop to the full-blown orchestra of her romantic interludes in Paris with David, her devoted partner of eight years, Grace Atherton has always set her life to music.

Her world revolves entirely around David, for Grace’s own secrets have kept everyone else at bay. Until suddenly and shockingly one act tips Grace’s life upside down, and the music seems to stop.

It takes a vivacious old man and a straight-talking teenager to kick-start a new song for Grace. In the process, she learns that she is not as alone in the world as she had once thought, that no mistake is insurmountable, and that the quiet moments in life can be something to shout about . . . 

For fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Jojo Moyes, Goodbye, Paris is the story of a woman who has her heart broken but then puts it back together again in the most uplifting and exquisite way.

Book Review: Clock Dance

clock dance book clubClock Dance
by Anne Tyler
Contemporary Fiction
300 pages
Published July 2018

Clock Dance was the second pick for Barnes & Noble’s  nation-wide Book Club. (The first was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, back in May.) Like the first one, it was contemporary fiction, which I’m pretty meh about. When I learned it was set mostly in Baltimore, and written by a local author, I became more interested. I’m originally from Oregon, but Baltimore has become my home, and I enjoy reading about it. We had a slightly larger group than last time, but I was the only returning attendee besides the store employee, Sam, who led the discussion.

Sam opened the discussion with the same question that she started the last one with – “Did you like the main character?” It’s an interesting question because most people ask “Did you like the book?” which can have a different answer. I don’t usually read books in which I don’t like the main character, but that’s usually because I choose my books. I’m not choosing my Book Club books, so it’s a good question. Unlike last time, I did like Willa. I disagreed with her judgment when it came to husbands, but I still sympathized with her. I mentioned that I didn’t like that she just floated through most of her life without any real ambition, but to be honest, I’ve done that too. I’m not a very ambitious person – or my ambitions are quite low. I think that, perhaps, is the difference. I find a lot of fulfillment in being, effectively, my husband’s personal assistant. It’s fun. Willa did not seem to find it fulfilling, she just – didn’t want to rock the boat.

I like how we saw each of Willa’s “defining moments” – the book opens on her as a child, her volatile mother having stormed out of the house during an argument. Her mother really does a number on her as a child. I think it’s why she hates to rock the boat so much. From here, we fast forward to college, and Willa’s boyfriend proposing to her after gaslighting her about an event that happened on the plane. Willa’s mother disapproves. Vehemently. I think that’s part of why Willa accepts. Our next view of Willa’s life is the accident that takes her husband’s life, and its aftermath.

Then we finally start into the real meat of the book, twenty years after the death of her first husband. Her sons have grown and moved away, she has remarried, and both of her parents have passed. Her husband is a little distant, and she seems rather untethered. Then she gets the strangest phone call. It turns out her eldest son lived with a woman (Denise) and her daughter for a little while in Baltimore; he has since moved on, but “Sean’s mother” is still a phone number on Denise’s emergency contact list. So when Denise is shot in the leg and put in the hospital, a neighbor lady sees it, assumes Willa is the grandmother of the child, and calls her to come take care of her. It’s a little convoluted, and Willa can’t even adequately explain to her husband why she’s decided to fly to Baltimore to take care of a child she has no relation to, but she does so anyway.

This is where we get to Baltimore, and, in Anne Tyler’s own words, “when her story changes to Technicolor.”

I actually live just outside Baltimore myself, but one of my best friends lives in Charles Village, and I could SO EASILY envision Willa’s neighborhood as a street of rowhomes. (Turns out it’s probably based on a neighborhood in Hamilton, according to the Baltimore Sun.) I was even mapping locations in Willa’s house to my friend’s rowhome! Anne Tyler really captures the spirit of Baltimore, and now I want to read more of her books, even if they are contemporary fiction!

Overall I enjoyed Clock Dance; Anne Tyler is very good at subtle character growth, which is quite realistic. People don’t often change all at once. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of being told what to do before finally waking up to what you WANT to do.

From the cover of Clock Dance:

An inspiring novel of one woman’s transformative journey

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she years to be a grandmother but isn’t sure she ever will be.

Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory – surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places.

A bewitching novel of hope, self-discovery, and second chances, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

Book Review: Less

LessLess
by Andrew Sean Greer
Contemporary Fiction
261 pages
Published 2017

Less is a good name for this book, because that’s how I found it. Less than the love story it is purported to be. Less interesting than people say it is. Less funny than reviews would have me believe. Less than I was expecting. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, apparently? Maybe I just don’t “get” contemporary fiction. Because unless it’s YA, I very, VERY rarely like it. I didn’t like Arthur Less. None of his misadventures were that funny.

The book was a little meta; Arthur is told that the book he’s writing isn’t that interesting because his protagonist, a middle aged gay white man, isn’t interesting and no one cares about him. Which is exactly how I feel about Arthur Less. He’s a middle aged gay white man with the means to travel the world, and a boyfriend who would have married him if he’d only, I don’t know, asked. But he just floats through his life a little melancholy and woe is me. And not in the like actually depressed kind of way. Just – meh.

Arthur is BORING. Arthur is privileged, and boring, and annoying as all hell. This book just makes me want to avoid Pulitzer Prize winners. Who awards these prizes, and WHY? Also why does everybody rave about books like this?

Blargh. Don’t bother with this book. People who say it made them laugh out loud don’t know what they’re talking about, or perhaps haven’t read actually funny books. They should read something by Ellen, or Trevor Noah, or Tiffany Haddish. THEY’RE ACTUALLY FUNNY.

From the cover of Less:

Who says you can’t run away from your problems?

You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes – it would be too awkward; and you can’t say no – it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

Question: How do you arrange to skip town?

Answer: You accept them all.

What could possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer in residence at a Christian retreat center in southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings, and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story.

A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, and a bittersweet romance of chances lost by an author the New York Times has hailed as “lyrical,” “elegiac,” and “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.