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: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

to all the boys i've loved beforeTo All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
by Jenny Han
Young Adult
355 pages
Published 2014

I picked this up mostly because the trailer for the Netflix adaptation looked AMAZING. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and I really want to read the other two now! Lara Jean is the middle daughter in a house of three daughters, being raised by their widower father. The relationships between the four of them play a large part in the book, as they are all adjusting to the eldest daughter being away at college. Everyone’s roles are changing, and in the middle of that, Lara Jean’s private love letters get mailed to the boys she wrote them to, throwing her love life into chaos as well.

I loved almost every character in this book – even Lara’s troublemaking best friend has a good heart. I definitely need to watch the Netflix show now, because I really want to see how Chris – aforementioned best friend – is represented!

The family scenes around Christmas really tugged at my heart – Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, and the author absolutely NAILED the nostalgic, slightly dreamy, loving holiday atmosphere.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a cute, sweet read, and really my only negative thing to say about it is the ending left me hanging! Which is part of why I really need to read the other two books, so I suppose it was a good strategy. But man I hate cliffhangers!

From the cover of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

Lara Jean keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her, these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved – five in all. When she writes, she can pour out her heart and soul and say all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control. 

Book Review: Educated

educated memoirEducated: a Memoir
by Tara Westover
Memoir
334 pages
Published 2018

I blurbed this on my Friday 56, but I actually read it a couple weeks ago. I had to take enough time to distance myself from the text before I could formulate my reaction into words. More than once, I had to set this book down and walk away because something hit me so hard I couldn’t continue. A phrase, a quote, or a chapter title would jump out and sucker-punch me.

Tara’s family was much more extremist than mine; though we were homeschooled until 8th grade (with public school after that), we had actual books and tests. Oregon actually has yearly required standardized tests for homeschoolers, so in that respect I was years ahead of Tara. (Though my science and history education were still very poor – I thought dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time until I was in my twenties.) We had birth certificates, and saw doctors regularly. We lived in town. But my family is conservative Christian, and learning that there are viewpoints outside that caused similar emotions to what Tara goes through. Educating myself out of bigotry, at the cost of a relationship with my family – THAT is what I have in common with this author.

Tara had a pretty horrific childhood. There were a lot of severe injuries among her family members that really should have been seen by a doctor, and never were. Her father’s bullheadedness (and undiagnosed bipolar disorder) probably led to several of the family’s injuries. Her father was more neglectful than abusive, though. It was one of Tara’s older brothers that was abusive.

Between her family, her isolation, her lack of education, and her poverty, Tara overcame so many issues to get into university. It’s really astounding. The pushback from her family is sadly unsurprising. What she’s done with her life is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

And what I really mean by that is that I’m proud of my life and my beliefs, even if my family doesn’t understand them or me.

There are so many parts of this book that speak directly to me, from quotes like

Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

to the part where she devours the classic books of feminism in grad school because until that point, feminism had always been a bad thing. I’ve done that. I grew up on Rush Limbaugh yelling about feminazis. To realize that was wrong, and read the books of the first and second wave, is an awakening I know all too intimately.

I checked this book out from the library, but I’m going to buy my own copy. This is a book I need to keep around to remind me that I’m not alone in this journey – someone else has been through it too.

From the cover of Educated:

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head for the hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes from severing ties with those closest to you. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.

Book Review: Sweet Little Lies

sweet little liesSweet Little Lies
by Caz Frear
Crime Fiction
344 pages
Published August 2018

Sweet Little Lies was billed as a thriller in Book of the Month’s description, but it’s more of a police procedural. I hadn’t read one before, though I watch plenty of them on Netflix – they’re a bit of a guilty pleasure! It was interesting having one in book form. It’s not my typical fare, but I did enjoy it, far more than I probably would have enjoyed a true thriller. It’s got all your typical parts of a police procedural – older family man cop, ball-busting female chief who isn’t as bitchy as she first appears, troubled main character who snapped on a case, police psychiatrist, puzzling case, lying witnesses. All we’re really missing is a partner who isn’t actually a cop but somehow worms his way into cases anyway.

I’m conflicted about Cat herself. I like her – but I disagree with some of her decisions. I think she should have come clean about her connection to the case immediately. She doesn’t because she’s trying to protect her dad, but why? She spends most of the book talking about how much she dislikes him! Her entire family dynamic is pretty weird. They have issues.

I really enjoyed the writing of this book. The pacing was excellent – slow enough to absorb each new reveal properly, but fast-paced enough that the action rolls along. Goodreads says the book is “Cat Kinsella #1” implying it’s the start of a series. I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. For a debut novel, I am impressed at the level of writing, pacing, plot, and characterization. There’s a lot of threads in this book that get gathered together at the end and tied up nicely, with only one escaping. That worried me until I discovered it’s the beginning of a series; the one loose thread makes sense in that context.

While I didn’t like this one quite as much as Goodbye, Paris, it’s still another great pick from Book of the Month. I’m curious if they’ll have Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing as one of their picks next month! I already ordered the Book Club version from Barnes & Noble, but I’d still be sorely tempted to get a Book of the Month edition. I really don’t need two copies, though!

From the cover of Sweet Little Lies:

Twenty-six-year-old Cat Kinsella overcame a troubled childhood to become a detective constable with the Metropolitan Police Force, but she’s never been able to  banish the ghosts of her past or reconcile with her estranged father. Work provides a refuge from her family dysfunction, but she relies on a caustic wit to hide her vulnerability from her colleagues.

When a mysterious phone call links a recent strangling victim to Maryanne Doyle, a teenage girl who went missing in Ireland eighteen years earlier, the news is discomfiting for Cat. Though she was only a child when her family met Maryanne on a family vacation, right before she vanished, Cat knew that her charming but dissolute father wasn’t telling the truth when he denied knowing anything about the girl’s disappearance. Did he do something to Maryanne all those years ago? Could he have something to do with her current case?

Determined to close the two cases, Cat rushes headlong into the investigation, crossing ethical lines and trampling professional codes. But the deeper she digs, the darker the secrets she may uncover . . . .

Narrated by the unforgettable Cat, Sweet Little Lies is both a compelling police procedural and a look at how we grapple with the shadows of our pasts.