Kate’s Review: “The Mountains Sing”

49631287._sy475_Book: “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Publishing Info: Algonquin Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. This is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s first novel in English.

Review: I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’m going to branch out from my usual genres that I review on here and dive into something different. Don’t worry, reviews of all that’s scary, thrilling, or picture heavy will still be dominant when it comes to what I talk about on here! But when I come across a book like “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, I really want to share it with anyone who will listen! Because while I love me horror and thrillers, I also really love family sagas in my fiction. And “The Mountains Sing” is the best family saga I’ve encountered since “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.

“The Mountains Sing” is a lyrical and bittersweet family saga that follows the Tran Family in North Vietnam. There are two main perspectives. The first is that of Hương, a young girl who is living with her grandmother during the last days of the Viet Nam War as her parents are fighting on the Ho Chi Min Trail. The second is the story of her grandmother, Dieu Lan, who had to escape her farm during the Land Reform Movement lest she and her children be murdered as landowners. These two stories follow significant moments in North Vietnamese/Vietnamese history, and the repercussions for the people who were living there during those times. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai paints a beautiful picture of the setting, and draws complex and engrossing characterizations. Both Dieu Lan and Hương have to confront difficult decisions for themselves, and the difficult decisions of others. As someone who grew up in the United States, Vietnamese history isn’t something that was covered in the classes I took in high school. Hell, even though I went to a pretty progressive private school with better and more honest history texts than others, we still didn’t take a deep look into the Vietnamese side of the Viet Nam War. So reading this book from the perspective of a Vietnamese author whose characters had to live the consequences of the war as civilians on the Northern side, it was eye opening and very worthwhile. It should also be noted that the deep complexities living under the North Vietnamese Communist Party’s rule aren’t ignored or swept away. I had never heard of the Land Reform, and it is absolutely horrific. That said, the horrors of being attacked by the United States with imperialist motivations isn’t dismissed as nothing. If anything, this story shows how those seeking power will exploit those below them to do their dirty work, be it French colonists trying to take over and using locals to inflict rule, or farmers murdering landowners to take land for the movement, or soldiers from America being sent to fight a war for the upper classes and killing civilians on the ground.

I also greatly liked the characters and the various journeys that each one took, and the emphasis on family. Hương learns the truth about her family history, just as she learns the truth about the things that her family members have had to do to survive during times of great violence and tragedy, and you see her grow in empathy and character. But it was Dieu Lan’s story that really hit me in the heart, as she tries to keep her children safe as they escape their village and go on the road to Ha Noi. The horrible choices that she had to make, and the repercussions of those choices, were heartbreaking and left me in tears many times, and seeing her become more resilient and tough was a character journey that had the most effect on me. I enjoyed the contrast between these two women and their experiences, and how each of them had ripple effects upon the other. Their strengths manifest in different ways, but it’s a great way to show that strength comes in many forms.

“The Mountains Sing” is a heart rendering and hopeful story from a gifted voice. I eagerly await any other novels that Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai may write in the future.

Rating 9: A beautifully written family saga set in Viet Nam, “The Mountains Sing” gives the perspective of the Vietnamese people during times of conflict and shows how hope and family can get people through difficult times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mountains Sing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Family Saga Novels”, and “Books by Vietnamese/Vietnamese-Diaspora Writers”.

Find “The Mountains Sing” at your library using WorldCat, or at your local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Body in the Garden”

51318896._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: London 1815. Though newly-widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself even without a husband. She’s no stranger to the glittering world of London’s upper crust. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn’t expect is the dead body in Lady Walter’s garden.

Lily overheard the man just minutes before he was shot: young, desperate, and attempting blackmail. But she’s willing to leave the matter to the local constables–until Lord Walter bribes the investigating magistrate to drop the case. Stunned and confused, Lily realizes she’s the only one with the key to catching the killer.

Aided by a roguish navy captain and a mysterious heiress from the West Indies, Lily sets out to discover whether her friend’s husband is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The unlikely team tries to conceal their investigation behind the whirl of London’s social season, but the dead man knew secrets about people with power. Secrets that they would kill to keep hidden. Now, Lily will have to uncover the truth, before she becomes the murderer’s next target.

Review: I’m always on the look out for a new historical mystery series. And while I love my Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell mysteries, the two together can begin to feel a bit repetitive. They each are excellent on their own, but Amelia and Veronica have similar personalities and their strong women personas both play of the gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold romantic interests in very similar ways. The mysteries and settings are very different, but reading this last Veronica Speedwell book (I didn’t love it in general, so that doesn’t help), left me feeling a bit like the genre was starting to all feel the same. So I was both excited and nervous when I saw the book description for this one. On one hand, a recently widowed heroine is definitely different than those other stories. But then you add “roguish navy captain”…and would this really be all that different? Yes, it was, and it was just the breath of fresh air I was looking for!

Only one year into mourning her beloved husband, Lily Adler decides that enough is enough: it is time to rejoin the world and what better place than London itself in the midst of a Season? With the help of her dear friend, Lady Walter, Lily is quick to fall back into society, making new friends and visiting with old acquaintances. But amid all the typical gossip and small dramas that are always to be found in society, Lily suddenly finds herself caught up in a mystery: a young man murdered in Lady Walter’s own garden. A murder that no one seems to care much about but Lily and a few of her new friends. Soon enough, however, it seems that this young man’s death was only one small part of a much greater scheme and one that now begins to threaten Lily herself.

I really loved this book. And mostly this was down to the refreshing new characters that the story centers around. Lily is by no means the plucky, go-get-em leading lady that we see in Amelia Peabody or Veronica Speedwell. Instead, her strength comes in a calm, steely resolve to do what she sees right, while always maintaining a strong sense of dignity and knowledge of where her own particular strengths and weaknesses lie. She doesn’t seek out this investigation out of any sense of adventure, but rather she pursues it only because of her strong sense of justice. If, by the end of it all, she finds a new direction for her life, it’s not due to any intrepidness that has always persisted throughout her life. She’s a much more quiet, reserved leading lady, but just as skillful in being more withdrawn. Indeed, I think some of her observations, not only about the case but about people’s general behavior, were even more striking for being discussed in cool tones without much flair or fanfare.

I also really liked Jack Hartley, the aforementioned navy captain. Lily’s recent loss and continuing grief over the loss of her husband is never forgotten, which leaves this book to build up a solid friendship and partnership between these two without any real vibes of romance. Whether the series goes that direction or not is yet to be determined (I’d guess yes, but I’m also fine with it staying as is). One that that really stood out for me with this character were a few brief moments when Jack’s beliefs of himself as a man who greatly respects women was truly put to the test. We all to often see these historical pieces with men that “respect women” in the most obvious ways, but the story never really addresses the underlying tones that undermine this supposed respect. Lily calls Jack out on a few of these points, making him aware that as much as he does respect her, he still can fall into traps of limiting his perception of her due to her gender. These are smaller moments, but they are the kind of observations that often are left without being addressed in historical books like this.

I also really liked the inclusion of Ofelia Oswald, a POC heiress who becomes the third partner in this little crime team (Jack Hartley is also of mixed heritage). It’s rare to find historical books that include many POC characters, let alone two in prominent roles in the story. The author also included a great note at the end about her research into the challenges POC people faced in London society at this time and how she chose to position her characters in a way that was historically accurate but also put them at the forefront of the story.

The story was a bit on the slower side, but as I enjoyed the three main characters so much, I never had a problem with this. But I do want to put it out there for those thinking to pick it up: this book is definitely meant to feel immersive and spends a lot of time putting together all the details and pieces of the mystery and the characters involved. I really enjoyed the mystery itself, too. I was able to guess the villain about halfway through, but I didn’t get all of the pieces to fit together until much later in the book. The mystery was well thought out and the pieces were laid craftily throughout the story. Readers looking for a new take on historical mysteries should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Excellent. Lily Adler may be quieter than some other heroines in the mystery market, but she’s definitely one to pay attention to!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Body in the Garden” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”

Find “The Body in the Garden” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Long Bright River”

43834909Book: “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Two sisters travel the same streets, though their lives couldn’t be more different. Then, one of them goes missing.

In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.

Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.

Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.

Review: My sister and I aren’t thick as thieves or anything like that. We get along pretty well, though we’re very different people. Lockdown has actually made us interact more than we have in awhile, vis a vis our Switches, playing “Mario Kart” and “Animal Crossing” together. But even though we aren’t best friends, I do love her very much (and am trying not to worry about the fact she and her wife are in New York City, the worst hit place for COVID-19 in this country). So whenever I see a story about sisters, I am bound to relate to it at least a little bit, which was part of the reason I was drawn to “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore. I figured that I could kind of justify it within the mystery or thriller genre, but once again this is a bit more literary than most thrillers I read.

While there are a couple of mysteries that “Long Bright River” centers around, this is more of a character study about two sisters who grew up in poverty, dealing with generational trauma and addiction. Mickey became a police officer, persuaded in part by her need to escape her familial situation, and by a cop who took an interest in her when she was a teen. Kacey, however, was swept up in drugs and addiction, like many people in their community as the opioid crisis looms. We see Mickey as she tries to find her sister as a serial killer starts to prey on addicts and sex workers on her beat, and as Mickey searches for her we get insight into both sisters through the present and through flashbacks. Moore really captures the complications of their relationship, exploring how their differences and their upbringing influenced them and changed them, and the ways they have both loved and hurt each other over the years. Though the perspective is Mickey’s, I felt like I knew both sisters by the time we came to the end, and could understand both of them, even their darker and rougher sides. You see how their sad home life (raised by their grandmother after their young mother died of a drug overdose and their father fled the coop) shaped them both, and can see why each took the paths that they did.

The mystery of the serial killer targeting addicts and sex workers definitely takes a back seat the the sisterly relationship, but the story of the sisters was so well done and so emotional that I didn’t really mind, even though I thought it would be more of a mystery than a character study. The character study was damned good, and it doesn’t limit itself to a sister theme. Along with the themes of childhood trauma and generational poverty and addiction, we also get a hard look at police corruption, and how communities seen as expendable are easily ignored by those who are supposed to protect them. Or sometimes, even explicitly targeted by them. I feel like sometimes books about police officers or detectives are more inclined to either ignore the systemic problems within the police, from racism to corruption to militarization that targets some groups while upholding the power of others. Or, if it’s not outright ignored there is assurance that the protagonist, and the protagonist’s unit, are not part of that problem, that they are good cops. But what I really liked about “Long Bright River” is that Moore acknowledges that Mickey is in it for the right reasons…. but a lot of the time, that isn’t enough.

I also really enjoyed the writing style of this book. Similar to the works of Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue isn’t in the usual punctuation. Instead it’s minimal, with dashes and not a lot beyond that. It always takes a little bit for me to get into this style, but once I’m in I’m in, and I thought that it was a complement to the overall story. I also liked that Moore played with the timeline, as mentioned above, going back in time to expand upon the narrative and to provide insight along the way. And finally, there are many, many references and moments that acknowledge the opioid crisis that has many people firmly in its grip. The story starts off with a list of people who have OD’d within the community that Mickey and Kacey have grown up in, which really sets the scene and serves to show that there is a pall that hangs over the story, just as there is a pall that’s hanging over society right now.

“Long Bright River” was a fantastic and heart rendering mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat. Steel yourself for something dark. But definitely take it on.

Rating 9: A dark and gritty mystery that examines police corruption, the opioid epidemic, and the powerful, if sometimes fraught, relationship between sisters, “Long Bright River” is a fantastic read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Bright River” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sister Mysteries”, and I think it would fit in on “Books of Philadelphia”.

Find “Long Bright River” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Chosen Ones”

40944762._sy475_Book: “Chosen Ones” by Veronica Roth

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: A decade ago near Chicago, five teenagers defeated the otherworldly enemy known as the Dark One, whose reign of terror brought widespread destruction and death. The seemingly un-extraordinary teens—Sloane, Matt, Ines, Albie, and Esther—had been brought together by a clandestine government agency because one of them was fated to be the “Chosen One,” prophesized to save the world. With the goal achieved, humankind celebrated the victors and began to mourn their lost loved ones.

Ten years later, though the champions remain celebrities, the world has moved forward and a whole, younger generation doesn’t seem to recall the days of endless fear. But Sloane remembers. It’s impossible for her to forget when the paparazzi haunt her every step just as the Dark One still haunts her dreams. Unlike everyone else, she hasn’t moved on; she’s adrift—no direction, no goals, no purpose. On the eve of the Ten Year Celebration of Peace, a new trauma hits the Chosen: the death of one of their own. And when they gather for the funeral at the enshrined site of their triumph, they discover to their horror that the Dark One’s reign never really ended.

Review: I read the “Insurgent” trilogy like everyone else, seemingly, back when it was published around a decade ago. I didn’t fall in love with it, which worked in my favor in this instance as I wasn’t too broken up by the ending of the last book (most fans of the series were quite displeased). I also had heard that Roth published another duology, but that same indifference to the first trilogy didn’t lead me to getting around to it. But when I saw this book start to pop up, I was very intrigued. There are a million and one stories documenting the adventures of a “chosen one” in their grand battle against an ultimate evil. There aren’t many that tackle what comes after, other than perhaps brief epilogues or small cameo appearances in another “chosen one’s” book/series. This book turned out to be everything I was hoping for and more.

It’s been ten years since Sloan and her friends, the other Chosen Ones, defeated the Dark One, an evil being they had battled throughout their teen years. And in this last decade Sloane has…hid. Not interested in the celebrity status she’s garnered, barely invested in the relationships she’s formed, Sloane’s life is simply going from moment to moment, not caring about much at all. When tragedy shakes her out of this numbness, however, Sloane finds herself caught in circumstances that she won’t survive unless she returns to her life as a soldier and confronts the horrors in her past.

This book was particularly interesting coming off my fairly recent re-read of the “Animorphs” series. That series follows a group of 6 teens, chosen ones, essentially, as they battle a big bad for years on end. The books deal a lot with the realities of a childhood given up to warfare and the life and choices of being a soldier. But after 50+ books, there’s only a small, final book that is dedicated to life after these events. It does a good job for what it is, only a hundred and fifty or so pages dedicated to wrapping up the lives of six characters over the years that follow the end of the war. It’s clear that the story is only scratching the surface of what life would be like for these kids. And this is only one example. We have so many chosen one stories, but so few deal with the aftereffects.

I wasn’t quite sure what we would get from Roth here. I wasn’t a huge fan of her original trilogy, and I also read that she had some ideas for this book based off “The Hurt Locker,” a movie that, while I can see the importance of the topic, I didn’t particularly enjoy. But, man, did I enjoy the heck out of this book. Not only did it tackle many of the tough topics around life after war, the isolation and distancing that many veterans experience, and how “moving on” can look very different to different people, including whether it is possible at all, but it had some amazing characters at its heart and some genuine surprises in the increasingly twisting world-building.

I loved Sloane so much in all of her broken, dark, and even sometimes cruel ways. The characters in this book definitely challenge the reader in that they often barely resemble the golden Chosen Ones we all imagine. Even a few of Sloane’s comrades who more closely mimic the typical hero pastiche often betray signs that they are simply using different coping mechanisms to deal with similarly twisted inner lives. But this is Sloane’s story, and it is Sloane’s darkness and path forward that we explore as we slowly learn more about her time during the war and how she’s been managing (or not) in the ten years since. She has some very unlikeable moments, but for me at least, these simply grounded the story all the more in a what reality would look like for young people whose life was essentially consumed by a prophesy and a seemingly never-ending battle against a more powerful evil force. There are no easy answers or easy fixes here, and even by the end of the book, it’s clear that any “completeness” for Sloane comes at understanding and accepting her entire person.

The world-building was almost the biggest surprise. I didn’t really know what to expect and the book description gives only the barest hints. But wow, I didn’t expect where this book went at all. There’s a huge twist that comes in the first third and when we got to that I thought “Ok, that was a surprise, but now I’m on the right page.” Nope! The twists and turns kept coming one after another from there on out. Even after finishing the book I was having to think back over it and try to piece things together.

I don’t remember a lot about Roth’s particular writing style from the “Insurgent” series other than it felt like a fairly standard YA style ala “Hunger Games.” But I have to think Roth has grown by leaps and bounds to create this. The writing is confident and sure, even as it tackles topics that can be hard to deal with and discusses moments and choices that, if not handled well, could turn readers off from some of our main characters and themes. The same world-building and all of its complexities also speaks to an increased dexterity in juggling many balls at once. There are layers within layers, but the story and character arcs are never consumed by the increasingly complicated world, history, and magic system.

This was a great book. I think Roth’s work has grown by leaps and bounds here, and she deftly tackles a topic that is rarely explored in fantasy works. It looks like on Goodreads it is listed as the first in a series, but to those who were burned by the “Insurgent” trilogy and have long memories and lasting wariness, I think this book reads perfectly as a standalone. If I hadn’t looked, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. This is also published as an adult fantasy novel, but I think it would appeal to YA readers as well. I’m pretty confident this will end up on next year’s Top 10 list for me; it’s that good.

Rating 9: Dark and twisty in all the right ways.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chosen Ones” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on this very informatively-titled list: “2020 – Book Release.”

Find “Chosen Ones” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Transmetropolitan (Vol.10): One More Time”

9968822Book: “Transmetropolitan (Vol.10): One More Time” by Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson (Ill.), & Rodney Ramos (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 2004

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The final volume in the saga of outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem written by comics superstar Warren Ellis. At last, it’s the final showdown between Spider and the absolutely corrupt President of the United States in this new printing of the finale to the classic dystopian saga from Vertigo.

Review: It was a re-read almost four years in the making. Ten volumes, two awful presidents, two awesome lady assistants, one literally two faced cat, and numerous bowel disruptor guns later, and I have finally reached the end of Spider Jerusalem’s return to Gonzo reporting in a dystopian cyberpunk future. My re-read of “Transmetropolitan” has been wild to say the least. And if you remember from the end of my last review, I was a little worried that it had ended in a way that feels a little dated given recent political shenanigans. But let’s jump on into “One More Time” and begin our fond farewell.

The good news is that “One More Time” immediately assuaged the fears I had at the end of “The Cure”. It wasn’t going to be so easy as a sex scandal to bring down The Smiler, much as it didn’t do much of anything in our own present reality. But Spider, Yelena, and Channon weren’t going to give up so easily, and the beginning of the final confrontation between Spider and The Smiler is underway. What that means for Spider and his assistants is a bit murkier. Warren Ellis is known for brash and over the top themes as well as a dark cynicism, and we find both of those things in abundance. But there is also a whole lot of hope in this last volume, and that hope is something that I myself am clinging to. Again, you don’t know how things are going to completely shake out, but as Ellis unfolds everything and makes it all come together, reaching far far back in the series to do so, we go back to other storylines and other characters from the past who all have their parts to play, and it makes you wonder if Ellis had known from early on where they were going to end up. It works that well. In terms of the final confrontation, I was of two minds when it came to how impactful I found it. On one hand, it felt a little rushed and neat and underwhelming. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll be vague, but it just kind of ended with less of a bang and more of a pop. I certainly wouldn’t call it a whimper. But it wasn’t the big to do that perhaps one would expect. But on the other hand, maybe that’s how this kind of thing would have to end. Maybe it does have to be more muted, because that shows that the monster who causes so much grief and havoc is really just pathetic and fallible. So while I had wanted more, less may be more appropriate.

It’s the ultimate message of this story that truly resonated with me and made “One More Time” a satisfying end to a series that I still love. And that is that the truth is the most important thing above all else, and that the true heroes are the ones that sacrifice and give their all to make sure that it comes out. Spider Jerusalem is violent, grumpy, antagonistic, and a bit of a jerk. But he is devoted to making sure that the world knows the truth of how things are, and he will fight tooth and nail and to his own detriment to make sure that it all gets out. And along with him we get Channon and Yelena, two ladies who have tenacity, brashness, brains, and the drive to help him get that truth out as well as pursue their own goals. This trio is by far one of the best in comics, even if they aren’t exactly the most likable, because they are entertaining and chaotic and filled with hope. “Transmetropolitan” is teeming with hope. And as someone who has at times felt hopeless in our own political and social climate, this was a true antidote to that hopelessness. At least for now. But if there’s one thing you should take from “Transmetropolitan”, it’s to keep fighting that good fight. I don’t know what the next election will hold. I don’t know if we’re stuck with our own Beast/Smiler for another four years or not. But I know that we can learn something from Spider, Yelena, and Channon. 

I am going to miss The City. I’m going to miss The Filthy Assistants. I’m going to miss Spider. At least until I decide to re-read again. Until that time, “One More Time” was a fabulous end to a fabulous series.

Rating 9: A great end to a great series, “Transmetropolitan (Vol.10): One More Time” perfectly wraps up Spider’s story and gives this reader hope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Transmetropolitan (Vol.10): One More Time” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bibles for the Revolution”, and “Best of Cyberpunk”.

Find “Transmetropolitan (Vol.10): One More Time” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “The Return”

46354144Book: “The Return” by Rachel Harrison

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Description: A group of friends reunite after one of them has returned from a mysterious two-year disappearance in this edgy and haunting debut.

Julie is missing, and the missing don’t often return. But Elise knows Julie better than anyone, and she feels in her bones that her best friend is out there, and that one day she’ll come back. She’s right. Two years to the day that Julie went missing, she reappears with no memory of where she’s been or what happened to her.

Along with Molly and Mae, their two close friends from college, the women decide to reunite at a remote inn. But the second Elise sees Julie, she knows something is wrong—she’s emaciated, with sallow skin and odd appetites. And as the weekend unfurls, it becomes impossible to deny that the Julie who vanished two years ago is not the same Julie who came back. But then who—or what—is she?

Review: Thank you very much to Berkley and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I cannot tell you how excited I was when Berkley emailed me a link to the eARC of “The Return” by Rachel Harrison. I had been waiting and searching NetGalley to see if a request for this book would go up, eager to read a book that was being called a mash up of “The Shining” and “Girls”.

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So… like this???? (source)

In my mind this meant super disturbing horror AND soapy catty girl fights (though a serious lack of Adam Driver, the only redeeming feature of that dreadful show in my mind). It took a fair amount of willpower to save it for a later date, and honestly I dove in a lot earlier than I normally do with eARCs that I get. I clearly had high hopes. And they were met. And HOW.

From the get go “The Return” sucks you in and lets you know the kind of story and people you’re going to be dealing with.  Julie has disappeared, and her best friend Elise doesn’t want to believe that this is anything more than a histrionic call for attention. Julie has a history of this, after all, so when mutual friends Molly and Mae are concerned Elise refuses to be. Until Julie doesn’t come back and is declared dead, with a funeral and everything. So when she returns two years later claiming no memory, the reader knows that something is amiss, both in Julie’s story AND the relationship she has with her best friend. Therefore, isolating the four friends in a strange hotel and letting them slowly realize that Julie isn’t ‘the same’ is the perfect slow burn horror that especially resonates with anyone who has had a friendship that has potentially run its course. The horror elements are on point, from the descriptions of Julie’s emaciated look to the quirks and strange changes at the hotel that may or may not be Elise’s imagination to the imagery of dark beings in the corners of vision. There were numerous moments where I found myself incredibly unsettled, or had to set the book down for a bit and regroup. There is one especially suspenseful scene near the end the effectively lets the scene build up from everything being okay, to minor unease, to outright terror, so the reader experiences everything that the character is going through within the moment as you read it. I loved it, even if it deeply upset me and really put me off going exploring in our nation’s national parks by myself… And some of the descriptions of Julie’s physical transformation were absolutely disgusting, really amping the body horror aspect up to sit alongside the Gothic themes of an isolated location, as bad weather rolls in and people start disappearing…

But the other theme that struck me about this book is how well it captures the last dying gasps of a friendship on the skids. Elise, Julie, Molly, and Mae were all close back in the day, but now have drifted apart geographically and emotionally. With the four of them scattered across the country, some of them settling down, others making poor romantic choices, and others are stagnating and refusing the see it. Seeing the four of them try to force a reunion in the wake of Julie’s remarkable reappearance is something you could see in a tawdry drama, and the story would work even if you pulled the horror elements out. You especially see the tumultuous friendship between Elise and Julie, told through references to the past and seen in interactions in the present, as Julie has come back very much not herself. But then, I couldn’t help but think that it’s all a very well done metaphor for when you don’t know a person anymore, even without the strange body horror aspects, or the rotting teeth, or the fact that bodies may be piling up. Elise and Julie are codependent on each other’s friendship, no matter how damaging it could be for both of them.

“The Return” blends an effective Gothic and body horror tale with the deterioration of a long standing friendship. It’s a horror story that was worth the wait and the anticipation, and one that may be more relatable than you would think.

Rating 9: A sudsy and creepy horror story that not only brings the scares, but examines tough realities about friendships that start to fade away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Return” is included on the Goodreads list “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “The Return” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Bookclub Review: “Almost American Girl”

40030311._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Felicity Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

Book Description: A powerful and timely teen graphic novel memoir—perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Hey, Kiddo—about a Korean-born, non-English-speaking girl who is abruptly transplanted from Seoul to Huntsville, Alabama, and struggles with extreme culture shock and isolation, until she discovers her passion for comic arts.

For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had not heard of this book before it was picked for our book club session in March, and therefore going into it was a bit of a blind dive in. I had heard of Robin Ha’s previous book, “Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes” but I knew that this was going to be a bit different. I figured I’d read “Almost American Girl” over the course of a few days, but then I ended up devouring it in nearly one sitting. I loved it that much.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how gorgeous and unique the art was. The colors are a watercolor-esque aesthetic, and it had both a calming effect as well as really evoking the emotions that were coming off the page. Robin’s transition from her life in Korea to her sudden shift to America was emotional and very difficult, and Ha used the imagery in both the pictures themselves and the color schemes to portray all of the ups and downs of Robin’s feelings during that time. From stark reds or darkness during difficult times, or almost glowing and bright colors in times of happiness, Ha uses the artwork to her advantage in her storytelling, and I really liked it.

The story, too, was compelling and very readable. While I was absolutely interested in Robin’s story as a girl who has to completely shift from one culture to another, Ha also makes a point to show the point of view of her mother, who made the decision to take her daughter from her life in South Korea and move them to Alabama without any hint or forewarning. I thought that at first I was going to have a hard time with her mother (while still trying to recognize the cultural differences between my experience and hers), but, like Serena mentions below, Ha was very deliberate in wanting to give a full picture as to how hard she had it and why she would take such a huge risk. And, on a personal note, I think that now that I’m a mother to a daughter (who is still just a baby, mind you) I was especially moved by their relationship, through the good times and the bad.

Ha also did a very good job of showing the straddling of traditional cultural expectations, and the different expectations that the children of immigrants may have. Ha’s step family was a mixed bag of those who thought that Robin and her mother should be adhering to the traditional roles they would have had back in South Korea (even though Robin’s mother didn’t feel like she had a place in that society as an opinionated single mother), and those who wanted to just fit in in American society. That was a theme that I wasn’t really expecting from this story, and I thought Ha was very careful in making sure not to say whether these expectations were right or wrong. Well, except in the case of her step-cousin. That girl was just mean. But we also got to see Ha make connections to other Korean-American kids her age as time goes on, and how once you do find that place in a community that ‘gets it’ it can make a world of difference in one’s life.

“Almost American Girl” was a moving and wonderful graphic memoir. I am so, so glad that we read it.

Serena’s Thoughts

As I’ve said many times before, a big part of my appreciation for bookclub is how it challenges me to read outside of my typical genres. Unlike Kate, I rarely get around to graphic novels, even though I tend to enjoy them when I do  read them. I was excited, then, when I saw that we’d be reading this book next!

This book had a lot of great things going for it, from the excellent looks into a girl’s experience as an immigrant coming to the U.S., to the exploration of her mother’s life and choices, to the beautiful use of the artwork to display the myriad of emotions that Robin experiences as she adjust to her new life. I’ve read a handful of other “immigrant experience” novels and they have all had something unique to offer as no “experience” will be the same, obviously. One thing that I think this story really highlighted were the challenges of language for Robin and the impact this had on her adjustment to life in the U.S. The use of the graphic novel format was cleverly used in this instance to replace speech bubbles with nonsense jargon to highlight how difficult it was for Robin to follow along in conversations, especially when the speaker was talking quickly.

I also really liked the inclusion of the mother’s story. From the beginning, seen through Robin’s eyes, it is challenging to understand the choices Robin’s mother has made that has lead to the complete upheaval of their lives. But as the story continues, we learn more and more about Robin’s mother’s past, the challenges she faced living in Korea as a single mother, and the values she saw in coming to raise her daughter in a completely foreign and new country. And even after that one major choice was made, we see the struggle and the myriad of choices, both good and bad, that Robin’s mother faces in the U.S. while trying to make a new life here.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the last portion of the story that shows Robin briefly returning to Seoul when she’s in college and finding that she no longer fits there either. It’s an interesting look again at the differences between Korean and American culture, and touches on a side of the immigrant experience that is often skipped over. How, on returning to one’s nation of origin, many can find that they no longer fit in within that culture either.

I really enjoyed this book. I think the artwork was beautiful, and I loved the story itself. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone!

Kate’s Rating 9: An emotional and personal memoir that tackles culture, the immigrant experience, identity, and the importance of community, “Almost American Girl” was a heartfelt and moving read.

Serena’s Rating 9: Through beautiful artwork, “Almost American Girl” presents a moving story of the immigrant experience full of challenges, sorrows, and joys

Book Club Questions

  1. How does “Almost American Girl” compare to other “immigrant experience” novels that you have read?
  2. What did you think of the artwork in this book? Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?
  3. How did you react to Robin’s mother’s parts of this book? Did you feel like you understood the choices that she made?
  4. How did you find Robin’s step family and the way that they treated her and her mother?
  5. Do you think that today Robin would have had the same experience when coming to a completely new culture and country? Why or why not?
  6. How did you feel about where she ended the story in terms of where she was in her life at the time? Did that seem like a good way to wrap the story up?

Reader’s Advisory

“Almost American Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “Great Graphic Novels Released in 2020”, and would fit in on “Books and Boba Reading List”.

Find “Almost American Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by  Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, et al.