Review | Somewhere Only We Know, Maurene Goo

40864866I absolutely loved Maurene Goo’s Somewhere Only We Know. On one level, as I used to say as a teenager, it’s totally kilig to the bones! (“Kilig” is a Tagalog word that refers to a rush of sheer joy and giddiness because of romantic love.) This story of a K-pop superstar who falls in love with an undercover tabloid photographer during a day of exploring Hong Kong is, quite simply, the kind of cheesy, feel-good romance that takes me back to my childhood. It’s such a delight to read, and I was rooting for these characters all the way through.

I also love all the little touches that really make Hong Kong come to life in this story. As much as this is about the love story between Lucky and Jake, Somewhere Only We Know is equally also a love story to Hong Kong. Goo takes her characters through a wide range of Hong Kong attractions, from major tourist attractions like a spot that overlooks the entire city to an independent bookstore tucked away by a movie theatre. I haven’t been to Hong Kong in years, but this book makes me wish I was there.

Both Lucky and Jake are Korean-American. (Both are born to Korean parents who immigrated to America. Lucky’s family is still based in LA and Jake’s family moved to Hong Kong for his father’s job.) And I also love how Goo includes little details that make this feel so real throughout the story. For instance, Jake initially recognizes Lucky’s Korean heritage when she inadvertently blurts out a Korean expression. Their conversations also reveal how being Korean-American has impacted their lives, in some ways fairly similarly but in other ways also very different from each other. I love that both feel somewhat displaced in Hong Kong, and how both are also fairly fluid in their perspectives of home.

Beyond the kilig factor, the story does also tackle some important issues. Some are pretty standard YA themes of figuring out one’s identity and following one’s passion, and despite both teens’ fairly glamorous experiences of this, Goo makes them both feel very relatable. For example, Lucky’s success in K-pop means she needs to focus a lot more on her brand than on the actual singing, and despite her fame, she’s beginning to feel disengaged from what brought her to this career in the first place. And Jake wants to be a photographer, but is too afraid to tell his parents he doesn’t want to join his father in a bank, so he has to pursue his passion in secret through his tabloid work.

But Goo also includes some more serious themes that I didn’t expect. For example, Lucky lives with anxiety, and manages this with medication. I thought this aspect of her life would have played a larger role throughout the story, but I liked the way it turned out in the end. Through Lucky, Goo also reveals some of the darker realities of K-pop stardom — eyelid surgery, unhealthy diets, and so on — in order for these stars to appeal more to a Western / Westernized standard of beauty. There’s a part where Lucky says that once in a while, someone does an expose, and their fans are horrified for a while, but then move on pretty quickly. I thought that was a sad and unfortunate truth about the reality of stardom, and I like that Goo includes this in her story.

But overall, Somewhere Only We Know is an utter delight of a book. It was so much fun to read. I loved Lucky and Jake (and wouldn’t mind a sequel about Jake’s cab driver friend!), and I enjoyed seeing their story unfold.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Between the Lies, Michelle Adams

37912967In Between the LiesChloe Daniels wakes up after a car accident with no memory of who she is or how the accident happened. Her father happens to be a psychologist who specializes in memory, and he keeps her at home with their family, claiming that he’s helping her get better. However, as memories begin trickling back in, Chloe realizes that they don’t quite match up with what people are telling her, and she has no idea how to parse out the lies from the truth.

I love psychological thrillers, so this one seemed completely up my alley. It’s a compelling concept and a solid thriller, but it never quite gripped me. I sympathized with Chloe’s predicament. I thought her father was downright creepy, and the first few chapters revealed twist after twist, such that the reader is kept off-balance almost as much as Chloe is. Adams also does a good job in making it plausible how Chloe is unable to escape her family’s home and figure out the truth on her own. But I think after a while, it just got a bit much, and the revelations in the first half of the novel started to lose my interest.

The novel did pick up in the second half, when Chloe connects with a friend and starts delving into her own investigation of the truth. The bad guy and their motivation weren’t too difficult to pinpoint and while Chloe’s cluelessness was understandable, it also did get a bit irritating after a while. Still, it was a solid, enjoyable read as layers are finally stripped away from the truth, and the novel speeds on towards its conclusion.

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | All This I Will Give to You, Dolores Redondo

36689501When Manuel’s husband Álvaro dies in a car crash, he learns that the man he thought he knew was actually keeping a lifetime’s worth of secrets from him. It turns out Álvaro is actually a marquis, and his family is one of the wealthiest, most powerful and most secretive in the region. An unofficial investigation into Álvaro’s death leads Manuel to dig deep into Álvaro’s life, and come to terms with the truth about the man he loved.

All This I Will Give to You won the Planeta Prize, and it’s easy to see why. The writing is beautiful, and the story and the characters compelling. I found myself easily hooked by Manuel’s story, and sympathising with him as he gradually peels back layer after layer of his husband’s story.

I’m a huge fan of mysteries involving family drama — which is why I’m such a big fan of Agatha Christie’s works. Redondo gives us a wonderfully complex web of family tensions and machinations. I enjoyed meeting the various characters in Álvaro’s family and community, and I thought the things that were revealed later on felt very fitting. I also really liked the way the character of the police detective developed, and what we learned about his family and their drama.

I also love how Redondo highlights the incredible influence and importance the Catholic Church has on her characters. This is not a religious book at all, but it does show the Church’s role on a cultural / social level. Having grown up in the Philippines, I know how much respect — and at times reverence — people can feel towards members of the clergy, and I love how pervasive their presence felt in the novel, even when they weren’t necessarily the highlight. For example, Álvaro’s funeral was conducted by a full team of priests — as a lapsed Catholic, Manuel was skeptical about this display, and I like that Álvaro’s childhood friend Lucas (himself a priest) contextualized the practice as a sign of respect for a powerful family.

The book did feel a bit long, and the middle dragged at times. The story also moves pretty slowly, and despite the compelling nature of the story, it wasn’t exactly a page turner. However, I really enjoyed the book overall, and found the ending satisfying.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.