About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, YA, science fiction, I read practically anything and everything. I also love talking about books, and chatting about books with people who love them as much as I do!

Review | The Majesties, Tiffany Tsao

The_Majesties_CoverWow. It’s been a few weeks since I finished reading this book, and I think I’m still grappling with exactly how I feel about it. It’s the kind of book that I feel will reveal more layers if I re-read it… and even more layers if I re-read it again.

The Majesties begins with a pretty devastating scene: the main character Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the only one who survived her sister Estella’s poisoning of their entire family (300 people!) at a family celebration. As Gwendolyn tries to figure out why her sister would do such a thing, we learn about the lives of both sisters, how they were super close as children, but then a bad decision takes their lives on separate paths, such that Gwendolyn enjoyed tremendous success while Estella was trapped in a dead-end career and toxic marriage.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and while the poisoning may have been the most dramatic event, it feels almost secondary to the story of how the sisters’ lives unfolded. Tsao touches slightly on the social strata in Indonesian society, and how the Chinese part of the sisters’ heritage isolated them somewhat within a very stratified segment of the super-rich. It’s the kind of subtle cultural nuance I love to see in fiction, and that I think helps bring this story to life.

The ‘majesties’ in the title refers to the jewellery that makes Gwendolyn an international fashion star and independently wealthy from her family. In a reveal that honestly turned my stomach, we learn that majesties are live insects that are put into some kind of soporific state by genetically modified fungus. The idea that people would be okay with butterflies essentially being zombiefied into accessories is disgusting. Unfortunately, I can also imagine people being okay with it, especially since the way Tsao describes these majesties shows how utterly beautiful they are. To assuage any lingering bits of conscience, Gwendolyn assures customers that her majesties have longer and more comfortable lives than insects in the wild. It’s horrific, yet all too believable, and these majesties are an incredibly potent metaphor for the gilded prison Gwendolyn and Estella grew up in.

The tragedy of Estella’s life, and perhaps a clue into her motives behind killing her entire family, is that while Gwendolyn managed to escape their family, Estella remained trapped. She fell in love with the wrong man, Leonard, who turned out to be abusive. And she took a job in the family business, one that provided her with a steady source of income but did nothing to stimulate her intellectually. The scenes where she listens to Gwendolyn’s stories about the majesties are almost heartbreaking — you can feel Estella’s desire to escape like her sister did, just as much as you sense her inability to actually do so.

Given the magnitude of Estella’s act at the beginning of the novel, I wish Tsao had shown us more about how horrible their family actually was. About halfway through the novel, I had a very strong sense of why Leonard was horrible (and a very strong suspicion that Estella may have been responsible for his fate), but still didn’t quite understand why she would have been driven to kill her entire family. Tsao holds out Estella’s motives till near the end of the book, and while she did succeed in making the reveal dramatic, I wish we’d seen more details about her family’s behaviour throughout.

The Majesties turned out to be much sadder than I expected. I think I came into it expecting a psychological thriller, or some kind of social satire. But instead, it’s a story about a young woman’s life gone horribly wrong, and her sister’s ultimate inability to save her. It’s a realistic, heartfelt story amidst all the glitz and glamour of its characters’ worlds, and Tsao does a great job in tucking Gwedolyn and Estella right into your heart.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, Natalie Eve Garrett

Eat-Joy-CoverI absolutely love the concept behind Eat Joy. Food — and often, the act of preparing it — brings more than mere physical nourishment. It brings memories, emotions, and often a strong, ineffable bond of connection.

As a physical object, the book is also beautiful. It’s the kind of book I’d see in a store and purchase as a gift for food lovers in my life, especially since it’s somewhat more unusual than the typical cookbook gift item.

However, I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would. I’m a fairly quick reader, but it took me almost three full months to finish the book, and I almost gave up on it at times. As with any anthology, some stories were more engaging than others, and some recipes more mouthwatering.

Mostly, I think I failed to connect with this book because of the expectations I had coming in. With a title like Eat Joy and a concept like personal stories about comfort food, I expected the collection to be a celebration of food, and of the connections that food can foster within communities. I expected loving descriptions of the act of making food, and delicious recipes that make me long for home and for the people I love.

Instead, I found the book pretty bleak, and the food almost secondary, even an afterthought in some of the stories. The stories explore themes such as loss, loneliness and heartbreak. And while some of the recipes were interesting (I loved Lev Grossman’s General Tso tofu), other stories featured recipes like Duncan Hines brownie mix. This may be true-to-life — in times of sorrow, sometimes packaged brownie mix is the best source of comfort — but it’s a bit of a letdown in a food book.

That being said, one of my favourite stories — ‘A Grain of Comfort’ by Edwidge Danticat — features a bowl of steamed white rice. Edwidge Danticat writes about one of the last meals she had with her father, when he was too weak to eat anything richer than plain white rice, and the story almost made me cry.

I also really liked the first story, ‘Leaves’ by Diana Abu-Jaber, about how food is one of the ways in which children of immigrants try to honour their parents’ homelands. Diana talks about her family’s recipes, and the questions around how much she can play with the flavours while still keeping the taste of her parents’ home alive. Her writing is beautiful, and I related so hard to her story.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Opposite of Falling Apart, Micah Good

OppositeOfFallingApartThe Opposite of Falling Apart is a sweet story of friendship and romance. While the main character Brennan and Jonas were certainly attracted to each other, the story felt very much more about them finding comfort and belonging with each other than actually falling in love.

Brennan’s anxiety felt incredibly real — Good does a great job in making us feel just how terrifying it is for Brennan to do seemingly mundane tasks like going to the grocery. I especially love how Good takes us into Brennan’s head whenever she meets Jonas and feels incredibly awkward around him. Even though we as readers can tell that her words and actions aren’t as cringeworthy as she believes, we cringe along with her anyway, because her feelings are real.

Jonas was a bit tougher for me to warm up to, especially as a romantic hero. I found his flirting to be more arrogant than charming, and he was sometimes a jerk to his mom. That being said, I liked how real his PTSD felt whenever he had to get in a car — he lost one of his legs in a car accident, and there’s a scene near the beginning where he had to drive somewhere and almost had a panic attack.

Both teens’ self-consciousness over their respective conditions — Brennan with her anxiety and Jonas with his missing leg — also felt realistic. I love how sensitive Brennan and Jonas were to each other’s needs, and how they often understood what the other was going through even before the other teen was willing to open up about it. For example, Brennan was incredibly self-conscious over her anxiety, and worried that Jonas would judge her if he knew about it, when the truth was that Jonas could sense her worry about certain situations and so he’d do things to make her more comfortable. Brennan also helped Jonas practice walking with his prosthetic leg, and did so in a way that was encouraging but also not pressuring / judging. Both teens are vulnerable in their own ways, and I love how they made each other feel comfortable and accepted for who they are in their entirety, vulnerabilities and all.

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