Review | New Boy, Tracy Chevalier

32078646The Hogarth Shakespeare books have been a series of hits (Gap of Time, Hag-seed) and misses (Vinegar Girl, Shylock is My Name) for me. Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a powerful, disquieting re-telling of Othello that falls squarely in the hits column. Chevalier transposes Shakespeare’s tale of racism, jealousy and power into a 1970’s suburban elementary school, and seeing the story play out amongst 11 year old children gives a whole new resonance to its themes.

Osei, a diplomat’s son, begins at his fourth new school in six years. A perpetual new kid, he knows the drill: fit in, don’t stand out. It’s tough when you’re the only Black student in the school and even the teachers look at you with suspicion. Fortunately, he quickly befriends Dee and Casper, the two most popular kids at school. He also earns his other classmates’ respect with his athleticism during a kickball game. His popularity threatens the power structure enforced by the school bully Ian, who schemes to take him down.

Chevalier does a remarkable job in taking a story with such adult themes and making it feel real with 11 year old children. Due to their age, there’s an innocence and lightness to Osei and Dee’s romance, such that when their classmates fall silent at seeing them together and their teacher orders Osei not to touch Dee’s hair, the censure is all the more jarring in its harshness. A strawberry studded pencil case takes the place of the handkerchief in the original, and its childlike nature is very much incongruous with the jealousy and vitriol it will soon inspire.

Seeing Othello as an 11 year old boy is a disturbing reminder of how cruelty does not discriminate based on age. For example, Osei remembers how even Black and Chinese classmates at his previous schools kept their distance, so as not to risk their own precarious position in the school’s social hierarchy. He also makes the conscious decision to turn on his Ghanaian accent at school, because he finds that white people seem more threatened by Black Americans than by Africans, and it’s sad to think of an 11 year old child feeling the need to be so strategic. Later, his response to Dee and the pencil case is particularly tragic, as Dee was the one person at school with whom Osei didn’t feel the need for strategy, the one person with whom Osei could simply feel like he belonged.

I absolutely loved the character of Dee in New Boy. When Ian was plotting his schemes, he immediately discarded the option of tricking Dee because he knew she was too smart to fall for it. Later, when things completely fall apart, it’s Dee who first realizes what Ian has done, and while it was unfortunately too little too late (because Shakespeare), I love the power and agency Chevalier has given this character.

Ian is another interesting character. The extent of his cruelty seems out of proportion to what we’d like to imagine an 11 year old to be capable of, but there’s a childishness to his scheme that makes it all too real. His motivations as well are very childlike — he resents Osei and Casper’s popularity because he himself is feared rather than liked, and unlike Osei and Casper’s natural charisma, Ian has to actively cultivate this fear to maintain his social standing. I have rarely wanted a literary villain to fail as much as Ian, to an extent that I don’t think I’ve felt for a Shakespearean villain, and kudos to Chevalier for making this character so real.

By transplanting Othello into 1970s Washington, Chevalier frames the story within a charged political context around African American power and identity. When Osei’s sister Sisi declares that “Black is beautiful,” she is very much a part of a larger national movement. Even ordinary items like the pencil case, which used to belong to Sisi before she left home to become a political activist, are given added resonance by its setting.

The themes of Othello are of course sadly still relevant today, and what is on surface a straightforward schoolyard tale of bullying is a powerful, disturbing sucker punch of a book. I can’t help but wonder how a Black author would have handled this material, though I like that Chevalier drew upon her own experience of being an outsider as a white girl at a school with mostly Black students. In her words:

Othello is about what it means to be the outsider, and that feeling can start at an early age. We have all at one time or another stood at the edge of a playground, with the bullies circling, wondering if we are going to be accepted. [from the author bio]

New Boy makes Othello immediate and real, and gave me a whole new and visceral experience of the story. I loved it.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Reviews | The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn and Fly Me by Daniel Riley

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

30841908Lucy and Owen decide to spice up their marriage by experimenting with a six month open relationship arrangement. At first, all seems to be going well, with both parties noticing an increased appetite for sex yet secure in the knowledge of each other’s love. But, as has been foreshadowed practically since the beginning, things don’t quite work out as planned, and both must face the consequences of their decision.

The Arrangement is a hard, utterly frank look at the challenges of married life. Lucy and Owen’s desire for a fantasy life is all too relatable, and I like how Dunn shows us the real consequences of having this fantasy in an entertaining, non-moralistic way.

I love how the fun, adventurous girlfriend actually turns out to be much more possessive and demanding than Owen expected, as this feels a bit of welcome karma for women whose husbands cheat on them with someone “less complicated.” I also love how Liz’s no strings attached fling leads to her rediscovering her desirability, when she receives a level of attention and desire that has long been lost amongst the mundanity of everyday life. There are real consequences beyond Lucy and Owen’s relationship as well, as they also have to deal with the impact of their decisions on their autistic son.

The Arrangement is a fun, realistic look at marriage. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but otherwise I really enjoyed it.

Fly Me by Daniel Riley

31684490Set in 1972 Los Angeles, Fly Me is about a young woman, Suzy Whitman, who follows her older sister into a career as a flight attendant for Grand Pacific Airlines. Suzy skateboards and suntans on the beaches of California and falls into a drug-trafficking scheme.

From the blurb, Fly Me seemed like glitzy, glamorous, hedonistic fun, but this just didn’t work for me and I ended up not finishing it. Something about it reminded me of 1980s novels by Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, but not quite as delicious so it didn’t quite work. The story never quite hooked me, and I never quite came to care for the characters.

This just wasn’t a book for me, but from Goodreads reviews, it did work for other readers. One reviewer compares it to Don DeLillo, Joan Didion and Emma Cline, and a second reviewer echoes the comparison to Emma Cline’s The Girls. 

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group for advance reading copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.

Review | Home Run by Heidi McLaughlin

32498490Home Run is such a fun romance! The second in Heidi McLaughlin’s Boys of Summer series, Home Run features star rookie Cooper Bailey, who falls in love with zoo event coordinator Ainsley Burke. Unfortunately, he needs to focus on his training, as he’s competing for his spot with veteran center fielder Steve Bainbridge, who had just decided not to retire. Cooper also has to deal with his father, who is the ultimate helicopter dad and practically bullies his son into eschewing anything not directly related to his sports career.

Adding to the barriers from their happily ever after, Ainsley has also made a vow to never date athletes. Partly because it makes no sense for a Florida resident to date a baseball player when he’ll be moving back to Boston after spring training is over, but also partly because both she and her mother have had their hearts broken in the past. by athletes. Ainsley is also dealing with her mother’s battle with cancer; she’s really close to her mother and, confronted with the possibility of losing her, she simply has no time or energy to waste on romance.

Still, when they meet, the sparks are immediate and intense, and when they go on dates, their compatibility becomes even more evident. I love Home Run because the characters are so real and the chemistry between them just sparkles right off the page. I use “sparkles” rather than “sizzles” because, despite the very real problems that keep the hero and heroine apart, there’s a fairy tale quality to this romance, and the chemistry between them isn’t so much sexual as it is an easy fit.

Home Run is a character-driven sports romance where much of the drama is caused by the main characters’ relationships with their families. It’s relatable and such a fun read. It’s the first Heidi McLaughlin book I’ve read, and I’m excited to check out her other titles.

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

Review | Bang, Barry Lyga

31420736Bang picks up on a story we hear about far too often — a parent carelessly left their gun out in the open, their child picks it up, and tragedy ensues. Whenever these stories are posted on social media, responses usually range from advocating for tighter gun control regulations to arguing for more sympathy rather than censure for the family. Bang is about one such child, Sebastian Cody, who accidentally shot and killed his infant sister when he was four, and is still feeling the aftermath ten years later.

I’m familiar with Barry Lyga’s work because of his I Hunt Killers trilogy, and with such a potentially explosive premise and cover art, I was expecting a thriller somewhere along those lines. I expected Sebastian to be utterly haunted by his actions, and possibly face serial killer-ish urges deeply buried in his psyche.

Lyga subverted my expectations, in a way that forced me to confront my own biases about families who own guns. Rather than a dark psychological thriller, Bang is a surprisingly gentle and emotional tale of a young boy who grew up being blamed for something he had no control over. He lives everyday with the knowledge that his action led to the circumstances that caused his parents’ marriage to decline. He goes to school knowing that his classmates and teachers all know what he did to his sister, and even if they don’t outwardly blame him for it, he can still feel their judgement.

This in itself would make a powerful novel, but Lyga ups the ante by drawing a parallel between the censure Sebastian experiences to the discrimination Muslims in America face. The Fahim family moves into the neighbourhood, and their teenage daughter Aneesa quickly befriends Sebastian. She’s an awesome, kick-ass character and is a fantastic foil to Sebastian’s introspection, and her friendship gives Sebastian the opportunity to be with someone who knows nothing about his past. Aneesa also wears a hijab, and while she often faces Islamophobia with humour (e.g. she suggests titling a YouTube video “Muslim girl eats pizza” rather than “girl eats pizza” to increase the views), she is also candid about its more serious implications (e.g. hoping a bombing on the news was caused by a white person rather than a Muslim).

Bang is a quietly powerful book. There’s humour and lightheartedness to balance out the tragedy of its subject matter, making it an immensely readable book with an emotional punch.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

28458598There’s a Tagalog word that best encapsulates how I feel about Sandhya Menon’s YA romance When Dimple Met Rishi: kilig. Its closest English translation would probably be “the feels,” but as anyone who grew up with a first language other than English can attest, only one’s mother tongue can fully encapsulate the depth of emotion one has felt. When Dimple Met Rishi is probably one of the best YA romances I’ve read in a long time, and the character of Rishi is also the first in a long time I’ve actually claimed a YA character as a book boyfriend. I absolutely adored this book. I immediately recommended it to an old acquaintance in the Philippines who writes “clean romances,” and as of this writing, I plan to pass on my copy to a teenage niece who I hope will enjoy it as much as I did.

When Dimple Met Rishi is about two brilliant Indian-American teens whose families have arranged their marriage. Dimple Shah is an aspiring computer coder who rebels against her family’s expectation that she’ll settle down with an “Ideal Indian Husband,” and signs up for computer camp in the hopes of impressing an app developer she admires. Rishi Patel is a romantic who is content to adhere to his parents’ traditions, and the summer before he begins at MIT, registers for computer camp so he can meet his future wife. When they meet, Dimple is horrified that this guy she’s never met could jeopardize her future, and Rishi realizes that things aren’t quite turning out the way he’d imagined.

I absolutely loved both characters, and their meet-cute made me laugh. I love how, despite Dimple’s rebelliousness against tradition, tradition itself isn’t presented as wholly a bad thing, and Dimple herself still also admits that she still feels bound to her parents’ expectations. In fact, one of the ways she and Rishi bond is that he understands how important her family is to her life, in a way that’s somewhat different from how family is important in North American culture.

Rishi is also a fantastic character. He’s a bit more of a starry eyed romantic than the type of guy I’d usually fall for, but there’s something utterly charming about mix of awkwardness and confidence. In my absolute favourite scene, when some snobbish rich kids from camp make Dimple uncomfortable at a fancy dinner, Rishi stands up for her and completely catches them off-guard. Unlike Dimple, he comes from a wealthy family, and I love that he’s so comfortable with who he is even when he doesn’t quite fit in.

I also loved the development of their relationship, particularly as each of them helps bring out the best in the other. Rishi helps Dimple become less self-conscious and more comfortable in her own skin, mostly by being so comfortable in his own. Dimple in turn helps Rishi face his secret longing to produce comic book art, despite his plans to fulfil his parents’ wishes and attend MIT.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet romance and an absolute delight to read. I love how nerdy both main characters are, and I especially love that this fantastic story is part of a (hopefully) rising trend towards more diverse representation in contemporary literature. I highly recommend it to all YA-loving nerds out there who may enjoy imagining what it would be like to spend a summer with the nerd of your dreams.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan

29864343Kevin Kwan’s crazy rich Asians are back! In this third instalment of the series, the family comedy takes a more bittersweet tone, as the Shang-Young matriarch Shang Su Yi lies on her deathbed. Whereas Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend lampooned the lifestyles of the rich and wealthy by presenting it through the perspective of an outsider thrust into that world, Rich People Problems discards the outsider’s surprise altogether and makes us see the human beings within the wealth. Whether it’s dealing with the potential loss of a loved one or fighting to keep the family’s legacy alive, these “crazy rich” are people whom we “crazy not-rich” can easily relate to. Rich People Problems packs an emotional wallop while still maintaining Kwan’s signature light-hearted comedy, and is by far my favourite book in the series.

It was fantastic to revisit all these characters I’ve grown to love (or love to hate) since Book 1, and most significant of all is Su Yi herself. We’ve always known her as the grand dame of Tyersall Park, incredibly wealthy and powerful, surrounded by an army of servants so that she never needs to so much as lift a finger to do any slightest bit of work. She’s always come across as regal and imposing, so the very idea of her dying seems almost impossible. Yet in Rich People’s Problems, as she lays on her deathbed, we finally get a glimpse into Su Yi herself and the incredible, sometimes tragic, life she led. She grew up during the war, and I liked reading about her family’s experiences living in fear of Japanese soldiers, mostly because it reminded me of my own grandmother’s stories, but also because these experiences stand in such sharp contrast to the luxurious lives she has built for multiple generations of Shangs and Youngs. I also enjoyed reading about her happier moments, such as travelling to India and falling in love, because it was a nice balance to what she and her family went through in the war. I’d personally love to read a whole novel just about Su Yi and the people in her life, so I’m in if Kevin Kwan ever wants to do a Crazy Rich Asians prequel.

Despite the sombre premise, Rich People Problems is still comfortingly hilarious. Kitty Pong, the former soap star who keeps marring up, takes the comedic centre stage as she competes with her own stepdaughter, famous fashionista Collette Bing, for top spot in the upper echelons of Asian society. As Colette’s faux humility continues to overshadow Kitty’s dramatic gestures, Kitty’s schemes just get increasingly over-the-top until it all comes to a fittingly dramatic showdown that intersects with the Shang-Young clan’s story.

The hilariously boorish Eddie Chung also provides comedic gold within the main storyline. As family members from around the world fly back to say their goodbyes to Su Ying… and to grasp one last chance at inheriting the family estate Tyersall Park, Eddie schemes to become the heir, which involves having favoured grandchildren Nick and Astrid banned from Tyersall Park. Eddie’s antics are as annoying and entertaining as always, and it’s soapy fun to see his desperate efforts for his grandmother’s fortune.

Nick and Astrid, of course, have long been the heart of Kwan’s series. The main storyline centres on Nick’s American-born Chinese girlfriend, later wife, Rachel adjusting to his family’s wealth, and a major subplot involves Astrid dealing with her husband Michael’s insecurity over finances whilst her ex-boyfriend Charlie quietly pines for her from the sidelines. In Rich People Problems, Nick yearns to see his beloved grandmother before she dies, but hesitates because of their years-long estrangement over Su Yi’s disapproval of his marriage to Rachel. His mother, the irrepressible Eleanor Young, is eager to help smooth the reconciliation, mostly so that Nick can be reinstated as the heir to Tyersall Hall, which adds a welcome dose of comedy to this plot line. But it’s Nick’s pain over his strained relationship with his grandmother that propels this story, and makes you root for him.

I’ve always found Astrid’s relationship with Charlie incredibly romantic, so I’m thrilled to see them officially dating at the beginning of Rich People Problems. Unfortunately, Michael isn’t ready to let her go without a hefty settlement, and his schemes put her reputation and social standing at risk. For the first time in the series, Astrid’s story faded somewhat into the background for me. I suppose I enjoy the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between her and Charlie more than this final, mostly inconvenient, snag before a happily ever after. Still, Astrid continues to be one of my favourite characters, and it was great seeing her character develop in this novel, as she learns to forge her own identity beyond just the Leong family heiress and society It Girl.

I’ve long been a fan of the Crazy Rich Asians series and am nowhere near ready for it to end. I’m not sure if the series will continue past Rich People Problems, but if it doesn’t, Kwan couldn’t have written a more fitting conclusion. I actually teared up a bit while reading it, which is quite an achievement for a series so noted for its comedy, and that’s just a testament to Kwan’s skill that he makes us care deeply for his characters even as we laugh at their antics. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to Nick, Rachel, Astrid and all the other characters in this world (yes, even Eddie); it’s been an amazing ride.

On the bright side, we now have the Crazy Rich Asians movie to look forward to. Directed by Jon M. Chu and starring an all-Asian cast, including superstars Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh, this film looks amazing, and I can’t wait to see it!

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Reviews | The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz and The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

30842480Webster College’s first female president Naomi Roth finds herself accused of racism when a popular African American professor is denied tenure. The truth is that the professor was denied tenure because he was found guilty of plagiarism, but due to his legal right to confidentiality, Naomi is unable to make that reason public. Naomi confronts the tension between her own activist past and sympathy for the students protesting the decision, her own daughter joining the protests, and the responsibilities that come with her position.

I liked the idea behind this book, and the unique perspective it used. Particularly on social media channels, it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon and become very passionate about a cause without necessarily taking the time to consider the other perspective. So it was interesting to read the perspective of someone who could understand both sides, and was unfortunately constrained herself from revealing the truth. Korelitz does a good job of showing how both sides can be culpable in double talk. For example, Naomi overhears the leader of the student protests complaining that the school administration refuses to talk to the protesters, but Naomi had made clear to her staff that she wanted an open door policy for any protester who wished to speak to her. She wonders if her staff had disobeyed her, and we as readers can’t help but wonder if the student leader is lying about his attempts to open up channels of communication. Then a potential hate crime occurs and the situation gets even more charged.

Unfortunately, despite all the interesting potential for the story, it never quite grabbed me. The pacing was slow, the writing dense, and the narration a bit too introspective for my taste. The book touches on some important and emotionally charged subjects that are relevant to people interested in social justice or involved in academia, but the execution wasn’t quite as gripping as I’d hoped.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

31423198I’m a huge sucker for beach reads, and this book seemed right up my alley. High powered attorney Marin Bishop is contacted by her long-lost half-sister Rachel, who invites Marin to join her in traveling to Cape Cod to meet their mutual long-lost grandmother Amelia.

There are soap opera twists (both were fathered by the same sperm bank donor), romance, family drama, and encounters with a cast of quirky, loveable characters. The setup reminded me a bit of Elin Hilderbrand, whose work I loved, and I opened this book eager to escape into its pages.

Unfortunately, Brenner lacks Hilderbrand’s magic, and I found myself bored by the story. The characters weren’t quite compelling enough to make me care, and while there was some development and things happened to the characters, I wasn’t really interested in finding out more.

I often enjoy escapist beach reads, and love the ones with all the soapy family type drama, but this one fell flat for me.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for advanced reading copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.