Friday Bookbag (plus a personal story), 2.8.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

But first, story time: As some of you may know, I had a pretty major surgery yesterday. (A total hysterectomy, in order to treat my endometriosis and related pain.) I’m happy to say that the surgery was a major success. I’m extremely emotional about it, because even though the post-surgery pain is not fun and I’m too weak to sit up without help right now, I actually feel better after surgery than I did before. I literally felt better as soon as I woke up. It’s incredible.

I’ve been suffering with this condition for years and had pretty much lost hope I’d ever get relief. I still have a long recovery ahead and there’s a strong possibility I will continue to deal with some endometriosis pain in addition to my everyday fibromyalgia pain, but both conditions should be much improved now. (The endometriosis was triggering fibromyalgia flares and vice versa. That should no longer be the case.) I’m praying that this hysterectomy closes the book on the worst pain and illness I’ve ever experienced in my life. My doctors are hopeful it will, so I’m hopeful, too.

Here’s to more reading, writing, and blogging in the future. And PSA: if you’re suffering debilitating menstrual pain, I implore you to take that shit seriously. It’s not normal to be vomiting with pain during periods. It’s not normal to be laid up for 2-3 (or 4-5) weeks out of every month because of your periods. It’s not normal to be too weak to eat or walk or think or take the bus by yourself because of your periods. Please take your pain seriously and fight for the care you deserve. I’m so glad I did.

/end story time. Now, back to the books! This week I’m featuring three exciting reads by Black women authors: two new ones I bought recently, plus an old favorite that’s just gone on deep sale. Happy Black History Month!


How Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories by N.K. Jemisin

How Long Til Black Future Month Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

why I’m excited:I’ve been dying to read N.K. Jemisin’s critically acclaimed work for years, but the timing’s never seemed to work out. I’ve also been dying to read more sci-fi short stories, especially with recent work like “Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse knocking my socks off.

It’s like N.K. Jemisin read my mind and combined my sci-fi wishes into one awesome package in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. Every single story mentioned in that Goodreads summary sounds fascinating to me. That cover is gorgeous. And during a Black History Month that’s already been pretty miserable for Black Americans, I love the idea of immersing myself in a Black Future Month instead.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

why I’m excited: You all already know how much I love the books that bridge the gap between YA and adult fiction. The Mothers looks like it will do that, and be tremendously complex and interesting to boot. I love that it seems to take teens’ issues seriously. I’m genuinely excited to see a love triangle between a “beauty,” “pastor’s son,” and “former football star” in a critically acclaimed literary fiction novel. Yessss! I think the current array of typical literary fiction protagonists is incredibly limited, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with Bennett’s characters in contrast. Also, teen pregnancies are so often flattened into metaphors or deuses-ex-machina, but I trust The Mothers will do much better. (Its gush of positive reviews seems to suggest that, anyway.)

Also-also, that cover is gorgeous. I want it on a poster on my wall.

Bonus Round:

9780544786769

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe is currently on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, it’s available to read for free through that service, too.)

I reviewed This Is Just My Face last year and really loved it. Reading Sidibe’s memoir is like going to the coolest, funniest, realest sleepover of your life. She writes in a conversational, down-to-earth, self-deprecating (but also self-loving) style that’s the antithesis of what you would expect from a typical celebrity memoir. She’s lived a genuinely interesting life full of interesting stories (like her parents’ green card marriage, her summer stuck in Senegal with her brother, and her time as a phone sex operator and how it prepared her for acting).

You might know Sidibe best from the movie Precious or the shows Empire and American Horror Story: Coven, but I actually love her presence as a writer and social media personality the best. If you haven’t read it already, This Is Just My Face is definitely worth picking up during this sale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


9780812988024

The Girls by Emma Cline

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too–you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 2.1.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a (semi-)weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’m skipping over the whole pile of books I’ve bought since the last time I put up a Friday Bookbag (in October! Whew!). Instead I’m spotlighting a couple of short story collections I’ve received for review recently. Let’s dive in!


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

White Dancing Elephants Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the author

the premise: Says the back cover:

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal.

It’s a collection of seventeen stories that centers on women of color, especially queer women of color, trying to survive in a violent world.

why I’m excited: I’m a lesbian, and as much as I love happy portrayals of women loving other women, I’m also a sucker for more complex stories about queer women in the world. White Dancing Elephants promises to be that kind of complex, interesting, diverse read–diverse both in the shorthand sense of not white, not straight and also diverse in the way short story collections are always diverse: an assemblage of different perspectives and approaches to a theme. Where a novel digs deep, a short story collection can go wide. I’m excited about this one.

Mothers: Stories by Chris Power

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mothers Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, won in a contest

the premise: From the inside flap (can you tell I’ve given up trying to summarize short story collections on my own? there’s just too much much in them):

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment.

It’s apparently “braided through” with overarching stories about Eva, “a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and a place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.”

why I’m excited: Well, everything I said about short story collections above still applies here: I just love the experiments with language and storytelling they enable. For another, I love stories about mothers and daughters. That’s not the entirety of the collection, but it’s obviously a critical portion, given the title and repeated stories about Eva. And as I’ve written about extensively before, I prefer to read stories about women. Those will always be the most interesting, precious stories to me, given how often they’re sidelined. I’m curious what Power’s approach will be to this collection, given that he’s a man writing a very feminine-coded book (the cover’s even pink!). I’m curious how he will treat his characters. It could go wrong, or it could go very right! I’m excited to find out which it is.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: SADIE by Courtney Summers

Sadie is a high-concept novel with a gritty punch. 19-year-old Sadie’s younger sister is murdered in a small town, and then Sadie herself disappears. A true crime podcast investigates the crime. (Or is it crimes?) Sadie feels both meta and granular, delightful and discomfiting, a story that uplifts forgotten teen girls without ever sinking into naïveté or blasé go, girl! empowerment. Courtney Summers’s prose is blistering and urgent, her tenterhooks-plotting a tour-de-force. This book is unforgettable.

Oh, and I don’t usually offer content warnings, since everyone’s triggers are different, but Sadie has some big ones, so:

Content warning: Sadie has graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, molestation, and pedophilia. If those are triggers for you, I’d recommend leaving this book on the shelf.

You can read my full review below.


Sadie Cover.jpg

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Wednesday Books
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $17.99

Restless teenage girls, reckless teenage girls. Teenage girls and their inevitable drama. Sadie had survived a terrible loss, and with very little effort on my part, I dismissed it. Her. I wanted a story that felt fresh, new and exciting and what about a missing teenage girl was that?

We’ve heard this story before.

–from Sadie by Courtney Summers

The first thing that struck me about Sadie was its intense sense of reality: how perfectly I could hear each line of dialogue, picture each setting, hunger for a luscious slice of apple pie, tremble with icy fear at memories that weren’t even mine. I don’t always read for reality–in fact, I often avoid it–but when a fiction author is so gifted at capturing the real world on the page, as Courtney Summers is here, magic happens. Reality becomes as vivid as CGI, as immersive as a first-person video game. Background becomes foreground. You learn the world all over again, like you fell through the looking glass last night as you slept.

Sadie is no fantasy, but reading it is fantastic.

Sadie’s lived her whole life in Cold Creek, a small town rich in natural beauty and poor in just about everything else. A high school dropout who lived for her younger sister, Mattie, Sadie’s world flies to pieces when Mattie is brutally murdered, the killer never caught. And then Sadie disappears, too.

Frustrated with local police’s tepid reaction, Sadie and Mattie’s grandmother calls in a true crime podcaster to investigate, and that’s when the novel begins: Sadie is told in alternating perspectives between the fictional podcast’s transcripts and Sadie’s own first-person narration. We’re always one step ahead of the podcast, trailing Sadie as she flees Cold Creek and seeks vigilante justice against a mysterious abuser. (Perhaps killer.)

But it soon becomes clear that Sadie isn’t telling us everything, even when she’s the one doing the telling. The tension between podcast and girl is a perfect deployment of unreliable narrators: ones that work in service of the story as well as in service of Sadie-the-novel’s brutal meta-commentary on the disposability and forgettability of girls and women.

This novel just…seethes. That’s the word that was on my tongue the whole time I read. I found that weirdly soothing, though. It was nice to be met with the same kind of feminist fury I’ve been feeling my whole life. Sadie‘s violence is relentless, but in it, I found tenderness, too. There’s tenderness in telling the truth.

Again, Sadie is fiction. But it’s remarkable how much it feels like it’s not.

So many stories of sexual and sex-based violence, especially pedophilia-related ones, are either innocence-lost stories or stories of facile revenge. They’re binary stories of either dis- or re-empowerment that place the onus of said empowerment on each girl and woman in isolation.

Meanwhile, Sadie, despite the fact that it’s named for one girl, never loses sight that Sadie is one of many girls. She’s never in isolation. You know from the first page that even if Sadie’s story ends happily (a big question mark!), hers is only one story. It would be her happy ending, not a happy ending. There are so many more. And that makes the novel burn much hotter and brighter.

It’s hard to overstate or overhype the skill Summers displays here. When half your novel is a podcast transcript, having an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue is mission critical; she nails it. (Sadie has a stutter, another detail that could have sent the dialogue awry, but it’s written flawlessly.) It’s almost hard to single out particular things Summers gets right because everything is so damn right, from characterization to plotting to her creative decisions around Sadie‘s risky, courageous ending.

I loved this book. It was the first I read in 2019, so I’m hoping that means something: for the quality of the books I’ll read this year, and also for my hopes for a world where Sadie might feel less urgent, less sharp, less real. It got 2019 off on a feminist, furious foot.

Someday I hope the message of this book will feel obsolete, but I’m certain its remarkable craft and storytelling never will be. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Sadie and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough

In Cross Her Heart, Lisa is a mother and career woman who’s just starting to open up after decades-old trauma she refuses to speak about. Ava is Lisa’s daughter, a frustrated teen who’s desperate to get some independence from her smothering mother. And Marilyn is Lisa’s best friend and coworker, a kind, generous woman who seems to have it all. Of course, this novel is a thriller, which means all of them are hiding secrets that threaten to tear them apart.

Cross Her Heart is a well-plotted thrill ride written in no-nonsense, clear prose that’s fun and easy to read even through the twistiest of turns. Unfortunately, I found a few of its tropes grating, and thought it was a tad too long, leaving me liking it but not loving it.

You can read my full review below.


9780062856791

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was lonely for a long time. In some ways, I still am. I try to be kind to lonely people now. I’ve learned that kindness is important. What else is there, really?

Cross Her Heart, page 9*

Cross Her Heart moves at breakneck speed from the very first page, when a mysterious man identified only as Him in the chapter header discovers a note from the woman who’s leaving him. Bitch, he thinks. And with that, Cross Her Heart establishes that this is a story about the cruelty women endure, mostly at the hands of men, but sometimes at the hands of each other.

It alternates between the perspectives of three women (with a few additional perspectives thrown in here and there): mother Lisa, daughter Ava, and Lisa’s best friend Marilyn. Each is obviously holding something back, but Sarah Pinborough manages the withholding deftly, unspooling the plot just fast enough to keep you flipping pages. She writes each perspective in an open, first-person style that feels disarming in a thriller. From that disarmingly open quality comes the thrills.

Pinborough is an eminently talented writer. I was in awe of the lightness of her prose compared with the darkness of her subject matter and the density with which she needs to keep throwing us clues and red herrings. She’s written over 20 books between pen names, so it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. This was one of the first twisty-turny books I’ve ever read where I think I was able to keep a handle on the plot the entire time–that’s a good thing, since being surprised is a good feeling, but being confused is not.

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the writing and the obvious care with which the plot has been drawn, the actual events and characters of Cross Her Heart didn’t grab me, and in some cases, actively pissed me off.

First, Cross Her Heart has a sordid, mushy, nastiness to it. There’s a lot of unpleasant sex, vicious abuse, slimy office drama, incompetent cops, and opportunistic, cruel paparazzi. These details are the spice to a lot of successful thrillers, but in Cross Her Heart they feel not quite repellent nor fun enough to drive the plot. They clunked leadenly across the page, making me feel sad and bored instead of interested.

Cross Her Heart also has a strong bent of female empowerment to it that is at times glorious, but more often struck me as hollow and almost silly. The close female friendship between Lisa and Marilyn veers from cliché to interesting and then back to cliché; Ava is at times a believable teenager who’s understandably struggling to live with her mother’s strange moods, and at times a sullen kid who makes terrible, horror movie, don’t go upstairs, what the hell, are you kidding me!!!!-type decisions.

I think that while Pinborough excels at plot, she’s less good at characterization–at least in this novel–and that results in characters occasionally doing things that are wildly out of character for the sake of the next move in Cross Her Heart’s chess game.

At least the female characters feel at least little bit real, whereas the male characters range from cartoonishly evil to a cartoonishly good-hearted deus ex machina. It’s an intriguing flip from the usual thriller problem of terribly characterized women and just-okay men, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

Next, I’m going to give some very light spoilers in the paragraph below, because they’re important to my lukewarm reaction to this book. Skip if you’d like to go in totally cold.

Most frustratingly of all for me, towards the end of Cross Her Heart, there’s a distinct tone of lesbian panic, which fully spoiled the “girl power” qualities of the book. I’m not going to go into details, but when your gayest character is also the most evil, it’s going to rub me the wrong way. (Looking at you, Disney movies.) It’s not that you can’t have a queer baddie, but Cross Her Heart’s baddie seems to be evil partially because she’s queer and sexually frustrated, which, ugh.

/spoilers.

Lastly, Cross Her Heart is just slightly too long. It could definitely have done with a twist or two edited away; my nominee would be the final reveal, which removed some intriguing moral ambiguity and made it less satisfying. The pages still flew by, but the excessive length made Cross Her Heart‘s flaws more noticeable.

It’s silly to ding a book for following genre conventions; I love thrillers, Cross Her Heart is a thriller, and sordidness is a key element of thrillers. The taboo is part of the thrill. But I was frustrated at the particular sordid buttons Pinborough decided to push here. As competent and enjoyable as Cross Her Heart is, it lacks the spark that makes dirty secrets fun instead of just dirty.

I’m glad I read Cross Her Heart, but I just didn’t love it. I’d recommend it for people who are true thriller fans, but if your experience with the genre is primarily through crossover authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, you might have a harder time with it.

For all its twists, Cross Her Heart still feels like a train on a straight track. Its thrills come from its breakneck speed and Pinborough’s obvious skill as a conductor, but there’s nothing truly special about the ride. ★★★☆☆


I received a copy of Cross Her Heart from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

*Page numbers and quotes came from my advance reader copy, which is an uncorrected proof. These may be different in the final version of the book.

Book Review: USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS by May-Lee Chai

I am having another week of feeling Extremely Not Well–it turns out chronic illnesses are, well, chronic! –which means I’m not able to give May-Lee Chai’s newest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, the full review it deserves. I thought I’d do the next-best thing for this lovely book and write a shorter review instead.

Read it below!


Useful Phrases for Immigrants Cover.jpg

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Blair (an independent publisher)
  • publication date: October 23, 2018
  • length: 166 pages
  • cover price: $16.95

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, page 60, “The Body”

Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a slim and unassuming short story collection with oomph in its aftertaste; quiet but powerful in the way only truly experienced and confident writers can achieve. (Author May-Lee Chai is certainly experienced: Useful Phrases is her tenth book. I’ve previously read and loved her YA novel, Dragon Chica, about a girl struggling to adjust to life as a refugee in the U.S. after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime with her family.)

Chai’s style is both understated and vivid, especially in my favorite stories in the collection, the titular “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “First Carvel in Beijing,” and “Shouting Means I Love You.” I particularly enjoyed how diverse Chai’s subjects are: nearly all are Chinese and/or Chinese American, and among them are gay and bi people, Taoists and Buddhists and Catholics, Californians and New Yorkers, the poor and middle class, country kids and urban ones, small children and wizened adults. (Most of the characters are women, something I also appreciate.) Rather than hammer home one single point about one single thing, Chai layers her conflicts like ambitious, gorgeous piano chords.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants exemplifies what good literary fiction can do: it broadens your understanding of what it means to feel human, or happy, or sad, or angry, or bitter, or delighted, or victorious, or often, a little of all of those things at once. It does this without feeling cloying or heavy. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but showing really does go farther than telling, and Chai is a master of showing. She doesn’t tell you what to pay attention to in each tableau; she just creates eight beautiful tableaus that you’ll find yourself thinking about for a long time afterwards.

I absolutely loved Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll like it, at only 166 pages, it’s easy to take a risk on. ★★★★★


My copy of Useful Phrases for Immigrants came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

We need to talk about the CRAZY RICH ASIANS trilogy!

Crazy Rich Asians Movie Poster.jpg

Crazy Rich Asians burst into my consciousness this summer like a firework. I’d never heard of the novels, but the movie had left my friends and social media timelines positively gleeful. First, it was a rom com, a genre in need of a revival and refresher. Second, its primarily Asian cast made it a big step forward for Hollywood, where Asian and Asian American actors are usually relegated to stereotypical, un-sexy, un-romantic roles.

And lastly, most importantly: it was fun, at least as far as I heard. (I was drowning in wedding planning when it came out in theaters, so I missed it then, but I’m planning to rent it on streaming ASAP.)

The movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was opulent, sweet, sexy, fun, fashionable, and full of mouthwatering food. It was a hit at the box office and critically. It was a sensation.

So when I saw the novel that started it all–Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan–I snapped it up at my library as fast as I could. I clutched it in my grip on the way to the checkout counter like someone was going to snatch it from me, and as I walked home, I had a giddy, dizzy feeling like I’d just accomplished a covert operation.

(I’m kind of dramatic when it comes to books, you see.)

In truth, Crazy Rich Asians came out back in 2013, so I doubt anyone was going to mug me for it. But this series has been crazy popular since its release, and after reading the first book, it’s not hard to see why: they’re bitchy, gossipy, silly, escapist, ridiculous, and high on the hog, but they’re also whip-smart about politics, family, love, loss, and the ever-shifting role Asians play in a world where white people have traditionally reigned supreme–but don’t any longer.

So far I’ve read Crazy Rich Asians and the second novel in the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend. I reviewed Crazy Rich Asians a few months ago, but the reason I’m throwing China Rich Girlfriend out to a discussion post instead of trying to articulate my feelings in a review is that…I had a lot of feelings.

The whole trilogy is clearly satire, but where the plot of Crazy Rich Asians was at least a little bit plausible in the real world, China Rich Girlfriend ups the ante to ridiculous heights. There are hushed-up murders, poisonings, last-minute trips to Paris ateliers, helicopters crashing weddings…you get the picture.

The truth is that I loved the first and second books in the trilogy, but if you think of my positive feelings as matter, I had a lot of squicky feelings that quelched those adoring feelings like anti-matter. The experience of reading them is fantastic, but I walked away  from the last page with a whole tangle of ambivalence and nothingness.

For every great zinger the books get off, there are bizarre moral equivalencies and mean jokes that make me recoil. For every genuinely sweet scene, there are scenes that I think are supposed to be sweet, but instead come off intensely creepy.

For example, I still haven’t fallen in love with Rachel and Nick, the couple at the center of the series, because they are simultaneously too perfect…and also terrible? There are nods to the fact that their obscene wealth (and the obscene wealth of those around them) is morally appalling when you consider how many people are starving and struggling around the world. But then they’ll turn around and say that at least rich people spend their money on quality things, whereas the poor and middle class buy stuff from sweatshops which just…perpetuates poverty? I’m genuinely uncertain whether this is a position Kwan agrees with or is skewering.

I don’t even know. It’s a lot. I think it would be a lot even if you’re not a pinko like I am. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be rooting for, and what’s supposed to be making fun of these ridiculous characters, and what’s supposed to be sympathetic to them.

I haven’t  read Rich People Problems yet, and I really want to, but I’m bracing myself for an even bigger tangle of feelings about it. I’m dying to know how the Kitty Pong and Astrid Leong subplots conclude, since I don’t really give a damn about Rachel and Nick. I’m looking forward to losing myself in this world of insane opulence, but also not looking forward to the conflicted feelings that this particular brand of escapism stirs up in me.

How many novels have I read in my life about “crazy rich” English, French, Italian, American (etc. etc.) people in my life? So many. And frankly, the fact that those books treat it as tacky to talk about wealth when the entire story and lives of the characters are defined by wealth is maybe even weirder than the way Crazy Rich Asians throws a party and rolls around in it.

So I’m sensitive to the fact that my knee-jerk reactions may not be fair ones.

Am I a snob? A prude? Do I need to just shut up and love the books, which are incredibly funny and well-written, instead of overthinking it? I don’t know, and that’s why we need to talk about Crazy Rich Asians, whether you’ve seen the movie, read the books, both, or neither.

What are your thoughts? How crazy is too crazy? Did you love them, hate them, or have mixed feelings like I did? Let’s try to avoid big spoilers, but if you simply must talk about the twists (so many twists!), go ahead and put SPOILERS in all caps or something first.

Have at it in the comments!


I checked out these novels at my local library and was in no way sponsored or compensated for this post.