It’s Summer: Overdue Reviews

Well, well, well, look who it is. (It’s me, backlogged with six (6!) book reviews that have been piling up since May.) I feel like I don’t even need to include “overdue” in my post titles anymore, it’s always just safe to assume they’re overdue. But that’s okay! I’m working on it! Happy summer, everyone, I hope it’s been wonderful for you so far. Its extremely tragic that it’s nearly halfway over, somehow? But I’ll cross that bridge of mourning when I get to it. Here are some reviews from books I finished in May and June. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

book #11: with the fire on high by elizabeth acevedo

This was such a lovely read, and I fell hard in love with Elizabeth Acevedo’s writing style. With the Fire on High is about Emoni Santiago, a teen mom who’s finishing up her senior year of high school in Philadelphia. She is the epitome of focus – she has to be, what with raising a 2-year old, juggling a full class and work schedule, and worrying about her grandma’s health. Cooking has always been her escape and her way of coping when it all gets to be too much, so when a culinary program opens up at her school she jumps on it, taking a rare moment to think of herself and her future for once. But she has trouble adapting to the renowned chef’s stricter way of navigating the kitchen, plus she’s not sure how she can possibly afford the end-of-the-year culinary trip to Spain. Not to mention the cute new kid named Malachi, when romance feels like the absolute last thing she can afford to entertain. I won’t give anything away, but I highly recommend this young adult novel. There were elements of magical realism that felt beautifully natural (Emoni has the ability to imbue her recipes with memories and the emotions associated with them, to the extent that some of her dishes can bring tears to the eyes of the eater). It’s a quick read, and Acevedo has one of the warmest written voices I’ve ever read. I felt like I knew all of the characters by the end of the book, and not only like I knew them but like I had hung out with all of them several times, heard their voices, learned about their lives. Emoni’s situation may not have been universal, but her emotions and ways of coping (sometimes by depriving herself of a good time) felt like a character that almost everyone could relate to. Sidenote: don’t read this book on an empty stomach, there are tons of scenes in the kitchen and some of the flavors described had my stomach rumbling.

I just take another bite of my sandwich, close my eyes, and savor, because I can’t think of a single way to make my life more how I imagine it, but I can imagine a hundred ways to make this sandwich better. And sometimes focusing on what you can control is the only way to lessen the pang in your chest when you think about the things you can’t.”

—page 28

book #12: catch-22 by joseph heller

WOW, NEVER THOUGHT I’D BE HERE, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF CATCH-22. This was a doozy for me, I’m not going to lie. I get (irrationally) stressed if I feel like I’m spending too much time on a book because I have so many books to read and there are just so many books out there, you know? To read the same one for more than a month feels like I’m just throwing away time! Wallowing in my own leisure! I’m being dramatic, but the amount of time it took me to read this one did stress me out, and adding pressure to a task that’s supposed to be “for fun” has never helped me finish that task faster. Reading this was kind of an odd experience, because I enjoyed it while reading it, but when I stopped, I entirely lost the urge to pick it back up later, until the final 50-100 pages when I finally felt hooked. I think that had something to do with the style of writing, and how the story was told. I’m not going too much into plot in this review, because I feel like it’s difficult to sum up but also the plot isn’t necessarily the point. But just to get everyone on the same page, Catch-22 is a satirical book about Yossarian, a bombardier in WWII, who was extremely anti-war (meaning anti-dying) and actively sought ways to sabotage his outfit to avoid having to fly more missions. It’s a satirical novel, and I’ve noticed that sometimes satire is lost on me. Especially in this book, where characters had names like Major Major Major Major (really), and one soldier set his office hours on a strict “only let guests in when I’m not here” schedule. It was over the top, in other words, and it took me a long time to get used to that. Once I did, I found myself really enjoying the book. I was also in awe of Heller’s ability to draw emotion out of me (or any reader) at the turn of a hat. Once sentence could be particularly slapstick-y, followed by a moment that had me tearing up in public. I think those examples from the book were the most powerful, for me, and most powerfully illustrated the point of the novel, which is that war is a farce. What better way to demonstrate that than by highlighting all of the ridiculous, arbitrary rules and day-to-day activities of these soldiers, immediately followed by a poignant death to illustrate what’s really at stake in this pointless game. There’s a Harper Lee quote on the front of my edition that says: “Catch-22 is the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense,” and I have to agree with her there. At the end of the day, I would recommend this book, and I was extremely impressed by the last hundred or so pages. I’m curious to read more of what Joseph Heller wrote, and I’m rooting for Yossarian until the end.

‘What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.'”

—page 28

book #13: it’s not like it’s a secret by misa suguira

This one was, sadly, a bit of a letdown for me which is a bummer because I thought the premise sounded so good! It’s a contemporary romance between two high school girls, told from the point of view of the narrator, Sana Kiyohara. Sana is an only child, and is in the middle of an abrupt relocation from Wisconsin to California for her dad’s job. Right away, she meets Jamie, joins the cross country team to spend more time with her, and develops some more-than-friend feelings. The two begin dating and Sana has to learn how to navigate the murky waters of hiding her relationship from her mom, but also her own internalized racial biases (and her friend’s, and mother’s). Sana is Japanese and Jamie is Mexican, leading to some unexplored feelings that Sana never had to acknowledge or work through in her former very white hometown. The other storyline involves Sana’s father, who is largely absent, absorbed by his work throughout the book. But Sana saw something she wasn’t meant to on his phone during a road trip years earlier, and she’s been holding a lot of her feelings about his possible affair below the surface. The move to California has those feelings bubbling up, when she realizes that her dad may very well be continuing that affair, and it may have even played a part in why they moved to California in the first place. Like I said, on paper it’s a great book. I just felt like there was a ton going on, and it wasn’t always executed well. Sana and Jamie’s romance started out building really well, but that kind of fell apart for me in the second half. And with so much to work through and resolve in a relatively short period of time, it kind of felt like the author tied up half the loose ends nicely, then just threw in some words about the other loose ends, and called it a day.

book #14: trust exercise by susan choi

I LOVED THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I figured I should just get that out of the way, so you’re aware from the get-go that this is going to be a lot of gushing. I don’t want to overstate, but Trust Exercise has forever changed my perception of stories, how stories can be told, and what the story even is. This novel started out as one thing, and morphed into not one but two totally different stories, in a way I had never experienced before. I enjoyed reading this book so much. I’m going to avoid spoilers (although a bit of the story was spoiled for me in another review, and I still loved it) but the book centers on Sarah, David, their teacher at a prestigious theatre school in Houston, Mr. Kingsley, and the other students who mostly revolve around the periphery. Kingsley is enigmatic and very involved in the personal lives of his students. A lot of his teaching practices are problematic (turn off the lights in a room full of high schoolers and tell them to grope their way around the room until they find someone by touch… what could go wrong, who could possibly feel violated?) and the student’s time there seems extremely stressful and high-stakes. Sarah narrates the story, and when a miscommunication between her and David spirals into something much bigger, the entire class feels its effects. Again, I’m trying not to give anything away, so if this sounds overly general I am sorry. I loved that the endings (of all of the stories within this story) were all open-ended, and I thought that Choi’s writing was consistently smart, sharp, and purposeful. There wasn’t a single word that didn’t feel perfectly selected in every sentence. I loved this book, I hope you read it and you love it too.

Things, at least the sorts of things implied in that discussion, like heartbreak, will hurt less, although the range of hurtful things will expand. Heartbreak will come to seem like a rather luxurious reason for pain.”

—page 66

book #15: my education by susan choi

So naturally, after finishing Trust Exercise I immediately dove into another Susan Choi novel. My Education was quite a bit different, and not exactly what I expected, but I still loved it and remain obsessed with this author. This one is about graduate student Regina Gottlieb, who is a bit naive and who generally stressed me out as a narrator and character. She’s been warned about one of the professors at the University, and his tendency to prey on his female students. I don’t think an actual setting/city is ever revealed, but the college town honestly reminded me a bit of Iowa City, where I went to the University of Iowa. Anyway, Regina quickly seeks out Nicholas Brodeur (the professor) and becomes one of his teaching assistants, leading to torturous roller coaster of a love triangle involving his wife, Martha. The repercussions of their relationship are still making waves in Regina’s life 14 years after the story begins, when she’s married, living in New York with a child of her own. Plot-wise, this book was a lot easier to sum up, more straightforward. As I mentioned before, Regina did really stress me out. She often acted selfishly and childishly – something that I’m sure was intentional, to highlight the fact that she was much younger, but still. The language of this book was also much more college-oriented, which both amused and frustrated me. You know how on college campuses, there are so many people walking around just talking to hear themselves talk, very pleased with how smart they think they sound? That’s what this novel felt like, at times. The language was so consistently flowery and long-winded. It wasn’t necessarily in a bad way, it just wasn’t in a way that I’ve been used to reading recently. I also loved the ending of this book, forgot to mention that. So yeah! This review was all over the place. I don’t see this one sticking with me for quite as long as I’ll be thinking about Trust Exercise, but I still really enjoyed it and need to get my hands on more Susan Choi.

I longed to have something to ask him so that he could lord over me with his vast erudition. Instead I asked, ‘Are you taking the subway?'”

—page 251, Regina to Laurence </3

book #16: red, white & royal blue by casey mcquiston

I’m so happy to be ending this post with this book. Red, White & Royal Blue made me so happy, and I’d have liked to start right over from the beginning the second I finished it. Alex Claremont-Diaz is the first son of the first female president, and he’s had a bone to pick with the Prince of Wales, Henry, whom he’s been pitted against and compared to nonstop since stepping into his role. Then there’s that (messy) (very public) fight Alex accidentally starts with Henry at the Royal Wedding, leading to the destruction of the $75,000 cake. The two are forced into a staged friendship as damage control, and that soon blossoms into genuine connection, which seems to be blossoming into… something else entirely. Ahhh, you know where I’m going with this, but I loved this romance with my whole entire heart. I love a good enemies-to-lovers story line, and this one was executed impeccably. I believed every part of it, and I was rooting for Alex and Henry every step of the way. The overall story also just felt like the most soothing answer to our current news cycle. Like we are currently in The Bad Place, and Red, White & Royal Blue is The Good Place. I highly recommend this one! Plus, there were some cool political story lines that I found to be entertaining and informative. Just a winner of a novel, all around.

Thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too. I kinda wish people still wrote like that. History, huh? Bet we could make some.”

—page 241, email from Alex to Henry ❤

So that’s that. I’m currently slogging through Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and I have to say: I’m enjoying it! I’m about 250 pages in, and there are *1,000 pages* total, so I’m a little wary of what’s to come (I kind of feel in general that very few books actually need to be a thousand pages long…) but! We’ll see. So far so good, and I’m trying to stay open-minded about it, even though I’ve vehemently disagreed with pretty much every main character so far. Have a happy rest of your July, hopefully it won’t be another two months before you hear from me. ◊

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