Book Review: Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik

Title: Things I Should Have Known
Author: Claire LaZebnik
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcout
Paperback: 320 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

From the author of Epic Fail comes the story of Chloe Mitchell, a Los Angeles girl on a quest to find love for her autistic sister, Ivy. Ethan, from Ivy’s class, seems like the perfect match. It’s unfortunate that his older brother, David, is one of Chloe’s least favorite people, but Chloe can deal, especially when she realizes that David is just as devoted to Ethan as she is to Ivy.

Uncommonly honest and refreshingly funny, this is a story about sisterhood, autism, and first love. Chloe, Ivy, David, and Ethan, who form a quirky and lovable circle, will steal readers’ hearts and remind us all that it’s okay to be a different kind of normal.

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*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review through NetGalley.*

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

We are not supposed to judge books by covers or at least that is how that platitude goes, however, the cover for this book was a large factor as to why I picked it up.  I found the description of the book to be an interesting one, and adding in another element to a typical YA book of having an autistic sibling related to the main character drew me in.  I thought it was clever playing with the title on the cover to change the tense of when the character should have have/did “know” these important things.  I was a little let down by this idea not coming up more in the book itself.

Let me start with what I think is my really positive takeaway from the book.  I think that the autistic characters in the book were written very well and respectfully.  There is some interesting nuance used both in developing those characters themselves and, maybe more strikingly in the book, the way that family members interact with these characters.  Any time the book was focused on these relationships I was really interested, and I think that it did a wonderful job portraying these things.

Unfortunately, I found the rest of the novel to be a bit boring and predictable.  I did not particularly like the main character Chloe and think that although there is some growth throughout the book she starts off in such a ludicrously stereotypical place that this character growth doesn’t feel satisfactory.  The same can be said about her dating life in the book.  Things are not just telegraphed but explicitly stated at times in the book in a way that makes them feel a bit inevitable and like a slog to get through.  I kept hoping that something would happen to subvert this or at least be propelled forward in an interesting way, but at least in my opinion it did not.

That is not to say the book was entirely predictable.  There were a few moments that genuinely seemed to work against the overly simplistic and predictable nature of the majority of the book which were greatly appreciated.  For that reason, I think the book may be one that high school students would enjoy reading.  The more I think about it, the more I feel my criticisms may come from a place of not being the target audience.  Overall I would say it is decent but definitely not something I would go out of my way to read.

Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Title: Pachinko
Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Hardcover: 496 pages
Source: BEA 2016
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

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A new tour de force from the bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires, for readers of The Kite Runner and Cutting for Stone.

PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher from BEA 2016.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

When Andrew and I went to BEA 2016, this cover really stood out to us. There were only a few copies available and it was a fairly thick book, so we only picked up a copy for ourselves instead of also getting another copy for his classroom. I am SO glad we decided on grabbing it, because it’s been one of my favorite reads this year and I can’t wait to see how it’ll be received by everyone when it comes out.

Pachinko is a story that follows the life of Sunja, the daughter of a Korean couple who own a boardinghouse by the sea. It starts off by detailing her father’s life, then goes through the generations starting with Sunja herself, and then her son’s life, and finally her grandon’s life. It’s told through multiple perspectives, though it tends to focus more on Sunja’s family.

This is a story about what it meant to be Korean living under the shadow of Japan during World War II, what it meant to be Korean in the aftermath of World War II, and the sacrifices people make to ensure the survival and happiness of their future family members.

Pachinko is well developed and complex in its details of how these characters would have lived their lives during this time. I feel like the story of how Korea and its people lived under the rule of Japan around the time of World War II is largely untold and untaught — at least, it is in American public schools. While it is devastating in its bleakness, I enjoyed learning at least a little bit about this country and I feel as though I have a slightly deeper view of the world during World War II because of this book. Lee did an amazing job with her research in being able to trace how Japan acted towards Korea across these decades and showing it within the context of her story.

I was surprised by the pacing in this book. Usually, I find sagas to be just a tad on the slow side, and was a little worried when I saw that this story spanned generations, but while it’s comprehensive, the story moves steadily along, hitting the important parts and then skipping over the years when it needs to progress.

Given the different characters and the length of time this novel spans, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better as a short story cycle. It almost had that feel to it, and I think there were moments that would have been heightened had it been written in such a format. I don’t think that the story significantly suffers from it being written as a novel, but I do think that the way its constructed is almost an in-between novel and short story cycle, which sometimes took me out of the story a little bit to try to figure out what sort of format this is. Not a huge complaint or anything — just a thought.

For me, the first part of the book was the strongest and most compelling. My favorite part was reading about how much Sunja would sacrifice and how hard she would work to give her family the best chance possible. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in historical fiction. The characters and the writing itself are beautiful, and as I’ve said, it provides an interesting look at a culture that I don’t think we often get to learn about.

Book Review: Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Title: Fruit of the Lemon
Author: Andrea Levy
Publisher: Picador
Paperback: 339 pages
Source: Own
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

From Andrea Levy, author of Small Island and winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Best of the Best Orange Prize, comes a story of one woman and two islands.
Faith Jackson knows little about her parents’ lives before they moved to England. Happy to be starting her first job in the costume department at BBC television, and to be sharing a house with friends, Faith is full of hope and expectation. But when her parents announce that they are moving “home” to Jamaica, Faith’s fragile sense of her identity is threatened. Angry and perplexed as to why her parents would move to a country they so rarely mention, Faith becomes increasingly aware of the covert and public racism of her daily life, at home and at work.

At her parents’ suggestion, in the hope it will help her to understand where she comes from, Faith goes to Jamaica for the first time. There she meets her Aunt Coral, whose storytelling provides Faith with ancestors, whose lives reach from Cuba and Panama to Harlem and Scotland. Branch by branch, story by story, Faith scales the family tree, and discovers her own vibrant heritage, which is far richer and wilder than she could have imagined.

Fruit of the Lemon spans countries and centuries, exploring questions of race and identity with humor and a freshness, and confirms Andrea Levy as one of our most exciting contemporary novelists.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Andrew recommended this to me a while ago and I finally had the chance to read it! I was worried at first, because his last two have been, while very good, incredibly depressing, but this was a whole lot happier and more hopeful than White Teeth by Zadie Smith and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so I can keep on with his recommendations! It’s interesting because Fruit of the Lemon does deal with the same sort of issues as those other two books — namely, what it means to be not-white in a society that favors being white, but it also marries this idea with a young woman’s coming of age. Faith has just graduated college and is trying to figure out who she is and what her place is in the world, which is made even more complicated by the fact that it’s harder for her to get the jobs that she wants because of racism and it’s harder for her to embrace her culture when she doesn’t have any friends that come from the same background as her.

I appreciated Levy’s ability to take serious concepts while also bringing humor and levity into it. Faith is living in a house with two guys and another girl, and the description of the house is hilarious, grotesque, and all too real of just-graduated-from-college young adults. The hygiene, decorating skills, and overall responsibility skills just aren’t quite there yet, but they’re trying to figure it out; Faith’s dad coming by the house because he was “in the area” is a hilarious moment because of this.

The racism in Faith’s workplace was well done — she wanted to be a dresser instead of working in the costume department of a TV station, cataloging costumes. Someone told her they never have “colored” people working those jobs, and when the hiring committee started being unfair to her, she mentioned that and eventually got the job she wanted, but they don’t actually really let her do the job, saying that no shows needed anyone to help dress the actors at the moment. This was much more interesting than Faith not getting the job outright, because it was harder for her to find something to be upset about — she got the job she wanted, they just didn’t need her to do those responsibilities right now. And then, when they do let her work, it’s to dress up dolls for a kid’s show and not actual actors.

However, this novel shines when Faith goes to Jamaica and learns about her family. More than anything, this book is about how people become who they are, how they relate to their families, and how family can tie everything together. I loved seeing Faith trace her family tree as each new story about a new relative is told to her, and even though the reader doesn’t get to see much of Faith’s transformation, I felt her becoming more comfortable with herself and who she is with each branch she adds to the tree. Fruit of the Lemon is a beautiful story about family, identity, and culture, and it’s able to tell an important story while still including humorous and touching moments. Along with my husband, I highly recommend reading this book.

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

absolutely-true-diaryTitle: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Hardcover: 230 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This is one book that I feel like I missed out on reading during my high school years, and I’ve always been sad about it; I’ve even owned a copy for at least 3 years, and I still wasn’t able to read it until recently, so finishing this was somewhat of a personal accomplishment for me. Not because it’s such a hard book or anything, but because this is a recent classic that I’ve been wanting to read for so long. It feels especially close to me, because while I am very much not related to any Native Americans, my grandfather lived in Spokane, WA for almost all his life, and he even lived on the Spokane reservation with his girlfriend for a large part of his later life, so it’s interesting to get a sense of the place my grandfather called home.

First, I have to say that this book is lovely. It’s about a boy named Junior who lives on the Indian reservation in Spokane, and he decides to go to the “white” high school to try to build a future for himself. I was able to read through it quickly because it’s a pretty easy read and it is so, so entertaining and hits on some very real, true-life events that were inspired by Alexie’s own life. It’s wonderful that this book is out there for teens to read when they’re feeling like an outsider, because the main character is pretty much the ultimate outsider in a lot of ways and reading about his feelings about that and how he deals with it is somehow comforting.

What makes this Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a success is the fact that it covers everything. It’s funny and yet incredibly heartbreaking, reflecting real life in a way that most stories don’t even come close to, which I think is a reflection of its large autobiographical influence. It comes across as honest and genuine, which is something that is lacking in fiction sometimes, and which YA fiction especially needs. The illustrations are an added bonus and give further insight into Junior’s character and his overall mood at the time he’s “writing” his diary entries. They’re incorporated well and I loved reading Forney’s explanations for why each illustration was done the way it was.

There’s a reason why this is such a classic, and I don’t know what I can say that others haven’t, except that I personally liked this a lot and think it belongs on the must-read lists of everyone, because it is such a powerful, wonderful story.

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Title: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
Publisher: Pocket
Paperback: 295 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

The Color Purple is about a black woman named Celie who goes from being abused and raped by her father to abused by her husband, a man she hardly knows. Her story is told by herself through letters to God or, occasionally, her sister. When she meets a singer named Shug, Celie has a sort of coming-of-age and learns how to find joy in life.

My favorite part about this book is how uplifting it is, despite all the horrible situations these characters face. Even though Celie is abused by her father, and then later her husband, Shug helps her to find things to be happy about. For me, this helped the story become more complex and realistic. The books I’ve previously read about abuse are generally negative and have nothing positive to bring a balance to it. And really, I think that’s what makes The Color Purple such a classic: it’s an important cultural story about African-American life, and everyone can benefit from reading about how Celie transcends her circumstances to become a happy and fulfilled person.

The one thing that bothered me a little bit is that I thought the ending was rushed and tacked-on. It was a bit over-the-top happy-go-lucky, which is fine, because I like happy stories, but I think that a little more time could have been spent in resolving the issues.

Other than that, it was a great read with a lot of ideas to think about and reflect on, especially those dealing with religion and feminism. As a student teacher, I’m constantly evaluating my personal reading choices to see if they can fit in a classroom, and I definitely can see myself teaching The Color Purple. (Many people do, I know, but now I see why.) I think that everyone needs to read this at least once in their lives. It’s beautiful, moving, and full of interesting ideas about how we currently live and how we should live.

Audiobook Review: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

Title: Hocus Pocus
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Narrator: George Ralph
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Edition: Unabridged
Duration: 6 hours, 52 minutes
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Hocus Pocus is the fictional autobiography of a West Point graduate who was in charge of the humiliating evacuation of U.S. personnel from the Saigon rooftops at the close of the Vietnam War. Returning home from the war, he unknowingly fathered an illegitimate son. In 2001, the son begins a search for his father and catches up with him just in time to see him arrested for masterminding the prison break of 10,000 convicts.

Using his famous brand of satire and wit, Vonnegut captures twenty-first century America as only he could foresee it. In Hocus Pocus, listeners will find a fresh novel, as fascinating and brilliantly offbeat as anything he’s written.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5


I will preface my review by saying that Kurt Vonnegut is not for everyone. Personally, I love the subject matter he writes about and his style. However, I know quite a few people that wouldn’t be able to get through two chapters of this.

Hocus Pocus doesn’t have much of a traditional plot; if anything, it’s more of a character study of Hartke, the main character in the novel. Like the summary says, it’s a fictional autobiography. For some readers, it may be slow going because of this, but there’s plenty of action and drama to keep interest.

It’s hard to give a review of Hocus Pocus, because it’s so different from most novels. I will say that I loved it and found it highly entertaining. Vonnegut tackles a lot of issues in this novel — environmental concerns that are eerily accurate for a book written in 1990, the effects that war has on a person and a nation, bureaucratic power games, etc. I liked the numerology aspects that are included, though the ending gave me a bit of a headache trying to figure out; I’m sure it’s much easier when you’re actually reading the book rather than listening to it being read. Even though it’s definitely depressing (which is to be expected from Vonnegut), I found myself chuckling at many of Hartke’s observations and at the weird things that have happened in his life.

There was one thing and one thing only that bothered me about Hocus Pocus. There were quite a few references to Slaughter-House Five. Hartke mentions “some author” who wrote about Trafalmadorians and goes on to mention them multiple times throughout the second half of the novel. I didn’t think these references added anything to the story — in fact, they took me out of the story because I kept wondering why Vonnegut couldn’t think of anything else to reference besides his own novel.

George Ralph’s performance is astounding. His tone is perfect for this book. For the humorous, satirical parts, he speaks as if he’s serious, but somehow still makes it known that the words aren’t meant to be taken literally. Hartke came alive for me because of Ralph’s narration, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed Hocus Pocus as much had I not listened to this audiobook.

Audiobook Review: The Devil Wears Prada

Title: The Devil Wears Prada
Author: Lauren Weisberger
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publisher: Books on Tape
Length: 14 hours, 13 minutes
Summary (Taken from Goodreads):

Andrea Sachs, a small-town girl fresh out of college, lands the job “a million girls would die for.” Hired as the assistant to Miranda Priestly, the high-profile, fabulously successful editor of Runway magazine, Andrea finds herself in an office that shouts Prada! Armani! Versace! at every turn, a world populated by impossibly thin, heart-wrenchingly stylish women and beautiful men clad in fine-ribbed turtlenecks and tight leather pants that show off their lifelong dedication to the gym. With breathtaking ease, Miranda can turn each and every one of these hip sophisticates into a scared, whimpering child.

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Overall Rating: 4/5

I saw the movie before I read the book, so of course I compared the two throughout my whole time listening to The Devil Wears Prada.

The book is quite different from the movie, which I loved. I know that book-lovers hate it when their favorite book gets a make-over when turned to film, but my experience was backwards. Reading a book after watching a faithful movie representation bothers me a little. I feel like it’s a waste of time, because I already know the characters and what happens. In this novel, the premise and most of the plot are the same, but the characters are distinctly different. The story isn’t as light-hearted as the movie, which I found to be the most striking difference. Miranda isn’t humanized at all, Emily is less mean (and therefore less funny), but she’s definitely a more interesting, complex character than what the movie shows, and there’s a lot more going on with Andrea’s friends and family in the novel.

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