Book Review Round-Up

It’s been a wild end of this year with a lot of life changes. I’ll talk more about the big changes in a separate post, but it’s given me some much-needed downtime and a chance to get back into reading. I honestly didn’t have the brain space or low enough stress levels for many, many months to even think about picking up a book. Thankfully that has subsided toward the end of this year.

Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leaning an Intentional Life by Cait Flanders. (Self-Help, 2020). I pre-ordered this book to receive it as soon as it was released back in 2020 after reading Cait Flanders’ first book, The Year of Less. I loved The Year of Less so much I couldn’t wait to jump into her next release. After buying it, I didn’t end up reading it for a full year. But the timing was just right when I finally got around to reading it. Opting Out offers insights on the obstacles you may face when you decide to take a direction in life that is unconventional, be it traveling, not drinking, not having children, changing careers, etc. Flanders compares the journey to self acceptance within your own decisions to climbing a mountain and offers advice for each segment of your own journey. She shares parallels and experiences from her own life and her desire to live a travel-centric lifestyle that is also environmentally conscious. If you’re at a juncture in your life where you’re weighing making a shift that may not be welcomed by those around you, this is a great read to take the temperature on your own comfort level with your impending decisions.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. (Fiction/Fantasy, 2019). I can’t remember for the life of me where I first heard about this book, but I ordered it shortly after it was released in English in 2019 and like so many other books on my shelves, it took a while for me to get around to reading it. This short book (272 pages) read somewhat funnily (in my mind) as it was segmented into four separate acts and the same characters throughout it, but each act follows the story of one character specifically. After reading it and reading reviews, I realized that Before the Coffee Gets Cold was originally a play that was then translated into English and presented in a novel form. Makes far more sense this way why it read the way it did. The gist of this story is that in a small Tokyo coffee shop, there is the ability to travel back in time to see and speak with others. The process is filled with many, many rules and is not utilized by many. In this story, we follow four characters who travel back in time to gain closure with circumstances and people in their life, such as understanding why a significant other chose to leave them, getting to communicate once again with a family member who has advanced Alzheimers, meeting a daughter that the mother would never meet, and to see a sister one final time. This book had me bawling in each act as the emotions were portrayed so beautifully and you understood the risk that each individual took by traveling back in time. I will note, I’m not normally very interested in fantasy novels, but this falls under the genre of magical realism – where it is set in the real world, but there are magical elements in the story. It was “real enough” for me to follow the storyline and not feel out of touch with the genre.

Disappearing Moon Cafe by Sky Lee. (Historical Fiction, 2006). I’ve read a number of Asian-centered stories in the last two years – you can see my list of recommended titles in this genre on Bookshop – and I’ve noticed that almost all of them have a very sad tone. I don’t know if I’m just accidentally selecting all books that are really sad, or if this is a commonality in this vein of literature. Either way, this book, while well-written, bummed me out. I listened to this book in audiobook format, and I think I would have had an easier time following the complex family tree and switching back and forth from different generations’ perspectives in a physical copy. The story follows the Wong family’s move from China to Vancouver, British Columbia and their rise to power and wealth within their community. This does not come without hardship, and the story emphasizes the difficulties that women face within this culture – with an expectation of arranged marriages, meeting the cultural expectations of being a good wife / mother / daughter-in-law, and the many, many secrets that the family has held over generations. The decisions and actions of grandparents and parents would continue to rear their ugly heads in future generations and inevitably, stand in the way of the happiness of their extended family. The overarching theme of this story is just sadness – sadness in their circumstances, in their families, and in their individual identities.

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins. (Thriller, 2021). This modern retelling of Jane Eyre immediately interested me as I was completely (and yes, weirdly) obsessed with Gothic novels and Victorian-era stories, and specifically the Bronte sisters. Anyway – whether you’ve read Jane Eyre or not, this thriller differentiates enough that you’ll enjoy the wild narrative with or without the context of having read the original. Set in a wealthy Birmingham, Alabama suburb, Jane is a broke 20-something walking dogs for a living in a wealthy neighborhood. She meets dark, brooding, and extremely wealthy recent widower Eddie, who soon hires her to walk his dog. In a whirlwind romance, Jane and Eddie begin seeing one another and he offers her stability (both in a family structure, home life, and financially) that she’s never experienced in her life before now. Red flags begin to emerge about the circumstances surrounding Eddie’s late wife Bea’s death and Jane grows worried that her newfound stability will slip away. I loved the way this story was presented and felt that it offered enough changes from the original that it still lived up to its thriller status.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Van Glaser. (YA/Fiction, 2017). Every once in a great while, I’ll read a highly rated children’s or YA book and the simplicity of the storytelling ends up making for a highly enjoyable reading experience. I felt the same way when I read The Wednesday Wars last year (see the review in this post). This story follows a family of five children and two parents living in a brownstone in Harlem. They find out that their curmudgeonly landlord, Mr. Biederman, will not be renewing their lease 10 days before the end of the year. Dismayed at the loss of their home and community on 141st Street, the children set to work in an attempt to convince the hermit-like landlord to reconsider and let their family stay in the brownstone. The story follows each of the children’s unique skills (basketball, music, chemistry, art), interests (rabbit training, violin, Rube Goldberg machines, reading), and attempts at persuasion over the course of five days (arts and crafts, petitions, musical renditions, bribery by cookies and pets). I loved the way that this story presented both family and the sense of community gained through a strong neighborhood. The Vanderbeekers were a life force in the tiny pocket of their neighborhood, and while they didn’t seem to know it, the rambunctious group of five children brought joy to so many in their midst.

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