Category Archives: Reviews

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy

It took me till 2 am last night but I did it. I finally finished the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. 

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy): Kwan, Kevin ...

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy): Kwan, Kevin ...

Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy): Kwan, Kevin ...

I kind of feel like I deserve an award now. I’ve been reading the series for a year and though nominally its only 1,190 pages…it feels like ten times that. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got a slight taste of what the books are like. I’d say the first book was the best and the third one was a very satisfying ending. The middle one was sensory overload, and I didn’t even know you could get sensory overload from a book.

Have you read the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy or seen the movie? What are your thoughts?


Evicted by Matthew Desmond

I’m throwing a pity party because the trip I’ve planned for months got canceled so instead of dragging you into it, I’m just going to share a book review I wrote a few weeks ago. 

Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond–2/5 stars

Evicted purports to look at homelessness and evictions in Milwaukee. This book has an average 4.47/5. And I just…could not get into it. It occurred to me as I made my way through the author’s “solution” in the back of the book that if this was an article submitted to the law journal where I am an articles editor, I would probably recommend against publication. So, in the spirit of the criteria I would use to objectively analyze an argument submitted to my law review, here are my thoughts on the book:

Thesis: the article has a strong and clear thesis that predominates throughout.
Agree.
The subtitle says it all. “Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Matthew Desmond blames capitalism–i.e. profit–for tenant turnover rates. Ironically, the narrative nature of this piece often feels like a direct contradiction to this argument. To give him credit, he gives it all. He reveals the good and the bad choices made by the people he highlights. But when reading about their choices, it quickly becomes apparent that how you interpret their behavior will depend on how you view poverty and the problem of generational poverty in America. (Generational poverty being a phrase he would actually probably strongly object to.) How do you react to a person spending food-stamps on lobster and then having nothing left over to eat for the remainder of the month? A conservative leaning reader will view it as wasteful and part and parcel for why the person remains poor. Desmond views it as a way of “fighting back” against a lifetime of poverty. And he says so.
Initially I thought Desmond did a good job giving glimpses of the landlords as well as the tenants and their varied motivations, but it quickly becomes apparent where his loyalties lie. And it isn’t with the landlords. The fact that anyone gets rich off real-estate appears to offend him. While I agree that some really shady behavior seems to be going down, he doesn’t go there but instead strives for a much more morally righteous tone with capitalism in general. So while I do think his extrapolation of the “data” could get interpreted differently, the author’s thesis remains fairly consistent throughout.

Novelty: the article contains original analysis that is convincing and in proportion to the background provided
Neutral.
It depends what you mean by analysis. In his explanation at the back of the book we learn Desmond moved to a trailer park and lived with many of these people. Good for him. But if I was actually writing this as a review for law review, I’d flag the narrative nature of this piece. It makes it readable–there is a reason this book appeals to a wide, non-academic readership–but is not particularly empirical. So any “analysis” he does at the end when he describes the “solution” feels…less than backed up by actual data. Or possibly even logic. It comes from a place of moral outrage. And I’m all about moral outrage, but just because he lived in a trailer park does not mean he knows the best solution for poverty in America. Talk about entitlement. You live with people for a period of time and suddenly know how to fix all their problems. But Desmond wants to provide a solution. As a reader, we want a step by step solution to combat the tragedies we just read about. I’d be mad if he did not offer one, to be honest. The thing is, solutions do not come from moral outrage. And they do not come by suggesting we throw more money at the problem. If anything, his stories reveal that programs set up by the government to address homelessness don’t do much to actually solve homelessness. Instead, they fund slumlords raising their rent because now there is more money pouring in. So why is more government the solution? I needed more than “countries we consider backwards do this so what is America’s problem.”
So, yeah, I needed more analysis and less storytelling.

Utility: the article solves an important, current legal problem in a nonobvious way and will continue to be important by the time it goes to print.
Neutral.
No matter who you blame for it, homeless is a problem. It doesn’t take a book like this to point to the education and job opportunities lost because of a lack of housing. (But trust me, this book will point it out anyway. Because that fact is about the closest this comes to data.) I already laid out above why I feel like his solution is insufficient. But it bears repeating–after 300 some pages telling heart-yanking stories about why the system fails people, Desmond provides a handful of pages that amount to: “We need a universal housing voucher system. Other countries have it. Why not us?”
Y’all, that does not address the problem. Or if it would, Desmond does not give me nearly enough arguments to prove it will. Desmond thinks that if people aren’t afraid of getting kicked out of their homes, they will pursue education and keep their jobs and pursue better relationships and make better financial decisions and everything will become kumbaya. It is quite an optimistic opinion for someone who got to return to academia (Harvard no less!) after his stint in a trailer park ended.
But perhaps you think I’m being too negative. After all, I am not offering a solution to homelessness, poverty, and racism all in one go. And this book isn’t trying to provide a solution. It is exposing the problem. The details get worked out farther down the line.
Here is my biggest problem with this book’s “solution”: first it wins over your pity, then it says “we can solve the problem by throwing money at it.”
And you what that means? You, the reader, can sit back satisfied because you, the reader, can feel engaged and indignant and cry out for the government to ‘do something!’ while not actually having to do anything yourself to help these people or address their situation or look beyond the problem. Because we have the problem: greedy landlords. Not drugs, not poor financial decisions, not violence.
No, greedy landlords who use the government to their advantage by having sheriffs engage in evictions. So apparently the decision is to get government more involved. And possibly not have sheriffs carry out evictions.

Soundness: the article addresses counterarguments, provides explanations of prior literature in the area, and generally demonstrates mastery of the subject.
Disagree.
Here is where my academic and legal training particularly kicks in–I was driven crazy by the lack of counterarguments in this book. I thought maybe the parts where the Desmond follows the landlord would make up something of a “counterargument.” After all, they’re just trying to make a day’s wage too. But no, as the book goes on, they increasingly become scapegoats for the inner city ills. And maybe rightly so. But the result is that we don’t get alternatives here–alternative solutions or alternative explanations. We simply get one morally charged outrage.
I was particularly struck by how Desmond dismisses an inner city pastor who doesn’t help a woman with her rent. I don’t have the exact quote but it was something to the effect of, “He preached loving your neighbor until it came to actually doing it.” And I’m not saying I would not have handled the situation the same or that I understand it fully. But the fact is, we’ve seen the woman make poor financial decisions left and right. And then the author wants us to get mad that the pastor won’t pour more money into the situation after even calling up her family members and asking them what they think. You’re probably noticing a theme but…less moral smugness and more facts would go a long way for my appreciation of this book.

Clarity & Organization: the article uses clear, efficient, and organized writing to convey ideas.
Neutral.
I mean, it is prettily written. It is easy to get engaged, enraged, energized. A lot of the more negative reviews dismiss the “academic” portion at the back after the more narrative beginning, but I certainly preferred the academic portion. Still, overall, he is trying to put a face to poverty and I can give him credit for it. The problem is, poverty is multifaceted and complicated and often generational. It does frequently occur because of mental illness and childhood trauma, as Desmond illustrates with many of his subjects. Much of it is cultural.
And it means no easy solution emerges. But to make a book like this tenable, you have to provide a solution. I don’t know how you get around it. And Desmond provides his solution. It is one firmly rooted in his worldview.

Your political worldview will likely impact how you read this book. It will tug on your heartstrings. It will give you the moral indignation to cry out for change. But it will not provide you with something workable or sustainable as a solution. And that is where I was left frustrated and why this did not get a higher rating from me. 


Ranking Recent Pride and Prejudice Retellings

In my end of the year reviews for 2019, I compiled a list of all the Jane Austen retellings I read during the year. Though extensive, the list barely touched the surface of available “Pride and Prejudice Variations”–a genre that continues to grow with the increase in popularity of self-publishing and fan-fiction. In the list, I mentioned two recently popular ethnic Pride and Prejudice retellings and a third one I was eyeing that I finally finished last month.

So, time has come for a more thorough review of the three popular modern, ethnic P&P retellings published in 2019.  Added bonus that  y’all are probably quarantined and want something interesting to read. I present: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin,  Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal,  and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. 

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Ayesha at Last presents the most “realistic” P&P retelling. Set in Canada, it follows two Muslim immigrant/refugees from India (possibly Pakistan but my notes say India) and contrasts Khalid (the Mr. Darcy character) who is a very traditional Muslim with Ayesha (the Elizabeth Bennet) who is equally devout but a bit more liberal in her faith (i.e. wears a hijab instead of a full burka.) While following the familiar P&P plot, the story deals with racism, stereotyping, forced marriages, and a variety of other emotionally weighty topics. 

Pros:

  • Lovely, diverse characters that exist as people and not as tokens
  • Genuine emotions and discussions about stereotypes and cultural expectations
  • The blending of cultures and the immigrant/refugee experience (Canada/India)
  •  Lovely couple/romance (they are both a little awkward but they mesh well and believably)
  • Subtle Pride and Prejudice retelling (especially at the beginning. There aren’t random P&P scenes or quotes shoved in unnecessarily.

Cons:

The book attempts to be both a social commentary and a “swoon-worthy” Jane Austen retelling and because it tries to be both, it fails at both. On the one hand, the author directly confronts issues of racism, stereotyping, and human rights abuses, even and especially within the Islamic faith. On the other hand, she is writing a Jane Austen retelling where everything must end with Happily Ever After. The result is dissatisfying. As a look at Muslims and much of the inner and outer challenges they face, it falls short because it veers into drama…possible kidnapping, trafficking, wrongful termination, embezzlement, etc. Which then feels extra weird when everything wraps up with a bow.  But as a Jane Austen retelling, it lacks the romantic punch that makes you swoon at the end because it takes itself so seriously and handles such mature themes. 

3.5/5 stars

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable takes place in Pakistan and also involves Muslim characters, but it presents a much less hard-hitting exposé. Or any exposé, really, at all. It is the drama and fun of P&P, but in modern day Pakistan with Mr. Darcy as Valentine Darsee–a young jet-setter in town for a wedding–and Alys Binat, a rural school teacher from a once wealthy family. He’s got pride. She’s got prejudice. You know the drill. 

Pros:

This was a fun read. It is ridiculous at times and sometimes felt like a poor quality Crazy Rich Asians, but the story flowed well. I mean, the reason I love P&P retellings is because they give me a familiar story but in a slightly different setting, and this does just that. Five sisters. Three suitors. Lots of miscommunication. Sign me up! 

As a sort of pro and sort of con, the author frequently has characters rattle on about Pakistani movies, music, and literature. The goal, I assume, is to pique your curiosity and make you more interested in Pakistani culture. But too often it came across as reading a Comparative Literature syllabus for undergrads–not quite informative enough to be useful but still mildly informative. 

Cons:

There is something weirdly meta about reading a story where the characters live in a universe where Pride and Prejudice exists and they discuss it and yet don’t see how their own lives perfectly mirror the novel. Like, sure, pretend names like Binat, Darsee, and Bingla have nothhhinnnnggggg in common with Bennet, Darcy, and Bingley. I see you. Pure coincidence that there are five Binat daughters who behave exactly like their literary counter-points. The story also contrasts weirdly with Ayesha At Last because while the characters are nominally Muslim, they’re extremely loose Muslims. As an example, alcohol gets consumed frequently and the story ends by praising the Jane and Elizabeth characters for “requesting the right of divorce” on their wedding day. I struggled to understand what tone the author was going for. 

3/5 stars

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

Unlike the other two, Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors does not really play the ethnic card as much as I expected. Set in the United States, the Darcy character comes from a family of immigrants from India but the main connection to the country mostly revolves around eating Indian food. And the Elizabeth Bennet character comes from England and works as a Michelin chef in France. But this story has other things going for it because…

Pros:

THIS IS A GENDER BENDER STORY! The Darcy character is actually the female (a brain surgeon named Trisha) and Elizabeth Bennet the male (the chef, DJ Caine.) It shakes things up a bit and adds several new layers to the story. Now she’s got pride and he’s got prejudice. Though it nominally follows the P&P plot (complete with a female Wickham!), the real drama centers on DJ’s sister, a painter about to lose her sight to a brain tumor and the fight to make her realize that life is still worth living even without her sight. And, oh yeah, something something about Trisha’s family…

Cons:

Trisha’s family is priming her brother to become the next governor of California and they blame Trisha for something the Wickham character did years ago that could ruin his campaign…yada, yada. It is all over-the-top and didn’t hold my interest very well. Romance also got unnecessarily edgy near the end. Unlike the other two, I don’t have as many “concrete” complaints for this story except that the Wickham story line made me roll my eyes so hard they got stuck in the back of my head. 

3/5 stars

 

 

Have you read any of these? What rating did you give them?


2019 Reading Challenge: Jane Austen Related

You’ve all been lovely about my inundation of book-related posts but I am going to put you through one more: the best and worst Jane Austen related books of 2019. Because here is a fact: if there is one saturated genre, it is the spin-offs, reimaginings, and retellings of Jane Austen’s works. And I read a lot of them this past year. So here are a few of my favorite and least favorites from the past year that maybe did not make 5 stars, but proved memorable. 

Listed from best to worst: 

  1. Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon by Maria Grace (a surprisingly delightful P&P retelling starring dragons!)
  2. Longbourn: Dragon Entail by Maria Grace (sequel to Pemberley) 
  3. Netherfield: Rogue Dragon by Maria Grace (final book in the trilogy) 
  4. Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin (P&P with a Muslim twist. Keep your eye out for a longer blog post contrasting this one with Unmarriageable and Pride and Prejudice and Other Flavors)
  5. Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (P&P in Pakistan)
  6. Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale (sequel to Austenland and better than the original but not as good as the movie)
  7. The Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret C. Sullivan (good beginner read but gives advice like the author is Caroline Bingley which is weird.)
  8. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey with Jane Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith (an interesting premise–American professor leading Austen book-clubs in South America–but execution fell flat) 
  9. Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken (basically Mansfield Park 2.0 but with a gutsier heroine)
  10. An Assembly Such As This by Pamela Aidan (P&P from Darcy’s POV)
  11. First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride & Prejudice by Alexa Adams (imagine Darcy and Elizabeth did not take an instant dislike to one another. What would happen?! With this plot, nothing interesting.) 
  12. Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd (took forever to get murdering!) 
  13. A Weekend With Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly (hated it)
  14. Bespelling Jane Austen by Mary Balogh and others (4 short stories–1 decent, the others trash)
  15. The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn (see my 1 star posts)
  16. Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos (so bad I did not finish)

Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 4)

LAST ONE I PROMISE. 

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

An expanded universe where the Scarlet Pimpernel retires and the Purple Gentian and Pink Carnation take over as British spies in post-revolutionary France? Um, yes. But alas, no. The story switches between a pointless side story about a modern day woman working on her PhD trying to undercover the identity of the Pink Carnation and actual story of the Pink Carnation. The former bored me. The latter is a trashy, bodice ripping romance novel whose very existence besmirches the name of one of the greatest works in the English language. Poor, maligned Percy. 

The Perfect Kiss by Anne Gracie

I moderately enjoyed the first book in this series and decided to give it one more try with The Perfect Kiss. It sucked. The heroine was fine, I guess, but the lover boy was a pushy jerk who couldn’t take no as an answer. Decent writing could not make up for a trash story. 

The Spy Who Loves Me by Julie Kenner

Walter Mitty meets the female James Bond. They fall in love because reasons. The end. Oh wait, no, there is a Bond level villain who wants to start WWIII because reasons? He has a sexy, evil female sidekick who will try and seduce the main lead because…reasons? The end. No? There is a super predictable mole within the agency that the reader will figure out in chapter 1 because..reasons? None of this made sense.

Tightrope by Amanda Quick

Don’t judge this lovely book by its cover. It is terrible. It cannot make up its mind what year it is set in, the dialogue feels super forced, and the romance is insta-lust. Oh, and it is also book 3 in the series but nothing on the book will inform you of this. Sigh. So pretty. So terrible.

The Duke’s Marriage Mission by Deborah Hale

Take the worst parts of The Secret Garden, add it to the worst parts of Jane Eyre, then multiply by ten. I give you this book. Nothing spectacularly wrong with it but also nothing spectacularly right. The couple’s immediate attraction, stupid misunderstandings, and lame fights left me irritated. And the “moral” of the story (marriage doesn’t mean giving up freedom!) came as subtle as a fence post to the head.

Temple of the Dawn by Anne Hampson

I wanted to find some books set in Bangkok, Thailand and I found it surprisingly challenging to do so. This book did not actually disappoint me much there. It was fun reading about places I’ve visited. But the romance! The romance was beyond terrible. I almost did not finish with 6 pages to go. The climax/conclusion of the book was so out of nowhere that to even hint at it would be a big spoiler. But if you want the spoiler, check out my full review on Goodreads and avoid this one.

 


Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 3)

In which I pay penitence by confessing to all the books I finished and hated in 2019. Part 3.

How To Marry a Marquis by Julia Quinn

I won’t repeat my Goodreads rant about novels that create heroes only barely better than villains but I will say that this otherwise mediocre Regency romance irritated the snot out of me with an entitled jerk for a hero who rages until the heroine agrees to wed him. 

Starting Now by Debbie Macomber

I really need to take a vow not to read any more books that have a female attorney as the main character. They are universally terrible. This was a mediocre read that jumped right onto my “hate” list by having a stereotypical female attorney as the main character and tackling questions about career and motherhood with a heavy-handed horribleness that left me wanting to go work more billable hours. Awkward and overdone and all the romances sucked.

Naughty Neighbor by Janet Evanovich

I give the relationship a year. I thought maybe I could shuffle this one under 2 or 1.5 stars but the ending just left me gagging. The “political thriller” bit totally fell apart. The relationship itself is all lust and hormones. It won’t last. And if it does? Well, I’d be sad for the heroine. She gets the short end of the deal. She should dump the loser and go to law school. 

The Big Kahuna by Janet Evanovich

Despite the fact that Evanovich appears on this list twice, I actually was really enjoying her Fox and O’Hare series. They consistently received 4 stars from me. Then this book happened. The biggest problem? This is a heist series but this is not a heist book. The jokes fall flat and the characters pretend like the last two books never happened. Evanovich switched co-writers for this one and I’m wondering if that is where it went wrong. 

Rumble on the Bayou by Jana Deleon

In general I enjoy Jana Deleon’s cozy mysteries but this one fell quite flat. It is basically a reverse Louisiana Longshot. Instead of a female government agent in a small Louisiana town sparking up a romance with the overly qualified and good looking male deputy, it is a male government agent in a small Louisiana town sparking up a romance with an overly qualified and good looking female deputy. Even the towns come across interchangeably. Except where Louisiana Longshot keeps things lighthearted and funny with a series of quirky side characters, Rumble on the Bayou focuses on the couple and not for the better. 

Belle of the Ball by Pam McCutcheon

Her name means beauty but Belle is not beautiful. Her sister’s name means charming but Charisma is not charmig. Her other sister’s name means grace but Grace is not graceful. If that is the kind of heavy-handed characterization you like, you might like this book. It is full of on-the-nose plot points and awkward, overstated jokes. The best thing this book has going for it is its $0 price tag. 

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

All the technical plot points are there to make this an exciting, fun adventure story but it falls quite short. The problems are twofold: annoying characters and unclear plotting. The heroine demonstrates all of two reactions at any given moment: seasickness or judgment. She’s got the soul of a poet but keeps it firmly in place in case she finds herself tempted to crack a smile. She is joined on her journey by the sort of person one meets so regularly in fiction and so rarely in real life: the irresistible man. And that is about all the depth his character has. Wrapped up with some unclear plot-lines (ghosts? time travel?), this story truly misses the mark.


Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 2)

It is the time of the year where I get revenge on all my least-favorite books! Begin Part 2 of Amy’s Least Favorite Reads of 2019. 

This Pen for Hire by Laura Levine

The minute the heroine explained her name was “Jaine Austen” because her mother loved Jane Austen but couldn’t spell, I knew this wasn’t a mystery for me. But I unwisely kept reading anyway. Jaine likes eating, mocking skinny people, drinking margaritas, and whining about her lack of love life. When not doing any of the above she solves a murder. Her motivation made no sense and I found the book in general really irritating. 

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Virginal descendants of Alexander the Great who go around killing unicorns? Heck yeah. If only the plot lived up to its amazing premise. Alas, the execution of the story is rather mediocre. The characters are underdeveloped and the villain downright cartoonish. Finally, a behind-the-scenes rape added solely to push the story along left this book solidly into one star territory. 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I did not connect with this book on any level. And I feel kind of bummed about that fact. I appreciate the way the author kept certain information and slowly released it. It made me wonder if I somehow missed something but actually I just hadn’t been told it. But that is about the nicest thing I can say about this book.  I did not like the writing; I did not like the commentary about sex. I did not like any of the characters. I didn’t so much hate it as feel generally disappointed and disgusted. 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

So, admittedly, the problem partially lies with me because I was under the impression this was a middle school novel. It most definitely is not. It also contains a whole list of thing I personally dislike: precocious children (à la The Little Prince and Be Frank With Me), child narrators for adult readers, attempted profoundness, confusing plots that jump everywhere, multiple unclear narrators, casual discussion of a sexual encounter, kissing…sisters?, angst, so.much.angst.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Unfortunately, this book lost me pretty quickly and never regained ground. I stayed perpetually irritated right up until the end. Not even turning the Beauty and the Beast plot into the story of Psyche and Eros (my favoritest myth ever) salvaged it. The hero is as bland as butter. The heroine is a moron who does literally the opposite of what she is told no mater the consequences. Lots of lust-fueled attraction. Not a series I will continue with. 

Bespelling Jane Austen by Mary Balogh, Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard, & Janet Mullany

Jane Austen retellings with a paranormal twist. The Northanger Abbey retelling was clever. The other three made me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spoon. Very TMI.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

So, you are part of an elite team of scientists sending two people into the past to retrieve a long-lost manuscript of Jane Austen’s, do you:

A. Send two people who actually look like the siblings they are posing as
B.  Find two people mature enough not to give into their lust and endanger the entire mission by becoming lovers while posing as siblings
C.  Choose two people who won’t run afoul with the racist and anti-Semitic attitudes of Regency England
D. None of the above

What? None of the above? Well, you would get along fine in this book! The rest of us will stand over here rolling our eyes.