Mini-Reviews, Volume 5

Now that we’re coming to the end of the year, I feel like it totally makes sense to revisit the books I read all the way back at the beginning of the year … and finally write up some reviews for them.

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters — Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia — arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost — and what they find — is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

Just as it is a feature of the immigrant experience to always look back, the novel begins with thirty-nine-year-old Yolanda’s return to the island and moves magically backward in time to the final days before the exile that is to transform the sisters’ lives. Along the way we witness their headlong plunge into the American mainstream. Although the girls try to distance themselves from their island life by ironing their hair, forgetting their Spanish, and meeting boys unchaperoned, they remain forever caught between the old world and the new. With bright humor and rare insight, Julia Alvarez vividly evokes the tensions and joys of belonging to two distinct cultures in a novel that is utterly authentic and full of irrepressible spirit.

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

4 stars

Hypothetically, this book is one I wouldn’t have minded reading in school; there’s lots to analyze, and the characters are genuinely likable despite (or because of) very human flaws and mess-ups. Through each sister’s distinct voice, Alvarez is a fantastic storyteller who really manages to consistently evoke their individual attitudes and beliefs, crafting an engaging narrative that conveys serious themes without being overly grim or preachy.

Hunted by Meagan Spooner

Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones — and in her blood. After all, her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering its secrets.

So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters out of their comfortable home among the aristocracy and back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas … or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman.

But Yeva’s father’s misfortune may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance. The Beast.

Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange creature back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of magical creatures that Yeva’s only heard about in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin, or salvation.

Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

2 stars

From a 2021 perspective, the premise is probably disadvantaged by the fact that Beauty and the Beast retellings and the Russian winter setting have both been done a million times. I’m drawn to that first element and somewhat indifferent to the second, so I was interested to see how they would interact in Hunted.

I think this could’ve still been an enjoyable read if not for some major flaws: the narrative breaks understood conventions of fairy tales in a way that felt more like a betrayal than a subversion, the Stockholm syndrome issue (built into the source material — not a spoiler) is only superficially acknowledged and not satisfactorily addressed, and the main characters’ emotional journeys comprised more telling than showing.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

When Rin aced the Keju — the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies — it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard — the most elite military school in Nikan — was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power — an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away …

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity … and that it may already be too late.

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

4.5 stars

There is so much going on in this book — and this is one of the rare cases where I mean that in a positive way. I was blown away by the depth of the worldbuilding and character development, and the unflinching examination of complex, controversial topics. 

The Sinegard chapters in particular had kind of a Protector of the Small vibe, which I really enjoyed. While I’m not a huge fan of “historical military fantasy” as a subgenre, the overarching themes and especially the characters kept me immersed in the journey. While I can’t say I relate to Rin, I highly respect her determined pursuit of power and revenge against all odds; even when she made arguably bad choices I still rooted for her. And I definitely wanted to see her succeed at the end of the series.

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

When last seen, the singularly inept wizard Rincewind had fallen off the edge of the world. Now magically, he’s turned up again, and this time he’s brought the Luggage.

But that’s not all …

Once upon a time, there was an eighth son of an eighth son who was, of course, a wizard. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, said wizard then had seven sons. And then he had an eighth son — a wizard squared (that’s all the math, really). Who of course, was a source of magic — a sourcerer.

Will the sourcerer lead the wizards to dominate all of Discworld? Or can Rincewind’s tiny band stave off the Apocalypse?

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

3.5 stars

For context, I’ve been reading the Discworld books by central character(s): I started with the Rincewind books, so by this point I had a sense of his character and of his corner of the Discworld. As with the rest of the series, Sourcery is clever and funny and insightful — but to me it doesn’t really stand out from the bunch.

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

In this poignant, hilarious and deeply intimate call to arms, Hollywood’s most powerful woman, the mega-talented creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder and Catch, reveals how saying YES changed her life — and how it can change yours too.

With three hit shows on television and three children at home, Shonda Rhimes had lots of good reasons to say no when invitations arrived. Hollywood party? No. Speaking engagement? No. Media appearances? No.

And there was the side benefit of saying No for an introvert like Shonda: nothing new to fear.

Then Shonda’s sister laid down a challenge: just for one year, try to say YES to the unexpected invitations that come your way. Shonda reluctantly agreed ― and the result was nothing short of transformative. In Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes chronicles the powerful impact saying Yes had on every aspect of her life ― and how we can all change our lives with one little word. Yes.

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

3 stars

When I read nonfiction, it tends to be memoir or personal development — or, as is the case with Year of Yes, both of the above. Although the effect is somewhat diluted by a lot of generalizations and some repetitiveness, this book is pretty much what it says on the can: a read from a public figure I respect, which I found upbeat and even genuinely inspirational.

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