Hello, everyone! Time for another Month in Books post. This month was a mix of teen reads and historical fiction. I read 4 books in total and started one book that I didn’t finish. Overall, it was a good month for satisfaction, though I did stumble back into an old habit of re-reading. My power was out, can you really blame me? Let’s take a look at what was on my bookshelf this month.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Quick Summary: Li-yan, a young Akha girl raised in a remote tea mountain in China, changes the course of her life when she becomes a translator for a wealthy tea merchant visiting her village. After having a daughter out of wedlock, she is forced to surrender the girl to an orphanage, and the baby is soon adopted by an American family. Haunted by her decision, Li-yan pursues a new life in modern China, but never stops hoping to be reunited with her long-lost daughter.
My thoughts: I found this novel to be a quick and immersive read. Lisa See writes with intricate detail about the little-known Akha culture and the problems that stem from China’s push for modernization. While I enjoyed the protagonist and her journey from tea girl to tea magnate, I wished for more about her daughter, the titular “tea girl of hummingbird lane.” Hayley’s life, desires, and relationships are shrouded in almost total mystery until the final chapter, so although I wanted Li-yan and Hayley to reunite from a purely emotional standpoint, her characterization was so insubstantial that I didn’t care about her journey. You can read my full review here.
To read or not to read? Read it.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Quick Summary: Set in Ravka, a fantastical and fictional Russia, the novel follows an orphan named Alina as she discovers she is a Grisha (wizard) with the power to produce light. After being trained by the head Grisha, the handsome and mysterious Darkling, Alina hopes to use her power to rid Ravka of the ravaged hinterlands now called the Unsea. But life in the Grisha court is not as easy at it seems, and as the Darkling’s motives become murkier, Alina must choose whether to fall in line with the Darkling or go her own way.
My thoughts: I don’t read many YA books anymore, but I decided to read this after many, many entreaties by my friend Lindsay Bilgram (you can find her writing blog and BookTube here). I have a mixed opinion on this book. On the one hand, I thought the world building was stellar. I loved the descriptions of Ravka, which were reminiscent of mid-1800s Russia with a pre-steampunk fantasy twist, and I thought the Grisha mythology was fascinating. So many YA books try to have magic that is too similar to Harry Potter, so I enjoyed the simplistic, holistic magic in this book.
And for an entirely novel world, Leigh Bardugo doesn’t make the learning curve too steep. She makes Alina the audience surrogate, which is a reliable way of ensuring the reader experiences the newness of the magic world without being overwhelmed. So if the reader is overawed by the splendor of the Grisha court or confused about the lore behind the Grisha magic, it’s okay because Alina is too. The only parts I didn’t like about the book were the very “YA” parts, namely the love triangle and the predictable nature of the Darkling. Of course Alina would be in love with her best friend Mal, and of course she would be seduced by the Darkling, because to wish for anything else would be to defy the nature of YA. And of course, the Darkling would turn out to be not quite a knight in shining armor (no spoilers, of course). I just wish Bardugo could move beyond the love triangle. I would be okay with Alina having feelings for Mal or the Darkling, but both of them is too trite. I think it would be more interesting if her relationship with the Darkling grew out of something more sinister than seduction, but that’s ultimately up for Bardugo to write.
To read or not to read? Read it, but I’m not sure about continuing the rest of the trilogy.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Quick Summary: Convicted of murder at only sixteen, Grace Marks has spent almost double that in asylums and penitentiaries. When the penitentiary governor hires Dr. Simon Jordan to look into Grace’s innocence, he quickly falls for Grace’s refined manners and engrossing life story. Is Grace guilty or innocent? Depends on who’s telling the story.
My thoughts: Margaret Atwood is a literary queen, no doubt about it. I binged the Netflix series in only a few days, so of course I had to read the book. The prose is clear and elegant, sharp with Atwood’s signature mix of cynical feminism. The murder mystery itself is pretty straightforward and wouldn’t be interesting except of the strength of characters involved. How can a young girl become a murderer? Is it her fault, or the fault of a society which represses her and punishes her for every show of independence? These are the type of questions posed by Atwood’s work. My favorite part of the book is that even with a clear-cut sequence of events, there are still surprises, especially the ending, which shocked me when I saw it on TV and when I read the book. Overall it’s quite a tragedy, with some humorous parts as well. I have no quibbles.
To read or not to read? A must-read. And a must watch, too!
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson
Quick Summary: Eleven-year-old foundling Annika has a wonderful life in pre-war Vienna. Cherished by her adopted mothers, Ellie and Sigrid, and beloved by her friends and neighbors, Annika’s only wish is to meet her long-lost mother. When she befriends the La Rondine, the dying great-aunt of the richest snobs in town, Annika’s life changes. Her mother bursts into Vienna and sweeps Annika away to Spittal, a castle in Germany, where she’ll live as an aristocrat. But life at Spittal is not as it seems, and when Annika finds La Rondine’s discarded trunk in the castle lake, she realizes that her mother is far more mysterious than she appeared.
My thoughts: I first read Ibbotson’s children’s novel when I was eleven, and I’ve been re-reading it annually ever since. It’s as comforting as a Harry Potter book. Pre-war Vienna comes alive in this novel, with all its delicious smells and beautiful music. The characters are quirky and love-able and no-one is thoroughly bad, though there are villains aplenty. What impresses me most is the tight plotting. All the scenes fit together like puzzle pieces to create a very satisfying and I’m sure surprising ending, though I can’t remember if it surprised me the first time when I read it nine years ago. And although Star is a children’s book, it’s mature enough for adults too, and has budding relationships without the cloying romance of a YA book.
To read or not to read? Read, read, and re-read.