Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

12-year-old Jeremy is an aspiring artist in Paris with a genetic heart condition. Finances have always been tight for Jeremy and his mother, but when the family is unexpectedly hit with a hefty inheritance tax, Jeremy’s mother ends up in serious debt. So Jeremy does what any teenage boy in his situation would: he uses his artistic talent to earn money and save his mother from her debts.

The book: The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: DNF

Even though I didn’t finish this novel, I will provide my honest opinion of the first ~33% of it. My favorite thing about The Bridge of Little Jeremy was the immersive setting of Paris. Jeremy and his dog Leon spend a lot of time adventuring around Paris, and these passages are written in such a way that I felt like I was wandering alongside them. At times I felt that the descriptions of Paris were a bit superfluous – some detail could have been omitted and the passages still would have been quite immersive – but at other times these scenes took on an absorbing and surreal quality, which might not have been achieved without such vivid detail.

I also liked the main character, Jeremy. He is kind and compassionate toward people and animals alike, he is confident and charismatic, and he doesn’t let his financial and medical struggles dampen his amazement for life. The fact that Jeremy retains his childlike curiosity in spite of his struggles made him a very realistic child narrator for me (and in this way he reminded me of Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line).

My main issue with this novel was that I just couldn’t get into the writing. There was a lot of focus on the mundane details of Jeremy’s day-to-day life, which worked well at times, but fell flat at others. Based on the first ~33% of this book, I think it could have been considerably shorter. Interestingly, I noticed on Goodreads that the paperback format of this book (which is the format that I read) has a lower rating than either of the Kindle editions – perhaps the intricately detailed writing lends itself better to scrolling on a Kindle? If I ever get an eBook reader, I will try The Bridge of Little Jeremy again and see if the different format improves my experience.

While I enjoyed the immersive setting and compassionate main character, I couldn’t get into The Bridge of Little Jeremy and ultimately decided to stop reading about one-third of the way through. Although this book didn’t work for me, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on Goodreads, so do still check it out if you’re interested! And maybe go for an eBook edition, since that format has higher reviews than the paperback format.

Thank you to Estelle Leboucher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Book Review: The Boyfriend Project

After enjoying Beach Read, I decided to continue with the romance genre and read The Boyfriend Project. The novel opens with young professional Samiah Brooks learning via Twitter that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with two other women. After dumping the three-timing liar, the women become instant friends and vow to spend the next six months investing in themselves. But immediately after making this vow, Samiah falls for a new-hire at her office, and must decide whether she is willing to risk the potential consequences of breaking the pact and starting a workplace romance with someone she barely knows.

The book: The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Genre: Romance
Rating: 2 stars out of 5

I really wanted to like this book because the premise sounded promising, but unfortunately it fell short in many ways. One of my biggest issues was that none of the main characters were well-developed enough. I especially wish that Samiah’s flaws and internal issues had been explored more deeply. For the first half of the novel, Samiah seemed too perfect to be real: she is super successful professionally, has a great relationship with her family, can make friends easily, and loves charity and “paying it forward.” These are all admirable and compelling characteristics, but taken together in the absence of any major character flaws, they don’t make for a very relatable protagonist. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that Samiah is a perfectionist, and that she has difficulty trusting and accepting help from others. But even then, all of these issues are revealed at once, with the author quickly telling rather than showing them. I still liked and rooted for Samiah, but I wish she had been a more deeply developed character.

If the characters weren’t the most relatable but their romance had been compelling, I probably still would have enjoyed this book. But it was hard to feel compelled by the romantic development when so much of it happened “off-page.” For example, Samiah and Daniel first meet and flirt when they happen to take a coffee break at the same time. Their next conversation takes place after they both attend the same work meeting, with the author/third-person-narrator noting that they had taken coffee breaks together for the past couple of days. As the initial basis for Samiah and Daniel’s romance, those other coffee breaks should have been shown! This is just one of many examples of the author telling the reader that something important happened off-page.

Another reason why I didn’t find Samiah and Daniel’s romance compelling was because I thought that Daniel kind of sucked! Some of the reasons why he sucked are spoilers, so I’ll just mention his emotional indulgence. He uses his strong feelings for Samiah to justify selfish and unethical behavior, which is a huge red flag to me. He also does things like show up at her apartment unannounced to “surprise” her, which seems like a problem with healthy boundaries and communication.

I’ve spent most of this review being critical, so now I want to focus on what I did like. I loved the way the novel started with a friendship, and how the importance of non-romantic relationships was emphasized throughout the book. I also liked the tongue-in-cheek commentary about corporate culture at startup companies, and the complex dynamics between coworkers. And I really appreciated the messages about the importance of recognizing one’s own advantages, using those advantages to help others, and just generally paying kindness forward.

I wanted to love The Boyfriend Project, but it just wasn’t for me. The romance at the center of the novel didn’t compel me, and I thought that too much important action happened off-page. I also thought the book was a bit too long. There were multiple points before the book ended where I thought “the story could end right here and it would be perfectly fine”…but then it continued on.

Even though this book wasn’t for me, please don’t discount it based on my review if you are interested! There are plenty of 4 and 5-star reviews of The Boyfriend Project on Goodreads, and its average rating is currently at 3.72. If you read this book and liked it, I would love to know what aspects of it compelled you.

Book Review: Beach Read

I recently hit a reading slump after reading back-to-back-to-back literary fiction novels, and Beach Read seemed like the perfect book to pull me out of it. At the center of the novel is January Andrews, a romance novelist who writes happy endings because she genuinely believes in them. But after a tumultuous year including the death of her father and a break-up with the man she thought she would marry, January hits a writing slump. She spends the summer at her late father’s beach house in North Bear Shores, Michigan, only to find out that her neighbor is her college-rival – the acclaimed literary fiction writer Augustus Everett. The two strike a bet in which January must write a somber literary fiction novel, while Augustus will write a romance novel with a happy ending. But maybe the real romance will be the one they find with each other?

The book: Beach Read by Emily Henry
Genre: Romance
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

An important thing to understand about this novel is that, although it features two writers who are both writing outside their genres-of-expertise, it is much more heavily focused on their relationship than anything else. The book touches on some interesting themes – like how female writers aren’t taken as seriously as men, even if they’re more accomplished; or why people get hooked on romance novels – but it doesn’t focus on these themes for long. This initially disappointed me, because I had hoped to see more glimpses of January’s literary-fiction-writing process and more excerpts of the novel she ultimately writes. Once I came to terms with the fact that this book was almost exclusively focused on its characters, though, I really enjoyed it for what it was.

It’s also important to know that while this book appears to be a light, fun summer read, it gets somewhat heavy at times. This is because author Emily Henry deeply examines the events that shaped the protagonists’ perceptions of the world. I personally liked this, and thought that the exploration of the characters’ backstories made them more realistic. Without this exploration, Augustus would have just been the stereotypical brooding, difficult-to-know commitment-phobe, and January would have been that person who masks their pain with unrelenting and inflexible positivity. Both characters do come across as the aforementioned stereotypes at times, but the psychological explorations allow the reader to see the characters in a more nuanced and realistic light.

WARNING: the next paragraph contains potential spoilers!!!

As for the romance between January and Augustus, I really liked it! Their initial flirtation is all-at-once sharp, funny, and charming. As the two spend more time together, they both open up and grow emotionally, owning up to personal shortcomings and unfair assumptions they made about one another. The only aspect of the romance that I took issue with was Augustus’ repeated profession that he has “wanted” January for years. This word didn’t sit well with me, because it makes it sound as though Augustus is only interested in pursuing January as some sort of sexual conquest. This turns out not to be the case, but that phrasing still felt more predatory than sexy to me.

Okay, we are past the spoilers now.

I found it interesting how the book moved between deep emotional development and the characters’ cute and flirty romance, with both protagonists using snarky humor as a means of flirtation and a coping mechanism for their internal issues. As someone who frequently uses humor to diffuse tension and negative emotions, the shifts between flirty fun and seriousness felt natural to me. However, I can also see how those transitions might seem jarring or inappropriate to other readers.

Overall, I really enjoyed Beach Read! I thought that January and Augustus made a great couple, and I liked how they both developed emotionally over the course of the novel. I also appreciated how the book balanced humor and flirtation with serious emotional development. My main criticism is that I would have liked to see more commentary on what it was like for January to write a literary fiction novel, and more excerpts of the novel she ended up writing. Still, Beach Read was a fun and endearing romance!

Side note: for a book called Beach Read, the characters spend VERY little time at the beach.

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).

Book Review: Hex

Written as a series of journal entries to her ex-mentor Dr. Kallas, Hex examines botanist Nell Barber in the months after she is expelled from her PhD program and breaks up with her boyfriend of two years. Nell devotes herself to her research on the detoxification of poisonous plants (which she conducts in her bare-bones apartment) and to Dr. Kallas.

The book: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

My favorite things about this book were the prose and the protagonist’s voice. I loved the run-on sentences, and the narrator’s realistically distracted thought process. It was also just fascinating to be inside Nell’s head; she has such a sharp, insightful, and funny world view. While I normally don’t prefer books to be written in the second person, I thought that it worked here. Nell is so obsessed with and devoted to her mentor, Dr. Kallas, that the idea of her writing a confessional journal to her was totally believable.

In general, I found Nell to be a sympathetic character. She makes decisions that no perfectly-functioning adult would make, but that are understandable given how lost she feels after being expelled from her PhD program and breaking up with her boyfriend. The way she clings onto her research and ex-mentor makes complete sense for someone whose sense of self came from working exceptionally hard and serving her advisor. With that said, it was clear that Nell was lost and lonely even before starting her PhD program. I think that Nell’s character would have been even more interesting if the underlying reasons for her unfocused nature had been explored more deeply.

Something else that I liked about this book was that it focused on a science grad student. Prior to Hex I had never read a novel focused on a female grad student in the sciences, and it was nice to see that representation! Some of Nell’s snarky comments about her (former) academic department had me laughing out loud because they rang so true to me. For example: The goal of the party was that it should seem, pretty much immediately afterward, that there had never been any party. I also related to Nell’s assessment that she had worked pathologically and unsustainably hard at her research before losing steam; this was really common in the department where I used to work, and I suspect that most people who have gone through demanding graduate programs can relate.

The main reason why this wasn’t a 5-star read for me was because some of the characters’ relationships weren’t very believable. Nell, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend, her ex-advisor, and her ex-advisor’s husband quickly became enmeshed in a way that felt unrealistic and unsettling to me. There was one romance in particular, toward the end of the novel, that developed from seemingly out of nowhere; it felt like a convenient but not particularly compelling way to wrap up the arcs of both characters involved.

If you like stories with lost and slightly unlikable characters, I definitely recommend Hex. The writing is gorgeous and funny without being dense, and getting a glimpse into the narrator’s foggy mind was a uniquely fascinating experience.