Book Review: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Somewhere, I heard Everything I Never Told You described as “an Asian Gone Girl.” Though I had some issues with Gillian Flynn’s smash hit, I enjoyed it more than not, and especially appreciated the unrepentant, malevolent, genius female sociopath at Gone Girl‘s core. (Why are there not more truly-despicable female characters out there? Authors?)

Like Cersei! Love her. Even when Martin writes himself into a corner regarding her character.

So when my library hold for Everything I Never Told You came up, I dove in excitedly, eager to unravel the mystery and discover the dark heart at the story’s core. Ng does an admirable job of gripping the reader by the throat from the first sentence:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.

Almost immediately, things slow down as we enter the point of view of each of the remaining family members in turn, and watch them deal with the numbness and grief that accompany losing a daughter and sister.

For me, this was a case of pre-reading expectations dampening my enjoyment of the actual novel. Expectations: the great enjoyment-killer. If I had been expecting a more straightforward family drama, with my mind primed for the mystery to be more of a “mystery,” perhaps I would have found this to be a four- or even a five-star read. As it stands, this was a solid three stars for me.

Still, there was a lot to like about Everything I Never Told You. Some of the imagery was beautiful; many of the thoughts and actions from the point of view of Hannah, the youngest and most-ignored child, were honed to a scalpel’s edge and cut just as deeply.

Parents James and Marilyn are the most fully-formed characters in the novel, given extensive backstories so the reader understands just how they ended up being the people that they are. Again, this produced some of the finer writing in the book. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, craves acceptance and the ability to blend into mainstream white American society; Marilyn is the daughter of a single mother who sees how domesticity can be a prison, and vows to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor. Both of these driving motivations are placed squarely on the shoulders of Lydia, the much doted-on–and stifled–daughter.

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Book Review: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

There are winter books and there are summer books. Summer books aren’t necessarily light, but they are warm and irreverent and sometimes a little silly. I like my summer books to be close to home, about New York City and people like myself (or close enough). Winter books are heavy–not physically heavy, but dense–and challenging. They’re atmospheric. They’re cold on the surface, keeping you at a distance before finally letting you in.

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan, is a winter book if I’ve ever read one. And not just because of that cover:

The bare bones of the plot: Valentine Millimaki is a deputy officer whose job is, more often than not, to work with his canine partner to locate the missing and the dead. When he isn’t searching the lost places of Montana, he works the night shift at the local jail, drifting away from his wife. John Gload is a serial killer who has finally allowed himself to be caught. He takes a friendly interest in Millimaki, in whom he sees flashes of himself: a farmer’s son, someone appreciative of nature, an insomniac. Our story progresses from there.

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Book Review: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Somehow I ended up owning two copies of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, while knowing little about it beyond it was a fantasy book that receives glowing reviews online. While brainstorming birthday presents for my dad last year (and knowing well his habit of reading good, bad, and terrible fantasy and sci-fi novels), I reasoned that I could give him The Name of the Wind based purely on what I had heard others saying about it. A risky gamble, but it paid off: not only did my dad love the book, but he ended up passing it to two colleagues who also loved it. This was finally enough to motivate me to read the book that I had already recommended!

The Name of the Wind could have been an interesting fantasy if only because of its unique narrative structure: it is the story of Kvothe, a famous arcanist and warrior, told by Kvothe himself, over the course of a single day. I loved this conceit. It allowed us to compare the Kvothe of years ago–brash, curious, and fierce–with the man he is today, without quite knowing yet why the change occurred.

And luckily for readers, the framing device is not the only wonderful thing about this novel. The worldbuilding, for example, is fantastic. While only a few locations are fleshed out in this first book, they are given such depth that you truly see and experience them along with Kvothe. The University reminded me of my own college days (though sadly I didn’t get to learn about sigils and alchemy) and the ways in which the presence of an institute of higher learning can change a city, for better and for worse. Meanwhile, Tarbean represented the worst that I’ve seen and experienced in cities: apathetic people, squalid living conditions, and a sense of hopelessness that hangs like smog. It is really a credit to Rothfuss that he is able to make the geography and locations of Kvothe’s life simultaneously feel so real and so fantastic.

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Book Review: Blackfin Sky, by Kat Ellis

I know that young adult literature is undergoing a revival, both in publisher interest and popular culture. I know that everyone, young and old, has been enjoying “new” YA, from Twilight to The Book Thief to The Fault in Our Stars. I know that there is some fine YA out there, and that I’ve been lucky enough to have read some of it when I was actually a young adult.

I also know that I personally struggle to appreciate the current trends of YA sometimes, and that I am basically a grumpy old curmudgeon, yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

All of this to say that I am not the target audience for Kat Ellis’s debut YA novel, Blackfin Sky, but  it’s not because it is YA; it’s because it is not a well-crafted novel overall. In fact, I think it is pandering and insulting to its intended audience of young adults, many of whom are critical and discerning readers themselves.

Blackfin Sky starts off promisingly enough: Sky Rousseau is dead. Or rather, she was dead–for three months. Now, to the shock of the town of Blackfin, she’s alive and well, with no memory of the time that she spent “dead.” This part of the book was enjoyable, as Sky’s family and friends tried to deal with her apparent resurrection, and Sky struggled to unravel the mystery of what really happened the night she supposedly drowned. Then things start getting a little bonkers, as Sky discovers she has certain special abilities, that the burned-down circus on the edge of town holds importance to many of the secrets of her past, and that someone out there is hunting her down. This summary makes the disparate elements sound more cohesive than they actually are. Thrown into that main plotline are narrative cul de sacs like a missing little boy at the circus, a murder mystery, a “haunted” house, and some truly distracting attempts at a French accent.

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Book Review: Incubus, by Ann Arensberg

It’s not often that an American Book Award winner decides to write a supernatural thriller centered around the haunting of a small town in Maine, but that’s exactly what Ann Arensberg has done with Incubus. While the premise may not seem original (and indeed, seems like something Stephen King has pretty well covered!) Arensberg’s take is unique, owing to her choice of narrator.

We follow the increasingly frightening events through the eyes of Cora, wife of the town rector, Henry. The novel starts with a letter from Cora, stating that – due to the nearly unexplainable events that afflicted their town – she and Henry have established a center that studies supernatural phenomenon, and helps those who are currently suffering the way they suffered. It’s a nice touch, and made the novel seem as though it were actually a tale of true accounts.

Throughout the novel, Cora is preoccupied by the day-to-day, the mundane: caring for her garden, running the church’s bake sale, cooking three square meals a day for her husband. (Warning: Do not read while hungry. The descriptions of her food will set your stomach to rumbling!) Cora notes potentially-supernatural events – unseasonable heat, lack of rain, the paralytic nightmares suffered by her friends and family – dryly, straight-forwardly. Everything has a logical explanation for Cora, leaving the reader to doubt both her interpretations and our own…until there simply are not more logical explanations, and even Cora needs to recognize that something otherworldly has been influencing these events.

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Book Review: The Tastemakers, by David Sax

Kale. Cupcakes. Bacon-wrapped everything.

What do all of these foods have in common? Besides being delicious, that is.


They’re all trendy. Who could possibly forget the internet’s obsession with bacon? Or the prevalence of fondue in homes in the 1970s? Or even the spread of the chia seed as the next superfood?

Spurred by the cupcake craze of the early 2000s, journalist David Sax takes on the mission of deciphering the popularity of different food items in The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up With Fondue. He doesn’t stop there, though. Sax takes us on a journey through the kitchens of top-notch chefs who have a renewed interest in the artisanal, the fields of farmers experimenting with crop cross-breeding, and the board rooms of food corporations spending millions to create the next big thing.

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Book Review: The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill, ed. Judy Sternlight

Some readers may already know that I am a proud Brunonian. I went to Brown University for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and enjoyed my time there very much. (“So nice I went there twice!”) I dabbled in subjects I had never tried before, read lots of challenging books, made some lifelong friends, met the boyfriend I am still dating, wrote for the Brown Daily Herald, and just generally had all sorts of experiences that contributed to making me the person I am today!

For an added note of nostalgia, just a few weekends ago was Brown’s commencement ceremony and reunion, as well as the Campus Dance, a really pleasant tradition where alumni return to campus to enjoy bands playing out under the stars on the Main Green.

That’s why when I saw The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill up on Netgalley, in celebration of Brown University’s 250th anniversary, I knew I had to have it. Edited by Judy Sternlight, a 1982 Brown grad and long-time editor, the collection includes essays by such big-name Brown grads as Jeffrey Eugenides, Edwidge Danticat, Marilynne Robinson, and many more. It seems that Sternlight reached out to other Brown alumni in publishing to commission this impressive anthology; lucky for her, Brown has produced many writing-inclined folks!

As with almost any anthology, the stories were uneven and differed widely in tone, making it challenging to review. Some, like Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Sun Under Cloud Cover,” were pointed and hilarious as they poked fun not just at Brown but at the other Ivy League schools. Others were serious reflections on what the writer gained and lost at Brown, including appreciations for new academic or artistic pursuits, like theater or medicine.

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