Welcome to Style and Savings 2020 Reading Review! It’s time to link back to this year’s book posts and highlight some of my favorites:
Reading really helped me to pass the time this year. We didn’t visit our local libraries for a couple months at the beginning of the year (due to the pandemic!). Once the library opened for drive-through pick up, my reading really increased. I read more than double the amount of books I planned to read this year!
Here are my favorite books of the year!
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid (read my review here)
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan (read my review here)
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie (read my review here)
Favorite Book – Runner Ups
Pretty Things by Janelle Brown (read my review here)
Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika and Maritza Moulite (read my review here)
One of the positives of this year is the increase in virtual events. I have been fortunate to attend virtual events featuring Britt Bennett (author of The Mothers and The Vanishing Half) and Megan Giddings (author of Lakewood). I have also really enjoyed being part of the Tanya Time Book Club, hosted by Tanya Sam. The first Tanya Time book discussion I participated in was The Perfect Find by Tia Williams, which I read in 2016 when I won an autographed copy in a Goodreads giveaway!
Tanya Time Book Club introduced me to the world of Jasmine Guillory when we read Party of Two. Since then, I have read all but one of Jasmine Guillory’s books and am looking forward to her upcoming book, While We Were Dating to be published in 2021. One of my 3 favorite books of the year – His Only Wifeby Peace Adzo Medie was the December Tanya Time Book Club pick. This virtual book club has brought together over a hundred women from around the world and I have really enjoyed the interactive community of readers and authors.
What were your favorite books this year? If you’ve read any of the books mentioned above – tell me what you think about them! Are you part of any virtual book clubs?
Welcome to another edition of Style and Savings Reads! Here’s what I read in December 2020
Intimations by Zadie Smith, Penguin Books, 2020 Short Synopsis: A collection of short essays written in mid 2020 to capture the mood of living during a Global Pandemic and social unrest caused by racial injustice in America.
I’m sure the unusual nature of this period of time will inspire many works of nonfiction and fiction, but I appreciate that this book was written as things were happening and reflected on common feelings and reactions that people experienced. The passage of time distances us from the way we felt in the moment and smooths the rough edges of our memories like an Instagram filter. One of the essays discussed suffering – It’s clear that the effects of the pandemic have caused economic hardships, but we should also look out for those who are suffering mentally and emotionally. People who have their physical needs met, even to the point of being privileged can still be suffering on the inside. Another essay discussed the need to fill time. The urge (or pressure?) to feel productive led many of us to start new hobbies, exercise routines, or try baking homemade bread. Did we need to do any of those things? Maybe the pandemic is the strongest signal that we should sit back and take a much needed rest. This has really been a time to reflect on why we do the activities we do and whether or not they add happiness and value to our lives.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Royal Holidayby Jasmine Guillory, Berkley Books 2019 Short Synopsis: Vivian’s daughter Maddie, a stylist, gains the opportunity to travel to London to dress the Duchess for Christmas events and invites Vivian to join her. Vivian enjoys the beauty of the holiday season at Sandringham House and finds herself in the company of a handsome man.
This is my favorite Jasmine Guillory book so far! I have read every Jasmine Guillory book (reviews here: Party of Two, The Wedding Date, The Proposal) except The Wedding Party, but I remembered Maddie being Alexa’s friend in The Wedding Date. I loved picturing how beautiful the Sandringham House was and how cozy Vivian felt with fireplaces, scones, and tea. Being in a royal setting and from the perspective of a couple who are older than Jasmine Guillory’s other characters gave the story a slightly more grownup and proper tone. This book was magical and I also love the glitter of Vivian’s dress on the front cover.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Del Ray, 2020 Short Synopsis: Noemi and her father receive a concerning letter from her cousin Catalina, who recently and quickly wed Virgil Doyle, a handsome man the family doesn’t know well. Noemi is sent to visit Catalina at the Doyle family’s estate, The High Place to evaluate Catalina’s safety and to determine whether she needs to return to her hometown. During her visit, Noemi uncovers the mystery of her cousins in-laws and their eerie home.
I really wanted to read this book during scary season, but the timing of library waitlist didn’t work out and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires has a lot of pages! Mexican Gothic took me a while to get into, but I kept reading because it is popular and I have read a lot of positive comments from book blogs and bookstagram. The story felt slow at times, maybe because I’m not used to reading historical fiction. This book was set in the 1950’s and often referenced previous generations of the Doyle family. There were scary supernatural elements, and horrors haunting The High Place. Once I got far enough into the book I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to Catalina and Noemi. I was generally entertained while also disgusted by the Doyle’s. I would have enjoyed this more during Halloween.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie, Algonquin Books, 2020 Short Synopsis: Afi, a poor village girl enters an arranged marriage to the wealthy Elikem Ganyo – a scheme created by Eli’s mother to end his relationship with his girlfriend and mother of his daughter, a woman she disapproves of. Will Afi be able to fulfill her mother’s and the Ganyo’s wish by winning Eli’s affection?
I read this book as part of the Tanya Time Book Club and it’s been fun to chat about it on the discussion boards and on Instagram Live. I have seen comparisons of this book to Crazy Rich Asians, and I agree that it has similarities. If you are a fan of relationship dramas in reality TV and soap operas, you will really like this book! I read that it has been optioned for movie or television series. I’m looking forward to seeing the wealth and opulence of Accra, Ghana. I’m also excited to see the clothing, since fashion is a big part of Afi’s life. This is one of my favorite books that I have read this year!
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Have you read any good books lately? If you’ve read any of these books – tell me what you think!
Welcome to another edition of Style and Savings Reads! In this post, I’m reviewing 3 books:
The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham
The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert, Gallery Books, 2015 Short Synopsis: Lou is passionate about cooking and her restaurant named for her grandmother, Louella. Her fiancé, Devlin, a successful and prominent lawyer has never understood her passion for the restaurant business and wants her to settle in to a housewife role. After a dramatic and messy breakup with Devlin and a terrible review from a local food critic, Lou feels like things are falling apart. Then, she meets a handsome man named Al, who has recently moved to Milwaukee from England and wants her to show him the best of the city. Is Al, the man Lou thinks he is?
Generally, this book was what I expected – a light and predictable romance. I wish there had been more backstory or flashbacks to earlier in Devlin and Lou’s relationship. His character was written as the cliched self-centered, arrogant, wealthy businessman and there was no indication of what made his relationship with Lou last as long as it did. There was also a bittersweet storyline involving secondary characters that I felt had an unnecessary sadness. I enjoyed the many food descriptions, especially fried Wisconsin cheese and the scent of vanilla in Lou’s coconut cake. Similar to Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop, this book was a vicarious vacation. I have never been to Milwaukee and the description of the summer cultural food festivals, local restaurants, and art museum made it seem like a fun place to visit.
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, Jove, 2018 Short Synopsis: When Nik receives a very public and unwanted marriage proposal during a baseball game, Carlos and his sister Angela come to her rescue by helping her dodge the cameras. Carlos and Nik become friends (and more), but is either of them ready for a real relationship?
This is the third of Jasmine Guillory’s books I have read. I like it much more than I liked The Wedding Date (see my review here). The Proposal followed the formula I expected from a Jasmine Guillory book. I like that Nik, Carlos, and their friends were from diverse backgrounds. Similar to Party of Two, I also enjoyed the excessive amount of food they ate, including an extra-large pizza and a taco taste test.
Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham, Ballantine Books, 2013 Short Synopsis: In New York City in the mid-90’s, Franny Banks is chasing her dream of becoming an actress. As the three year deadline she set for herself draws nearer, she feels pressure to make significant progress towards success. Her roommates Jane and Dan are supportive friends and she becomes enchanted by James Franklin, an experienced actor from her acting class.
Lauren Graham is the author of this book and I am a big fan of Gilmore Girls (Gilmore Girls posts here and here). I wonder how much of Franny’s story is inspired by Lauren Graham’s journey. I like that this story shows how hard it can be to break into show business and that most actors go through hardships before they become a glamourous star. Franny is happy when she gets considered for detergent commercials or cast as “laughing girl” and often works as a waitress at a comedy club or takes catering jobs to pay her bills. I admired her for wanting something so much that she would face rejection over and over again in hopes of getting one important “yes”. Franny’s story also taught readers that what feels like a rejection, is really a redirection towards something better.
Have you read any good books lately? If you’ve read any of these books – tell me what you think!
Welcome to another edition of Style and Savings Reads!
Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, 2020, Penguin Random House Short Synopsis: Vanessa Yu is a reluctant clairvoyant – throughout her life she has struggled to control her unique ability. Blurting out her visions of the future has quickly ended any chance she’s had at romantic relationship. Vanessa moves in with her aunt, also a clairvoyant, to receive lessons in mastering her ability while helping to open her aunt’s Parisian tea shop.
Not being able to travel, this year, books and shows set it desirable locations are more than welcome! When Vanessa meets a handsome stranger who guides her through the city’s sites, it felt like I was on a tour too. I googled at least a few of the sites that I wasn’t familiar with. I loved the detailed descriptions of pastries and the scents of vanilla, sugar, and coffee. The magical elements were enjoyable and reminded me of how much I enjoyed Roselle Lim’s previous book Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. I was glad to see Vanessa take charge of her life by shedding the obligation of working in her family’s accounting firm and taking a chance to help her aunt in Paris where her true talent reveals itself in a magical way.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix, 2020, Quirk Books Short Synopsis: Set in the 1990’s housewives start a true-crime book club. Their friendships and beliefs are tested when a mysterious man moves to their peaceful neighborhood.
On the surface level, this is a horror story about a vampire inserting himself into the community and preying on children. There is also social commentary about the dynamics between women and their husbands and the disparities between the wealthy suburban neighborhood and the poor area of town. Sometimes it was hard to believe the book was set in the 1990’s instead of the 1950’s. Unfortunately, the story shed a light on how money can blind people and allow them to overlook any red flags in someone’s character. It also addressed the uncomfortable truth that there are people who are willing to ignore people who are in danger as long as their own families and properties are safe.
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, 2020, Knopf Publishing Group Short Synopsis: Elizabeth reluctantly moves from Brooklyn to a small college town so her husband can pursue a new venture. As a new mother, Elizabeth relies heavily on Sam, the college senior she hires to care for her son.
Friends and Strangers has similarities to Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which I also gave a 5-star rating. Both stories explore the dynamic between in-home childcare providers and their employers and how lines become blurred when either party loses sight of the transactional nature of the relationship. Elizabeth leans on Sam far too much for friendship and emotional support. Instead of racial tension, the social commentary in Friends and Strangers focuses on economic status. Sam comes from a middle-class family and is well-aware of the differences between herself, her well-off classmates, and the women she befriends while working in the dining hall kitchen. Elizabeth despises the way her father uses money to manipulate everyone in his life. She also witnesses her in-laws’ financial collapse when her father-in-law’s car service business becomes obsolete with the rise of ride-sharing apps and as a result he becomes obsessed with the demise of small businesses. I really loved that the book was set in a college town and generally enjoy the way it captured certain aspects of the college experience: the fun of being surrounded by people of the same age, but also occasionally missing being in the comfort of a home with your parents or other “real adults”. Sam’s character embodied the anxious feelings of a college student who doesn’t have her future plans set and who jumps to the false conclusion that adults who are settled into careers and families have it all figured out. She learns that Elizabeth’s life is not as perfect as it appears.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, 2014, Harper Collins Short Synopsis: A collection of essays critiquing society and pop-culture
This book was on my To-Read list for a while (probably since 2014) and I finally decided to read it. I was interested because I knew it would have references to pop-culture and the conflict the author felt in enjoying content that she knew was problematic (i.e. pop and rap hits, reality TV). I appreciated some of the chapters more than others based on whether or not I was familiar with the movie, book, or event she was discussing. Also, reading the book six years after it was published gave me a different perspective due to the many cultural movements that have happened since then including the #metoo and the downfall of Bill Cosby, the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, #oscarssowhite, and the year 2020 in general. Basically I wish that instead of reading the entire book in 2020 that I had read some of the essays in the form of magazine or online articles back in 2014 when they were more timely.
Have you read any good books lately? If you’ve read any of these books – tell me what you think!
Welcome to another edition of Style and Savings Reads! This month I read Sourdough by Robin Sloan, The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy and The Herd by Andrea Bartz.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan,2017 MCD Short Synopsis: Lois works long, stressful hours at a robotics company, and finds comfort in ordering soup and sandwiches from a local restaurant run by two brothers. The brothers abruptly move away, leaving Lois with their sourdough starter. Lois discovers purpose in and a talent for baking and becomes part of a futuristic farmer’s market.
This book was on my to read list for a few years, and I was reminded of this when baking bread became a trend during quarantine. I thought the commentary of the future of work was interesting, especially the irony of working long hours to program robots that will eliminate work.
“Repetition is the enemy of creativity….repetition belongs to robots”
Sourdough, Robin Sloan, page 7
Lois finds comfort in eating the sourdough bread and soup and is driven by the need to take care of a living thing – the sourdough starter she is given. Chef Kate finds satisfaction in feeding people, which reminded me of how until the pandemic, we had lost sight of who the essential workers are and what jobs are most valuable to society. The elder Loises in the Lois club shared things they wished they had done sooner in life and encouraged Lois to pursue baking and crafting the art of sourdough bread full-time. Listening to older people provides a different perspective on life and advice on how to live without regret. Overall, this story is about using savings from soulless high-paying job to to pursue a passion.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, 2018, Jove Books Short Synopsis: Alexa and Drew meet while stuck in a hotel elevator. Drew asks Alexa to be his pretend girlfriend and last-minute date to his ex’s wedding. Will a pretend date turn into a real relationship?
This is the second Jasmine Guillory book I have read, and both seemed to follow the same formula. I liked The Wedding Date enough, but not as much as I liked Party of Two. I’m not sure sure if I liked Party of Two better because I read it first or because it is Jasmine Guillory’s 5th book and her storytelling has improved. After reading The Wedding Date, I understood why the ladies in the Party of Two book discussion mentioned inconsistencies in Olivia’s character. In The Wedding Date, Olivia was introduced as Alexa’s wild sister, but in Party of Two, Olivia is a cautious, hesitant overthinker and doesn’t like to be in the public eye. As sisters, Olivia and Alexa are very similar characters, they have the same childhood experiences and even the same physical shape & insecurities. Alexa’s leading man – Drew wasn’t as socially aware as Olivia’s love interest, Max, but was still likeable and charming. Generally, I felt like I was reading a variation of the same book, and I enjoyed the comforting predictability of a rom-com.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, 2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Short Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of 2008 Detroit, the burst of the housing bubble and the start of The Great Recession, siblings in a large family (13 in total) decide whether to keep their childhood home.
The Turner House had also been on my To- Read list for several years and I finally got around to reading it. This book had an overall feeling of gloom and hard times. The story was told from the perspectives of a few of the siblings. and included flashbacks from the the previous generation, from the mother and father’s point of view. I was disappointed that most of the conflicts were left open, but glad that the book ended with the family being together.
The Herd by Angela Bartz, 2020, Ballantine Books Short Synopsis: Eleanor, the glamorous CEO of a women-only co-working studio was murdered. Just as carefully as she had crafted the aesthetics of her business, she had also cultivated her image. To find her killer, her best friends Katie, Hana, and Mikki must uncover her buried secrets.
I saw a review of this book in one of the past month’s book link-ups and was drawn to the idea of a stylish and feminist workplace. It reminded me so much of The Belle, where Jane becomes a member and Kat finds a new job on The Bold Type. This book also had PLL vibes starring beautiful girls with dark secrets, solving the murder of their best friend (or frenemy). I was proud that I was able to detect who Eleanor’s killer was before the book revealed this. I was much more surprised by the secondary mystery of what happened while Katie was in Michigan. I loved this book, because it combined a gritty murder mystery with the glamour of a beautiful and exclusive workspace while weaving in additional twists and secrets from the past.
This month, I read Clap When You Land, A Good Neighborhood and The Vanishing Half
Clap When You Landby Elizabeth Acevedo, 2020, Quill Tree Books Short Synopsis: After a tragic plane crash across the ocean, two girls Yahaira in New York City and Camino in the Dominican Republic discover they are half sisters as they mourn their father’s death.
The book is thick at 432 pages, but is a quick read because it is written in verse. The entire story takes place over the course of two months, as the two families deal with the shock, grief and aftermath of the crash. Clap When You Land was inspired by a plane crash that happened shortly after September 11th attacks and was mostly ignored by the media, but was deeply felt by New York’s Dominican community. Chapters alternate between the two sisters voices. We learn how their daily lives and experiences differ, and the differences in their relationships with their father. At times it was difficult to distinguish between the sisters’ voices. I think this was meant to show that despite not growing up together, they still had similarities. There is Spanish sprinkled into the verses and I like that Yahaira is in touch with her Dominican culture, although she grew up in America and had never visited the island. The main questions I took from this book are: Does keeping a secret protect anyone? Is it better to be honest because all secrets will eventually be uncovered? Elizabeth Acevedo is also the author of With the Fire on High, which I also plan to read soon.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Ann Fowler, 2020, Short Synopsis: Harmony in neighborhood of Oak Noll is threatened as trees are removed and replaced with new construction. When the wealthy white Whitman family which includes a teenage daughter moves in next door to Valerie Alston-Holt and her bi-racial son, the two teens develop a romantic relationship that continues while their families are at odds.
This book makes readers question “What is a good neighborhood?” Is it an area with large houses and manicured lawns? A community where neighbors become friends and actively care for one another? The story is narrated by unnamed neighbors who are outside observers to the central conflicts. This reminded me of how the voice of Mary Alice narrated Desperate Housewives. (Any fans of that show? – tell me in the comments)
At the book’s beginning, readers are told that the ending will be tragic. Despite knowing something bad would happen, the book had a cozy feeling of being surrounded by the shade of trees.
The author, who is white did well in writing Valerie’s character. Valerie was never stereotypical, she was a multi-dimensional Black woman as a widow, a mother, a girlfriend, a professor and a neighbor. Her interest and expertise in plants also made her unique. I also liked that Julia Whitman had a gritty backstory that added a layer to her surface level trophy wife appearance. The contrast between the Alston-Holts’ and the Witmans’ values offered insight and commentary on race, class and gender.
Most of the dramatic action took place in the last 80 pages, which reflects how quickly a situation can spiral out of control. Sadly, appearances and public opinion are given more value than truth.
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, 2020, Riverhead Books Short Synopsis: Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes leave the small town of Mallard, Louisiana at 16 years old. Desiree lives her life as a black women, while Stella abandons her by choosing to pass as a white woman and never looks back. Their lives remain separate until their college-age daughters cross paths.
The story begins with the tale of Mallard’s town founder and how colorism was the principle that defined the town. Having lighter skin was valued and the founder envisioned each generation becoming lighter than the last. Desiree and Stella decide to leave town together as teenagers and a few years later, Stella begins a new life apart from her twin. Passing as white comes with many privileges, but the downside is that Stella’s new life is built on a lie. Much like Don Draper, Stella has a hard time telling her daughter anything about her family and her past. Stella feels that she never fits in anywhere and keeps nearly everyone she meets at a distance so her secret won’t be discovered.
Stella is not the only character in the book who becomes someone new. There are others who are uncomfortable with their original identity and choose to reinvent themselves.
“You could convince anyone you belonged somewhere if you acted like you did.”
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett is also the author of The Mothers, which I really enjoyed and wrote about here.
Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory, 2020 Short Synopsis: Olivia is a lawyer who moves from New York back to California to start a law firm with one of her best friends. When a handsome stranger flirts with her at a bar, she isn’t looking for a relationship and doesn’t expect to see him again…. until she turns on the television and discovers he’s California’s hot, young senator.
This is the first Jasmine Guillory novel I have read. Back when I used to wander the aisles of Target, I noticed the brightly covered book covers and liked that they had diverse main characters. I also heard that Royal Holiday was inspired by Meghan Markle’s mom. When Tanya Sam (of Real Housewives Atlanta fame!) named Party of Two her next book club pick, I decided to give romance novels a chance.
I was glad to find Tanya’s book club and last month, I participated in the author chat with Tia Williams who wrote The Perfect Find. Sometimes it can be hard to find local friends who also love to read and will commit to reading a book by a specific date. Tanya’s virtual book club was able to bring together over a hundred women from all over the country (or world?) to talk about books.
Party of Two is marketed as book #5 in The Wedding Date series. I’m not sure that “series” is the most accurate description because the books don’t have to be read in order. I think there are characters who show up in more than one book, but each story stands on its own.
As I was reading, I thought Wow, you can really tell this was written by a woman for women. Jasmine Guillory really knows what women dream about. Characters in a romance must have qualities that make them attractive to each other and the reader. Olivia likes that Max is a good listener, cares about others, sends thoughtful gifts, and is handsome and very attentive. Max likes that Olivia is treats him like a normal person and not like a Senator and her laughs and smiles are always genuine. Olivia is also a good listener, a volunteer at the community food pantry, and a partner in a new law firm she started with her best friend.
“He was falling in love with her? Not despite her ambition but because of it?”
Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory, page 148
Of course, every story needs a conflict. Olivia likes to plan ahead and think things through before making decisions. Max is often impulsive and follows his feelings. Will opposites attract or will their differences tear them apart?
While Olivia and Max’s romance was at the center of the story, I appreciated that there were mentions of bigger issues. Max’s job as a Senator created the opportunity to mention restorative justice, and the flaws of the current legal system. Max’s awareness of his privilege and the challenges Olivia faced as a Black woman working in a male dominated field made him seem almost too good to be realistic.
I have seen other readers complain about how many times the characters eat cake and unhealthy meals. I personally love the references to french fries, pie, pastries, and picnics. It fits into the wonderful fantasy that Jasmine Guillory is creating – who doesn’t want to have Olivia’s shameless love of cake and the confidence to enjoy food while on a date with no concern for the calorie count?
If you like romance and sweets, with a side of social justice, please pick up this book!
The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin, 2018 Short Synopsis: Emma and Zadie, best friends (and medical professionals) thought they had buried a painful experience in the past until their former chief resident from medical school moves to town.
This book felt like Grey’s Anatomy in book form. I’m not a fan of the show and I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book. Since it is centered around a pediatric cardiologist and a trauma surgeon, there are descriptions of gory medical procedures and literal life and death situations. The medical theme was present throughout the book and not just when they were at work. Saving a choking man at the country club and staying home to care for sick kids when they all catch the flu showed that a doctor’s work is never done.I admire the dedication, skill and sacrifice it takes to have this type of career. I also found it happily surprising that their friendship could survive the decades and the competing commitments of marriage and motherhood.
The author did a great job of keeping The Secret until the end of the book. Each chapter alternated between Emma and Zadie and between present day and their med school years. The short chapters kept me turning pages as pieces of the past were uncovered. The suspense of wanting to know what happened was really the only reason I kept reading.
Dear Haiti, Love Alaine byMaika Moulite and Maritza Moulite, 2019 Short Synopsis: As a consequence for a class presentation gone wrong, high school senior Alaine Beauparlant’s dad sends to to her mother’s family in Haiti to complete a volunteer immersion project and learn more about her family’s history and culture.
Alaine is a high school senior at a Catholic school in Miami, Florida looking forward to graduation and college. She hopes to attend Columbia – her famous journalist mother’s alma mater. “Call me Rumi and Sir, because the Ivys are calling my name”. Alaine is confident, smart, and funny making her a character readers will care for and want to see succeed.
The framework for the story is her Latin American History/Creative Writing class project to write about and present on notable individuals in a country’s revolution and to highlight their defining moments and claims to fame. Being Hatian American, Alaine chooses to learn about Haiti. I really loved that this book was told through journal entries, letters, postcards, group chats, and emails in Alaine’s unique voice.
Alaine’s Tati Estelle (her mother’s twin sister) is a prominent person in Haiti as both the Minister of Tourism and also as CEO and Founder of the nonprofit where Alaine interns to complete her volunteer assignment. When she’s not working, Alaine spends time getting to know her mother, the famous Celeste Beauparlant who has spent most of Alaine’s childhood in D.C. or travelling the world as a political journalist. ( I really think Estelle and Celeste are gorgeous names for sisters!)
“History is a Compass if You Just Know How to Read It”, is the chapter title that most resonated with me. I generally don’t take much interest in history, but I have been told that it is important to learn about the past to avoid making the same mistakes or to understand why things are the way they are today. Through her school project and spending time with her family, Alaine learns about Haiti’s history and uncovers past and present family secrets. Having arrived at a turning point in her career, the story ends with Celeste and Alaine begin working on a new project together.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings, 2020 Short Synopsis: When Lena’s grandmother dies, she discovers how much debt her family is in. Lena drops out of college to financially provide her sick mother by taking a job as a medical research subject for a secret government program. I immediately noticed some similarities with The Circle by Dave Eggers with the main character being a daughter who takes a job that has great pay and health benefits to care for an ailing parent. In exchange for financial security, she sacrifices both privacy and the separation of work from her personal life. The compensation Lena receives is a relief, but she also becomes increasingly aware that it is a form of exploitation.
“If Crooked Nose hadn’t been sitting there, Lena would have said, “I think having my teeth for as long as possible is more valuable than money.”
I have to wonder if the participants would agree to these risks if they weren’t in financially desperate situations. Most participants in the The Lakewood Project are are Black, Latinx, or of Indian descent, while researchers are White. The book confronts the history as recent as the 1970’s of unauthorized medical experiments performed on African American people. For this reason, Lakewood has been compared to both The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the 2017 film Get Out.
I can also see similarities to the Amazon Prime series Homecoming.
There is a lot to think about in regards to the ethics of medical research. Participants in The Lakewood Project are told that they are serving to improve the lives of future generations. We have to wonder – at what cost to themselves?
Lakewood unexpectedly shares a commonality with Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, in that both stories emphasize the importance of family passing down knowledge and not keeping secrets so that the next generation doesn’t repeat the same mistakes.
I was excited to find out that Megan Giddings lives in Indiana and earned her MFA at Indiana University. Her writing is imaginative, descriptive and haunting to the point that I found myself thinking about the book in between reading its chapters. If you haven’t read this book yet, I recommend it!
Happy Book Day! Here’s a recap of the three books I read in June:
Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella, 2009, 435 pages
Short Synopsis: Lara is visited by the spirit of her great-aunt Sadie who tasks her with finding her special necklace so she can rest peacefully. Laura is busy balancing work and her love life, assisted by Sadie’s unsolicited advice and meddling. In her search for the necklace, Laura uncovers truths about her family.
I chose to read this book because I enjoyed Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series. Also, Twenties Girl seemed like fitting title to read in 2020. The story was a whimsical retreat from reality and it was funny to imagine Lara talking to someone who no one else could see. I also loved the idea of the sparkly, vintage 1920’s dresses Lara and Sadie wore. Lara’s Uncle Bill Lington, of Lington’s Coffee (a fictional coffee conglomerate on the scale of Starbucks) and Natalie, her business partner in a start-up headhunting firm were conflict creators. They both were lacking in honesty and were more than willing to use others to gain success for themselves. As expected, Lara prevailed and the story ended happily.
Memorable Quote: “Darling, when things go wrong in life, you lift your chin, put on a ravishing smile, mix yourself a little cocktail….”
Pretty Things by Janelle Brown, 2020, 474 pages
Short Synopsis: Lily is a grifter and con-artist, but hopes that her daughter Nina will go to college and have a better Future. When Lily gets sick and needs expensive treatment, Nina teams up with Lachlan, her mother’s former partner in cons to target Vanessa Liebling – heiress and Instagram influencer.
The glittery cover drew me to this book and I was reminded of the real-life Anna Delvey story . Pretty Things is centered around wealth, privilege and how people carefully curate the image they present to the world. Nina was a good student and made her mother proud by earning a college degree in art history. Unfortunately a college education did not lead to the bright Future they imagined: ” I walked away with a six-figure student-loan debt and a piece of paper that qualified me to do absolutely nothing of value whatsoever “. To earn money, Nina falls into her mom’s lifestyle of finding wealthy targets to con and steals cash, jewelry, and antiques.
Vanessa Liebling is a reminder that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness and that people are not always as happy or successful as they appear on social media. While Vanessa appeared to have everything, she was sad, lonely, and constantly seeking external validation from her followers. Her Instagram feed allowed a look into her life, which helped Nina create a false sense of closeness and friendship while running the con.
The further I read, I realized Pretty Things reminded me of the TV show Revenge. I also liked that the chapters alternated between Nina’s and Vanessa’s perspectives so we could get to know each character’s thoughts and backstory. This story is filled with secrets, lies, shifting loyalties and a surprising ending.
Memorable Quote: “We have to keep up appearances, cupcake …. there are wolves out there, waiting to drag us down at the first sign of weakness. You can never, ever let people see the moments when you’re not feeling strong.”
Well, that Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey, 2018, 256 pages
Short Synopsis: Franchesca Ramsey’s life changed within a matter of hours when a YouTube video she created went viral. Although the video was about her personal experiences with micro-aggressions, she was now faced with the expectation to be an expert on anti-racism and race relations.
I hadn’t heard of Franchesca Ramsey before reading this book and have never seen MTV’s Decoded. She grew up in the suburbs, attended Catholic school and was used to being one of few if not the only black person in the room. It was interesting to learn how she was one of the early users of YouTube. Her day job was in graphic design and she posted comedic videos in her free time. In 2008, one of her videos went viral. Talk shows and media outlets started contacting her for comments and appearances. As she became more of a public figure, the expectation for her to speak as an expert and educate the public grew and haters and trolls appeared from under their bridges.
Reading Franchesa Ramsey’s story made me glad that I limit my participation in online forums. It was so disheartening to read the hateful comments and personal attacks she received online. It was helpful to read her description of the differences between “call-outs” vs. “call-ins”. A “call-out” is a public response to a problematic comment made to a wide audience. It draws attention to the issue and increases others’ awareness. If the problematic comment comes from someone you know personally, a “call-in” is a gentler approach. A one-on-one private conversation is an opportunity to tell that person how the comment makes you and others feel. The book cited an experiment that showed people are more likely to accept direction and correction from someone who looks like them. If people in your circle are making offensive remarks, you could be the positive influence they need. I also appreciated the reminder that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. We are all free to express our feelings, thoughts and opinions but that does not mean we are free from disagreement, backlash or disciplinary actions. This book made me appreciate the effort towards increasing awareness and education about social justice issues.
Memorable Quote: “You can totally start your company emails to your boss with “Dear ugly b**ch”—you’ll just get fired for it. By committing to march down the path of “political incorrectness”, you’re saying you’re willing to sacrifice relationships with anyone who finds your language unacceptable.”
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