Book review: ‘Short Girls’ by Bich Minh Nguyen

For immigration lawyer Van, life takes a spin after her husband announces unceremoniously, “I don’t want to live with you anymore.” She’s spent a long time feeling settled, comfortable and, in her words, “chosen” by Miles Oh, a successful, charismatic and handsome Asian-American who exudes a confidence and poise that Van herself has never felt. Losing him, as she does on page one, is like losing a limb.

Off in Chicago, Van’s younger sister Linny Luong has troubles of her own — namely the clandestine affair she’s conducting with Gary, a paunchy married man, and the unfulfilling job she holds at You Did It Dinners, a firm that requires her to cook copious amounts of food for other people’s families. At 27 and without a college degree, Linny struggles to find a purpose: something that would pull her up from the muck and introduce her to new experiences, a new life.

Though close in age and raised in the same household, Van and Linny remain estranged as adults — tied only to their aging father, a man caught up in his inventions for short people. Dinh and Thuy Luong arrived from Vietnam in the 1970s, settling in Michigan and raising their daughters to believe they’d have to work hard to excel in America — a land of opportunity . . . and very tall people. All small of stature, the Luongs had to set themselves apart to avoid being overlooked in a land where everyone literally towered over them. While the girls’ mother retreated into herself, staying invisible as a seamstress, Dinh worked on his projects — including the Luong Arm, designed to help short people reach items on tall shelves.

Dinh has only become more obsessed with his work since his wife’s death nine years prior. Once just a hobby, the Luong Arm — and other products of Luong Inventions — have consumed all of their father’s attention. When the sisters are called back to Wrightville, Mich., for their father’s naturalization ceremony, they must finally confront the feelings they have for one another — and their strained upbringing — all while dealing with their own crumbling relationships.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls is an interesting, perceptive look at life for the daughters of two immigrants. While Linny bucked against their traditional Vietnamese upbringing, wearing colorful clothing, making many friends and acting “like a white girl,” Van folded in on herself — studying constantly; applying to law school; blending in as best she could in small-town Michigan. The juxtaposition of the two girls was fascinating, and I loved that neither was a complete cliche.

Though I enjoyed the characters and the fact that most defied stereotypes, the novel’s strength lies in the way it conveys the immigrant experience — both for the Luongs, who arrived decades before, and present-day immigrants in a post-9/11 world. As an immigration lawyer, Van works tirelessly as an advocate for the frightened people who arrived in the U.S. without friends or family, looking timidly at locals who bark at them to “speak English.” I’ve always considered myself an open-minded and tolerant person, and reading about the way some of Van’s clients had been treated was painful. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to be dropped in a foreign country with only a dream of a better life — and no idea how to actually make it happen.

The relationship between Van and Linny is at the heart of the story, though the book is very much about their parents’ marriage, too. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Dinh is not a pathetic, old widower; though he once loved his wife, they occupied separate parts of the same home prior to her death. Van comments that her mother often used her girls as a shield or a bartering chip, pulling them further away from their reticent father — a man who, they’re forced to admit, they barely know. They don’t have conversations; they don’t know his thoughts. Arriving home on the occasion of their father’s citizenship, Van and Linny feel like strangers.

Short Girls is not an action-packed or fluid story. A better part of this quiet novel deals with the breakdown of Van’s marriage to a man she, too, barely knew. Every character in Nguyen’s novel seems to be kept at arm’s distance — from one another; from themselves. No one is held close. Everyone is a stranger.

But somehow, it still worked for me. My heart caught as Van came to grips with her impending divorce; I wanted to reach out and help Linny in the kitchen, where she worked to prepare traditional Vietnamese meals for her thankless father. Even Mr. Luong was somehow endearing, despite the fact that he withheld approval for his daughters. By the close of the book, I cared about these people. And though not much happens or is accomplished in Short Girls, that’s still what I ask for in a book.

Fans of literary fiction who enjoy stories on family dynamics, sisters or the immigrant experience might enjoy this one. Though it didn’t move me to tears or provoke any action on my part, I enjoyed Van and Linny’s story — and the positive, uplifting note on which the book closes.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670020818 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained from BookMooch

The Best Darn YA Novels You’ve Probably Never Read

Everyone knows the young adult novels that really get the blood of readers pumping — those books, often in a series, that feature vampires, magic or a distant school called Hogwarts. The world of young adult literature is wide enough for everyone, sure, but sometimes it’s hard to step out of the shadow of titans like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer and see some of the little guys. But those little guys? Totally worth checking out.

Kelly at YAnnabe had an excellent idea for a highlighting those great YA novels that just aren’t getting the face time they deserve — and I’m happy to do my part. If you’re a regular here at write meg!, I’m sure you’ll recognize these titles. But if you’re new ’round these parts? Well, settle in with the caffeinated beverage of your choice and prepare to hit the bookstore — or library. ‘Cause boy, does Meg have some suggestions for you! (And I expect you to take them. Seriously — I’ll be watching.)

The Best Darn YA Novels

You’ve Probably Never Read

The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

This coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Texas in 1900, is the charming, quirky and endearing story of 11-year-old Calpurnia, a young lady more interested in science than cooking at a time when it was simply not acceptable to be so. Callie’s connection to her grandfather — a wise old-timer who helps her with their scientific experiments — is touching, and I loved every moment I spent with the Tate family.

And, um, if I had a time machine? I’d totally go back to New Year’s Eve in 1899 and party with their crew. We thought 1999 was wild? That was nothing. Here’s a world filled with the first signs of automobiles and mechanized home appliances — a time when technology was revered and feared at once. Here’s a time when women were still expected to be in their rightful “places” — and a time when many of them began to rebel against it. It’s inspiring. And Callie’s just my sort of girl.

artichokes_heartArtichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee

Rosemary’s struggle with weight, friendship, family and love in Supplee’s recent novel absolutely broke and bolstered my heart — all at the same time. There aren’t too many books out there which prompt me to whip out a heartfelt email to the author right after finishing, but I laid my little heart out to Supplee as I sniffled my way through the closing of this one! (And she wrote me back a very nice and gracious note. Love when that happens.)

I can’t recommend this book highly enough — it was smart, funny, touching, moving and life-affirming. I’ve thought of Rosie often since finishing, and I absolutely loved her as a narrator. In my mind, she’s already gone on to happiness and greatness! And no one can convince me otherwise.

enthusiasmEnthusiasm by Polly Shulman

I stumbled across this gem of a book in the bargain bin at Books-A-Million, and as soon as I saw mention of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice on the back, you know I was all over it! The story had me enchanted from the get-go, and I loved the realistic and fun portrayal of close friendship that Shulman provides in Ashleigh and Julie.

It was refreshing to see that two girls can be buddies without it dissolving into petty jealousy and fights when boys enter the picture — anyone else completely sick of that plotline? Hands? I’m not saying girls don’t act totally nuts once cute boys arrive on the scene, but I do get tired of reading about it. You know, having lived it and all. So Enthusiasm was a great change and struck all the right notes with me. A sweet, fast read that’s really flown under the radar.

teashop_girlsThe Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer

What a sweet, indulgent and fun middle-grade read! I’m 24 years old and I’ll tell you honestly: I was hopelessly addicted to this story. Thirteen-year-old Annie works part-time in her grandmother’s tea shop, a lush world were business is, unfortunately, way down. With the help of her friends and the community, Annie is able to help rescue the Steeping Leaf — and learn quite a bit about what she’s capable of accomplishing in the process.

One of my favorite parts of the book? Another refreshing plotline: girls don’t always have to chase after boys . . . and those boys might not be the ones we really want, anyway. We can stand on our own two feet, you know, and we’re not dependent upon others to place worth on ourselves. An excellent lesson for pre-teen girls — and, you know, their older counterparts. Like yours truly. I read this one at a time when I definitely needed a refresher course on knowledge like that!

north_of_beautifulNorth Of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

I’m always waxing philosphic about this novel, I know, but that’s because it’s really just that good. Easily one of the greatest books I read in 2009, North Of Beautiful is the story of 16-year-old Terra, a young woman born with a birthmark staining half of her face — and a family so dysfunctional, it was sometimes painful to read. It’s a novel about maps — and about finding our way. It’s a love story. It’s a travelogue — literally and metaphorically.

It’s just . . . awesome. In fact, I’m going to leave it at that and boldly say now: you have to read this book. Headley’s novel is why I read literature — and why I love young adult literature. Because good books are good books, and any genre label we put on them? That’s totally secondary.

Book review: ‘In A Perfect World’ by Laura Kasischke

in_perfect_worldSo all these dystopian novels are beginning to get to me . . . after finishing Laura Kasischke’s haunting In A Perfect World, I had an irrational and overwhelming urge to stockpile canned goods, water and firewood — though I have no fireplace. What difference does that make, right? If a plague is spreading across the United States, you better believe I’ll build a firepit and bunker down. Or, you know, my dad will do it.

Kasischke’s work is the story of Jiselle Dorn, newly wedded to the gorgeous and charismatic pilot Captain Mark Dorn. At 32 and never married, Jiselle is completely wooed by Mark’s stylish courtship and eager to begin a life with him. Her marriage brings her to the Chicago suburb of St. Sophia, a quaint and cozy town where Mark lives with his three children. Camilla, Sara and Sam put on a happy face as Jiselle arrives but waste no time undermining her authority. Petulant Sara, the most unhappy of all, scribbles terrible things in her journal — which she conveniently leaves out for Jiselle to find.

And Mark is traveling all the time. Alone with the kids after she’s given up her job as a flight attendant, Jiselle struggles to find a place within her new family — and to identify, for the first time, as a mother. Her days drag on, filled with chores and reading and lounging on the cabin’s deck, which overlooks a deep ravine. And missing Mark, of course; her longing for him to return, to “save” her, is palpable.

Underscoring the family drama happening in In A Perfect World is a much greater threat: an influenza, called the Phoenix Flu, is spreading across the United States, infecting scores of Americans. Fearing the worst, the global community has turned away from us, sealing their borders and refusing to give us aid; a vaccine does not exist. After a well-known pop star dies of the Phoenix Flu, the threat of infection seems to be everywhere. Life continues for Jiselle and the kids in St. Sophia, but no one seems to be safe. Or to even know what “safe” is any longer.

At many times reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It and its absolute apocalyptic feel, Kasischke’s work focuses on the aspect of survival and the growth of an unconventional family. While Pfeffer’s teenage narrator wrote in her diary about the daily tasks of attempting to survive in a world without power, heat, food and an alleviation of boredom, Kasischke’s book is much more emotional; less about the mechanics of a spreading flu and more about the effect of the flu on the psyche.

Starting the novel, I was pretty sure I was going to despise Jiselle. She seemed hopelessly naive, ignoring the cautions of her mother that Mark, while loving, was merely looking for a babysitter to tend to his children. As Mark’s presence becomes less and less a part of their daily lives, Jiselle’s transformation is absolute and apparent. For a woman who was single and childless just a year ago, she adapts quickly — and well.

Kasischke’s background in poetry is very evident; many of her turns of phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. She writes in gorgeous, lilting prose and her words, carefully chosen, seem to add an extra weight to everything happening in the country — and at home. One of my favorites:

One historian Jiselle heard interviewed on NPR said, in a voice so low it sounded like the source of gravity itself, that a return to traditions often preceded the complete collapse of a culture.

And, indeed, the culture seems to implode upon itself. Life In A Perfect World is anything but perfect, littered with fear, uncertainty, illness and grief. The novel, while beautiful, is disturbing — mostly because the “Phoenix Flu” seems, at times, oddly reminiscent of a certain illness that has many Americans currently stocking up on anti-bacterial hand gel and covering their faces with surgical masks. At many Sunday services, parishoners are discouraged from shaking hands; at work places, mandatory handwashing stations have been set up all over the buildings. And that’s happening now — in our own world. So reading about an avian flu that sweeps across the U.S., killing off scores of citizens? Yeah, not exactly uplifting reading.

But I have to say — I actually really liked this book. Kasischke’s interesting writing kept me enthralled and, as the kids and Jiselle come to rely more and more upon each other, I actually felt their bonds plucking at my heart strings. They’re not beyond redemption — nothing is. And while I don’t think the novel had quite the ultimately hopeful feel as Life As We Knew It, it didn’t leave me despondent, either.

Actually, after I turned the final page, I felt more than a little stunned. Some controversy surrounds the novel’s ending, I know, but I was pleased with how it turned out. Sometimes we have far more questions than answers — and sometimes, the resolution never does come. The book is just like life in that way — how we know it, and otherwise.

Lovers of dystopian fiction or those interested in apocalyptic tales while find plenty to “enjoy” (can you enjoy these stories, really?) here, and readers with a taste for family-based struggles and stories will be intrigued by the Dorn clan. Every character eventually won me over — including, and probably especially, Jiselle. A worthwhile but disturbing look at the breakdown of a culture . . . and the creation of a family.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061766119 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

tlc_logo copy

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘Enthusiasm’ by Polly Shulman

enthusiasmJulie Lefkowitz knows where her allegience lies — and it’s all with Ashleigh Rossi, her childhood best friend and serious Enthusiast. Ashleigh’s whims change without warning and encompass her entire being, dragging Julie along as she suddenly develops an interest in insects, candy-making or King Arthur — and then some.

Usually glad to go along with Ash’s infectious, excited schemes, her latest is causing Julie to feel anxious — Ashleigh is now obsessed with Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice, Julie’s very own favorite book. And from the moment Ash appears at Julie’s wearing a long gown, speaking in Regency language and begging her to crash a “ball” at neighboring all-boys school Forefield Academy, Julie knows this is no ordinary Enthusiasm.

And it’s not, of course. At the dance they meet Ned Downing and Charles Grandison Parr, two “very suitable” young men who could very clearly resemble their own Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, respectively. But which gentleman will pair off with which young lady? Or are they totally immune to the girls’ charms?

I can’t believe I only discovered this book by browsing through a bargain bookshelf. It was absolutely, totally fun and adorable! That’s really the best way I can describe it. Was the romance a wee bit predictable? Yes. Were there times you wanted to punch Julie, our narrator, in the arm for being so obtuse? Definitely. Was it obvious that, in the tradition of Jane Austen, we would get our very own happy ending? Sure. But let me tell you, it didn’t really hurt this infectious story at all.

What really anchored the whole novel for me was the knowledge that we all have an Ashleigh — or that we’ve all been an Ashleigh. My friends and family have long teased me that I jump from one “obsession” to another, and I absolutely saw myself in Shulman’s whimsical character. Ashleigh’s friendship with Julie was so strong, as was their devotion to each other — and it was so refreshing to see a pair of friends who don’t turn on each other the moment a pimply teenage boy shows them an ounce of attention. Seriously, Ashleigh and Julie were Ashleigh-and-Julie, and I loved that.

The family dynamics here were really strong, too. Goodness knows I love to see a functioning, well-drawn and relatable family! While Julie’s parents are divorced and she divides her time between her mother’s home with an antiques store in front and her father’s place with her new stepmother Amy, the “Irresistable Accountant,” the book doesn’t fall into the mire of “where do I belong, what did I do wrong” that’s so completely played out. Both homes welcomed her, though Julie did occasionally struggle with being kind to Amy. Though I couldn’t exactly blame her . . . I’m sure I would have had a hard time always being nice to Amy, too.

Jane Austen fans will delight in seeing a young woman so engrossed with one of their own favorite novels, as will the many women who have looked for their own Mr. Darcy. Ashleigh’s Enthusiasm is totally contagious, and at just 208 pages, you can whip right through this one in a sitting or two. And I’m so glad I did!

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0142409359 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Waiting (a little) for Twenties Girl

twenties_girlI’m cheating a little for this week’s Waiting On Wednesday . . . because this book was just released yesterday, July 21! But it sounds too good not to mention, and I figure that I’m still waiting for it. Right?

This week’s honors go to Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl! Here’s Amazon’s synopsis:

Lara Lington has always had an overactive imagination, but suddenly that imagination seems to be in overdrive. Normal professional twenty-something young women don’t get visited by ghosts. Or do they?

When the spirit of Lara’s great-aunt Sadie–a feisty, demanding girl with firm ideas about fashion, love, and the right way to dance–mysteriously appears, she has one last request: Lara must find a missing necklace that had been in Sadie’s possession for more than seventy-five years, and Sadie cannot rest without it. Lara, on the other hand, has a number of ongoing distractions. Her best friend and business partner has run off to Goa, her start-up company is floundering, and she’s just been dumped by the “perfect” man.

Sadie, however, could care less.

Lara and Sadie make a hilarious sparring duo, and at first it seems as though they have nothing in common. But as the mission to find Sadie’s necklace leads to intrigue and a new romance for Lara, these very different “twenties” girls learn some surprising truths from each other along the way. Written with all the irrepressible charm and humor that have made Sophie Kinsella’s books beloved by millions, Twenties Girl is also a deeply moving testament to the transcendent bonds of friendship and family.

While I have to admit to not being so crazy about Kinsella’s Remember Me?, which I read last year, there’s no denying her universal appeal and strong draw for readers of women’s fiction — myself included. I read the first of the Shopaholic books years ago and have several of her other titles in my TBR stack. Twenties Girl sounds really fun, and I love the idea of the heroine’s aunt coming back to impart some time-tested wisdom. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that? Throw in some laughs and a little romance and I’ll be off and running with it.

What are you waiting patiently — or impatiently — for this week? Read more responses over at Breaking The Spine!

Everything Austen Challenge

everything_austenI am quite ecstatic to say that I’ve just signed up for another reading adventure — the Everything Austen Challenge, hosted by Stephanie’s Written Word! Running from July 1 through Jan. 1, 2010, this challenge asks participants to pick out six Austen-themed items — books, films, audio books, whatever — and complete them before New Year’s Day.

I’m a mega Austen-o-holic, so I’m thinking this isn’t going to be too challenging for me — especially since I already have two ARCs of Austen fiction to review by August! (Those could be very famous — and public — last words, I know.)

Here’s my tentative list of the Jane-related books I hope to complete:

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (need to buy)

Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange (ARC, review to come in August)

Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley (own, TBR)

Rude Awakenings Of A Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler (need to buy — out June 25!)

Darcy and Anne by Judith Brocklehurt (ARC, review to come in September)

Letters From Pemberly by Jane Dawkins (own, TBR)

And I’m sure I’ll be watching more than a few adaptations of Jane’s beloved novels, not to mention a marathon session of “Becoming Jane” — one of my favorite films of all time! Though I’ve enjoyed Austen since first stumbling across Pride & Prejudice in high school (and seeing the BBC adaptation — le sigh), “Becoming Jane” was what really ignited a major obsession with her work and learning more about her life.

Want to join in the fun? Sign up now!

Beach reading

beach_feetFar more complicated, time-consuming and stressful than making sure I have the right clothes, shoes and sunscreen to take on vacation is deciding which books to take. My family vacations at the Outer Banks every summer — and every summer, I struggle with making sure I have the right novels to accompany me on my much-needed break!

Packing books for London last month was simple — in my “freetime,” I knew I wouldn’t really have my eyes open long enough to actually read anything. So I only brought a book, the I’d saved just for the plane ride to England: Megan McCafferty’s Charmed Thirds. And I picked up a few British books on my way home, of course, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone!

But this time I don’t have to worry about the heft of my suitcase and whether or not I can pull it single-handedly up and off the Tube. Oh, no — Dad and I are traveling in the SUV with plenty of space for a ridiculous amount of books! And now I have to comb my TBR stack, near collapse, for the best few to bring.

footprints“Beach reads” are, by their nature, light, breezy and often funny novels that can be read and absorbed quickly while, say, sitting out in the blazing hot sunshine with the dull roar of waves crashing behind you. I happen to think it’s a little mean to narrowly classify books as “beach reads” — often meaning they’re a little silly, not really worth thinking about — but there are some books that are just such fun, it’s easy to label them in that category.

Last summer at the beach, I carried the entire Twilight series around with me! I finished Twilight on the car ride down, began New Moon within the first few days and had a hard time setting it down the whole time I was away. Wanting to pace myself a bit, I picked up Elin Hilderbrand’s A Summer Affair at the end of the week, and I definitely enjoyed that.

And now, standing on the precipice of a fresh new vacation and a new opportunity to read like I might never read again, I think I’ve narrowed this year’s selections down . . .

Meg’s Beach Books ’09

along_for_the_rideSarah Dessen’s Along For The Ride

I rushed out on my lunch break today to grab Dessen’s latest novel, which I eagerly blogged about last Wednesday. After I carefully remove the beautiful dust jacket, that baby will be ready to sail along with me! In fact, I’m pushing it up on the top of the stack — I just have to devour that one whole. I’ll break it out as soon as we’re on the road.

Megan McCafferty’s Fourth Comings

Much like my London adventure, I’ve been saving the fourth installment in McCafferty’s awesome Jessica Darling series for another grand occasion! And I think this is finally it. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Jessica and Marcus, although reading reviews for the last two books has spoiled (a bit of) the fun for me. That’s okay, though — I have to absorb all of it myself!


Sarah Strohmeyer’s The Penny Pinchers Club

Okay, this one is cheating a little bit — because I’ve already started it! But I’m almost finished and can’t bear to leave it behind. It’s a really light, funny story about a woman who believes her husband is planning on divorcing her after she spends 20 years working her way through their savings account with her out-of-control spending — and actually a cheeky look at what we think we “need” in our society, and why. With only 40 pages to go, I’m touting it along on the sand!

Meg Cabot’s Airhead

As one of Cabot’s devout followers, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t started this series yet! I purchased the first novel in anticipation of my last trip, but ultimately decided I wouldn’t have time to read it while away. I’m eager to start!

suite_scarlettMaureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett

Johnson is another author I thought I should have gotten to know a long time ago, but only recently read her European adventure novel 13 Little Blue Envelopes. While I felt that story was just a little too emotionally detached for my tastes, I appreciated the quality of Johnson’s writing and voice! I’m looking forward to reading this one, which seems to have been heralded all over the YA book world.