2021 Reading List: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Here’s a fun, light-hearted read for you. Of course I had to read Crazy Rich Asians, by Keven Kwan, before I watch the movie and see what all the hype was about.

I finished this book pretty quickly, but not because it was particularly great. For the first half of it, I actually thought the plot was pretty boring. It was extremely descriptive of the rich lifestyle led by these families in Singapore and rather lacking in the action. Of course, the detail and nuances about their lives was necessary for the reader to truly understand the reasons and emotions behind the later actions.

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2021 Reading List: Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

When they say this is a page-turner, they aren’t lying. Once I got about halfway through this book, I literally could not put it down. I just had to know what was going to happen.

Something in the Water, by Catherine Steadman, is a thriller about a couple who goes on their honeymoon to Bora Bora and finds a mysterious bag floating in the water while they are out on a scuba diving day-trip. What happens next is probably what would happen for anyone who found several million dollars unclaimed in the ocean.

Erin is a filmmaker, currently doing a documentary about the transition to the world after prisoners are released. Her soon to be husband, Mark, works at a large bank. But right before their wedding, he loses his job and has a hard time finding a new one due to the politics around his exit. He is suddenly extremely worried about their finances and their future and makes some pretty harsh decisions to completely change their wedding venue, skimp on the food, and cut their honeymoon in half. Erin is mad at first, but he points out the actual numbers – how much she makes, how much savings they have, how much their house costs – and she comes around.

She really comes across as a bit ditsy and out of the loop, considering she’s a documentarian and she’s supposed to be good at noticing details, managing projects, sticking to film budgets. It’s like she’s so blinded by her love for this man that she lets herself stay out of tune with her whole personal life.

Mark’s hysteria over losing his job seems a little unnecessary to me. Sure, it really sucks, they wanted a nice wedding and to start out their lives together and plan for their future. But he should be able to move on and stay positive, and he’ll find another job eventually.

So they go to Bora Bora for their honeymoon and have a fabulous time. Erin gets over her panic about scuba diving and they go out to dive, taking a boat out about an hour away. On their way back they find a bag floating with some mysterious papers out in the middle of the ocean. When they come back to the location the next day, they find an airplane beneath the surface, crashed, supposedly with people inside. I say supposedly because Mark was the only one who saw them and now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not sure I can trust anything he said anymore.

So what do they do with the bag? Well first they try to do the right thing and turn it in to the hotel. But the hotel staff misunderstands and keep giving it back to them. So what else to do but open it, right? Inside they find a million dollars cash, two million dollars worth of 2 carat diamonds, a gun, a cell phone and a USB drive.

They are suddenly transformed into people so desperate for money that they become criminals. It’s amazing what money will do to people, mess with their heads. They want to keep the money so badly that they try to cover their tracks and erase their involvement. They destroy their files at the hotel and leave early.

When they get back home, they set up a Swiss bank account to deposit the money and use it subsequently for transactions into their own person accounts as freelance payments. Erin continues working on the documentary, but ends up involved with her subject’s breaking of parole and terrorism scheme, which adds to her paranoia that they’re going to be caught or that someone is after them trying to get the money back.

But her job also puts her in touch with a prisoner who was part of a world-renowned gang for decades so he knows all the secret to the trade. He actually helps her find a buyer for the diamonds and figure out what to do with the USB when the “plane people” come looking for it.

Despite the fact that this book was so good I couldn’t put it down, I had some major qualms with some pieces of it.

First of all, I don’t know why she wasn’t suspicious of Mark sooner. I caught on early that there was something up with him. His demeanor suddenly changed, he suddenly decided he didn’t care about money, he was putting Erin out in public as the face of this crime. She just played dumbly along, distracted and preoccupied.

Secondly, I’m annoyed that we never find out what was on the USB. I’m annoyed that the “plane people” are never defined. I’m annoyed that they don’t care about their money or their diamonds and also that they’ll pay more money in order to get the USB back, as if just saying “you can keep all our other stuff in exchange for our USB” isn’t enough. I’m annoyed that after Mark can’t give them the coordinates of the crashed plane in the ocean, they just drop it, and they don’t continue to look for Erin, track her down or kill her.

Thirdly, I’m kind of shocked that they got so greedy that they kept trying to get more and more money out of this group of criminals. I don’t understand why they couldn’t stop once they had the cash deposited into the bank. Get rid of the diamonds, get rid of the phone and the USB, move on. Give it all back to the people it came from and don’t look back. I truly don’t understand why Erin kept opening the phone, tried to find out what was on the USB, actually got herself a gun and was so intent on doing an exchange in order to get more money. If I were her, I would have just handed everything over that they asked for and walked away. She already had a million dollars in the bank.

Lastly, the book ended nicely with Erin figuring it all out herself. She came to realize on her own that her husband was playing her and deceiving her. But she couldn’t figure out why he’d stopped loving her, why he wanted to siphon all this money for himself and move to New York, why the money had changed him in so many fundamental ways that he didn’t even want to be with her anymore. And she never got a chance to find that out because he was dead.

And also – where did the plane people go?! If they were really bad people, they wouldn’t let Erin go alive, walking around with the knowledge of coordinates of the plane crash. If they wanted those coordinates so badly, then there must have been something else incriminating in that plane, still under the ocean. If they were good at their job, they would have realized that Mark and Erin were a couple. They would have done their research. They would have known that even if they killed Mark, Erin could always still be a problem, even if Mark said she wasn’t. They weren’t doing their due diligence.

Overall though, great book. Highly recommend.

2021 Reading List: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it was just coincidence that the first book I finished in 2021 was a book about a dystopian replacement of the United States, right when we are watching extreme displays of anarchy play out in real life at the U.S. Congress. Crazy. Appalling. So wrong. I could go on, but this isn’t about politics today. This is just my book review.

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, is a sequel to her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in 2019. Then, like now, I marveled at a book that is written to be wholly fictional and unrealistic and yet is so believable that it may actually happen. I remember thinking that The Handmaid’s Tale was a well-written book but kind of boring in terms of action and plotline. The Testaments, on the other hand, was the opposite. There was a lot going on in this book, and Atwood pretty much required you to read The Handmaid’s Tale first so that you know the background and context of this Gileadean world.

Despite being written some 35 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the connection to the characters and the life they live is seamless.

The book is set about 15 years after the time of the The Handmaid’s Tale, and follows the experiences and accounts of three women, who are, inevitably, connected.

The first, a young girl, Agnes, the daughter of a Commander. Then another young girl, Daisy, who lives in Canada with her parents who run a thrift shop. Lastly, Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, the one who is in charge.

Throughout the book, you realize that everything about their lives is based on lies and deceit. Agnes’ parents were not her real parents. She gets a step-mother, Paula, who had lied about the way her previous husband had died. She gets out of an arranged betrothal by lying and saying she had a calling to become an Aunt. Daisy’s parents aren’t her real parents. They are involved in a secret organization that smuggles girls and women out of Gilead to safety. Daisy had actually been smuggled out of Gilead herself when she was a baby and everyone in Gilead is looking for her. She must lie and deceive in order to sneak back in to Gilead with the hope that she can be a messenger to reveal the crimes of Gilead and bring about its destruction. Lydia’s entire life is built on lies, eavesdropping on every conversation in order to use what’s said and play the right hand. She says she is the founder and is committed to the success of Gilead but she’s actually plotting its demise and has been since she was captured.

Once again, I am surprised by how little time passed between the coup that resulted in the founding of Gilead, and the current events of the book. I had commented that in The Handmaid’s Tale it seemed that only 3 or 4 years had passed – Offred remembered her previous life, her husband, her child, as if it had happened so recently. And now reading The Testaments, I realize that if Aunt Lydia founded Gilead and she had already been considered old then and she is still alive to run the place, then we are only talking about 20 years of Gilead.

So there are women who remember the old ways. There may only be one generation of children who’ve been brought up completely engrained in this dystopian culture. And yet everyone acts like, this is the world, this is the way it is. It’s amazing how they forgot. It’s amazing how they could have adapted to this life of lies, brainwashed into thinking that Gilead is a better place than the world before.

Violence keeps them there. A violent and oppressive system that Lydia herself came up with and devised the rules for. The lack of power keeps women from rebelling. Killing their own citizens keeps them from running away. Fear for their lives and the lives of people they know and love keeps them quiet and subdued.

When you boil it all down, any society could become like this. Take away the power, change the rules, resort to fear and violence to contain the disorderly, and you have a system that is completely dysfunctional and morally wrong. But those with the power might say, whose morals? Everyone thinks their own worldview and way of life is the correct one. That’s why they’re living it. We all think everyone else is wrong, had made the wrong decision. The most extremists will fight, kill, overthrow, and condemn those who don’t believe what they believe or do what they say is right. The most extreme will spread lies, convince others to join them, incite insurrection, all in the name of what they think is fair and just. They think their world is better than reality and they will stop at nothing to control everyone around them and contain them in it.

I know I said I wouldn’t get political, but I leave you with this. Is the world we actually live in today much different from this fictional futuristic society?

2020 Reading List: Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

I joined a new book club! This one is with a group of fellow moms. Clearly becoming new parents during a pandemic has led to some of us needing some literary escape.

The first book we chose was Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott. I went off on a tangent with the plot of this book, so be warned – there are spoilers. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

A few days before I had my baby I decided I needed a light, fun book to read to take my mind off the stress and discomfort of being past my due date. I had The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang on my wish list in the library’s ebook portal; I think it was recommended to me by a friend years ago. It sounded fun and light so I thought, Why not? Continue reading

2020 Reading List: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I feel like I haven’t read a good thriller lately, so I was ready for this suspenseful page-turner.

Behind Closed Doors, by B.A. Paris is about a couple who is, seemingly, perfect. They have the perfect house, cook the perfect food for their guests, and live the perfect traditional life of not-so-recent newlyweds. That’s what Jack wants everyone to see. A husband doting on his loving, beautiful wife. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

The first book of 2020 was one chosen by the office book club. Based on the book summary, I would have thought that Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, would be written differently than it was. I anticipated following along the story as it happened, the events unfolding as they would have in real life. Because this book is, of course, based on real life.

But I was thrown a bit when it read more like a mystery novel. Flashing back from present day to the 1930’s, we swapped points of view between Avery, who is uncovering the mystery of her grandmother’s past bit by bit and Rill, who is living an unimaginable life.

To find out the truth of the past, Avery’s telling of the story is maddeningly slow in the most riveting way. Avery is caught up in her family’s politics, being groomed for a Senate seat while at the same time planning a wedding with her fiance. A chance encounter with a woman at a nursing home during a public appearance has her off on a wild goose chase to connect the dots between this stranger and her grandmother, who happen to have similar photographs in their rooms of the same people.

You realize that Avery is on the brink of discovery, but hits a snag as she encounters a stubborn realtor who has sworn to keep her family’s secret – and yet, she finds herself falling in love with him.

Meanwhile, the reader is transported back a few generations to follow the story of a family on a river.

Be warned: I’m going to give away some spoilers in this review. If you want to read this book and don’t want the ending ruined, I suggest you stop now. Continue reading

2019 Reading List: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

This was supposed to be one of the “best books of 2018” and it was on lists for the O Magazine and Newsweek. I say “supposed to be” because I was just not a fan.

Maybe I missed something. I found Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver to be tedious and slow and disconnected. It was boring. I kept waiting for the plot to thicken, for something interesting to actually happen.  But the only thing that happened was the house kept falling apart and no one, in either time period, was able to actually fix it.

Maybe I missed some deeper meaning. Maybe there were parallels I was supposed to draw, metaphors to decipher, or allegories to interpret. But I didn’t catch them. Maybe because I would read two pages before drifting off, so it took me weeks longer than usual to finish the book.

If I missed the point of this book, then so be it. I don’t have to like everything. Continue reading

2019 Reading List: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

A summary of this book in one phrase: a tragic historical romance with an unexpected twist.

Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton, was part of our office book club, and I must say that it exceeded my expectations. It was a story of two women from different generations, who end up going through some surprisingly similar events. Cuban-American, Marisol, wants to fulfill her deceased grandmother’s wish to have her remains scattered in her beloved Havana, Cuba. So now that Marisol is able to travel (somewhat) safely to Cuba, she visits her grandmother’s old family friends, falls in love, and uncovers some hidden family secrets along the way.

The story is told from both perspectives of Marisol, as well as her grandmother Elisa. Switching back and forth between past and present, we get a full picture of Havana, then and now – how so much has changed, and yet, so much hasn’t. Continue reading

2019 Reading List: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

I was took a mini vacation to Florida this past week and needed a good mystery book to keep me occupied by the pool. I finished Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown, in less than five days.

When I first started the book, I thought it would feel like a template: interesting and captivating, but not particularly new or unexpected. And I was okay with that. But things definitely got a little twisted at the end, so I give this one five stars. Continue reading