Before I Saw You (2021)

by Emily Houghton
ASIN/ISBN: 9781982149505
Publication: May 4, 2021

**I received a copy of the book from the publisher through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own. **

Alfie and Alice share a ward in St. Francis’s Hospital, both recovering from traumatic accidents. While Alfie is sociable and can hardly prevent himself from talking to anyone he meets, Alice prefers to remain silent and hidden by her curtains. Although she is initially annoyed with Alfie’s attempts at conversation, little by little he draws her out enough that she begins to look forward to conversations with him. From disgruntled roommates (at least on the part of Alice) and then to becoming friends, their relationship begins to feel like something more all without ever seeing each other.

The experience of reading Before I Saw You for the first time is one that I will be unable to replicate. Even if I reread it somewhere down the line, it’s unlikely that the first time Alice speaks to Alfie will be as exciting. And that ending, that damned ending, will not hit me the same way. I mean, I don’t know if I will ever feel about it the way I do right this moment because for some books, there’s nothing like the first time. I’m currently basking in the loveliness of this novel. If I could, I’d like to bottle up what I’m feeling so that I can feel this way whenever I wanted. My one regret is that I waited so long to read it. It’s an absolute gem.

If you’re looking for something exciting, this isn’t going to be the book that will satisfy that search. The book is slow and might even be perceived as repetitive, but oh how I savored the inner dialogue and the connection between Alfie and Alice. This is a moving, character driven story that follows two people in need of healing and unexpectedly finding solace in each other, all the while separated by a curtain and never laying eyes on one other. It’s an uplifting story of the power of the human spirit and the connections we make that can help us thrive even in trauma.

Alfie, with his generally cheery attitude and talkative nature, is like the sun with its gravitational pull, grabbing hold of the people around him and pulling them into his orbit. No one can really help it because he’s affable and genuinely enjoys making human connections. Even I wasn’t immune from it. I have to commend Houghton for capturing his personality so well, for making his excitement so infectious that he immediately brightened my mood as well. I was so happy at how happy he was when Alice spoke to him for the first time.

Alice, on the other hand, is his opposite with her dislike of socializing, preferring instead to keep to herself and having just her best friend. The accident adds to her insecurities. Although Alfie is immediately likeable, Alice is the one that spoke to me, shattering me in several places throughout the book. Although she tries to resist, eventually she is also pulled into Alfie’s orbit. They become friends, but more than that they become confidantes, sharing things they would rarely, if at all, tell anyone else. I loved how their relationship developed and the eventual change they inspire in each other.

Houghton had me chuckling one moment and near tears the next. Alfie and Alice would share these significant pieces of themselves that ripped my heart out, and then the most sarcastic thing would come out of their mouths. These are my kind of characters, and if they were real, they’d be my kind of people. Having been inside their heads so long, it felt like I was saying goodbye to friends. The book is a slow read that requires immersing yourself in this difficult period in Alfie’s and Alice’s lives, to connect with them as they connect with each other. I adored the book.

The One and Only Sparkella (2021)

by Channing Tatum
Illustrated by Kim Barnes
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250750754
Publication: May 4, 2021

**I received a copy of the book from the publisher. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Sparkella_sparkle

Ella, or Sparkella as she likes to be called, isn’t nervous at all about her first day at a new school. She is unapologetically herself with her glitter, her shimmers, and her sparkles. A rough first day leads Sparkella to revert to being “normal,” but she feels even worse. After helping her dad out with his own rough day, Sparkella decides she’d rather continue to be herself.

The One and Only Sparkella is an endearing book about embracing your individuality. It’s especially sweet because her dad plays an active role in encouraging her to be herself. He not only supports her individuality and sense of fashion, he sparkles right along with her. The illustrations are as whimsical and enchanting as Sparkella. I read this with my niece and she adored the book. We both recommend it!

Today Tonight Tomorrow (2020)

by Rachel Lynn Solomon
ASN/ISBN: 9781534440241
Publication: July 14, 2020

**May contain spoilers. Please proceed with caution.**

When Neil is announced as the school’s valedictorian, it puts a dent in Rowan’s diabolical daydream of having him finally bow to her as the more formidable opponent. Now, she has only one last chance to beat him, the school’s annual scavenger hunt for graduating seniors known as the Howl. The competition takes an unexpected turn when she finds out a group of seniors are out to eliminate both her and Neil, turning the academic rivals into an unlikely team. Spending time working with each other as opposed to against one another has Rowan reevaluating her perception of Neil, seeing him in a different (possibly more rosy-colored) light.

As a fan of Sleepless in Seattle, Rachel Lynn Solomon had me at Seattle but my adoration of the book is all Solomon’s doing. “It was like…magic” mixed with a hefty dose of nostalgia when I first read it last summer. It remained much the same when I reread it recently. During my first reading, words evaded me when I tried writing a review. Even months after, I was unable to express how I felt about my best read of 2020. As May comes around with graduation ceremonies abound, I finally found the words to write something coherent.

Today Tonight Tomorrow completely and unexpectedly overwhelmed me. It felt like I was thrown back into high school. I was flooded with nostalgia as I simultaneously lived Rowan’s last day of high school and recalled celebrating my last days–mine was nowhere near as exciting as the Howl but I did get one last hurrah with friends.

Rowan and Neil were well-rounded characters. We learn about their hopes, dreams, and fears. I couldn’t help but adore them as they turned from rivals into an unexpected team. Initially, they have a one-dimensional relationship due to their rivalry but teaming up forces them into a different relationship that allows them to discover different sides of the other. While the events of the book take place in the span of 24 hours, the feelings that blossom in a single night don’t feel new at all–just newly uncovered. The feelings have been nurtured throughout their rivalry, and the layers of their relationship are now being peeled back, or maybe more accurately ripped off like a bandaid considering the time frame. With the book told strictly from Rowan’s point of view, it was entertaining to observe her thoughts and feelings, to see the different stages of her discovery, and to witness her initial shock that (gasp!) Neil is a person with feelings (I’m completely exaggerating here), that he could be someone she would feel anything other than antagonism toward. It was deeply satisfying.

There are so many things I admire about Rowan, including her passion and drive to go after what she wants (like bringing Neil down). One of my favorite scenes is when her friends tell her that for someone she dislikes, Neil occupies an alarming amount of her thoughts and time. Rowan thinks they’re clearly out of their minds for suggesting she feels anything beyond wanting to take him down. I couldn’t help but also agree that her friends were onto something. I also admire her commitment to her writing aspirations, which leads to Rowan explaining her love of romance novels. I agree with her assessment of the genre and the less than warm reception it generally receives. Solomon, through Rowan, helped me be comfortable with my love for romance novels even as my friends cringed when I (cautiously) confessed my undying love for the genre.

In an interview, she says the book is an homage/a love letter to Seattle. What a love letter it is! I’ve never been to Seattle, but I’ve always wanted to visit one day. Solomon created a sense of urgency to visit the rainy city, as though I should have done it yesterday. She does a tremendous job creating a sense of place with the vivid descriptions of the many places, both touristy spots and hidden gems, throughout Seattle. All this is possible because Solomon isn’t just a writer, she’s a conjurer of images and feelings, able to stir my long-forgotten memories of high school to life and make Rowan and Neil feel alive.

Today Tonight Tomorrow solidified Solomon as an automatic buy author for me. If you’re still wondering if I recommend Today Tonight Tomorrow, then I haven’t done a good job of divulging my love for this novel. I hope you’re itching to read it, even if you’ve already read it before. It’s my chef’s kiss of 2020!

To deal with the feelings you might have after finishing the book (book coma anyone?), here’s a short list of things that might help. I wish I had prepared them in advance. You know what they–whoever they are–say, “Hindsight is always 20/20.”

GRADUATiON PLAYLiST

YouTube | Spotify

Eyes that Kiss in the Corner (2021)

by Joanna Ho
Illustrated by Dung Ho
ASN/ISBN: 9780062915627
Publication: January 5, 2021

This is the book I needed when I was growing up. My eyes were an attribute I was very insecure about because they were just one of many things other kids teased me about. Eyes that Kiss in the Corner highlights the uniqueness, the beauty of eyes that look like mine. They’re special because they reflect those of my parent’s, passed from one generation to the next. They are “eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” They “crinkle into crescent moons and sparkle like the stars.” The book impaled my heart with such warmth and positivity. If only someone had described my eyes as such when I was younger, it would have made a world of difference. Eyes that Kiss in the Corner celebrates diversity and promotes self-love. It’s not just about acceptance, but appreciating yourself just the way you are.

Christmas Playlist 2020: Last Christmas

I’ve been busy with school and finals so I haven’t been able to post as much as I’d like. I’ve been wanting to do something holiday related other than participating in the Reindeer Readathon and reading a few Christmas centric books. Here is my holiday playlist along with a related bookish discussion that fits the the track. I nearly forgot I also signed up for Bookending Winter 2020 and it also works well with the event. (See: Fictionally Sam & Cuppa Clo)

Track 01: Wham! – Last Christmas

This is an 80’s contemporary that is now a classic. I’m not sure about elsewhere but at least in the U.S., I don’t think you can really go anywhere without hearing it come on at least once a day during the holiday season. This ranks at the top for me. It’s one of my favorite songs to listen to. A few years ago, I had a playlist consisting of the original and its many covers. I think my family and whoever caught a ride with me wanted to strangle me that December. While multiple artists have covered it, from Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift, nothing quite hits like the original.

When I think of “Last Christmas”, I think of two types of books: 1) contemporaries turned classics and 2) books that ultimately broke me.

A BOOK THAT BECAME A CLASSIC

Merriam-Webster defines classic as “serving as a standard of excellence; of recognized value.” Often, it’s quality is judged over time. Books I love, those I often measure other books against are what I deem classics and not necessarily what book critics tell me are classics, although there might be times when there is overlap. Being a serial rereader, I know I love a book when I can reread it. When I think of a book that carries this title, there is really only one that immediately comes to mind.


Green Rider (2000)
by Kristen Britain
ISBN: 9780886778583
Publication: April 1, 2000
Goodreads Summary
Series: Green Rider #1

This book has all the goodness of medieval fantasy. I’ve read it nearly ever year since I first read it years ago. Karigan Gladheon is stubborn, tenacious, and loyal. These qualities are what allow her to deliver the message that she receives from a dying green rider and ultimately help her make it through what ends up being a perilous adventure. There is a hint of romance but it’s not developed until later books in the series. While I’ve reread the series multiple times, this remains the best book in the series. While not all questions are answered by the end of the book, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. If you don’t want to read the rest of the series (which is still not complete), you are safe to do so. The First Rider’s Call (Green Rider #2) and The High King’s Tomb (Green Rider #3) are also pretty good. Book #7 is slated for publication in 2021.

BOOKS THAT BROKE ME

“Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away

Despite being upbeat, the song is about unrequited love. There are a few types of books that fit in this category but I want to focus on two. There are books I thought I would love but didn’t necessarily measure up to expectations. Then, there are those that I loved and broke my heart anyway. Either way, I loved them and they couldn’t love me back!!


Midnight Valentine (2018)
by J.T. Geissinger
ISBN: 9780996935838
Publication: February 6, 2018
Goodreads Summary
Series: N/A

I really love this book, and I also like J.T. Geissinger. After her husband dies in an accident, Megan moves to the town where they had planned to open a bed-and-breakfast. She’s never moved on after his death. Then, she meets Theo, who stopped speaking after an accident left him scarred both physically and mentally. The book deals with grief but also finding second chances. It was nearly a 5-star book for me but the ending left me conflicted; I couldn’t decide if the ending was a fair one for Theo. It’s still a good book though. If you’ve read this, you have to let me know what you thought of the ending.


The Sun is also a Star (2016)
by Nicola Yoon
ISBN: 9780553496680
Publication: November 1, 2016
Goodreads Summary
Series: N/A

I’m a romantic. I love love. Love makes me swoon. I read The Sun is Also A Star as my team read for Tropeical Readathon and it broke me. I always wanted to write a review but couldn’t find the words…I was too busy bawling. I’m back and forth on insta-love. I’m not the biggest fan of it in books but, as an author pointed out, sometimes all it takes is a glance. And, sometimes, it can take years. There’s insta-love here but it works so well. I spent at least 5 minutes crying my eyes out after I finished this book. I highlighted so many passages. That ending had so many onions, my eyes stung. (I love onions by the way.)

What books do you consider classics, whether it’s one you love and reread or just exemplary of a genre you enjoy? What books have broken your heart?

Here are links to a few of my favorite covers of “Last Christmas”:
1sagain (Korean)
Good Charlotte
Carly Rae Jepsen
Savage Garden
Meghan Trainor


Bonus:
Here’s a Spotify playlist with over 100 covers of the song, CLICK!
(Yes, you may silently judge me…hahaha) Just in case you, here’s a 1-hour loop of the original, CLICK!

Subversive (2020)

by Colleen Cowley
ASN: B08GYLTKNZ
Publication date: September 27, 2020
Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #1


Get it here: Amazon
For more details (like content warnings), click here.

**I was provided a copy of the book by the author. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own. (If you’re wondering, the book is superb!)**

Peter Blackwell returns to his former hometown Ellicott Mills to serve as the town’s resident wizard, an omnimancer to help with illnesses or other problems that may arise in the town.  Requiring an assistant, he manages to steal Beatrix Harper from her current place of employment (against her wishes).  Although initially adverse to the idea, Beatrix agrees to help him, not realizing that helping Peter will require her to break the law because he didn’t exactly return home to just be an omnimancer.

There’s something to be said about reading a book you hope is going to be good and have it meet your expectations, possibly even exceed them. Reading Subversive was one of the best experiences I had all year. It felt like all my favorite genres—fantasy, romance, regency (not a real genre I know…but it’s historical but yet not and I get regency vibes from it )–melded into one.  I had a difficult time trying to figure out that something to say, how I might capture how wonderful it is in a blog post—the answer is that I couldn’t but still tried.

Cowley’s magnetic storytelling and distinct magic system had me enamored with the book and its characters. The social system and the political system are reflective of the present United States but this somewhat dystopian U.S. lags in women’s rights—women don’t have any.  Okay, they have limited rights but it feels more like no rights at all. For instance, women have a curfew, and single women are not allowed to be alone with single men or else their reputations will be tarnished. The lack of women’s rights and the privilege that comes from having magical abilities serves as a compelling backdrop to the events that unfold. The book poses multiple questions, and among them is the question of what those in power will do to stay in power. 

I immediately liked Beatrix upon meeting her.  Family is everything to her, and she is determined that her sister has opportunities she never had, even though it can lead to resentment and go unappreciated at times. She isn’t infallible.  She can be stubborn and doesn’t have a problem speaking her mind or apologizing when she has erred.

Peter is a bit harder to figure out because it isn’t immediately clear what his motivations are. What is clear, though, is that he knows exactly what he is doing when he hires Beatrix, and it isn’t because he is just a nice wizard trying to help her out.  The relationship that blossoms from their work arrangement is a complicated one and kept me turning the pages.

I cannot emphasize how much I enjoyed it!  It felt like stepping into a Jane Austen novel in an alternate 21st century made extra complicated by the presence of magic. I wasn’t always able to predict what was going to happen next. I both loved and hated how it kept me on my toes just as I thought I had it figured out. I kept wanting to skip to the end so I wouldn’t be so anxious about what was going to happen next. I didn’t but I really wanted to. It’s perfect for fans of romantic fantasy with strong, capable women fighting for what they believe in.

Sharing the Refugee Experience: The Paper Boat (2020) and The Most Beautiful Thing (2020)

Recently, I had the opportunity to review two children’s books, both providing a glimpse into the refugee experience. As a child of refugees, I grew up with the mentality that I encompass the hopes and dreams of my parents and their sacrifices. My success is not necessarily my own. My parents drilled this into me at a young age, but I don’t think I truly understood this until I was older. (While it remains a heavy burden, some days are easier than others.)

What was this idea of communal success? What were my parents’ sacrifices? Why was it important for them to see me succeed (other than being their child of course)? These ideas, these concepts were already difficult to comprehend but made more so when I was underrepresented at school and couldn’t find books that remotely shared anything close to the story of my life or that of my parents’. Lessons in the classroom were not exactly helpful either.

When I was in around 9 years old, I had an assignment to write about my ancestors in the United States. Who was I supposed to write about? My ancestors tilled the fields of China and roamed the jungles of Laos. I had no ancestors in the U.S. whom I could lay claim to, unlike my friends who discovered their connections to individuals like Annie Oakley. The first people in my family to come to the United States were my aunt and her husband, who arrived in the late 1970s just a few years before my parents. With the parameters set, I didn’t see any other option but to write about my aunt and her family. Ancestors were relatives and my aunt was a relative, right? And my aunt was in the United States, right? That fulfilled the assignment requirements…right?

When I think back on this assignment, it often feels like blasphemy. I come from a culture that believes our ancestors continue to watch over us even after they pass, bringing fortune and helping us to overcome the bad. And, I couldn’t share their stories, their accomplishments. I’ve never forgotten this experience. This memory is one that lingers, often appearing at the most unexpected moments but bringing with it my hopes and wishes for the future, for change.

The incessant call for diversity in publishing, especially as the demographics of the United States shift to become minority-majority, is an opportunity for stories that better reflect the plethora of rich narratives in our communities. When I came upon The Paper Boat (2020) and The Most Beautiful Thing (2020), I was overwhelmed with emotions. I wish I had these stories to read when I was growing up to better understand my parents, to better understand my history, to know that I wasn’t alone.

**I was provided a copy of each book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed them. All opinions are my own. I will be purchasing them for my personal library to share with nieces and nephews.**


The Paper Boat (2020)
by Thao Lam
ISBN: 9781771473637
Publication: September 15, 2020
Goodreads Summary


Children of Southeast Asian refugees like myself will appreciate the harrowing journey Lam shares of a girl and her family’s escape from Vietnam. Presented without words, readers must interpret the story through images illustrated with collage art. It encourages a more intimate connection by having readers closely observe the actions and emotions on each page so when readers finally reach the author’s note, there is a greater emotional impact. The Paper Boat provides an opportunity to share the sacrifices of our families, passing down stories to a younger generation so they may understand their history is not only one filled with pain but also courage and hope.

Thao Lam is an award winning author and has written several children’s books that include her collage art. She was only two when her family fled Vietnam. She currently resides in Canada and is also an art buyer for an educational publishing company.


The Most Beautiful Thing (2020)
by Kao Kalia Yang
ISBN: 9781541561915
Publication: October 6, 2020
Goodreads Summary

The Most Beautiful Thing is the heartfelt story of a Hmong girl and her relationship with her grandmother. It’s a simple and meaningful story with the lesson that beauty is more than just what we can see or buy. The book is beautifully illustrated with an array of colors reminiscent of traditional Hmong clothes. I would have appreciated a book such as this when I was growing up, one with a character who looks like me and shares a similar family history. I cannot wait to share this book with my nieces once it is published so they can also see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American author, public speaker and teacher who has garnered several awards for her books. Born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in 1980, she came to the United States with her family when she was seven. Currently, she resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.

**For those who do not read Hmong or are unsure how to pronounce the Hmong words, the phonetic spelling of each at the beginning of the book is helpful.

I would love to know what books you have read that you wished had been published when you were growing up? What books would you love to share with children?