Review: THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab

It’s been a few years since Victoria Schwab has given us a new YA; she’s been spending the past couple years working toward world domination establishing her adult brand with Vicious and the Darker Shade series. During that time, she’s gained a lot of new readers, and I hope they follow her back to her YA roots for This Savage Song

I wasn’t sure what to expect from her monstrous new release (every time Victoria was asked about it, responses ranged from nonverbal grunting noises to maniacal cackling to “it’s so weird, you guys”) but once I finally got my grubby little paws on an ARC and read the first few pages, I couldn’t put it down. Now I can honestly say that This Savage Song this is my favorite of Victoria’s YA. Tonally, it feels like the younger YA cousin to Vicious, which is my favorite book of Victoria’s overall, and I am so excited that it’s finally crept its way into the world.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

My Thoughts:

For the past couple years, Victoria (V.E.) Schwab has been focusing on her adult books, with Vicious and her Darker Shade series. However, This Savage Song takes her back to her start in YA, with an urban fantasy that explores the question of what it means to be monstrous. For readers of her adult works, expect a tone closer to Vicious than Darker Shade, and for readers of her YA, be prepared for a darker, twistier tale than either The Archived or The Near Witch.

This Savage Song takes place in a time and place not too removed from the world we live in now, except for one crucial detail — in this world, acts of violence breed literal monsters. The more horrific the violence, the more terrible the creature it creates.

August, one of the two narrators, is one such monster, born out of an event so horrible, he can barely bring himself to think of it. He wants nothing more than to be human, but throughout the story, it becomes increasingly clear why that can never be possible, and why, even so, he can never stop trying.

Kate Harker, the other narrator, is the teenage daughter of the most powerful man in the city, and would happily throw away her humanity if it won her the attention of her father. She and August don’t so much come together as collide, and the narrative of This Savage Song clearly relishes playing out the tension between the monster boy longing for the very thing his human companion doesn’t seem to value at all, and the girl trying to reconcile what she knows of monsters with the boy standing in front of her.

It’s hard to discuss the plot of This Savage Song without getting into spoilers, so suffice it to say that the entire book is a tense, thrilling exploration of what it means to be human, what can make someone monstrous, and the marks violence leaves, both on the soul and on society. Kate and August’s relationship follows one of my favorite trajectories in fiction, from enemies to wary allies to respected partners to trusted friends, and I loved every delicious moment of their slow-burn friendship (is slow-burn friendship a thing? Because it should be).

I also was fascinated by the monsters that populated the dark world of This Savage Song. For the most part, they are not the mindless, salivating brutes of horror novels and fairy tales, but sinister, intelligent beings with agendas of their own. When the story starts, the monsters have more or less taken over the city, but they still have structure and hierarchy within their new, monstrous society. I’ve always considered worldbuilding one of Victoria’s great strengths, and This Savage Song is no exception, as she feels her way through how the world as we know it would change — and how it would remain the same — if monsters roamed among us.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the writing itself; as always, Victoria’s prose is beautiful, each word carefully chosen, each paragraph meticulously crafted. On a sentence level, I truly feel she’s one of the most talented writers in the game today. There’s hardly a page that goes by without a phrase that would be appropriate to print in loopy script and place in a frame somewhere. Her worldbuilding is lush and detailed, the dialogue sharp, the action taught, and the act of reading her words is decadence and joy and education all in one.

Make no mistake, This Savage Song is very dark, probably Schwab’s darkest since Vicious, and therefore won’t be for everyone. It’s violent and disturbing and, at times, very sad. But despite its darkness, it’s not a depressing book. Yes, Kate and August go through terrible trials and have to face awful things, but when I turned the final few pages of This Savage Song (which, it’s worth noting, ends on a very satisfying note, despite this book being the first of a duology), I felt oddly uplifted. For me, though it’s subtle, there was an undercurrent of light woven throughout the story, enough to leave the reader with the impression that though things may get bad, so bad it seems nearly impossible for them to ever turn around, that there is always hope. There is always goodness somewhere, maybe buried deep, maybe not where you’d expect to find it, and you might have to fight tooth and nail to get to it, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but in my opinion, it’s executed beautifully here.

If you are a fan of urban fantasy, unlikely friendships, gorgeous writing, and thoughtful explorations of morality and monstrousness, rush to your local bookstore and dive into the world of This Savage Song today.

Review: SUFFER LOVE by Ashley Herring Blake

You know those tasks you really should get to, but you have so much time in which to get to them that it’s really not important that you do them right now? So you put them off, and put them off, watching your available time shrink and shrink and shrink until there’s barely enough time to get them done? But by then it’s stressful and rushed, and that gives you anxiety, so instead of buckling down and getting through your tasks, you put them off even more? Until there’s no possible way you can get them done in time, so really, why even try? And then you give up and feel like a failure and claim things “just got away from you,” but you know the truth?

Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.

Anyway, this has been me and Ashley Herring Blake’s gorgeous YA debut, Suffer Love.

Ashley, as anyone who even casually follows me on Twitter probably knows, is one of my critique partners, but we didn’t meet until after she’d already written and sold Suffer Love. However, she said she could use one more pair of eyes on it before she went into copyedits, so she sent it to me and I read it over, making a few tiny suggestions here and there, but mostly just being utterly absorbed in and swept away by the characters and their story.

This was — I just looked it up — November, 2014.

Suffer Love released in May of this year.

Which means I’ve had a year and a half to write this review and put it up before the release date, and I still didn’t manage to get it done in time.

Anyway, I’m finally getting to it now, because I loved this book and I love Ashley and it deserves a glowing review…even if it’s a little late.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

“Just let it go.”

That’s what everyone keeps telling Hadley St. Clair after she learns that her father cheated on her mother. But Hadley doesn’t want to let it go. She wants to be angry and she wants everyone in her life—her dad most of all—to leave her alone.

Sam Bennett and his family have had their share of drama too. Still reeling from a move to a new town and his parents’ recent divorce, Sam is hoping that he can coast through senior year and then move on to hassle-free, parent-free life in college. He isn’t looking for a relationship…that is, until he sees Hadley for the first time.

Hadley and Sam’s connection is undeniable, but Sam has a secret that could ruin everything. Should he follow his heart or tell the truth?

My Thoughts:

It’s well-known that parents are scarce in YA literature. Either they’re dead, or they’re absent, or they’re around but strangely invisible. It’s understandable; YA is about teens, and it’s hard to put teens front and center if their parents are continually barging in and trying to take charge. So many YA stories deal with this by simply removing the parents, or shifting them to the background.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. One of the main audiences of YA is, in fact, teenagers, and it makes total sense that they’d want to read stories about characters their age, not about their parents. I find absolutely no fault with authors who would rather focus on their teen characters and keep adults mostly out of the mix.

However, I’m a little bit backwards. I was one of those teens who read a lot of adult literature, and now I’m an adult who reads a lot of YA. As such, I’ve always been drawn to stories that feature both perspectives, the adult and the teen. I find it fascinating to explore where they clash, where they overlap, where the gap in years of life experience is an asset and where it’s a hindrance.

Suffer Love is one of those rare YA books that, while remaining solidly YA, really digs in and explores those questions. Sam and Hadley, the two teen narrators, are both dealing with the fallout of their parents’ infidelity. One family has already split apart, the other is trying to stay together but finding it a challenge. One narrator knows the sordid details of their parent’s affair, the other does not. Both are struggling to redefine their relationships with their parents and families, while still working through lingering feelings of anger and betrayal. The parents in both families are well-drawn, fully realized characters, but even when they’re not on the page, their presence is felt. Suffer Love doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions about the relationships between parents and teens, the mistakes both sides can make, and how both parties can move forward after being shaken to their core.

But much as I loved the way Suffer Love is a story about parents and kids and the particular hurting and healing that occurs within families, it’s about more than that. It’s about first love, and grief, and friendship. It’s two people in pain finding each other and realizing that they can heal better together than they can apart. It’s about loyalty, and secrets, and trying to make a good decision when all of the choices available to you are bad.

Sam and Hadley both felt like real people to me as I read. The alternating points of view were never confusing, with each having their own distinct voice and purpose. The side characters never felt peripheral either, and each had their own moments to shine, particularly Sam’s best friend Ajay (my favorite character) and Sam’s younger sister, Livy. Suffer Love is one of those books where you just want to hang out with several of the characters after the book ends, and maybe give a few of them hugs, not just because they need one, but also because you feel so connected to them.

The prose is lush and gorgeous but never gets overly flowery, and is infused with plenty of humor, as well as a hefty dose of Shakespearean references (including quite a few nods to my favorite Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, from which Suffer Love gets its title). It’s one of those books that strikes the perfect balance between lovely writing and compulsive readability, and I found that once the pages started turning, they didn’t stop.

Suffer Love is a beautiful, emotional story of grief and healing, of trust and friendship, of heartbreak and first love. It is about romance, and family, and the lengths a person will go to for the people they love. If you already love contemporary YA, or haven’t tried it yet and are searching for just the right book to get your feet wet, Ashley Herring Blake’s Suffer Love is a riveting and poignant debut, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

Review: SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

This past week, I had the privilege of attending Ruta Sepetys’ launch for her newest novel, Salt to the Sea. Although Ruta is a Nashville author and this is her third book, she’s never had a launch party before. Another friend mentioned she was nervous no one would show up (most authors worry about this, no matter how successful they are).

Turns out, she needn’t have worried.

Photo by Parnassus Books

A standing-room-only crowd packed into Parnassus Books in Nashville, and together, we listened, rapt, as Ruta talked about the story behind Salt to the Sea. Like her debut, Between Shades of Gray, which shines a light on the Baltic deportations in the early 1940s, Salt tells the story of a forgotten and tragic piece of history — this time, the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

Most people know about the sinking of Titanic and Lusitania, but far fewer have ever heard of Wilhelm Gustloff, even though it’s the largest maritime disaster in history. Over 9,000 people lost their lives when the Wilhelm Gustloff was ripped apart by Russian torpedoes, more than three times the casualties of the Titanic and Lusitania combined.

Over half of those, Ruta told us, were children and teenagers.

And yet most of the world doesn’t know about it. There are several reasons why this might be; I won’t get into them here. If you ever get a chance to attend one of Ruta’s events (and you should if you can), ask her about it. It’s fascinating. Equally fascinating are the true stories of the survivors Ruta interviewed while researching Salt to the Sea. She told us a couple of them at the launch, and by the time she finished, many of us were in tears. It was a dark, terrible period of our history, but much like in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta was able to uncover stories of heroism, of love, of sacrifice and compassion in the midst of all that horror. These true stories served as the foundation for Salt to the Sea, a fictional account of four teenagers who set sail on the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

My Thoughts:

Ruta Sepetys has a unique gift. She finds the tragic stories that history forgot and brings them to life through her books, educating her readers on these lost pieces of the past while simultaneously taking them on a heartfelt and emotional journey alongside her characters. Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction, but it is based on a very real event — the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 — and the true historical backdrop is every bit as compelling as the stories of the fictional characters.

Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.

I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.

However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emilia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.

As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)

The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.

Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.

As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.

Review: WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER by Rae Carson

It’s no secret that I loved Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, so when I heard she was beginning a new fantasy trilogy — a historical fantasy, set during the California gold rush — my fingers immediately began itching for a copy. Fortunately, I had a friend who generously offered to loan me her ARC (once she was finished reading, of course — there is generous, and then there’s just plain ridiculous), so I was able to read WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER a few months early.

And guys, I didn’t even think it was possible, but if the first book is anything to go by, I think the Gold Seer Trilogy may be even better than GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

I know. Take a moment.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.

My Thoughts:

Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Recently I was approached with the opportunity to interview Celeste Ng, debut author of Everything I Never Told You, for YABC (look for that interview to post next month). I’d actually decided to take a hiatus from reading YA for a little while — I’ve been nitpicking every YA book I’ve read recently, which I think has far more to do with me hitting a saturation point than the books themselves — and was preparing to decline for that reason, but then I read the summary. And I couldn’t say no.

Not because it was a family drama surrounding a dead kid, but because it was a family drama about a Chinese-American father, a white mother, and their mixed-race kids. Which is my family. And while I’ve never been a person that needs to see myself in a story to relate to it, I was curious to see if my experience would be reflected in this book. There simply aren’t that many books out there with Chinese characters, especially books with Chinese characters that are not about being Chinese. So I was intrigued. How would she pull it off? Would she pull it off?

Let’s discuss.

(Also, before we get to my review, I want to mention that after reading this, I don’t believe this book is YA. I assumed it would be, since I was reading it for YABC, but while there are indeed some teen characters, I feel this book is more accurately described as adult literary fiction with crossover appeal.)

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

My Thoughts:

From its very first page, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU utterly captivated me with its poetic, sparse prose and keen emotional insight. Each word feels carefully chosen to immerse the reader in the Lee family’s household, which seems ordinary at first — in spite of the dead girl no one has yet discovered — but as the layers peel back, we learn things are far more complicated.

I was surprised, at first, at the narration of the story. Told in the third-person, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU strolls casually through the thoughts of its five main characters — parents James and Marilyn, and their children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah — sometimes sticking with one character for nearly an entire chapter, other times jumping from one to another to another all within the confines of a single scene. In addition to that, the narrative also darts back and forth through time, from James’ and Marilyn’s childhoods, college years, and courtship, up through their children’s lives, all the way to and beyond Lydia’s untimely death.  One might think this head-hopping and time-leaping would be disorienting or confusing, but it isn’t. Ng juggles it all masterfully, so that instead of the story rolling out in a neat line, it unfolds like a flower, all at once and in every direction.

The characters themselves were an interesting puzzle. On the one hand, they almost felt less like people and more like concepts or symbols. Though I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a book about racism, or feminism, or parental pressure, or adultery, or sibling rivalry –all those themes are present, and important, but as an undercurrent to the story, not the story itself — there are times when it seemed as though a character was the embodiment of an issue, rather than the embodiment of a person. Normally, this would turn me off. I love a good plot, but I read for character. If the characters don’t feel like real people to me, that doesn’t usually bode well for the book.

However — and this is a huge however — in this particular case, I was all right that the characters felt a little more ambiguous, because the emotion was spot-on. While I’m not sure that James is a person one could ever know, the way he felt growing up as the only Chinese kid in an all-white school rang entirely true. I could feel my hands shake as Marilyn stepped into a physics classroom full of men, feel my stomach clench as Lydia’s grades slipped and tumbled, feel my heart sink as Nath learned how mean children can be. I had to stop reading at one point because I needed to remind myself that the family’s grief was not my own; at another, I put the book down so I could go into my sleeping daughters’ room and hug them and tell them that they were loved, because the pain the parents in the book felt at not being able to tell Lydia those things left me no other choice.

For me, if a book can make me feel emotions that raw and sharp, it trumps absolutely everything else.

I also want to talk a bit about ethnicity, and how the fact that James is Chinese and his children are mixed-race works its way into the story. As the child of a Chinese father and a white mother, I was curious to see how that aspect of the book would be handled. And while the experiences of the Lees (particularly Nath and Lydia) were not and are not my experience — partially because of the 1970s setting of the book, and partially because I was not the only not-white kid growing up — they felt authentic to me, and I could relate to much of how they thought and acted and reacted. It’s hard to put into words the sense of knowing you are different but not feeling different, of forgetting that sometimes people will look at you and see an ethnicity instead of a person. I am fortunate to have only felt this way sporadically throughout my life — for some, as it is for James in the book, I know it is constant — but EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU does an excellent job of conveying how those times felt, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly, as it is in life. Being Chinese — or half-Chinese, or married to a Chinese man — does not define the whole of who the Lees are, but is instead a thread woven through their being, informing every aspect of their lives, whether or not they are conscious of it.

As for the plot — the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death, what led to them, and how the family reacts — I found it simple, but never straightforward or boring. As in real life, there are multiple forces at play here, and though the plot itself isn’t complex — a girl dies, and her family tries to make sense of her death — the real story here is in the nuance. It’s impossible, after putting down the book, to cite any one reason or cause for Lydia’s death. It’s a culmination of her whole life, of her parent’s lives, of her siblings’ lives, and all the choices and hurts and slights and misunderstandings and pressures running through each. When we finally reached the night of Lydia’s death in the narrative and everything was explained, it wasn’t the “a-ha!” moment one typically expects in a mystery, but more a quiet, “of course.” For really, this isn’t a mystery about the death of a teenage girl, but a story about a family’s complex relationships with each other. Not a line or an arc, but a web.

Ultimately, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a beautifully crafted tale full of honest emotion and raw truth. Though it is quiet, the gorgeous prose and heart-wrenching story kept me riveted from the first page to the last, and will keep my thoughts spinning for some time to come.