The Heart Principle (CBR13 #44)

The Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient, #3)

The Heart Principle was delayed a year while its author Helen Hoang dealt with some personal traumas which she goes into in depth in the Author’s Note. Many of those traumas feed directly into the re-worked plot of this book. I’m firmly in the camp that this is a romance, even if the romance plotline finds itself uncentered through sections of the work, but this is certainly not a rom-com style book as its cover would want you to believe – in fact I have no idea who that woman is, but she certainly isn’t Anna Sun.

The story we are dealing with here is that of violinist Anna Sun, who accidentally achieved success with a viral YouTube video, and in the fallout of that is burned out from her attempts to live up to the expectations that moment created. When Anna’s long-term boyfriend announced he wanted an open relationship before making a final commitment, Anna copes with it by deciding (with the help of her girlfriends) to take the opportunity to expand her own sexual horizons with a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better. Enter tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep whom after two years of working through cancer treatments lets himself be convinced to slowly work his way back into the dating pool. After being matched on an app and a frankly delightful first digital interaction they decide to have a one-night stand.  The first attempt fails, as does their second, and their third, but because Quan sees and accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself through therapy, an emotional relationship develops, and the pair decide to give this relationship a real shot. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family, she takes on a role she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

The first part of this book is, to me, a note-perfect opposites attract romance novella. The second part is a devastatingly honest look at the cost of being a care giver and the struggles of maintaining a relationship when the partners aren’t able to be together as much as they would like. The third section is the story of the recovery from rock bottom burnout, and a look at love as action, accepting the person exactly as they are, caring through joyful times and painful times. The parts aren’t equal in their execution, and in fact there are a handful of problems lurking under the surface that are keeping this at four stars instead of five.

This isn’t a light read, it is in fact miles away from that and should have come with a litany of content warnings (see below). The author herself says that this is the book of hers to pick up when the reader needs a catharsis rather than a fun, feel-good experience. That is underselling it. This story is sad more often than it isn’t and it will likely make you feel those negative emotions as well, because Hoang is an excellent writer. But that isn’t really my problem, my problem is how dramatically underwritten section three is. It undermines the themes leading up to it (especially the burden of caregiving) in a substantial way.  Anna is essentially shut down for an entire year, and Quan takes the role of her primary carer. However, his perspective of that time is largely absent. Part Three just isn’t given the real estate it needs, page wise, to marry the previous two sections and that’s a damned shame because Hoang writes what she knows, and her books are always worth the time invested in them, even when they fall slightly short. Whenever Quan and Anna are together, it’s beautiful, I just wish Hoang had managed to find a better balance.

Content Warnings: suicidal ideation, body dysmorphia (male), gaslighting (particularly re: autism spectrum disorder diagnosis), severe anxiety/depression, ableism, creative burnout, cancer, sterility, death of a loved one, abuse and bullying from family members, emotional blackmail, going against a loved one’s wishes during end of life, caregiver burnout, autism burnout, over-exercising.

All the Young Men (CBR13 #43)

All the Young Men

I read a lot of memoirs; I love listening to someone tell me their story. All the Young Men tells Ruth Coker Burks’ story as a young single mother in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who finds herself driven to the forefront of the AIDS crisis, and becoming an activist in the fight against AIDS.

Coker Burks story starts in the way that I think many of us hope we would respond – while visiting her friend recovering from cancer surgery she notices nurses drawing straws to see who would take care of a patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man inside, being with him at the end of his life, offering what comfort she could. The young man inside would be the first in a long line of men Coker Burks would care for, advocate for, and in some cases provide a final resting place for.

In 1986, Aids was a death sentence. There was still no reliable treatment, let alone a cure. The fear, ignorance and stigma were so great that hospitals regularly refused to treat patients, something we see over and over in Coker Burks recounting. Informal networks of care were predominantly centered in the urban areas along the coasts. In the south, people were coming home sick and terrified, hoping for refuge with their families, only to be rejected and die alone. All the Young Men tells the story of Coker Burks work from 1986-1992 to provide care and support otherwise unavailable to the men returning to Hot Springs.

While the underlying story is five stars, the delivery here is average. It doesn’t really rise above what it is: a pretty straightforward by the numbers memoir. She’s honest about who she is, what her experiences are, but she’s not diving any deeper. I was emotionally connected to Coker Burks’ telling but it could’ve been more if it dug deeper into the larger moment. Coker Burks and her co-writer start, but they don’t get all the way there. It should be noted that Coker Burks is a straight white lady recounting the history, but she makes sure to center the men she’s talking about, but I wish she had been able to make sure we really knew all the men as well as we know some.

The Bear and the Nightingale (CBR13 #42)

The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy, #1)

One of Cannonball Read’s #CannonBookClub prompts asked if there’s any special power in taking a known story and envisioning it in a new way, and for me the answer is a resounding yes. Whether its something along the lines of Longbourn where characters who are merely set dressing in the original tale are given the limelight or something like The Bear and the Nightingale where history and folktales are put into a blender, metaphorically, and something new arrives there is more often than not an engaging experience waiting.

The Bear and The Nightingale is, at its heart, the story of Vasya. She is the youngest daughter of lord of a remote village. Before dying, Vasya’s mother tells her father that just like her grandmother before her, Vasya will be special. The villagers have always left offerings for the various forest and household spirits but Vasya is actually able to see and speak with them. The trouble begins when Vasya’s father returns from Moscow with his second wife, a stepmother for Vasya, daughter of the prince and also able to see spirits – but she interprets them as demons.  Political machinations in Moscow lead to a new priest being sent to their village and Father Konstantin frightens the villagers into abandoning the old spirits. Crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest come nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasya’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. Vasya does her best to stay true to herself and cause as little trouble as possible, often by absenting herself. As danger closes in though, Vasya must choose to act for what she knows is right, even if it means defying her loved ones, so the people she loves can be protected from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

The story in The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite kind of low fantasy: fantastical elements rooted in historical fact. Arden writes well, you’re not lost in or distracted by the details- they just fill in the background, much like the forest just outside the village. Arden builds her story universe in a way that keeps it grounded, with a realistic feel. In our book club Zoom I mentioned that this book starts about six times, and it does in a way, but each of those layers is important in giving that realistic feeling.

The story is very character driven, with a strong emphasis on familial love and duty. Vasya becomes the center of the storm, where various other character’s expectations and needs collide. If her characterization wasn’t so well done, the story would be much less successful. There are weak points – plot threads that remained unresolved, an imbalance in the pacing of the story, but nothing that prevents this from being a good, enjoyable read. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy, and while I am interested to see where things pick back up with Morozco and Vasya now that the seeming “big bad” is dealt with, and what the cost of that victory is, I’m in no rush. Which is why I’m choosing to keep this at 3 stars.

Personal gripe – while there are both a bear and a nightingale in the story, I’m not sure they deserve top billing.

Somebody’s Daughter (CBR13 #41)

Somebody's Daughter

When we had out August CBR Zoom Check-in I talked about this book and praised it while warning others away. It is still my prevailing view – Somebody’s Daughter is an absolutely fantastic piece of writing where Ashley C. Ford immerses the reader in her childhood, and it is not for the faint of heart or those who may not be in the most stable mental health space.

You might know Ashley C. Ford from her podcasts or writings for outlets such as BuzzFeed, The Guardian, Slate, and The New York Times. I know her primarily from Twitter from where I was introduced to her other writing. Ford uses Somebody’s Daughter to trace her girlhood, the lived experience of life growing up in her mother’s home while her father served time in prison. Ford seeks to answer the question of what it means to be her father’s daughter, but much of the book focuses on what her life was like with her often emotionally detached and physically abusive mother. As the reader comes to learn, the web of Ford’s life is inextricably linked to both.

To me, the strength in Ford’s writing is the empathy she shows when she writes about people specifically those who have harmed her.  Ford possesses the ability to see people for who they are which is always a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. What knocks this one down from five to four stars is that while Ford writes vividly about her life the book doesn’t possess a strong enough narrative thread linking the remembrances, or a real reckoning with her trauma and how discovering her father’s exact crime influences that.

CW for absent parent, episodes of physical abuse, sexual assault, rape, toxic relationships