The Girl the Sea Gave Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne YoungTova has never been comfortable among the Svell; the clan may have saved her from the sea but that does not mean they want her. She knows that the clan needs her as a Truthtongue, relying on her gift to cast rune stones and interpret the web of fate. She knows that being indispensbale is as close as she’ll ever get to being safe when the tattoos covering her skin forever mark her as other.

It’s been more than ten years since the Aska and the Riki ended their blood feud and joined together as the Nādhir. Halvard has been chosen to lead them in this era of peace. He knows little of war and less of treachery.

The runes have never lied to Tova. When they show her a startling future where there are no Svell, she knows her tenuous safety is over. After years of waiting, it’s time to act.

With the neighboring Svell trying to press their position, Halvard knows defending the Nādhir’s territory will have devastating consequences for both sides. He knows it’s a fight his clan has to win if they want to survive.

No one can change the will of the gods. But even Tova is uncertain what fate wants from her as the Svell and the Nādhir move inexorably closer to a final confrontation. Tova is used to untangling the knots of fate but as she and Halvard circle ever closer to each other, she isn’t sure if this time the web of fate will be a net to trap her or a rope to pull her from the depths in The Girl the Sea Gave Back (2019) by Adrienne Young.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a sequel to Young’s debut novel Sky in the Deep and expands the Nordic/viking inspired dimensions of that world where all major characters are presumed white. The Girl the Sea Gave Back alternates between Tova and Halvard’s narrations alongside flashbacks throughout the novel. This book is set thirteen years after the events of Sky in the Deep and contains minor spoilers for that novel. I’d recommend reading these books in order to fully understand the political landscape inhabited by the characters although this book more than stands on its own merits.

Tova and Halvard are excellent main characters readers will immediately love, particularly shrewd Tova as she scrambles to stay ahead of fate’s twists and turns.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a complex story that capitalizes on the world and themes Young first introduced in her debut novel. The intricate dual POV structure and flashbacks add further dimension to this story as two characters with little personal understanding of the brutality of war prepare to fight for their home. Young expertly balances new material with just the right amount of callbacks to Sky in the Deep while offering a world that is both more compelling and more magical.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a satisfying adventure perfect for readers who enjoy stories with light fantasy elements, a slow build, and a puzzle-like narrative.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Lore by Alexandra Bracken, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon by Mary Fan, Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Warriors of the Wild by Tricia Levenseller, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle LimNatalie Tan left home when her mother refused to support her dreams to become a chef.

Seven years later, Natalie returns to San Francisco’s Chinatown when her mother dies.

Her return is far from triumphant. The wounds from her failure to finish culinary school and her recently ended engagement are still fresh. The reconciliation Natalie always hoped for with her mother will never come. Even the neighborhood itself isn’t as vibrant as it once was; all of the shops are struggling.

When she finds out she has inherited her grandmother’s famous restaurant, Natalie’s fate is tied to the neighborhood–and her neighbors–whether she likes it or not.

Evelyn Yu predicts good fortune for Natalie and the restaurant in the tea leaves. But only if Natalie cooks three of her grandmother’s recipes to help her neighbors. While Natalie is keen to realize her dream of opening a restaurant, she isn’t sure her neighbors deserve her help after her childhood navigating her mother’s depression and agoraphobia alone.

As Natalie works through her grandmother’s cookbook she begins to realize that memories, like the best recipes, can take time to process. And perhaps the neighborhood didn’t abandon her as completely as Natalie once thought. With help from new recipes, a new friend, and new love, Natalie will learn that sometimes the simplest ingredients can lead to the best results in Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune (2019) by Roselle Lim.

Find it on Bookshop.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is Lim’s debut novel.

Lim blends elements of fabulism (Natalie cries crystal tears and hears peoples’ “songs”) into an engaging contemporary romance where Natalie finds a second chance at both professional success and love. All characters are Chinese/Chinese-American.

Recipes throughout the novel allow readers to imagine themselves at Natalie’s meals although the magical results may vary. Natalie enjoys a light (as in no steam) romance as she tries to reconcile her complicated history with her Chinatown home with what could be a bright future running her own restaurant.

Lyrical prose and delicious food descriptions add dimension to this story grounded in a strong sense of family and community. Lim also offers readers a thoughtful meditation on loss and family as Natalie grieves both her mother’s death and the relationship they never had while she learns more about her grandmother through the cookbook she inherits.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is a richly flavored story filled with good food, good friends, and lots of fun. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. Capetta, Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien, A Thread of Sky by Diana Fei, Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Lost and Found Sisters by Jill Shalvis, The Recipe Box by Vivian Shipman

Gods of Jade and Shadow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno GarciaCasiopea Tun’s quiet life in a small Mexican town is very far from the Jazz Age’s action and splendor. Her father taught her to love the stars. Sometimes, even without him, the stars are enough of a distraction from the drudgery of life in her grandfather’s house where she is more likely to be found cleaning than listening to jazz. Like her mother, she is used to suffering the petty digs of her family in silence. Their complaints that she is too dark, that she is a girl, can’t touch her. Not when she dreams of more.

Even her cousin Martín’s abuses are bearable because Casiopea refuses to believe this house will be her life forever. It can’t be in a world where there are stars and movies and automobiles.

Everything changes, as it sometimes does, in the blink of an eye when Casiopea opens a strange wooden box in her grandfather’s room. Instead of treasures or secrets, she finds bones and accidentally releases the spirit of Hun-Kamé, Lord of Xibalba, the Mayan god of death.

His kingdom has been stolen by his traitorous brother who left Hun-Kamé trapped in the box for years. Missing his one ear, one eye, one index finger, and the jade necklace that represents his power, Hun-Kamé cannot face his brother alone. With Casiopea’s help he can make himself whole and recover what was stolen from him. Tying herself to Hun-Kamé could be fatal for Casiopea if they fail. But success could bring her everything she has ever dreamed of.

Helping a god will bring Casiopea from the jungles of Yucatán to glittering Mexico City and beyond. Traveling with Hun-Kamé will also bring Casiopea closer to her truest self and to feelings she dare not name because the things you name always grow in power in Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a quiet, character driven story with a close focus on Casiopea through the lens of an omniscient third person narrator. This degree of separation lends a timeless, inevitable quality to the book as it moves toward the final confrontation between Hun-Kamé and his brother.

Fantastical world building and subtle characterization breathe new life into the Mayan mythology that scaffolds this story of a girl striving for more and, finally, having a chance to grasp it. Subtle conversations and nonverbal interactions between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé underscore the changing relationship (and chemistry) between these singular characters.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is, in my humble opinion, a perfect book. Come for the adventure and engrossing plot, stay for the well-realized characters and bittersweet ending that will linger long after the story is finished.

Possible Pairings: Lovely War by Julie Berry, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

Defy the Fates: A Review

*Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

Defy the Fates by Claudia GrayAfter their first unlikely meeting, Abel and Noemi Vidal have traveled the Loop together, saved Genesis forces from annihilation in battle, and stopped an intergalactic plague.

Now, to save Noemi one last time, Abel will have to risk everything including his own cybernetic body as he seeks help from his creator and potential destroyer.

Left for dead, Noemi doesn’t know what it means when she is saved thanks to parts that make her eerily similar to Abel. Not quite mech, but not quite human Noemi is no longer sure if she has a place on her home world anymore than she knows if she has what she needs to save Abel.

As Earth prepares for the final battle with its colony planets, Noemi and Abel once again find themselves at the center of the conflict. With the final battle looming, this unlikely pair will finally see if they’ve done enough to save the colony planets–and each other in Defy the Fates (2019) by Claudia Gray.

Find it on Bookshop.

Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars. The novel alternates between Abel and Noemi’s first person narrations.

Gray builds well on the tension and world building from previous installments in this fast-paced trilogy. The stakes are higher and the dangers are greater as the story builds toward its dramatic finish.

Because of the plot structure, numerous recaps of previous triumphs and battles are repeated throughout the story which diminish the tension. As Noemi and Abel continue to struggle with the question of where they each belong–both together and apart–some of this installment does start to feel like filler.

Defy the Fates is a solid conclusion to an action-packed trilogy perfect for readers who enjoy sci-fi and adventure with just a hint of romance. Fans of the series will appreciate the callbacks to pivotal moments and characters from earlier in the series.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Partials by Dan Wells

In the Hall With the Knife: A Review

In the Hall With the Knife by Diana PeterfreundBlackbrook Academy, an elite boarding school hidden away in the woods of Maine, is no stranger to dangerous storms. With the latest one coming just before break, most students manage to make it home well before the the storm sets in. Which is why, when the headmaster turns up dead in the conservatory of one of the dorms, suspicion quickly shifts to the small group left behind:

Beth “Peacock” Picach isn’t interested in anything at Blackbrook unless it’s about tennis. Which is why Peacock is incensed when Headmaster Boddy wants to discuss her standing on the Blackbrook team just before the storm hits.

Orchid McKee came to Blackbrook to hide. Until information from the headmaster suggests that a dangerous piece of Orchid’s past life might have followed her to Blackbrook after all.

Vaughn Green is a townie and a scholarship student at Blackbrook. Vaughn balances a nearly impossible courseload and his less-than-ideal home life with working part-time as a janitor at the school giving him a front seat to Blackbrook’s iniquities. And its secrets.

Sam “Mustard” Maestor thought starting at a new school would give him a clean slate. What he didn’t count on was how different Blackbrook would be from his former school, an austere military academy. Starting in the middle of a historically bad storm and a murder investigation also doesn’t help.

Phineas “Finn” Plum is sitting on something big. Life-changing big. But one draconian school policy doesn’t mean he’s about to share it with anyone–especially not the headmaster.

Scarlet Mistry is used to being on top of the school’s gossip and the top liberal arts student thanks to her platonic power couple alliance with Finn. But even with all of her tricks, Scarlet doesn’t know what to make of a murder happening under her nose. Or the fact that her best friend is keeping secrets.

With one murder, zero trust, and a million motives, anyone could be the culprit in In the Hall With the Knife (2019) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Hall With the Knife is the first book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). The novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six students. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx.

In her author’s note, Peterfreund mentions her love for the board game and the now classic movie it inspired. (Read more about the history of the 1985 film in Adam B. Vary’s Buzzfeed Article “The Crazy Story Of How “Clue” Went From Forgotten Flop To Cult Triumph.”) Peterfreund’s love for her source material is clear in this fitting reinterpretation of the classic game from the intrigue-filled backstory to the punny character names including janitor Rusty Nayler.

While quick to get to the inciting incident (Boddy’s murder, of course), the narrative can feel unwieldy while getting to know all of the characters–even with Peacock’s workout journal entries being obvious standouts. With plentiful motives and even more secrets, solving Boddy’s murder is just one of many mysteries surrounding Blackbrook promising more suspense–and murder–to come from this trilogy.

Unreliable narrators, red herrings, and clever dialogue from a really fun core cast make In the Hall With the Knife a winning mystery whether you’re a fan of the genre or the board game that inspired it.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

Don’t Date Rosa Santos: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Demand more of your possibilities.”

Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina MorenoEveryone knows that the Santos women don’t go near the water. Not anymore. Rosa Santos knows that better than anyone. After her grandfather died to make sure Rosa’s pregnant grandmother made it to Florida, and after her own father died at sea when her mother was eighteen and pregnant, Rosa knows that the Santos women and boys on boats don’t mix.

Despite her grandmother’s bad memories, Rosa is desperate to visit Cuba herself. Something she thought she had finally figured out with a dual enrollment program at her local community college and a study abroad program at a four year university.

Just when Rosa can start to imagine herself walking along the maricon in Havana, the study abroad program is cancelled leaving all of Rosa’s plans up in the air. Which is how Rosa, the girl who has never set foot near Port Coral’s beach finds herself organizing the annual spring festival to try and save the local marina.

Rosa’s reluctant helper is Alex Aquino whose family owns the marina. Back in town for the first time since graduation, Alex is not the gawky boy Rosa remembers. This Alex has tattoos, a beard, and a smile that just might be lethal. He also has baking skills and, worst of all, his own boat.

As Rosa and Alex grow closer, Rosa has to decide if a family curse is a good enough reason to give up on all of the things she wants most in Don’t Date Rosa Santos (2019) by Nina Moreno.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is Moreno’s debut novel. Through Rosa’s narration readers are introduced to the charming town of Port Coral, Florida and its quirky residents.

While the main plot focuses on Rosa’s efforts to save the Port Coral marina, this is a story about grief and family history. Rosa has grown up with her grandmother, Mimi, learning Mimi’s tricks when it comes to brujeria and making a home for herself in Port Coral. Meanwhile, Rosa’s mother is a wandering artist who hasn’t felt at home in Port Coral since her teens when Rosa’s father died. All three generations of women have been touched by tragedy–a linking thread that drives the family further apart instead of drawing them together.

These ruminations on grief are tempered with the madcap preparations for the festival and Rosa’s tentative romance with Alex–one of the best male leads you’ll find in a YA rom com–and Rosa’s efforts to try and understand her own family’s history both in Port Coral and in Cuba.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a perfect blend of the setting from Gilmore Girls, the magic in Practical Magic, and just a hint of the strong family ties in Charmed. The perfect choice for readers looking for a sweet romance with humor and intrigue in equal measure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World: A Non-Fiction Review

Digital Minimalism by Cal NewportHow much time do you think you spend on your phone every day? How much of that time is spent talking to an actual person on a phone call? How much is texting? How much is scrolling different apps?

In one study one in three participants guessed they spent significantly less time on their smart phone than they actually do per day. While the average in this study was around five hours, some participants reported spending as many as twelve hours on their phone.

It’s no wonder, when the attention economy and social media are designed to keep people on their devices, using apps as much as possible.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) by Cal Newport offers some ways to cut through all the things demanding our attention and decide what really matters.

Find it on Bookshop.

Digital Minimalism is divided into two parts “Foundations” and “Practices.” The first half of the book establishes the problem and details some of the causes while the second half offers actionable strategies for change.

Newport calls his approach “digital minimalism”–a way to gauge exactly how much is enough without ever over-using. While this phrase might conjure an image of Luddites eschewing all technology, the book is quick to point out that rather digital minimalists adopt new technology and apps with caution. If a device or site doesn’t add value to a digital minimalist’s life, they do not use it.

The main tenet of digital minimalism is starting with a clean slate after a 30 day digital break in which you are not using your phone as anything but a phone and avoiding all of its apps and other features. After this detox period, digital minimalists are advised to evaluate what digital apps and devices they reintroduce with the following questions: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? Is this technology the best way to support this value? How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?

Although Newport’s approach has been widely praised, he fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value in written communication/social media as tools for human connection. In other words, for Newport, friendships and connections are seen as having limited value if they cannot take place in person or at least over a phone call. I found this view dated and, given the number of long distance friendships I have, unrealistic. It is also one facet of digital minimalism that falls apart under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While Digital Minimalism doesn’t tread new ground (and fails to cite books by women who cover similar topics), Newport does present the information clearly and succinctly–particularly in the first half covering the ill effects of this digital age and how ill-equipped we all are for these massive changes. Practical tips including deleting apps in favor of web versions and turning off notifications may feel commonsense but fit in well with the overall approach.

Readers interested in a more practical step-by-step approach to using their phone less will be better served by How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Readers who want to think more about living with intention and joy should also check out Marie Kondo’s books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Joy at Work (with Scott Sonenshein) and Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski.

I Wanna Be Where You Are: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina ForestChloe Pierce knows it will be hard to break into ballet as a Black dancer–especially one coming back from a bad ankle injury. What surprises Chloe is her mother’s reluctance to support Chloe’s plan to apply to a dance conservatory instead of college.

When her mom and her boyfriend take their first vacation in years, Chloe sees the perfect opportunity to apply to her dream program in secret. All she has to do is drive two hundred miles to the nearest audition. Easy.

But then Eli–longtime neighbor, former friend, and constant annoyance–sees Chloe leaving and insists on coming along if Chloe doesn’t want her mom to find out. And that’s before Chloe realizes that Eli’s smelly dog, Geezer is coming along too.

Chloe has her eyes on the prize, a sweet playlist on repeat, and two passengers she never expected. As the trio gets closer to Chloe’s audition, Chloe and Eli might even start to unpack the baggage that’s come between them and their friendship in I Wanna Be Where You Are (2019) by Kristina Forest.

Find it on Bookshop.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is Forest’s debut novel. Chloe and Eli are both Black–Chloe’s best friend is Latinx.

Chloe is a truly fun narrator. She is focused, driven, and quite snarky when her perfect plans have to change. She also struggles with stage fright and confidence as she works on coming back to dance after a badly broken ankle. While the cause of Chloe’s injury (walking to school in five inch heels instead of carrying them and walking in flats) never quite made sense to me, Chloe’s recovery and her efforts to rediscover what she loves about dance are totally relatable.

Eli is Chloe’s complete opposite and it makes their banter and shenanigans on their unexpectedly long road trip even more enjoyable. While the focus of the story is very firmly on Chloe and her audition, this book is also filled with a fantastic supporting cast including Chloe’s mom and best friend.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is a cute and often funny story about finding love–and confidence–in unexpected places.

Possible Pairings: Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Love Before by Jenny Han, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, This Train is Being Held by Ismee Williams

No One Here is Lonely: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Change almost always starts with something tiny, far from the surface. With movement too small to notice or gauge, that travels up and changes something else, until there’s a long chain of altered things and then everything is different.”

No One Here is Lonely by Sarah EverettEden has always cared about two people a little more than anything else: her best friend Lacey and her longtime crush Will, even if he doesn’t know it.

When Will is killed in a car crash, Eden is haunted by the chances she didn’t take, the what ifs that she’ll never be able to answer. Worse, she realizes that she’s losing Lacey too as they begin to grow apart and the last summer before college that Eden envisioned for them goes up in smoke.

Alone with her grief, alone as she discovers that her parents’ perfect marriage might not be so perfect, Eden isn’t sure who to confide in when it feels like everything is changing. Then she finds out Will set up an account with In Good Company–a service that uses a person’s voice, emails, and other online records to create a digital companion.

The Will Eden talks to on the phone isn’t real. She knows that. But he also feels like the only person who has time for her now. As Lacey tries to figure out who she is without Lacey, she starts a new job and makes new friends. All with Will cheering her on.

As Eden is drawn to Oliver–Lacey’s twin brother–Eden will have to decide if choosing to focus on the future is worth letting go of the last pieces of her past in No One Here is Lonely (2019) by Sarah Everett.

Find it on Bookshop.

Everett’s sophomore novel blends light sci-fi elements with contemporary themes in this story of grief and growth. Eden and Will are Black (as is one of Eden’s new coworkers) while the other characters are assumed white.

Eden is completely adrift at the start of this novel. Will and the future with him that Eden imagined was one bold move away are gone. Lacey, a constant in Eden’s life for years, acts like their previous inside jokes are immature and wants to spend time with other newer friends. Then, at the worst possible time, Eden ends up in the middle of her parents’ marriage when she discovers signs of infidelity.

Despite knowing that In Good Company only offers a digital facsimile of a person, Eden clings to it–and to Will–as she tries to figure out who she is without all of the previous constants in her life. While there are hints of romance as Eden is drawn to Oliver, a friend she was never allowed to consider as more than an acquaintance out of loyalty to Lacey, this is really a story about a girl coming into her own and learning howto be her own best support.

No One Here is Lonely is a thoughtful story about grief, friendships, and learning to love yourself best.

Possible Pairings: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Talking to Strangers: A Non-Fiction Review

How did Fidel Castro and his spies fool the CIA for years? Why did Prime Minister Chamberlain think Hitler was trustworthy? How did no one realize what Bernie Madoff was doing with all of his investments? What transpired to make it possible for Larry Nassar to abuse countless patients at his gymnastics-centered medical practice–often with parents of his victims in the same room?

Author Malcolm Gladwell explores these questions and more in his latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019).

Find it on Bookshop.

Before we discuss anything else, you need to know this is not an easy book–especially not during the ongoing pandemic which adds its own kind of stress to everything. Additionally, the audiobook is narrated by Gladwell and features recordings of the people being quoted whenever possible. This choice has the double-edged result of making an excellent production while also making the events discussed that much more immediate and visceral for readers/listeners.

Talking to Strangers covers a few things most of which boil down to chapters about people in the worst situations or chapters about the worst people.

Gladwell uses what happened to Sandra Bland as entry point and framing device into his topic. Some of this is reductive as it sets aside the systemic racism at the root of police brutality and the unfair targeting of BIPOC citizens by police. Similarly Gladwell’s theory that sexual assault can ever come down to misunderstandings due to overdrinking and their resulting blackouts is hard to hear and very much the statement only a man could or would ever make.

Other chapters explore Castro’s spy network within the US, Hitler’s ability to mislead Chamberlain in advance of WWII, as well as other familiar news items. Most of which is hard to hear. The book ends with discussions of so-called “advance interrogation techniques” (torture) and the circumstances that may have helped lead to Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

Despite the difficult content, Talking to Strangers includes some useful insights people can bring to their interactions with others including the need for awareness of situational context, peoples’ tendency to believe the best in people, and the reality that people may broadcast one emotion with body language and mannerisms while presenting very different ones with their speech.

Talking to Strangers is informative if challenging to read with a solid introduction to a few key aspects of interpersonal communication as well as a deep exploration of current events that readers may or may not recognize from previous news viewing. I hesitate to say I’d recommend this book because I had such a hard time with it myself, but if the premise sounds interesting then you should definitely check it out.