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REVIEW:  Return to Me by Justina Chen

REVIEW: Return to Me by Justina Chen

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Dear Ms. Chen:

I’m a huge fan of your previous novels. I loved Girl Overboard and I adored the prose and language in North of Beautiful. It’s been a couple years since you last published a novel, and I definitely felt that lack — particularly since I think contemporary YA has come into its own the past few years. When I saw that you had a new book out, to say I was excited is an understatement.

Newly graduated from high school, Rebecca Muir is preparing for her freshman year at Columbia’s School of Architecture. But things start going awry when her mother makes the announcement that the rest of the family will be following her, moving from their home in the Pacific Northwest to New Jersey. Then Rebecca receives some unexpected advice from her father, who tells her that trying to maintain a long distance relationship with her rising senior boyfriend, Jackson, might not be so ridiculous. Considering the fact that he, along with her mother and two best friends, had been encouraging her to break up with him just a couple weeks before, this confuses her immensely.

Thanks to her mother’s amazing organizational abilities, the actual cross-country move goes off without a hitch. But that’s the only good news. Soon after their arrival in New Jersey, the bombshell is dropped. Rebecca’s father has been having an affair for several months.

The revelation sends Rebecca’s life into a tailspin. The various fault lines in her family reach the breaking point and come to light. She realizes that while she dreams of becoming architect, the path of Columbia, corporate design, and joining the Muir family’s prestigious real estate firm is her father’s dream, not hers. So when her maternal grandfather comes to collect his daughter and grandchildren, to bring them to Hawai’i to heal, Rebecca embarks on a summer quest to find herself and learn what she truly wants.

I always thought that the strength of your writing rests in the exploration of relationships between female family members: sisters, yes, but especially mothers and daughters. How those relationships manifest in the context of family and within the confines of the traditional roles: mother, daughter, wife. That is where I’ve always believed your books excelled.

I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that crappy fathers have also figured prominently in your previous novels. North of Beautiful portrayed a father made abusive by the heavy shadow of his professional, career-ending failure. In Girl Overboard, it’s the intersection of cultural expectations and heavy parental pressure about joining the extremely lucrative family business crashing against a dream to follow her own path. There have always been reasons behind the father’s crappy behavior, not to explain it away or excuse it but to add nuance and subtlety.

Return to Me lacks that. As best as I can tell, the father’s affair was the result of a midlife crisis. True, he felt suffocated but his life was a result of his own making. He essentially forced his wife into the role of being the parental enforcer, the “bad cop,” because he didn’t want to do it himself, and then he gets mad when Rebecca’s mother embraced that role fully. It reeks of immaturity and I could not get over how much of an asshole he was about it. He wrecked his family’s life and acted like Rebecca and his brother would accept it without missing a step, flaunting his affair in front of the kids, expecting that it would have no impact on their relationship. I’m not denying that there are assholes who’d do this in real life. Of course there are. But within the context of a constructed narrative, I expect more layers than “Dad’s an ass.”

And because a large part of the beginning was focused on this aspect, it took me a while to get into the novel. I’ve come to expect a certain amount of self-discovery and female empowerment from your novels. It’s one of my favorite things. But that doesn’t really happen until later, and I think that hurt my enjoyment of the novel when a large chunk of the book is devoted to the dad’s shitty behavior and how Rebecca, her mother and brother continue to be shocked by his shitty behavior.

There’s a tiny paranormal element in the book. The women of Rebecca’s family are gifted with a certain degree of precognition. This sounds lovely in theory but let’s face it: relationships can become easily strained when you can see all the bad things that will come to pass — affairs, deaths, and the like. As a result, there’s a “curse” upon them: no woman has ever had a relationship survive.

While I do like the paranormal and supernatural, I found this to be the weakest aspect of the book. There was really no need for it. It added nothing to the story. Rebecca’s grandmother could have led her world tours without it. Rebecca could have had an impending sense of doom about the cross-country move without it because let’s face it, there were enough non-paranormal hints that her father was having an affair.

That said, the last parts of the book where Rebecca finds her dream and pursues it with fearless abandon, the union of her talents with that of her mother and grandmother, was excellent. I honestly would have loved to have read that story — the actualization and struggles of the “impractical” dream, the bravery required to walk outside the safe corporate lines to do something visionary. In some ways, I wish the story had been the tale of Rebecca’s gap year and the doubts that arise from making that choice in a society where going to college immediately after high school graduation has become almost expected. But that wasn’t the story this book intended to tell, and I regret that though I shouldn’t.

I loved your previous novels so much that one mediocre novel isn’t enough to turn me off any future ones. There’s always the chance my reading preferences shifted between North of Beautiful and Return to Me but I don’t actually think that’s the reason behind my dissatisfaction. I can only hope that your next novel will work better for me. C

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Haole Wood by Dee DeTarsio

REVIEW: Haole Wood by Dee DeTarsio

“When San Diego weathercaster, Jaswinder Park, is mysteriously summoned to the island of Maui in Hawaii to help her grandmother, she ends up losing her job. This fair-haired, light-skinned foreigner, called haole by the natives, decides to stay in Maui for a couple of days until she can figure out what to do with her life. She realizes that her quick trip to Maui may not be all she’s hoping for when:

She has to bail her Hawaiian/Korean grandmother out of jail for possession of pakalolo.
The only thing she can understand her grandmother say is: “Not that.”
She can’t decide which hurts worse, her sunburn, hangover, or memories of the night before.
She’s labeled the “Liquor Licker” on the front page of the Maui News in a photo that shows her doing a shot of tequila with a hunky Hawaiian who’s been found dead.
It seems she’s had orgasms that have lasted longer than her career.
She scrapes the bottom of the barrel to find her guardian angel.

Beautiful fabric found in her grandmother’s closet unfolds a future for Jaswinder as she designs sensuous silky wraps called sunshminas that provide sun protection. She tries for a Hollywood connection, but her company, Haole Wood, has some growing pains. From trying to find a killer, to selling her sunshminas, to lusting after Dr. Jac, the island dermatologist, to trying to ignore her so-called guardian angel, can Jaswinder learn to embrace the island way of life? Aloha!”

Dear Ms. DeTarsio,

It was the cover and then the blurb that got me interested in trying this book. The bright, colorful pineapple is so different from the usual romance cover and I’m like a magpie and attracted to the bright and shiny. And then came Hawaii in the blurb. I’m up for something different from the Mainland Small Town. But it was the first chapter excerpt that sealed the deal with a heroine who sounds funny and also for some reason not too pleased to be in paradise – Hawaiian style. Yep, I was in.

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The writing style worked pretty well for me. In the beginning of the book, I like the voice – smooth and easy with a laid back, humorous style. When Jaswinder arrives in Maui, it doesn’t sound too snarky or sarcastic. It’s more world weary, “why am I here when I don’t want to be and have lots of other things I need to be doing even though I do love my grandmother.” Later, after her Guardian Angel shows up, Jaswinder turns a touch sulky and whiny and then sort of clueless about someone but for the most part, the humor kept me entertained.

The murder mystery appears fairly early on though it quickly turned from what I was expecting and onto a different path of suspicion which makes sense since Jaswinder needs to be able to move freely and investigate. I’ll admit that I’m not sure of the legalities involved in a murder investigation and how the police and courts would judge things and make their decisions so I’ll just accept the plot as is. I’m also fuzzy on just how much investigating a defense attorney would be doing. Jaswinder’s bumbling efforts make sense in that she’s not a trained PI and has never done this but she is a journalist and used to asking questions and pushing on in the face of people who don’t want to talk to her. I sensed that the mystery wouldn’t be solved until near the end and after hesitating over two possible suspects, I zeroed in on a certain person. It turns out I was correct and I spent a couple of scenes wanting to say to Jaswinder, “How can you not see what I see? The clues are practically being shoved in your face.” Still this part of the book fades in and out and there were times when Jaswinder seemed more interested in a hot guy then in proving that her grandmother hadn’t murdered someone.

Since this appears to be more Chick-Lit in style, the lack of central focus on a romance didn’t bother me. Though the hero-of-sorts is there throughout the story, the mixed signals of his maybe-maybe-not interest in another person work as the smoke screen to deflect certainty of whether or not he and Jaswinder are an item until late in the book. And even then, I like that you end the story with a HFN.

For the most part, the little tidbits about Hawaii thrown in feel natural, unforced, and easy to digest. That is until the lecture about kakui nuts appears. I know they are central to the island and central to the plot but it felt like a slightly reworked history/social studies lecture. Ditto the slightly odd sounding conversation Jac and Jaswinder have about sugar plantations and pineapple farming. On the other hand, I enjoyed Jaswinder’s surfing lesson with the “surfer dudes” – as I called them – who are sweet in their fierce loyalty to Halmoni.

The main issue I ended up having with the story is Jaswinder’s relationship with her Guardian Angel. Her GA is certainly specific to her heritage and a hoot in and of himself but what starts out cute sort of morphed into a dragging middle part of the story. On and on, the scenes lingered and repeated and didn’t seem to move things forward until the part where the GA joined me in being tired and frustrated with Jaswinder’s whiny demands for help. A little less of this would have gone a long way in making me a happier camper.

My frustrations with Jaswinder’s “help poor, pitiful me’ moaning did eventually morph into satisfaction with the way she discovers and nurtures her inner entrepreneurial spirit. Her deepening relationship with her grandmother is sweet to watch occurring and her care for the islanders who need the business to succeed as much as she does bodes well for her continuing maturation as a person.

I finished the book still liking the voice – mostly – and the way Jaswinder is shaping up and evolving. The romance was on the lite side but this is more about the heroine so, okay. It also satisfied my craving for something different which, after so many years of reading romances is sometimes difficult to do. Overall, it’s a B- for me.

~Jayne

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