Solo Lisa Reads: July 2020

Round-up of July book recommendations featuring Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore, The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley, It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood, Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory, The Swap by Robyn Harding, Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, Beach Read by Emily Henry, Parachutes by Kelly Yang, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This month has passed by so quickly: A huge software release at work, vacation days, a quick getaway to Tofino, and now a heat wave as we both WFH. I've just been trying to relax as much as possible and curl up with a good book in between, which explains why this month's round-up contains 9 recommendations. And true to last month's pledge, I'm trying my best to diversify my picks. July's round-up contains books by a Black writer (Jasmine Guillory, a recurrent favourite in these book review posts), an Indigenous Canadian writer (Waubgeshig Rice, who might be the first Indigenous author I've featured here), and two Asian writers (Kelly Yang and Min Jin Lee, who have written two very different novels about very specific Asian experiences). I hope you'll find something intriguing enough to add to your reading list!

1. Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I have to thank my friend and former coworker Theresa for this recommendation! It's 1879, and Annabelle Archer has just been awarded a scholarship from a women's suffrage group to be one of the first female scholars at Oxford. This is Annabelle's chance to escape the Kent countryside and leave behind the misery and drudgery of being her clergyman cousin's spinster ward. The only catch? Annabelle must contribute to their protests and activism efforts—including petitioning the ultra-conservative Duke of Montgomery, strategic advisor to the Tory party and a favourite of Queen Victoria. The Duke of Montgomery is intent on rebuilding the family legacy that his profligate father lost, and although falling for a beautiful suffragist is not part of his plan, he finds Annabelle impossible to resist. History nerds will relish Dunmore's references, which range from illustrious philosophers of the day and key moments in the women's suffrage movement, to obscure terms like "rusticate." Usually I feel like the main characters getting together in a historical romance is a foregone conclusion, but these characters were from such different class and political backgrounds that the obstacles they faced seemed legitimate.

2. The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

What's your secret, most authentic self, the one you keep hidden from everyone else? A notebook titled The Authenticity Project, left behind at a London cafe, asks everyone who comes across it to write down their stories inside its green covers. As the notebook passes from one person to the next, the lives of a motley crew of local neighbourhood residents become intertwined. There's Julian, once a glam fixture of the London 60s and 70s art scene, now a lonely widower; Monica, the cafe owner, who yearns for a husband and family; Hazard, a City banker and addict trying to clean up his act; Riley, a young Aussie transplant whose sunny demeanor hides a guilt-inducing secret; and Alice, an Instagram influencer and new mom who's struggling. The Authenticity Project is a cozy, feel-good novel about how powerful vulnerability can be in helping us connect with others. The drama is low-stakes, the characters are quirky, and seeing how their lives transform for the better is an utter delight.

3. It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood

Nothing groundbreaking happens in Kenwood's coming-of-age novel, but for its 17-year-old protagonist Natalie, everything groundbreaking is happening. Her best friend Zach (whom she once sort of had feelings for) is dating her other best friend, Lucy; her parents are divorcing; she is in limbo waiting for her university acceptance letters; and there might be a burgeoning romance happening with Zach's popular older brother, Alex. This is a lot of change for any teenager to handle, but for Natalie it's even more stressful because of her insecurities over her chronic acne (a symptom of PCOS) and her social anxiety. Natalie is a vividly drawn character with a funny, self-deprecating voice, often teetering between raw-edged sensitivity and naive teenage narcissism. Adult YA fans will probably alternate between exasperation at how self-centered Natalie can be and wanting to give her a hug. She's not always likeable, but she feels very real.

4. Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

I have now read every Jasmine Guillory book and featured them all in my book review posts; does that make me a superfan? The earmarks of a Guillory romance make it soothing reading for these tough times. There is always a Black female protagonist, and a cast of kind and gentle supporting characters that remind you there is good in the world after all. And although there are some swoon-y moments, the most romantic moments are inspired by the things that mature adults in healthy relationships do, like communication and compromise. Party of Two follows Olivia Monroe as she moves from New York to LA to open her own law firm with her friend Ellie. On one of her first nights in town, she meets and clicks with a cute guy at a hotel bar. That cute guy turns out to be Max Powell, a handsome senator who's considered one of the most eligible bachelors in DC and California. Olivia and Max are both driven in their careers, they care deeply about giving back to the community, they both love cake, and they've never felt this way about another person. But is that enough to sustain a relationship in the face of media scrutiny?

5. The Swap by Robyn Harding

In the past few years, Robyn Harding thrillers have become my must-buy summer beach reads. They often deal with sexy and topical issues (in this case, partner-swapping and the artifice of social media influencer culture), they have so many fun twists, and because Harding is from Vancouver, there are Pacific Northwest references aplenty. The Swap is essentially about two couples who decide to swap spouses one night after a drunken dinner party, with disastrous ramifications for all of their lives. However, the emotional centre of the story is the desperate yearnings of its three female protagonists, all of whom live in a remote town on a Pacific Northwest island: Low, a misfit teenager who becomes obsessed with beautiful newcomer Freya; Freya, once a model/actress/artist/influencer from LA, now disgraced and lying low after a scandal involving her ex-NHL-player husband; and Jamie, who wants a baby above all else and is dismayed when her best friend Freya becomes pregnant after that regrettable night.

6. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

An apocalyptic thriller by an Indigenous Canadian author, set in a remote First Nations community up north? Yes, please! When a mysterious event in the south knocks out power, Internet, and cell service for days, Evan Whitesky and the members of his Anishinaabe community are more confused than anything else. But as weeks pass and none of the services are restored, the confusion gives way to fear and death, as well as growing concern about outsiders with malicious intent. Rice gives stale end-of-the-world tropes a fresh spin with his vivid descriptions of First Nations traditions, like moose hunting and smudge ceremonies. I found it deeply ironic that the challenges of "res life"—unreliable heat and power, spotty cell service, having to hunt and fish because of the high prices of grocery store staples—made Rice's characters better suited to adapting and surviving in the post-apolyptic world. My only criticism of Moon of the Crusted Snow is that the ending felt too abrupt, but there's plenty of rich inspiration in its pages if, ahem, CBC wants to adapt it into a TV series.

7. Beach Read by Emily Henry

January Andrews writes romances with happy-ever-after endings; her neighbour and former creative-writing-class-in-college rival, Augustus Everett, writes bleak literary fiction. The only things they have in common? They happen to be spending their summer in beach houses next to each other and they're both struggling with writer's block. To work through the block and prove to Gus that romance novels are harder than they look, January proposes a bet: Each writer has to produce a novel in the other person's genre, and the first person to sell their manuscript wins. As part of the bet, January and Gus also go on weekly research dates. (January: a romantic date for two at the carnival. Gus: interviewing surivivors of a suicide cult.) Are you smiling in anticipation of the delightful rom-com set-pieces yet? Beach Read gets a few good digs in at how literary fiction is put on a pedestal while romance is denigrated, but at its core this is a story about sweet, sincere people who are each struggling with their own insecurities.

8. Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Parachutes lures you in with a Crazy Rich Asians-like premise, promising to be an inside look at wealthy Chinese high school students living and studying alone in America (aka "parachutes"), but this book treads much more poignant territory. Claire Wang is sent from Shanghai to California and enrolled in an exclusive prep school while her parents remain in China. Although she's staying with the De La Cruz family, Claire feels like she's free for the first time in her life—she's making friends, coming into her own, and she's piqued the romantic interest of a handsome and wealthy classmate. Dani De La Cruz is a scholarship student from an underprivileged family and a debate star at the same school, and resentful of Claire for her privilege and obliviousness. As the school year progresses, each girl faces her own set of challenges: racism at the hands of classmates and teachers, the vulnerability of their respective situations (Claire living alone in a strange country, Dani living in fear of losing her scholarship), and dealing with the gut-wrenching aftermath of sexual assault. Yang's depictions of the repercussions and hurdles survivors face will have you raging. Sadly, the novel's authenticity comes from personal experience: Yang reveals in the novel's afterword that she herself was the survivor of a sexual assault that occurred at Harvard Law School.

9. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This gorgeous epic novel—about four generations of a Korean family living under Japanese imperialism and systemic racism—took Min Jin Lee almost 30 years to write and it deserves all the accolades (including its status as a National Book Award Finalist). In the 1900s, Sunja, the teenaged daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger in a small seaside town in Korea. She becomes pregnant. Instead of becoming the mistress of her baby's father (who reveals he has a wife and family in Japan), Sunja marries a sickly but genteel minister from her mother's boardinghouse, and the newlyweds resettle in Osaka. This decision has repercussions for years to come, as each family member deals with the hardships of WWII and post-war life, and the barrage of racism they face as Koreans in Japan, all the way up to 1989. I devoured Pachinko in one weekend and was so obsessed that I kept giving Lawrence unsolicited status updates on all the characters. The subject matter can get heavy, but the language is fairly simple and the chapters flow easily from one to the next. Before you know it, you'll be pulled into the world of the Baek family.

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