4.5 star, YA

Review: You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao

Seventeen-year-old Julie has her future all planned out—move out of her small town with her boyfriend Sam, attend college in the city, spend a summer in Japan. But then Sam dies. And everything changes.

Heartbroken, Julie skips his funeral, throws out his things, and tries everything to forget him and the tragic way he died. But a message Sam left behind in her yearbook forces back memories. Desperate to hear his voice one more time, Julie calls Sam’s cellphone just to listen to his voicemail.

And Sam picks up the phone.

In a miraculous turn of events, Julie’s been given a second chance at goodbye. The connection is temporary. But hearing Sam’s voice makes her fall for him all over again, and with each call it becomes harder to let him go. However, keeping her otherworldly calls with Sam a secret isn’t easy, especially when Julie witnesses the suffering Sam’s family is going through. Unable to stand by the sidelines and watch their shared loved ones in pain, Julie is torn between spilling the truth about her calls with Sam and risking their connection and losing him forever.

Bring out all those tissues, because I was completely right and You’ve Reached Sam jerked those tear ducts. HARD.

I have absolutely no words to use to describe this beautiful story. It made me cry (during work of all places!) and my heart ache for Sam and Julie.

This is a story about grief. But it is so much more than just what that word may imply. When Sam died tragically, Julie was left with a world that was devoid of the one person she was literally planning her future with. On the brink of high school graduation, what does one do?

In a series of flashbacks that presented as Julie’s dreams mixed with memories, we get to see Sam and Julie’s story from the first moment they met and all the little moments that made up their relationship. I loved this part because it made us understand who they each were, but also how they were together. And of course, it made me fall in love with Sam and their relationship even more.

Julie’s first reaction to handling grief was to cut everything out of her life that brought memories of Sam. That meant his clothes, his presents for her, everything. Some of it may have come with feelings of guilt for how Sam ended up dying, but it definitely was different from how the others in Sam’s circle were dealing with his death.

And that is ultimately a big thing explored here: everyone handles their grief differently. But that doesn’t mean they each have to be isolated in finding their way back to some semblance of living.

I love how it explored Sam’s closest relationships and how their relationship with one another changed and evolved after such a tragedy. And a tragedy this sure was because he was so young, he had barely lived out his dreams yet.

But back to the heart of the story. This is about Julie’s connection with Sam. And in some magical way, they were able to connect from the beyond and be able to still talk to each other. This is what made the story special, and also super heartbreaking. Because we all know it – this can’t possibly last forever. Julie will have to learn to let him go at some point.

The prose was beautiful. I loved Sam and Julie’s conversations so much. I loved seeing how she struggled with doing things in her life that felt like moving on in some miniscule way but only to fall away from it because of her still-present connection with Sam. Their relationship wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, as it wouldn’t realistically be, but these were two people who loved one another deeply and made my cynical heart believe could’ve survived a high school romance into adulthood.

We were two parts of a song – he was the music and I was the words.

The ending almost broke me, in the best of ways, I suppose. I had to listen to this as an audiobook – I was so afraid I’d be crying so hard I wouldn’t be able to see the words. I needed to be able to get through the ending faster that would inevitably have me in a puddle of my own tears.

I won’t ruin the beauty of the conversations and the growth in Julie and those closest to Sam. I would want you to experience that firsthand yourself if this review has piqued your interest. I normally avoid books that I know will break my heart, but there was just something about this book that drew me in from the start.

I wondered why someone would want to intentionally experience [something that’d make you cry in a way you’ve never cried before]. I think I figured it out.

You want to feel something. Something meaningful and intense. You want to feel that thing in your heart and stomach. You want to be moved, to care about something or fall in love, you know….It makes you feel alive.

Dustin Thao, you’re a genius and your gut-wrenching story deservedly launched to #2 on the NYT bestseller list. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Overall Recommendation:

You’ve Reached Sam is a heartbreaking story of loss and grief in a young life tragically gone too soon. Dealing with the aftermath of her boyfriend’s death, Julie struggles to move on when a magical connection through their phones allows them to communicate with each other, even from the beyond. Mixed with flashback dreams of their relationship and the present day haze of grief, this story will unlock those tear ducts as Julie inevitably needs to learn to let him go. Explorations of the different ways people handle grief, especially among those who were all near to the same loved one, was one of the highlights of this novel. But ultimately, Julie’s journey navigating life after Sam is one that was written with the most beautiful prose fitting for her story. I am overjoyed I found my way to this book, and you should definitely find your way here too.

5 star, adult

Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

I know this is definitely by far not an unknown book at this point, so I will keep my review more to what I personally really loved about The Love Hypothesis. And LOVE is definitely by far the right word to describe this book. It was un-put-downable (is that even a word??), and I absolutely devoured this one as fast as I could to get to Olive and Adam’s deserved ending.

Ph.D grad student Olive Smith, right off the bat, finds herself in a sticky situation when she grabbed the nearest man to kiss – which of course ends up being the jerk Dr. Adam Carlsen – in order to fake a relationship for her best friend’s sake. But by the weirdest circumstances, he suggests they continue the farce and pretend to date one another until a certain date where both parties would have accomplished what they needed from this “relationship”.

Uh, YES! Fake dating trope (with enemies to lovers thrown in there) at its very finest. Second to maybe unrequited best-friends-to-lovers trope, I absolutely ADORE this one, and Ali Hazelwood did NOT disappoint with how this was written. The angst! The miscommunication and unrequited love angle! The will-they-finally-do-something-about-their-obvious-chemistry? component! I couldn’t have asked for more in the romance department.

I loved how the relationship was explored little by little as the animosity between them slowly dissipated as they got to know one another. Or should I say, the animosity may have been more one-sided than mutual? It felt so real as Olive learned more about what made Adam tick and vice versa.

But I’m sure many other people have raved about this stuff already, and it deservedly meets the hype that is absolutely EVERYWHERE about this book.

The question is: why did I want to read this book? Yes, I’ve seen it everywhere but even before that, I fell in love with the synopsis. Because this book is about women in STEM, particularly in science. As a grad school graduate in the sciences, I felt so seen in this book. The little science references were scattered everywhere! I know this may fly over a lot of non-science background audience’s heads, but I thought these were hilarious.

“What’s wrong?” [Olive] had expected the answer to be The production of my reagent has been discontinued or My p-value is .06.

I mean, a p-value of 0.06 is nightmarish for research. Is it statistically significant? No. But clinically significant? Maybe? Who will publish it though???

And the lab work! I worked with mice for my fourth year thesis project in undergrad and just the little snippets about mice work here made my poor little heart feel like I’m not alone. Though I did really enjoy this one snippet about working with fruit flies.

Jeremy smiled, pointing in the direction of his lab. “I need to go isolate a bunch of virgin fruit flies. Before they’re not virgins anymore, you know?”

‘Cause that’s actually a HUGE problem with fruit fly work. They like to reproduce really quickly…so yeah, I had a friend who literally spent every morning isolating his virgin flies if he wanted them to say virgins. This made me smile so widely seeing even such a minor reference thrown in here.

To put in other words, I love the accurate depiction of how science is done, the every day concerns and normalizing women in this field where it once was dominated by men only. It’s a long road and definitely requires sacrifice – I’ve seen many postdocs struggle to get out into their own lab long after they graduated with their Ph.D. We don’t see enough about science careers in fiction, let alone very thorough and accurate portrayals. Ali Hazelwood, you are my hero for being a woman of science while also writing such an amazing piece of literary fiction we all adore. It is so rare to find someone in science who likes to read contemporary fictions, let alone write them, and I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit here.

But to end off this review, there was one thing the characters mentioned a few times when the going got tough, and I think this should be a motto for many of us. Maybe it will also help us when we are challenged by what life throws at us. So I will end us off with it:

“What do I always tell you?”

“‘Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.'”

Overall Recommendation:

The Love Hypothesis is everything I could’ve hoped for both in the romance department and the accurate science grad student experience. Filled with the best kinds of romantic tension, angst and chemistry between our two leads, Olive and Adam’s journey to genuine relationship was wonderful to follow and I absolutely could NOT put this down, even when I probably should’ve. What I loved equally much was the beauty of science described here, the good and the bad side of lab work, and the fun biology references thrown in there for us science people (or those who love science) to enjoy! Ali Hazelwood is automatically on my auto-buy list of authors for this alone as I have never felt more seen in my science career depicted in a fictional romantic contemporary. She’s a fellow kindred spirit, a scientist who writes fiction on the side, and I look forward to seeing more fictional (or nonfictional) work from her!

4 star, YA

Review: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

Series: These Violent Delights #1

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

I had the distinct pleasure of doing a buddy read with my friend Kaya @ A Fictional Bookworm. This was a great read for discussion, wild theories and maybe a teensy bit of fangirling over certain characters.

Lush, atmospheric and almost lyrical in its prose, it’s no wonder Chloe Gong’s debut deservedly topped the bestselling charts. Set in 1920s Shanghai, I felt like I was transported to this gorgeous locale as the city was on the brink of political upheaval and foreigner influence.

Amidst all of this is a blood feud between two major gangs ruling half of the city each: the Chinese Scarlet gang versus the Russian White Flowers. And at the heart of this feud lies the heirs of each, Roma and Juliette. I will admit, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Romeo and Juliet retelling but Chloe did this justice. This isn’t just some dumb family hating family story for no reason. I love how integrated this retelling trope was with the rest of the setting and plotline, never feeling forced in for the trope alone.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, and boy, did it make a difference. My Mandarin is almost nonexistent (I’m trying, Mom and Dad), let alone the Shanghainese dialect, so ensuring I have the proper pronunciations of all the pinyin was great.

There are plenty of things I can rave about this book, but I will keep it concise (or as concise as a longwinded explainer like me can go).

The characters make up some of the best reasons why I kept turning back to this book as soon as possible. Juliette is a complicated heroine, with plenty of blood on her hands and much she wants to prove as a daughter inheriting the gang. She needs to demand respect and be more ruthless than the next person, even if it means spreading rumors of more viciousness than she necessarily is. Meanwhile, Roma is the softhearted one of the two, struggling to keep his status in his gang when it (and his father) demands ruthlessness. I loved seeing the opposites here, but also the way they bring out the balance in one another. If anyone understands the kinds of pressure it is to always be on your A game, it’s the other.

We talked about how interesting it is that their relationship was technically lovers to enemies to hopefully lovers. That’s not as commonly seen in literature, and I did wish we got more details about the first time they fell in love when they were younger and more idealistic about the world. However, the steamy slowburn second time around was more than worth the lack of detail before as chaos in the city throws these two back together.

And here’s where I personally really loved this book. The world building does take its time in the first half, but it really sets the stage almost immediately with a mysterious outbreak that leads to self-inflicted harm. I was guessing half the time what was going on, who or what was causing this madness that swept the city, and if everyone we encountered so far could be taken at face value. I was magically transported to this beautiful city by the sea, embroiled in political upheaval as the Communist party takes root among the people while the gangsters grapple amongst themselves with the foreigners trying to stake a claim on land that didn’t belong to them.

Shanghai was messily, gloriously complicated and I was here for it EVERY second.

Not to finish this review without mentioning the secondary characters because for once, this book actually made them stand out as more than props for the protagonists. I love the sweet moments between Roma’s cousin Benedikt and their mutual best friend Marshall. I can see why people are falling head over heels for this ship even with so little screen (page?) time. And on Juliette’s side, her cousins Kathleen and Rosalind were intriguing characters with a hidden depth I feel we are only starting to see, perhaps as a foundation for what’s to come in the sequel.

All this to say is, if I could write a cool Asian-inspired fantasy that was both lyrical in prose and suspenseful in plot, I wish I could write something like this. But then again, I don’t need to because Chloe Gong has masterfully done this already. And with that ending dropped on us…well, I really can’t wait for the sequel now. My heart can only shatter so many times.

Overall Recommendation:

These Violent Delights transports us back in time to Shanghai on the brink of political change, where gangsters still control the city and a mysterious madness may just so happen to be unleashed upon them all. I love the way Chloe Gong portrayed Asian culture with such lush descriptions and poetic prose. I feel not only like I’m there, but that I am home with my ancestors, the country where my family came from. Balancing this unique world building with the romantic characterizations of this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, we follow two enemies as they are forced back together for the sake of their city and the people they love. With high romantic angst, amazing secondary characters and the mystery surrounding the madness encompassing Shanghai, this book is a MUST read for all. I swear, it’ll change your mind about historical fantasies in general.