The Short Stacks 6: Nicole Chung//All You Can Ever Know

Today on The Short Stacks author Nicole Chung joins us to discuss her memoir, and The Stacks Book Club pick, All You Can Ever Know. The book addresses her transracial adoption, her decision to find her birth family, and becoming a mother. Nicole shares with The Stacks the chaotic setting in which she wrote the book, why she felt compelled to tell her story, and much more. There are no spoilers this week, so listen and enjoy, and then come back on Wednesday to hear our TSBC conversation around All You Can Ever Know.

Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. The Stacks participates in affiliate programs, and shopping through the links below (mostly Amazon) helps support the show, at no cost to you.

Connect with Nicole: Nicole’ Website | Nicole’s Twitter | Nicole’s Instagram

Connect with The Stacks: Instagram | The Stacks Website | Facebook | Twitter | Subscribe | Patreon | Goodreads | Traci’s Instagram

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption by Vanessa McGrady

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.

In Rock Needs River, Vanessa McGrady shares her journey from deciding she wants to be a mother, to adopting her daughter Grace, to eventually taking in Grace’s homeless birth parents. McGrady navigates the sometimes murky boundaries of open adoption in this debut memoir. The Stacks sat down with Vanessa McGrady to discuss her book and her experiences on Episode 45, which you can listen to for more context on the book.

McGrady is amazing at connecting with her reader, from nearly the first page I was with her. Rock Needs River is, if nothing else, totally readable. There is an openness and honesty with all that comes up, even the complicated stuff, like murky boundaries, family relationships, and entitlement. McGrady doesn’t fein modesty, nor does she shy away from sharing traits that aren’t always so desirable.

The biggest challenge in Rock Needs River is that much of it feels rushed or unexamined. No characters (aside from McGrady) seem fully developed, which leaves them challenging to connect with. The same is true of the main conflict in the book, Grace’s birth parents. Their situation is glossed over and unspecific. McGrady wants to help them (and is clearly generous in letting them move in), but she doesn’t really get into anything beyond her shock and her disappointment in them not getting back on track. This part of the book could have benefited from more interrogation and introspection. It is this lack of specificity that ultimately hurts the book.

McGrady finds the time to reflective on moments throughout Rock Needs River, but comes up short when she has to fit the pieces together and bring the bigger narrative into focus. The book is a quick and easy read, but I sometimes found that it wasn’t grounded. I would recommend this book to people looking to get a glimpse of what one story of open adoption is like, though I think it would be best to pair with other adoption stories for context and perspective.

Click here to hear Vanessa McGrady on The Stacks talking about Rock Needs River and more.

  • Hardcover: 182
  • PublisherLittle A (February 1, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onRock Needs River Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

This is not the kind of book I normally pick up. It is character driven literary fiction, about a topic I have little to no interest in, classical music. But, because the author Aja Gabel was going to be a guest on the podcast (listen to our conversation here), I read The Ensemble and it is proof that I know nothing about my own reading taste.

Here is more information on The Ensemble

Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful and quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who’s always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest and an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader. Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet. After the group’s youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. They are always tied to each other – by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again.


The Ensemble isn’t real life, its stylized life, life the way you wish it played out. Gabel’s characters say all the things you wish you’d thought to say in a fight, or right before a kiss, or in the throws of grief. They say what you wish you’d thought to say if you weren’t so overwhelmed. Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel aren’t common they’re normal with a splash of special. They are precise and piercing. Even their missteps are admirable and attractive. The Ensemble is reality plus. I couldn’t help but think what a great TV show this book would make, filled with gorgeous musicians, emotional outbursts, and a soundtrack that mixes Beethoven with acoustic Prince covers. Shonda Rhymes wishes she wrote this book, it is Grey’s Anatomy but with a string quartet. I mean all of this with such high praise. Sometimes reality isn’t enough. Sometimes you want to be around the beautiful people and watch them be sort of perfect, in failure and success.

Gabel knows her characters. She writes their relationships with a confidence you only gain from knowledge. She understands everyones weaknesses and motivations, who they are, and why. The dialogue and inner monologues are fantastic. She knows how to push their buttons how to turn them on, what makes them tick. As moments unfold, they feel right, I never once thought “Jana would never say that”, because of course she would say that. That is just so Jana.

The plot, which is minimal, doesn’t have its own life. It is the character I am missing in the book. I don’t know that Gabel cares to give us much plot, instead we get glimpses of our quartet. It could be any moment, and Gabel picked this one, and here we are. Sure some are major life moments, but some others feel small and benign. The plot feels a little but like an afterthought in this book. It wasn’t the focus and it wasn’t complex. The book doesn’t really have a start or a finish, we just stop getting invited back. This is the kind of book that many people love, character driven, a study of relationships. And for that, it is done extremely well. I would have loved more events. More action. More.

Oh, and then there is the music. Exactly as it should be. In the background, and sometimes loud and mostly soft and just right.

The Ensemble is simultaneously intimate and vast, with rich writing and complex characters. This book centers the realities of life, but with style. I’m glad I read this book. I never felt Gabel was trying to teach me anything, she didn’t attempt to change the way I see the world. Instead she wrote a beautiful small book about relationships and humanity, and gave them the best words to say, and let me do my thing.

If characters and life and small moments excite you. This is your book. Even if they don’t you still might enjoy this book. It has a magic to it, mostly its simple. What a refreshing thing to be in 2018.

To learn more about Aja and hear her on The Stacks click here.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • PublisherRiverhead Books; First Edition, First Printing edition (May 15, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on The Ensemble Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

In my quest to be a “good and responsible” book reviewer I am reading my way through many of the long listed books for The National Book Award. I know I won’t read them all any time soon, but I’m making a major effort to read a chunk of them. I love book awards, even if I seldom agree. Heads of the Colored People is my third book from the fiction long list.

Here is more about this book

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.


There is so much to enjoy about this book. It is smart, and dark, and funny, and really well done. The stories feel well thought through and edited. I never lost interest, often times I wanted more. Her characters were specific and their desires clear. She breathed deep full breaths into each of her characters.

Heads of the Colored People excels at humanizing Black experiences. Not in the way that we see that Black people have feelings too, but in a way that allows Black people the privilege of being wholly individual. They get to care about stupid things like fluorescent lighting. They get to do odd things in the privacy of their own homes. They get too have control issues. They get to exhibit the mundane personality flaws that we so often see represented through Whiteness. Thompson-Spires gives Black characters the space and freedom to be unique, idiosyncratic, particular, neurotic, and vulnerable. All the things we often associate with Whiteness. Her characters are free to be alive and to have non life threatening issues. She makes space at the table for individuality in Blackness.  Heads of the Colored People is a reminder that Blackness is not a monolith, and it never has been. This type of representation matters.

What Thomspon-Spires is doing with Heads of the Colored People is almost more important than what she is saying; no one story stands out as more valuable than any other. Rather, they all work together to paint elaborate tableaus of modern Black life. There is now a book in the world where these stories of Black people being human exist. I don’t know that the specifics of the majority of these stories will sick with me. I think that is okay. What will stick with me is that this book happened and I read it and it was good.

If you like fiction short stories, dark humor, and want to examine people’s quirks this is your book. The writing is well crafted and intentional. It tackles themes of what it means to be Black in new ways. It hits all its marks and works on many levels. It is short and sweet, and I certainly look forward to what more Nafissa Thompson-Spire brings to the table.

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • PublisherAtria / 37 INK; 1st Edition edition (April 10, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Heads of the Colored People on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

There There by Tommy Orange

17FDFE76-5F92-4255-8527-79ED037331A5Last week the National Book Award longlists came out, and There There made the cut. I already owned the book and had heard good things, but hadn’t actually taken the time prioritize it on my reading schedule. Then the list came out, and just like with Oscar nominees I felt like I just had to read the book so I could weigh in on all the conversations.

Here is more about this book

As we learn the reasons that each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow—some generous, some fearful, some joyful, some violent—momentum builds toward a shocking yet inevitable conclusion that changes everything. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and will to perform in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and loss.


This book is a fantastic work of storytelling, which makes sense because so much of the book is centered on the power of sharing one’s story. This theme of storytelling is woven throughout the book beautifully. In There There we meet characters who tell us their stories, and each character is different and well written and important to the narrative. So often in books that weave many perspectives together, there are characters that are flushed out and imperative to the action, and then other people who exists more for function (i.e. to have a different point of view or progress the plot), not here. Orange does a fantastic job of giving each character autonomy and purpose. His characters are not pure. They are full people both good and bad, pathetic and proud, complex and relatable. Human.

There There centers on Native voices. Not just Native Americans, but modern Native Americans living in a major urban landscape. This is not a story of a reservation or the wild wild west. The setting, Oakland, California gives the book a strong place and identity but also allows for movement and isolation and independence for the characters. We get to see the connectedness of the community, and how the characters cross paths in ways that feel both organic and truthful. I’m from Oakland, and I loved the way Orange talks about the neighborhoods and landmarks, it made me appreciate where I’m from a little more.

I’ve never read a book about Natives in a major cosmopolitan city and that alone made the book fell fresh and exciting and special. I can’t speak much to the authenticity of Orange’s depictions, I can say that I appreciated what I learned about the Native experience in Oakland. The characters in There There are dynamic and delightful, deeply pained and wildly hopeful. You’ll have your favorites for your own reasons. You won’t be able to help yourself. Orange never settles into any one feeling or moment for too long, giving his humans room to evolve as the book progresses.

I really loved this book. The pacing, the plot, and the suspense, are all so well done. Orange is able to tap into so much humanity while still driving a plot forward. I often find books are either all about characters or all about plot, and this book melds the two beautifully. I think this is a wonderful (and quick) read. It is Orange’s debut, I am so looking forward to see what comes next from this creative talent.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (June 5, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy There There on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

C3AC3073-5D3F-4AFD-AE59-A65863E1162FI have had this book by Celeste Ng on my list for a few months, and I finally decided to read it. I knew it had to do with the mysterious death of a teenage girl, and I knew that by the end of the book I would know “who done it”, which was important to me because an unresolved ending ruins my week.

If you’re not familiar with this book here is a little more,

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

This book is really well written. The story weaves through the thoughts and minds of all the members of the Lee family, and dives into their history as individuals and into how they relate to each other. I understand why so many people love this book. For me, it didn’t work, I couldn’t get myself to care about any of them, aside from a general feeling of “thats too bad”. I generally don’t like these types of books, family dramas. I decided to read Everything I Never Told You because of the mysterious death part, which I’m always interested in. I thought solving the mystery would play a more active part in the book. However after reading it, Lydia’s death is more of device to look deeper into the family’s dynamic. A device that gave us flashbacks that went on and on, and often times felt redundant. I wanted more plot and more movement forward.

The Lee family, like every family, has issues, and they are intensified by the racism they face as the only mixed race, Chinese and White American, family in the town. The book takes place in 1977 Ohio, which can only be described as intolerant and racist. In addition to racial taunting there are lots of elements dealing with sexism in this book, Ng questions a woman’s role in the family, and in the world. A lot of the racism and sexism in this book felt unspecific and stereotypical. Not that it wasn’t believable (I find that bigots tend to be pretty uncreative), but more that they are so commonplace they felt unexceptional. Which may have been the point.

The way that Ng writes about the shock and grief of the Lee family, is really well done. It is sometimes subtle, and sometimes not, which is true to how grief can look and feel. She takes care with each of her characters, even though I felt that they all kind of felt like the same voice. I enjoyed seeing the Lee’s carrying on and adapting after Lydias death. That is where I found myself enjoying the book most.

Overall I would say, that this was not the book I thought it was going to be. I wanted a book about the death of a teenage girl and what happens next, and instead I got a book that looked back and inward at a family. It is a solid book. If you like a family drama, if you like multiple perspectives on the same events, if you like flashbacks, this is your book. If you like a little more plot or action, I might skip it, however the writing is good enough to carry you through the 300 or so pages.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Lachesis’ Allotment:A Short Collection of Notes, Observations, Questions, and Thoughts by Diana R. A. Morris

4D2FC453-A70C-421D-9E5E-A57742A6B715As a new voice in the book world, I have been lucky enough to be approached by authors and publishers to review books. I am always honored to be asked for my opinion and perspective on new work. As with all my reviews, I am committed to being an honest voice for my readers (and listeners). All that is to say, that Lachesis’ Allotment: A Short Collection of Notes, Observations, Questions, and Thoughts by Diana R. A. Morris is the first book I ever received for free from an author, and now, here are all my thoughts.

Here is more about the book, Lachesis’ Allotment

In Greek mythology, Lachesis (lack-eh-sis) allots each of us a length of thread to weave with as we will. This hybrid collection of short essays and screenplay explores the nature of friendship and our relationships with the people in our lives over time. From the friendships we form in childhood to the adult friendships we form with our parents–even after they’re gone–this work weaves together memory, meditations on making our dreams a reality, and the evolving nature of our connections as we knot our strands together or unravel the knitting we’ve achieved.

This book was written and self-published by Diana R. A. Morris. It is her debut book. There is something I find exciting about reading someone’s first piece of writing. Like all firsts, you get a sense of the thing and the person, but you can also see potential. This book is no different.

Where Morris shines, in Lachesis’ Allotment is when she dives into the personal. Discussing her own experience with her father’s passing, her failures, and anxieties. My father passed away years ago, and I could relate to her experience and the specificity of her observations. These moments feel unique and intimate. When Morris strays more into the general advice giving, or rah-rah cheerleading, it feels strained and contrived. I appreciate the effort to cover a lot of ground, but would have enjoyed a smaller more specific piece of writing.

There are these scenes (quite literally, written like a screenplay) through out the book where two old friends are reconnecting and catching up after years of estrangement. They are fictional, and frame the coming essays. This doesn’t work for me. It gets in the way of Morris’ flow. It chops the book up, and serves only to muddy Morris’ clear voice.

Lachesis’ Alottment is a fabulous effort. There are moments of poignant reflection. There are moments of sarcasm and humor through out as well. However there are not enough strong moments strung together for the reader to fully dive in. The book is short and you can move through it quickly (as in a few hours). I don’t know that I liked the book, but I really enjoyed seeing someone’s first efforts. I also respect the hell out of anyone who writes a book and publishes it themselves. That says so much about a human in all the right ways.

The Stacks received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here