In My Own Moccasins

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Helen Knott
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2019 (read Nov. 2021)

I picked this book up last summer when I was book shopping in Sidney on Vancouver Island (aka the book capital of the Island!). It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since taunting me. In an effort to finally read it, I put it on our book club voting list and it won as our December book pick. 

I was momentarily daunted when I first started the book because I thought it might be a dense read, but I was quickly pulled into Helen’s writing style and engaging storytelling. He holds nothing back in her book foreward, making it clear who she wrote this memoir for and that she doesn’t want your pity or judgement. It’s a sobering reminder that might be off-putting to some, but I thought it was so great because it set the tone upfront that Helen is the custodian of her own story and it is hers to share for her own means. Colonialism has taken enough from her and it is her turn to take something for herself.

I definitely don’t judge her and I hope I empathize with her rather than pity her. But mostly I admire her. Technically, this is well written and I was really impressed by her calibre of writing. She says she is a great lover of literature and self reflection and I definitely found both of these to be true. Memoirs can often be more about the story than the writing since we can’t expect everyone with a meaningful story to tell to necessarily also be a good writer. But Knott has both and it made the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

Emotionally, this book is a roller coaster. Knott splits her story into 3 parts: the dreamless void, the in-between, and the healing. The dreamless void is the longest part of the book and covers her struggles with all kinds of abuse, both from violent acts perpetrated against her, as well as her ensuing addictions to alcohol and drugs. It is the hardest section to read and very much like peeling back the layers of an onion. Her turbulent home-life and the many racial injustices she and her family face chip away at her self worth and she looks for relief in all the wrong places. However, where the right places would be, I really have no idea. 

Knott feels like a bit of an enigma to read about because through all her suffering and addiction, you still get glimpses of a very reflective and accomplished individual. She has pulled herself together on several occasions only to have it all fall apart again when she is unable to face her past trauma. What I admire her for are the in-between and the healing and these are the parts of her story that really stuck with me. She is able to identify the many ways in which colonialism and racism have worked against her and her family. She is able to pinpoint the long term impacts of residential schools while also not being afraid to look critically at herself. Many are unable to escape the cycle of abuse and addiction and I thought her incredibly courageous in being able to face her trauma head on and say, ‘no, I am worth something and I will not let this rule my life anymore.’

So while it is hard to read about the dreamless void, it is critical that we bear witness to it. Not, as Helen says, to educate ourselves or gain insight or humanize indigenous voices. But because these are voices we need to amplify and we have been silencing them for too long. We should be uncomfortable, but we should also be inspired. 

We Are Okay

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Feb. 2017 (read Nov. 2021)

This is only my second Nina LaCour book, but I think it’s safe to say now that I am a fan! I read Watch Over Me at the tail end of last year and really liked her writing style. She seems to write atmospherically haunting ghost stories that fall right on the cusp between Young Adult and New Adult. I had a book hangover after finishing Once There Were Wolves and thought this one might be the antidote.

We Are Okay focuses on college freshman Marin, who has just moved from California to New York after losing her grandfather. In her grief, she fell out of touch with her best friend, Mabel, and now Mabel is flying to New York to try and rekindle the friendship and convince Marin to come back home. The problem is that Marin is haunted by the ghosts of her past and still too deep in the throes of her grief to return to California.

This is the exact kind of character driven novel that I live for and a great example of why I keep returning to Young Adult, despite feeling I’ve outgrown most of the books in the genre. There are always books in YA and middle grade that have such beautiful writing and universal themes that they are able to rise above the rest of the genre and be appreciated at any age.

It’s a subtle book that explores Marin’s past – her relationship with Mabel, with her grandfather, with her mother, and with herself. The death of her grandfather forces her to face truths she’d rather live buried and her sudden expulsion into adulthood leaves her feeling unmoored. It’s easier to run away than face our ghosts. More than anything, this is a book for those left behind by their loved ones. Grief is a language anyone can understand, at any age. It impacts each of us differently, but it’s a beast we must all face throughout our lives. A beautiful exploration of family, both made and found.

Anticipated Reads for Winter 2022

Wow, there are a lot of great books coming out this year! I don’t know if it’s just that I’m in a good reading place right now, but I feel like there’s a lot more new releases coming out than normal! I’d love to make a list for all of 2022, but it’s too hard to narrow it down and I’m sure there will be so many more great books in the latter part of the year as well, so here’s a few of my anticipated reads for January, February, and March!

Fiction

Olga Dies Dreaming

Author: Xochitl Gonzalez

Pub. Date: January 4

“A blazing talent debuts with the tale of a status-driven wedding planner grappling with her social ambitions, absent mother, and Puerto Rican roots, all in the wake of Hurricane Maria.”

Fiona and Jane

Author: Jean Chen Ho

Pub. Date: January 4

“A witty, warm, and irreverent book that traces the lives of two young Taiwanese American women as they navigate friendship, sexuality, identity, and heartbreak over two decades.”

Brown Girls

Author: Daphne Palasi Andreades

Pub. Date: January 4

“A blazingly original debut novel about a group of friends and their immigrant families from Queens, New York–a tenderly observed, fiercely poetic love letter to a modern generation of brown girls.”

Wahala

Author: Nikki May

Pub. Date: January 11

“An incisive and exhilarating debut novel of female friendship following three Anglo-Nigerian best friends and the lethally glamorous fourth woman who infiltrates their group—the most unforgettable girls since Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda.”

Black Girls Must Be Magic

Author: Jayne Allen

Pub. Date: February 1

“In this highly anticipated second installment in the Black Girls Must Die Exhausted series, Tabitha Walker copes with more of life’s challenges and a happy surprise–a baby–with a little help and lots of love from friends old and new.”

Black Cake

Author: Charmaine Wilkerson

Pub. Date: February 1

“In this moving debut novel, two estranged siblings must set aside their differences to deal with their mother’s death and her hidden past–a journey of discovery that takes them from the Caribbean to London to California and ends with her famous black cake.”

Mystery/Thriller

The Maid

Author: Nita Prose

Pub. Date: January 4

“A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.”

Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead

Author: Elle Cosimano

Pub. Date: February 1

“Finlay Donovan is—once again—struggling to finish her next novel and keep her head above water as a single mother of two. On the bright side, she has her live-in nanny and confidant Vero to rely on. With her next book’s deadline looming and an ex-husband to keep alive, Finlay is quickly coming to the end of her rope. She can only hope there isn’t a noose at the end of it…”

Girl In Ice

Author: Erica Ferencik

Pub. Date: March 1

“From the author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle comes a harrowing new thriller set in the unforgiving landscape of the Arctic Circle, as a brilliant linguist struggling to understand the apparent suicide of her twin brother ventures hundreds of miles north to try to communicate with a young girl who has thawed from the ice alive.”

Historical Fiction

To Paradise

Author: Hanya Yangihara

Pub. Date: January 11

“From the author of the classic A Little Life, a bold, brilliant novel spanning three centuries and three different versions of the American experiment, about lovers, family, loss and the elusive promise of utopia.”

An Impossible Impostor

Author: Deanna Raybourn

Pub. Date: February 15

“While investigating a man claiming to be the long-lost heir to a noble family, Veronica Speedwell gets the surprise of her life in this new adventure from the New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-nominated author Deanna Raybourn.”

The Diamond Eye

Author: Kate Quinn

Pub. Date: March 29

“The New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code returns with an unforgettable World War II tale of a quiet bookworm who becomes history’s deadliest female sniper. Based on a true story.”

Romance

Yinka, Where Is Your Husband?

Author: Lizzie Damilola Blackburn

Pub. Date: January 18

“Meet Yinka: a thirty-something, Oxford-educated, British Nigerian woman with a well-paid job, good friends, and a mother whose constant refrain is ‘Yinka, where is your huzband?'”

Running Wild

Author: K.A. Tucker

Pub. Date: January 25

“From the internationally bestselling author of The Simple Wild comes the story of a woman at a crossroads in her life, struggling between the safe route and the one that will only lead to more heartbreak.”

Science Fiction

The School for Good Mothers

Author: Jessamine Chan

Pub. Date: January 4

“In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.”

Non-Fiction

An Abolitionist’s Handbook

Author: Patrisse Cullors

Pub. Date: January 25

“In An Abolitionist’s Handbook, Cullors charts a framework for how everyday activists can effectively fight for an abolitionist present and future. Filled with relatable pedagogy on the history of abolition, a reimagining of what reparations look like for Black lives and real-life anecdotes from Cullors.”

Apples Never Fall

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Oct. 2021 on Audible)

Apples Never Fall is my book club’s pick for November. We’ve read a lot of Liane Moriarty books in the club and she does consistently write good books, but nothing has ever quite had the same impact as Big Little Lies and I’m starting to get a bit fatigued with her writing. This book was fine – I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it, pretty standard 3 star read. 

Apples Never Fall focuses on the Delaney family, Joy and Stan and their 4 adult children. They are a family of tennis players and have had a pretty decent life until a girl named Savannah shows up on Joy and Stan’s doorstep and subsequently moves into the house, puting the Delaney children on edge. When Joy Delaney goes missing a year later and Stan looks poised to take the fall for her disappearance, it stirs up old resentments in the family and brings some family secrets to light.

Let’s start with what I liked about the book. It is a pretty good character portrait of each of the Delaney’s. Sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface and Moriarty explores the theme that every marriage has its weaknesses, no matter how stable or loving it may appear from the outside. Moriarty tackles a lot of issues, from gender roles, to mental health, to physical health, to domestic violence, to the weight of our parents expectations and how they shape children into adults. 

What I didn’t like – Moriarty tackles a lot of issues. While it’s great that she highlights some issues that you don’t often see portrayed, such as dealing with chronic migraines and the fatigue of domestic labour, I think she was a little too ambitious. I felt like she tried to cram a lot into this book and it made it all seem a bit surface level. For example, I don’t think we really ever went in depth to Amy’s mental health issues or the shortfalls in Joy and Stan’s marriage. There’s a lot to dig into, but Moriarty spreads herself too thin to do any of these issues justice.

But even though she couldn’t quite tackle everything, this book was still too long. I felt like she didn’t do the issues justice and yet she still somehow spent too much time waffling on each of the characters. I felt like there was so much thrown in that just wasn’t needed. This is a mystery novel at its core, but the pacing gets caught up in so much background information on the large cast of characters that I felt the story never really picked up any momentum. I thought Savannah was a really interesting character and I wanted to know more about her and her past, but we get so much info about each of the boring Delaney siblings that I just lost interest and when we finally do get some insight into Savannah’s psyche, it’s just a bit too late.

Because sadly I just didn’t find any of the Delaney’s compelling. Joy was by far the most interesting to me, but I had almost no interest in Stan or any of the siblings. I just didn’t care about their problems. They’re a pretty well-to-do middle class white family and it was honestly just boring. I didn’t care about their tennis drama, I was unsure why I should care about Harry, and all of it just kept distracting me from the only parts I was interested in – Savannah and what happened to Joy.

Now I want to talk about the ending though, because that was fascinating. Again, I felt the pacing was a bit off. The book seems to come to a conclusion which I found fairly unsatisfying, but I was mystified to see I still had an hour left on my audiobook after this revelation. There is a second, shocking ending which is the part I found fascinating and would have loved to have seen developed a bit more. But unfortunately it comes a little too late in the story and made me question what was the point in including it at all? It is surprising, but I felt there’s so much more Moriarty could have done with it that would have made for a much more compelling book overall. 

So in conclusion – the book was fine, but I wish it was 100 pages shorter and explored a bit of a different angle. The family dynamics were interesting, but in the long run, forgettable. 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2005 (read May 2021)

I didn’t do much reading through summer of 2021 and there are a handful of books that I didn’t review, but I didn’t realize that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of them until recently. I swear I can remember writing a review for this one, but I can’t find it anywhere and I’m really disappointed now that I don’t have one. I’m a huge fan of Lisa See and have written lengthy reviews on both The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and The Island of Sea Women, so I will do my best to review this one as well, keeping in mind it’s been the better part of 6 months since I read it.

Like most of Lisa See’s books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction set in China. See excels at writing about specific parts of women’s culture (tea cakes in The Tea Girl and the Haenyeo in Sea Women), Snow Flower is no exception and focuses on the practice of foot binding and the relationship between two Laotong. I believe Snow Flower was See’s first book that became really popular, so I’ve been itching to go back and read it for a while now. For some reason I always find Lisa See’s books really intimidating to pick up, but they’re always a joy to read!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan covers a lot of history, primarily focusing on Lily and her Laotong, Snow Flower. A Laotong is basically a lifelong sistership between two girls that are considered to be “old sames”. Most girls will have sisterhood circles with other girls in their village, but few are selected for Laotong matches, so it’s a particularly auspicious pairing that is arranged by a matchmaker. In this case, Lily is a poor girl, but because her foot binding goes so well, she is matched with Snow Flower, who comes from a much wealthier family. This foreshadows a good future for Lily and will allow her to marry up. 

The book starts off as a story about foot binding and evolves into a novel about so much more. But first let’s spend a bit of time talking about foot binding. This is an old Chinese tradition where young girls’ feet are literally broken and reshaped as a symbol of status. The smaller the end result (as was the case with Lily), the higher the status. In this day and age it seems like a barbaric practice that resulted in the deaths of girls who succumbed to infections in the process of binding and left all women with limited mobility later in life. I don’t like to pass judgement on other cultures, but where it becomes frustrating is that women are still meant to perform the majority of household chores while moving around on tiny feet. 

However in Lily’s case, her successful foot binding allowed for her to move up in society. Having a Laotong is another status symbol and because Snow Flower came from a higher class than her, it further elevated her family and she eventually marries well. But like all of Lisa See’s books, the foot binding is really only a backdrop in which to set her characters and this book is primarily about sisterhood. It’s why I keep returning to her books over and over again because she invests so much time in developing the relationships between women and exploring unique aspects of female culture. These girls live in a remote Hunan country and are taught the secret women’s language of Nu Shu, which was a language created by women, for women. The girls learn it from their mothers and write back and forth to one another on their secret fan when they are unable to be together in person.

This is a hard review to write because of the magnitude of history that See covers in just a short 280 page book. Class relationships are a major theme of the book and I love how he explored compassion through Lily and Snow Flower’s social standings. At the start of the book Lily questions much about Snow Flower because she comes from more money than her, but doesn’t understand that Snow Flower’s family is also falling apart and that because of her father’s addiction to opium, they have basically lost everything. Her family clings to the Laotong relationship as a way to maintain their status, while Lily’s family clings to it as a way to elevate their status. While Lily marries up, Snow Flower is forced into the lowest of matches with that of a pig farmer. I loved the exploration of how this influences the relationship between the two women over time and how all consuming and blinding status can be, eventually driving a wedge between the two women later in life.

At the same time, See covers what I believe is the Taiping Rebellion (it’s hard for me to remember now that it was so long ago). The conflict sees the women thrown from their homes and forced to hide in the mountains while millions are murdered in the villages. I wish I could elaborate more on this conflict, but the details are so foggy in my mind – I just bring it up to highlight the scope that See is able to cover in such a short book without the plot ever feeling rushed. It’s what makes her such an accomplished writer. Though she is ambitious, she always keeps her relationships at the center of her writing and I think this is what ties her novels together without making them seem overwhelming. Though she covers a lot, she sticks to her theme of sisterhood. 

Overall it’s a heartbreaking novel that covers the entirety of Lily and Snow Flower’s lives. While a hard read at times, it’s an eye-opening and meaningful one and I definitely recommend! Even after many months, I still had so much to say about this one and her stories always stay with me for years to come afterwards.