Watch Over Me

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Dec. 2020)

Watch Over Me was an impulse buy at a local bookstore. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Nina LaCour’s other book, We Are Okay, and the phrase “aged out of foster care” in the book synopsis intrigued me. Plus the cover art and end pages for this book are absolutely gorgeous, so I wanted it for my shelf. Publishers, never underestimate the power of beautiful end pages! I really wish more books had them.

Anyways, I started reading this almost right away and it’s one of those slow burn character driven novels that I absolutely love. The plot wasn’t quick paced, but I was sucked into the story and more or less read it in two sittings (it’s a short book). This was a weird mix of magical realism and ghosts and it just really worked for me.

18 year old Mila has aged out of foster care and been accepted to work as a teaching intern on a farm. The owners, Terry and Julia, have supported many foster children over the years and offer Mila room and board in exchange for help teaching some of their existing foster children. Mila eagerly accepts and travels to the remote farm to stay in her little one room cabin.
 
At first everything seems too good to be true. Everyone on the farm is extremely welcoming and she finally has a little space and family to call her own. But she soon discovers that the farm is haunted and that she may be forced to confront the trauma of her past. 

It’s a bit of a weird book and I could definitely see this not being for everyone, but I really loved it. First off, the writing is gorgeous – I really felt that there were no words or ideas out of place. At 250 pages, with a large font, it’s a short book, but I felt that the author said what she needed to say and then ended it. She spent time on what mattered and didn’t waffle around on what didn’t. 

Ultimately this is a story of grief and loss and learning to forgive ourselves. Mila had a very traumatic childhood, which compelled her to make choices that she’s not proud of. Yet she’s still an incredibly kind and loving person – her mistakes have not influenced her caring demeanor and ability to see good in others. But they are tearing her apart inside and not permitting her to grow and flourish. 

I really didn’t know how this book was going to go once Mila showed up on the farm. There’s an atmosphere of grief and longing that permeates throughout the entire novel and I wasn’t sure whether to expect good or bad things from the farm and the people who lived there. Everyone was so kind at the farm that I kept waiting for a big reveal for what’s actually going on underneath the surface. This happened, but not in the way I expected.
 
Overall, LaCour does a really good job of conveying the longing we all feel to be loved and accepted. Though Mila is forced to confront her demons, she finds everything she’s ever been longing for on the farm. We can always begin anew. We don’t have to be defined by the mistakes of our past and we are always still worth being loved. Especially in these pandemic times, aren’t we really all just longing for home? Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a person, but we all long to belong.

Hollowpox

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica Townsend
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct. 2020 (read Oct. 2020)
Series: Nevermoor Book #3

I wish I’d taken the time to write a review for Hollowpox closer to when I actually read it, but that’s pretty much the story of my life this year.

What to say about a series that is just so fun and perfect. What can I add that I haven’t already said in the first two reviews? I decided to re-read the first two books before reading Hollowpox, which was definitely a good decision because I’d forgotten almost everything that happened in Wundersmith. Seriously, almost every single twist caught me by surprise again, so it was a real joy to basically experience it for the first time again. 

Given the choice between the three books, I’d probably say this one is my least favourite, but know that it is a super high bar and I still gave this book 5 stars. Everything about the Nevermoor series is so wunderful. The world building is excellently managed, the writing and plot are fun, the characters have depth, and there’s an intriguing mystery that threads its way throughout the entire series. Jessica Townsend has created something magical and along with her complex cast of characters, she weaves a number of subplots into the story that have real life relevance and meaning. 

At the same time though, the series does have an element of frustration because there are a lot of unanswered questions and you want answers. I’ve seen some criticism of this book that it doesn’t take the story anywhere new. I can understand some of the criticism – people want to unravel the greater mystery of Nevermoor, but I disagree that Hollowpox had no relevance. We learn so much more in this book about the Wretched Arts and Morrigan develops so much of her power (even if some think she is still woefully under trained). The very mystery of where the Hollowpox came from reveals so much to us about this world and the relationships that exist between every faction of it. I thought it struck a good balance of giving us answers without giving the game away. 

With a series like this, it’s really all about the journey and I will happily read a dozen more books about Morrigan Crow and Nevermoor! 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2012 (read Dec. 2020)

This book has been on my TBR for a long time and I’m so proud of myself for finally picking it up and making the time to read it! I’ve been reading less in the pandemic, so my book buying habit has gone down and I’ve been finding myself looking through my shelves and trying to knock off some of the books that have been sitting on my TBR for a while.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home reminded me a lot of Rebecca Makkai’s, The Great Believers, but for teenagers instead of adults. They’re the only two books I can recall reading that are set during the aids crisis of the 1980’s and amazingly art features heavily in both books! Is there some connection I’m unaware of between the crisis and great works of art? Because I found it intriguing that both stories were so heavily focused on art and paintings. Maybe just a weird coincidence, but intriguing nonetheless.

Anyways, the similarities between the two novels pretty much ends there. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story about 14 year old June Elbus and the relationships she has with both her Uncle and her sister. Her Uncle Finn is a world renown painter who has given up on sharing his artwork with the world, but he and June (and her mother) are still both enamoured by all works of art and as her Godfather, they develop a close relationship. June spends many of her weekends with Finn, but when he passes away from aids, she is heartbroken.

After his death, Finn leaves behind all his earthly possessions to his boyfriend, Toby, who is shunned by the family and blamed for Finn’s death, save for a single painting he did of June and her sister Greta, which he of course, wills to the girls. The girls have mixed feelings about the painting, which neither is sure quite captures their likeness. As June struggles with her grief, both Greta and Toby try to strike up a friendship with her – but June can’t make sense of sister, who seems to both love and hate her – and she is confused by Toby, who changes the way she remembers Finn and their relationship.

It’s a slow build story, but I absolutely loved the development between June and each of the other characters. I had no idea there would be such a strong sister element to this story and I was completely intrigued with June and Greta. Greta never had the same relationship with Finn as June, but she is struggling with her own feelings. She is on the verge of an adulthood she feels unprepared for and as a result, acts out like a child. She’s always been the star child, but this only leaves her feeling misunderstood and she is hurt by June’s close relationship with Finn. You can tell these two sisters want to be there for each other, but there’s such a chasm to overcome between their hurts.

I expected June’s relationship with Toby to be the focus of the story, but its really just one piece of the puzzle. We’re these two ever meant to be friends? I’m not sure they were, but they find each other in a time that they both need one another and it was nice that they were able to help heal one another.

Also unexpected was June’s relationship with her mom. I wish this one had been developed a little more, but it was still really intriguing the history behind her mom and her uncle and how her mother’s selfish choices had a lasting impact on the people she loved most. It was a good reminder of the constraints of the time period, but also a reminder that our jealousy and selfishness can get the better of us.

Finally, I loved the side story between Greta and June (and to an extent their mom) and the painting. Every time anyone went down to the bank I’d get so stressed out, but really this was about 3 different women all trying to be seen and understood for who they were. It’s about 2 sisters who miss the ease of their childhood friendship and have forgotten how to grow and support one another. It’s about family and grief and loss and moving on. It’s a slow burn, but I will always understand the girls yearning for sisterhood. 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

Addie LaRue was my book club’s pick for December. Despite having already read a lot of V.E. Schwab’s work and having liked most of it, I wasn’t super enthused to pick this one up for some reason. It’s probably related to my ongoing fatigue with fantasy, but mostly I just wasn’t that into the premise of a 300 year long love affair with the devil.

I heard a lot of good things about this book though and I ended up eating my words as I was completely sucked into the narrative almost immediately. Addie is born in the late 1600’s and yearns for the opportunity to travel and really experience life. She’s disenfranchised by the expectations of her sex and wants to marry for love rather than duty. So on the eve of her wedding, she strikes a deal with the devil to allow her to escape her obligations and be granted the time to live her life. The catch, she becomes invisible. She can still interact with people, but the second she is out of their sight, they immediately forget her – nor can she tell them her name – giving her a long life, but one where she is unable to develop relationships or leave a mark on the world.

If this sounds like a nightmare to you, it is to Addie as well. The first few years of her life are dedicated to just surviving in 1700’s Paris. It was horrifying to read about, but Addie is still determined to make the most of her life and does her best with the gift of time she has been given.

Like I said. I was sucked into the story pretty quickly. Addie was ahead of her time and her determination and stubbornness are endearing. The devil continually tries to break her, but it only spurs Addie on and she becomes more determined in her quest to leave her mark on the world. She discovers that while she cannot be remembered herself, she can inspire ideas and dedicates the rest of her life to seeking out artists and musicians for whom she can be a muse. Until 2014 when she walks into a bookstore in New York and suddenly everything changes.

While this is a compelling story, it’s also a long one. The story jumps back and forth between the past and modern day. Initially I was more intrigued in Addie’s early days trying to make sense of her curse, while after Henry enters the story, I wanted to spend more time in the modern day. The story is both entertaining and made me think a lot, but I also thought it could have been about 100 pages shorter. The length and scope of storytelling definitely made me feel like I was reading an epic, but I think the author could have shortened a few parts of the book. After a while the past did start to feel a bit repetitive and I wanted to spend more time in the present since at least something new was happening there. 

I also felt there were a few plot holes with how Addie’s curse actually worked, but I can let it go because it doesn’t take away from what the author is trying to evoke. It’s both enthralling and horrifying to think of what it would be like to have all the time in the world but to be forgettable. I really enjoyed the relationship that developed between Addie and Luc over the years and despite the length, I did really enjoy reading this one. Can’t decide where it sits in my repertoire of Schwab books though… certainly better than her monsters duology, but on par with Vicious and Darker Shade of Magic. 

Betty

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug 2020 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

I’ve been dying to read Betty ever since I laid eyes on the beautiful cover art and read that it was a fictional recount of her mother’s experience growing up in a large family with a white mother and Cherokee father. It’s a long book and I decided to listen to the audiobook.

I was expecting a sad story and I read there were some hard to read scenes in the book, but I wasn’t expecting just how difficult a read this would be – by which I mean difficult content, not the writing. Betty is a coming of age story about the family’s third youngest child, Betty, the author’s mother, but it really focuses on the family as a whole and I loved that the author cast such a wide scope in her story telling.

The book starts with how Betty’s parents met and then tells the story of their 8 children. It seems like a big cast at first with so many siblings, but we spend a lot of time with this family and we grow to know each of the characters deeply.

This was a hard book to read because Betty’s family experiences hardship after hardship. They lose 2 of their children at early ages (I can’t remember now when exactly either passed away, but they’re not featured in the story beyond mention), and the rest of the children suffer varying levels of trauma. Even their parents have faced a great deal of trauma and the book really showcases the cycle of violence and suffering. 

I read a few interviews with the author after finishing the book and while this is her second book, apparently she’s been trying to publish it for years and struggled to find a publishing house that would work with the manuscript she had. She was told that the story contained too much suffering, that it wasn’t believable that one person or family would suffer so much, and worse of all, that people wouldn’t relate to Betty as a young girl. That will give you an idea of the kind of story that you’re in for, but I’m glad the author opted not to change her story because while it was upsetting to read, I had no trouble believing it. 

Indigenous Peoples have been wronged by both Americans and Canadians and our governments for centuries. Betty’s dad, Landon, was Cherokee and tries his best to honour his heritage and impart his ancestral wisdom on to his children. But he has also been mistreated and wronged as a Cherokee man and we catch glimpses of this throughout the story. While most of the children take after their mother (read: white) in appearance, Betty takes most after her father, and as a result, she is the most bullied of the children outside of the home. But in her home, she is also her father’s favourite and puts the most stock and importance into his traditional wisdom.

The hardest scene for me to read in the book was when Betty’s mother describes to her the abuse she experienced at the hands of her parents. It’s a traumatizing story on it’s own, but the way her mother chooses to share it is it’s own kind of horror and deeply emblematic of the way abuse cycles down through generations. This book has everything from violence, rape, incest, animal abuse, death, self harm, and suicide. But it also has some really beautiful scenes as well.

Landon Carpenter was for sure the highlight of the story for me. It’s hard to say whether Betty’s parents were really good parents or not – they certainly had their faults and a very laid back approach to parenting, but Landon’s love for his children was so evident throughout the course of the novel that I was able to forgive some of his other misgivings. He tried to be a good dad – to provide for his children and pass on traditional knowledge. I found a lot of faults with Betty’s mom and siblings, but I think Landon really did try his best. When I read the trigger warnings about this book, I was bracing myself for a horrible father figure, so it was really nice to find a caring and empathic one instead.

This isn’t a book I think I could ever pick up again, but I’m really glad I read it and I think it is a story that will stick with me for a long time. I’m so glad the author was able to finally share it.