Nine Perfect Strangers

Rating: ⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub date: Nov. 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Nine Perfect Strangers was totally different than what I was expecting. For some reason I thought this was going to be a murder mystery (spoiler, it’s not), not really sure why, so the plot ended up taking me totally by surprise, but in a good way.

Nine Perfect Strangers centers around Tranquillum House, a spa/resort where people come for all sorts of reasons, but primarily to make some kind of change, whether it’s with their body, personal habits, or even to save their relationship. The resort was founded by russian immigrant, Masha, who had a near death experience when she suffered a heart attack from overwork and neglecting her health, and found a new outlook on life that centered around personal health and wellbeing. Nine people have assembled at Tranquillum for a 10 day retreat.

Tranquillum House is known for having slightly revolutionary practices; no electronics are permitted at the spa and there are mandatory fasts, juice cleanses, and periods of silence throughout the 10 day retreat. However, many people swear that Tranquillum House gave them a whole new outlook on life, so most of the guests are willing to give it a try for 10 days. This group of guests includes a washed up romance novelist and footballer, a tired mom, a divorce lawyer, a couple trying to save their marriage, and a family trying to heal after the death of their son/brother. They are mostly optimistic about the retreat; however, what these strangers don’t know is that Tranquillum House has decided to try a new protocol for this retreat and that they will be physically and emotionally tested over the course of their ten day visit.

I’ve read two other books by Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, and I must say, she is really good at tackling tough subjects with humour. Her characters are all pretty humourous in this book in how ridiculous they are. They all grapple with some pretty serious issues, yet still provide a lot of comic relief. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the plot. It was a really different concept and it was actually quite shocking where Moriarty took the plot in the seond half of the book.

What I liked most about the book though was the theme, which centered around the idea of change. All of the guests decide to attend the retreat because they are seeking some kind of change in their lives, and the resort itself was founded because of the change that Masha underwent after her near death experience. Masha experienced a huge change in her life and really wants to help others to change their lives for the better. However, what she begins to realize is that it’s easy to help people change over a 10 day period, but that it is immensely difficult for her guests to make permanent changes once they return to their old lives. It raises the question of whether people really can change.

It really is a roller coaster ride because some of Tranquillum House’s practices seem really out there and it’s easy to dismiss them as “hippy-dippy nonsense”. But the further you read, you start to question yourself because it’s hard to deny that the practices actually do seem to work. However, when the plot takes a drastic turn around the half way point, you see the characters starting to revert back to their original tendencies, which again begs the question of whether change is truly possible. I liked the book because even though the resort seems to be a bit of a farce and I think a lot of the people would only be temporarily changed by the experience, it’s hard to deny by the end of the novel that the guests have been changed by their time at Tranquillum, just in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to ruin the plot and I think it is actually best to go into this book blind if possible. It is quite different from the other work I’ve read by Moriarty, but it did make me think and reflect and I think it is an interesting commentary on the human ability to change, so I did quite like it. It also does a great job at developing each of the nine characters and I was really impressed with how each them grew throughout the novel and I enjoyed getting each of their back stories. I read this for my January book club, so I’m really interested to hear what the rest of my book club thought because I can see how some people might not like this book.

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Keeping Lucy

Rating: ⭐
Author: T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Aug 6, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a little on the fence of how to rate this book. I read Rust & Stardust last year and really liked it, so I was excited to receive a copy of T. Greenwood’s newest book, Keeping Lucy, in hopes of learning more about a period of history I didn’t know much about. I did like this book and I did learn something, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Rust & Stardust because I felt it lacked in plot.

Finding Lucy is about a family from Massachusetts in the 1970’s whose second child is born with down synodrome. Down syndrome has a sad history in the United States and the delivery doctor strongly recommended enrolling the baby, Lucy, in an institution that could better see to her needs. Her mother, Ginny, was excluded from the decision to give up the baby and years later, she struggles with the loss of her little girl. When Lucy is two years old, a journalist publishes an expose about Willowridge, Lucy’s school, that reveals the deplorable living conditions in which the children are kept. Ginny is horrified and upset by the article and travels to Willowridge for the first time to see the conditions for herself and meet her daughter.

Greenwood definitely has a unique style of writing. It is very simple and straight forward, but does an excellent job of making you feel acutely uncomfortable and anxious. Rust & Stardust was about the kidnapping of Sally Horner, the young girl who inspired Lolita, and made me feel so anxious and frustrated about the way Sally was manipulated and treated. I had a similar reaction to Keeping Lucy in that I found this part of history shocking, I was frustrated by the way the health and justice system worked in the 1970’s, particularly in how it ignores the agency of women, and I was so anxious about the decisions the characters made and the potential ramifications. I flew through the book, reading about 75% of it on a lazy saturday.

I liked that this looked at a disturbing and lesser known part of history, but unfortunately I was a little disappointed in the execution. I was expecting this book to focus on Willowridge, the poor living conditions, the pursuit of justice against the institution, and the fight for custody of the children and for people with Down Syndrome to be recognized as people with a full set of rights. Willowridge is not a real place, but I trust it was imagined based on other similar institutions. Likewise, Ginny is not a real person, but I imagine there are parents out there who unknowningly were advised to send their babies off to similar institutions. In Ginny’s case, she was more or less blindsided by her husband and father-in-law, which plays a large role in the story.

I liked Ginny’s story arc in that it highlights how little agency women had in their lives and relationships. But overall I felt the author missed an opportunity to write a more historically meaningful plot. In order for the babies to be committed to the institution, parents essentially gave up their custody rights to the state. Once the story got going, I was expecting for this to be a story about Ginny’s battle with the state to save her daughter and regain custody while fighting against the antiquanted and sexist beliefs of her father in law, who thought he was entitled to make decisions for his son and family. The story provided a great look at how the patriarchy robbed women of any power or agency and the gender dynamics that often existed in families at this time. But ultimately this story was not about a custody battle, but rather was a drawn out road trip in which Ginny tries to escape with her daughter and the trials she faces as a single woman/mother in rural America. It was an interesting story with a surprising amount of action, but meaningless in that while I understood Ginny’s desperation, her actions were drastic and not realistic. I know Ginny was only try to save her daughter from being returned to Willowridge, but her actions were short sighted and actually really harmful to the result that she wanted. She’s applauded at the end for her good motherly instincts, which I thought pretty rich because she basically just ran away from any responsibility.

Ginny and Martha made a lot of bad decisions that I felt there was really no coming back from. I disliked the ending because I thought it was extremely unlikely and absolved Ginny of any wrongdoing. (view spoiler) What I really wanted to hear about was the struggle all those other families went through in gaining custody of their children and what legal actions were taken against the institutions for their neglect. People with Down Syndrome had to fight for their legal rights, care, and education, and I would have much preferred to learn more about that.

The story did hold my interest throughout the whole book and I sped through it, but the longer GInny and Martha spent on the road, the more I wondered what the whole point was. I didn’t expect them to be on the run for so long and I was really surprised when it ended up being the main plotline of the story. This is a fascinating part of history and I really just wish we had gotten a different story. I won’t fault the author because she did still deliver on a fast paced and interesting story, but personally, it just wasn’t the story I was hoping for and I thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity. I’m still giving it 3 stars because I did learn something and I thought the writing was pretty good, but overall it just left me wanting more.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean

Rating: 
Author: Jenny Han
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: May 2017
Series: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3

Netflix just announced that they will be making a sequel to All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, so I decided to finish off the year with the final book in this trilogy. I loved the first book, and while I enjoyed the second book as well, I thought it was a bit unnecessary, so I wasn’t sure if I would read the third book or not, but I’m glad I did decide to finish off this series.

I had similar thoughts on this book as I had to the second book in that I still think the first book works as a standalone and is the strongest of the series, but I do think each book added something of value even though they weren’t really necessary. I actually kind of loved John Ambrose Mclaren in the second book (Yes, I still love Peter K) and I liked that Han explored Lara Jean’s relationships with both boys. Initially, I found the final book really frustrating because I thought Lara Jean kind of disappeared into her relationship with Peter, but it ended up kind of being the whole point of the book and I liked that it explored the struggles of heading off to college and balancing relationships with your own personal development.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is about Lara Jean’s final year of high school and making plans to go to college. Her and Peter are still in love, but in the wake of so many new decisions and the reality that life rarely goes the way we expect, they are forced to make some difficult decisions about their relationship and learn about the way they communicate with each other.

I don’t really know how to talk about the rest of the book without spoilers, but there are a few things I want to discuss, so I’d advise to stop reading here if you haven’t yet finished the series.

Like I said, initially I was really frustrated with Lara Jean in this book. She gets so caught up in her Dad’s wedding and in her and Peter having the perfect future that she makes some really poor decisions. I think this is totally realistic to how teenagers act, especially when they’re in love and being forced to make difficult decisions about their futures, but Lara Jean has always been so focused on her personal growth and achievements that I was disappointed to see her checking out on college. She doesn’t get into her dream college, so instead of embracing the change and her new school, she emotionally checks out on all things college related, despite her sister Margot advising her to make the most of her first year of college.

Lara Jean and Peter are in an impossible position because in all likelihood, they probably will eventually break up, but I liked the journey they went on together. When Lara Jean gets into a better college, she starts embracing the idea of change and the reality that her and Peter just won’t be able to see each other that much and that maybe transferring schools isn’t the right decision for her. Teenagers can be rash in their decisions, but I liked that she finally was able to prioritize her happiness as well as Peters. It’s easy to disappear in a relationship and as teenagers, they are really too young for either to be thinking about sacrificing college for the other. I also liked the dichotomy Han created between Margot’s decision to break up with Josh and Lara Jean’s decision to stay with Peter. Both women are right in their decision as there is no correct answer and each did what they thought best for them and their relationship. It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending, but I thought it was realistic.

While I only rated one of these books 4 stars, I still think this is a great series for teenagers. Lara Jean is quite unlike a lot of teen protagonists I’ve read and while I know some readers think she’s too immature, I think she is just right. As someone who was a bit of a goody-goody in high school and has a great relationship with her sister, I could really relate to Lara Jean and I loved how supportive her family was. Her sisters added so much to what could have been a vapid novel about teen love and I really liked how they always prioritized family and personal growth.

Wildcard

Rating: .5
Author: Marie Lu
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Warcross #2

I read this book on my way home for the holidays and I fear I may have waited too long to review it. I’m already starting to forget parts of this, but I will do my best to review.

Warcross really surprised me last year and ended up being one of my favourite books of the year. Sci-fi is not my favourite genre and I did not like Marie Lu’s Young Elites trilogy, so I didn’t expect to like Warcross, but ended up falling in love with this vibrant and futuristic version of Japan. Sadly I hadn’t heard great things about Wildcard, but I tried to go into it with an open mind.

I thought Wildcard had a pretty strong start. It jumps right back into the action and I was really excited to be re-introduced to the Phoenix Riders and Emika’s world. There is a strong mystery element in Wildcard and you really don’t know who you can trust, so I was definitely intrigued.

Sadly though, Wildcard was not able to live up to the world Marie Lu created in Warcross and I felt it started to buckle under the weight of the plot and the lack of character development. I love a good fast paced plot – and despite everything else, this plot remained fast paced throughout the entirety of the book – but I felt that Lu abandoned a lot of the characters and character development from the first book in favour of new characters and it caused this one to just fall flat.

In Warcross, Emika struggles in trusting her teammates. She is used to working as a lone wolf and takes a lot of pressure and responsibility upon herself. Her teammates want to help and she eventually learns to trust them and realizes that being part of a team is better than operating alone. While the Phoenix Riders are still present in this book, I felt they weren’t integral to the plot and much of the book focuses on Emika and Zero. I liked that Emika made a new girlfriend in this book (I’m sorry you guys, I literally can’t remember her name!! Zero’s second, can anyone help me out here?!), but I really wanted to see more development of the characters we were introduced to in the first book and the Warcross world, but this was really Hideo and Zero’s party and I thought Emika struggle to carry the story.

Where Wildcard lost me was in the plot. I think Marie Lu made this too technical and tried to throw in way too many plot twists. I’ll admit, she got me on a lot of them, but I felt the plot got way too convoluted towards the end that I just kind of tapped out on the book. Warcross introduced this really interesting VR world that I could totally see happening within my lifetime. Lu introduced a lot of thought-provoking moral issues like is it justified to remove people’s freewill in order to completely eliminate crime? I thought there were a lot of interesting ethical questions to explore in this book, but I think Lu sacrificed this development in the interest of writing more action, which really did a disservice to the world she created. It’s a resounding YES that Hideo’s technology to eliminate crime was a bad idea, but we never really explored the benefits and consequences of his algorithm and jumped right to the need to destroy it.

There was so much action in this book, and yet, I was kind of bored. The entire last 30% of the book is just one extended action scene with very limited character development. I stopped caring about the Phoenix Riders and I thought Emika added very little to the development of the story. This really became more about Zero and Hideo and even though there was a lot of action, things started to feel a bit repetitive. I like a good plot, but for me, stories are always first and foremost about the characters. A book needs a good plot to move the characters forward, but I would never sacrifice development for action. I wanted to think about the ethics of a VR world and how to integrate morality with technology, but I guess Lu just wanted to deliver a fast-paced action novel. She delivered on the action, but I’m not sure why I should care about it.

Top 5 Reads of 2018

This is the companion post to my Top 10 Books of 2018, which features my favourite reads of the year that were actually published in 2018. This post will feature my top 5 books of the year that weren’t published in 2018. This works out well for me because its hard to narrow it down to just 10 books and the majority of the books I read are new releases. So here’s my top 5 reads of 2018 in no particular order:

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

You know how sometimes you read a book and you really like it, but then the more time passes, the more unsure you are of whether you actually liked it as much as you thought? This book was the opposite of that for me. I really liked it when I read it, but the further removed I’ve gotten from reading it, the better I think I actually like it. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tells the story of Julia, the teenage daughter of Mexican immigrants, and how she deals with the death of her older sister Olga. I know some people aren’t a fan of this book because honestly, Julia is super unlikable and confrontational in the story, but I thought it was such an accurate portrayal of a raging, rebellious, grieving teenager. Julia is struggling with accepting the death of her sister, who was the perfect daughter in her parents eyes, and she acts out against her parents traditional Mexican values. She struggles to understand her parents and her parents struggle to understand her. It’s ultimately a coming of age story about grief and the struggles of immigrant families. I listened to it as an audiobook and I would highly recommend this format – the narrator was fantastic and the whole reading experience was super enjoyable, despite the heavy topics.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

This was probably my most unexpected read of the year. I set an informal goal for myself to start reading more classics. I tried some Jane Austen and wasn’t the biggest fan, but I found Wuthering Heights on audiobook for a really cheap price and decided to give it a go. I’m not sure whether to credit Emily Bronte or Joanne Froggatt (the narrator) for how much I liked this, but together they made me absolutely LOVE this book. I don’t always love classics because they tend to wane on too much about nothing, but I loved the drama of Wuthering Heights. Evidently I have a thing for unlikable characters because NO ONE in this book is very likable. I think most people are familiar with the plot, so I won’t get too into it, I’ll just say that it’s an inter-generational story about the cycle of abuse and the human ability to both love and hate. I’ll still give Bronte most of the props, but Froggatt’s narration definitely played a role in making me love this as she does a fantastic job with all the characters and accents!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation was one of the first books I read this year and while it was a slow-read novel, I really loved it. This book tells the semi-autobiographical story of 10 year old Kimberly Chan and spans about a decade in scope. Kim and her Ma are sponsored by her Aunt and move to New York from China. It’s based off the author’s experience immigrating to America and I thought it was such a well crafted story about the struggles immigrants face to build a new life and climb their way out of poverty. Kim and her Ma live in a run down apartment and work in her Aunt’s sweat shop sewing clothing. It’s technically Ma that works in the shop, but the workers regularly enlist the help of their children since they work on commission and it’s the only way they can make decent money. Kim attends school during the day and is driven by her desire to learn and get a job that will enable her to lift her family out of poverty. Like I said, it’s a quiet sort of story, but powerful and I really loved Kim’s character and perspective.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

I’m just now realizing that I read 3 of the 5 books on this list as audiobooks (this being the third), which is actually super impressive since I tend to dislike audiobooks a lot more than I love them. But I guess I found some real winners on Audible this year! The Nowhere Girls tells the story of 3 very different high school classmates: Grace, Rosina, and Erin. The biggest thing I can say about this book is: great representation. Grace is a fat, Christian girl; Rosina is a gay, Mexican girl; and Erin has Asperger’s. Grace is new to town and when she learns that the former resident of her bedroom was a high school girl who was essentially driven out of town when she claimed she was raped at a party the year before, she starts a secret club to do something about it. I really liked this book because it was diverse and it addressed relevant social issues that any teen girl can relate to. Plus, it has another great narrator!

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

I’ve been raving about this series since I read it back in August. I included the sequel Wundersmith in my Top 10 Books of 2018 post, and I have to include the first book in this list. I can not say enough good things about this series. It is the smart, fun middle grade book that I’ve been looking for since Harry Potter. It tells the story of cursed child, Morrigan Crow, who is whisked off to the magical land of Nevermoor on the eve of her death day by the enigmatic Jupiter North. There she participates in the trials to become a member of the prestigious Wunder Society, all while trying to hide the fact that she’s an illegal immigrant to Nevermoor. This book is so whimsical (it has a giant, talking cat and flying umbrellas), but what I love most about it is that it has depth. It’s so well written and crafted that this magical world pretty much builds itself. It’s obvious that there’s a lot more to the plot than Townsend reveals upfront and I think we’re in for a multi-layered, multi-book series that has the potential to be just as popular as Harry Potter. I really, really loved this and I can’t wait to see what Jessica Townsend publishes next!