Brown Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Daphne Palasi Andreades
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Jan. 2022

I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s a short book told in a series of vignettes from the perspective of the chorus “we” of American brown girls. It takes us through the lives of brown girls and the 2nd generation immigrant experience, from childhood to death, so it’s pretty ambitious in scope.

I loved the style of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire book told from a perspective like this and the short chapters made for an easy reading experience. It’s not quite prose, but the writing is lyrical and I liked that the story wasn’t limited to one perspective or protagonist. Even though the structure is ambitious, I liked that the author takes us through the lives of brown girls over time. I viewed it as a snapshot at the different stages of life and I thought there were some really perceptive ideas here. My favourite chapter by far was “Those who leave and those who stay”, which was a gutting read for someone who chose to leave.

What I was unsure of was whether the author really has the credentials to write from this perspective. It’s a bold claim to try and represent the experience of so many different cultures and countries. I’m sure there are lots of common threads and similarities with the immigrant experience, but despite the “we” of the book, a predominant voice still emerged of a 2nd generation woman who got out of Queen’s by going to good schools and ending up with a white partner. This is definitely a perspective, but I know it’s not the only perspective. I would have liked to see more varied perspectives if you’re going to rely on a chorus narrator to carry your story. It’s ambitious for any single author to carry such lived experience.

To an extent the structure is also a weakness because we only skim the surface of brown girls experiences, so it is somewhat lacking in depth. Personally this didn’t really bother me though because I feel there are lots of other single POV novels out there that get into the nitty gritty. This was a higher level look, just maybe not high enough to represent such a broad spectrum of voices and identities.

Killers of a Certain Age

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Sep. 2022

Killers of a Certain Age was the perfect 3 star read. It was a lot of fun and I sped through it, but I was disappointed by the total lack of character development. I don’t think all books have to be super deep and there’s something to be said for a light, quick read, but this one had so much potential to be both and overall it was just okay, which was a letdown.

Killers of a Certain Age is a fun story about an elite group of female assassins who spent their careers stealthily removing shady drug lords and war criminals from society. They’re now in their 60’s and have recently retired. To thank them for their contributions, their company sends them on a lavish cruise to celebrate. While on the cruise, they quickly figure out that someone is trying to kill them and spend the rest of the novel on the run and trying to take out their opponents.

The book is by Deanna Raybourn, author of the much beloved Veronica Speedwell series. I’m a huge fan of Veronica and was thrilled about the concept for this book. Who doesn’t want to read about a bunch of badass old ladies that are underestimated by their competition? The humour wasn’t quite as good as Veronica Speedwell, but I still had a few good chuckles and found it to be a fast-paced, plot-driven novel. I read it as an audiobook while doing an Agatha Christie puzzle, so it was a very enjoyable experience. If you want to get lost in the chase for a few hours, than I recommend this one for you.

Sadly, overall it was still a bit of a disappointment though. The author presents us with 4 main characters, but the entire story is told from just one POV, that of Billie (one of the 4 women). I thought it was an odd choice. Billie is interesting enough, but I didn’t find anything particularly special about her and I thought it was a missed opportunity to tell a multi-POV story. This may have proved too challenging for the author though because all 4 of the women are ultimately forgettable. We’re given a few defining features for each woman, but honestly I couldn’t remember who was who by the end of the novel because they all read the exact same and had such little characterization.

There’s nothing wrong with a good plot driven novel, but I felt there was so much to unpack here about how society treats old people. There’s a lot of action, but the themes are not strong. There is a poorly developed romance and the friendships felt very surficial for 4 women who’d supposedly known each other for 40 years and trusted one another with their lives. That said, I think Raybourn may just be an action author. She relies on humour a lot and while Veronica Speedwell has more depth than this, she still tends to rely on the action to drive those novels as well. The difference is that Veronica and Stoker have real chemistry, both as friends and lovers, whereas this women in this story just didn’t have any chemistry, so I only had the plot to keep me interested. A multi-faceted story would be so much more compelling and unfortunately, this wasn’t it.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Jul. 2022

First read of 2023! I really dropped the ball on my reviews last year – this year if I miss a book review, I’m just going to try and move on to the next book. If I’m not inspired to write the review, I don’t want the backlog to paralyze me from writing other reviews, which is what happened to me last year. 

I’ve seen a lot of buzz about Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I didn’t love The Storied Life of AJ. Fikry as much as everyone else seemed to, and initially I saw some negative reviews for this one, so I was reluctant to pick it up. But the longer it’s been out, the more buzz and good things I’ve seen about it. It won Book of the Year for both the Goodreads Choice Awards (fiction) and Book of the Month, so I decided to finally pick up a copy!

I’m so glad I did, because I really loved it! I can see how it would be a hit or miss book for some people – it’s marketed as being about video games and the advertising is definitely accurate. However, if you’re not a gamer, I don’t think you should be deterred from reading it. I am most definitely not a gamer and knew almost none of the games talked about in the book (pretty much just Super Mario), but I still really enjoyed it. The story centers around video games, but the book is ultimately about love and friendship, something easily relatable to any reader.

The story centers around two kids, Sam and Sadie, and follows them from age ~10-35. They meet at a sick kids hospital in the early 90’s and bond through their shared love of games. Over the years they have many moments of triumph, misunderstanding, and loss. Their lives are tightly knit together and yet they flit in and out of one another’s lives. There’s an atmosphere of regret that runs through the entire novel, which makes for a nostalgic and bittersweet reading experience.

What I liked about these characters is that they are both extremely flawed, and yet still lovable. They make mistakes and poor judgement; they fail to communicate with one another; and they are slow to forgive. They both intensely need one another, and  yet they let so many things come between them throughout the years. The ending is not particularly cathartic, but the reality of their relationship was striking. There’s not one way to be a friend, nor is there one way to love someone. We are all shaped by our experiences and broken in ways that we can’t always express to those we love. I liked that this book explored the space in between friendships and romantic relationships. I really wanted these characters to be together, but the themes made me question why we tend to see the world this way? There are many types of love outside of romantic love and I liked that Zevin explored our more playful nature.

Ultimately this book is about our desire for playmates, both as children and adults. There are many ways this can be represented – in this book it’s through a love of literal games, but when I reflect on my own life, I recognize that I like to play through the medium of outdoor activities. My husband likes these activities to an extent, but I’ve also developed really meaningful relationships with friends who also like to play in the outdoors and they help to satisfy that part of my nature. We build friendships through our shared interests and hobbies and I like the importance placed on these relationships. We’re all just looking to connect with other people. Sam and Sadie understood each other through the art of playing video games. Their assessment that they would make poor romantic partners was likely correct, but it shouldn’t devalue their platonic relationship.

Overall, the characterization is extremely strong and it’s definitely why I loved the book. I felt drawn into Sadie and Sam’s life because they were well developed and fully realized characters. I shared in their joy and sadness – I connected with them. And as Zevin suggests, isn’t that what life is all about anyways?

State of Wonder

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2011

It took me ~4 months to read this book, so it’s going to be challenging to write a full review about it because a lot of it is not fresh in my mind anymore, but I have to try because I have very strong feelings about it.

This was only my second Ann Patchett book, but I loved The Dutch House when I read it a few years ago, so I was keen to read more of her work. State of Wonder seems to be one of her more popular books and after reading Lily King’s book, Euphoria, earlier this year (which is often compared to State of Wonder), I decided it was time to pick this one up. Maybe this was a bad idea because I couldn’t help but compare it to Euphoria (which I loved), but even without that book as a reference, I doubt I would ever have liked State of Wonder.

If you’re not familiar, State of Wonder is set in the Amazon – I’m not sure what year, but given that this was published in 2011, I’d guess in the early Aughts sometime. Our main character, Marina Singh, is a research doctor with a pharmaceutical company. One of the company’s biggest projects is a new fertility wonder drug that’s being developed by Dr. Swenson in the Amazon. After the disappearance of Marina’s other colleague, Anders, she is convinced to travel to Brazil to track down Dr. Swenson and report back to the company on the progress of the drug.

Given the project’s remoteness and Dr. Swenson’s total lack of interest in transparency to her employers, she proves difficult to find. When Marina does finally locate her, she is swallowed into an entirely new world and is shocked by her discoveries. The ideas presented in the plot are definitely compelling and we are soon enmeshed in a web of moral dilemmas for which there are no simple solutions. I can see why this would shake up the genre of literary fiction because it is quite an intelligent book and it provides a lot of fodder for the reader to reflect on. My main issue was that the storytelling itself was so incredibly tedious and boring.

It’s a modest 350 page book, but Marina spends more than a third of the book just tracking down Dr. Swenson, and it isn’t until around page 250 before the narrative picks up at all. To be honest, I’m shocked that I didn’t DNF it, which I think is a testament to the idea of the book because the story itself is compelling and I genuinely wanted to know what would happen, it just took soooo long to get there. I’d give Patchett 4 stars for creativity and themes, but 1 star for execution because it was terribly painful to get through it.

That said, the longer I sit and reflect on this book, the madder I get about it, but not for the reason you might expect. The story finally picks up in the last 100 pages to the point that I was suddenly engrossed as it goes completely off the rails. After 4 months of tedious pre-ample, I felt like I was on drugs as the narrative gets more and more unhinged and the morals more and more dubious. All of which culminates in an explosive ending followed by a quick exit from the scene, from which I was left with a huge book hangover.

I hated the ending. It is shocking and upsetting and infuriating all at once. I did not see it coming and I was devastated by it. I understand why Patchett chooses to end the book this way, without this explosive ending I would have been left questioning what was the point of the entire story. The ending is set up to shock you and it drives home a very crucial theme about Westerners and our sense of compassion and responsibility. When is it our duty to intervene and when should we take a step back and not insert ourselves into cultures which we know nothing about? This theme is initially explored through Dr. Swenson’s feelings on the locals and is reiterated when Marina finally makes her departure from the jungle in the final pages.

But the reason why I get madder the longer I reflect on it is that despite genuinely hating most of this book, I can’t stop thinking about the damn thing!  Honestly, the plot is good, it just gets lost in such heavy handed writing. I spent so long getting to know everything about Marina, all her character strengths and flaws, to deciding that I liked her, only to have Patchett eviscerate her character in the last 10 pages. It’s really brilliant because we’re presented with these two contrasting characters: Marina and Dr. Swenson, who have very different feelings on the ethics of their work. Yet fundamentally, they’re not that different and the entire book is really a master class in the development of their characters. I almost want to read it again now that I know the ending, I just can’t stand to suffer through it a second time. Although I think I might finally have to pick up Heart of Darkness, which has been on my TBR for over a decade.

So how do I rate this book? I was very settled on two stars when I finished it, but I think I will have to increase it to 3 stars at the end of the day. It’s a smart book, but it leaves me unsure of how to approach Ann Patchett’s books in the future. I don’t think I can read another book with a narrative as thick as this one, but I can’t deny the appeal of the depth of thought and character psyche that goes into each of her stories. I may have to return to audiobook form if I read anything else by her. The Dutch House really worked for me as an audiobook, but I can see how it would maybe read similarly to this in physical form. Either way, I think I will give her older novels (like Bel Canto) a pass, and maybe try some of her newer stuff (commonwealth maybe?) to see how she has developed her storytelling craft.

This was a good story told very poorly. I think if the first third had been tightened up a lot, this would have been a much better book. Either way, it haunts me.

Saga, Volume 10

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Genres: Graphic Novel, Sci-fi
Pub. Date: Oct. 2022

In celebration of the release of Volume 10 after a 3 year hiatus, I re-read the first 9 volumes and wrote a collective review about them. Since Volume 10 is a pretty big departure from the rest of the series, I had to also dedicate a review just to this volume.

I get what Vaughan and Staples are trying to do with this new installment. The entire series has taken place in the midst of a war and despite lots of deaths, it’s naive to think our central family wouldn’t also be impacted. So I get what Vaughan and Staples are trying to convey… but I still hate it. It’s too depressing. I know that’s the point and that war is devastating and heartbreaking and people just have to go on living anyways. But my poor heart can’t take it.

I’ve spent 3 years waiting for Volume 10, and now that it’s here, I kind of wish it didn’t exist. It’s like when a popular show from your childhood gets a reboot. You think it’s going to be great to spend more time with your favourite characters, but it’s somehow never quite the same… it’s not able to capture the joy and goodness of the original. You’re trying to time travel and all you’re left with is a poor imitation.

That’s what volume 10 was for me without a certain someone. It’s still timely and perceptive, but the joy is gone. That special thing that made the original so wholesome and heartwarming is no longer there. Saga for me has always been first and foremost about family. I know a lot of people are here for the creativity of the series and the artwork, but that’s just what makes this family unique. I was here for the love and all I felt in this installment was the loss.

I’m not sure if I’ll continue with the series after this. It’s hard to walk away from, it is truly something special, but I left a piece of my heart in volume 9. After waiting 4 years for this, I’m disappointed.