All Your Perfects

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colleen Hoover
Genres: Romance, Fiction
Pub date: Jul. 2018 (read Oct. 2018)

Colleen Hoover is pretty hit or miss for me and it confuses me how sometimes she gets it so right, and other times so wrong. I loved It Ends With Us and thought it did a great job in helping people empathize with women who are victims of domestic violence and why it is sometimes hard for them to leave abusive relationships. In contrast, I hated Without Merit and thought it had some extremely problematic elements, so much so that I kind of decided Hoover might not be for me.

I had no intentions of reading this one, but of course it came up in the goodreads choice awards under romance and I got curious and checked out what some other readers had to say. Once I discovered what the book was about, I totally changed my mind and decided to give it a chance because it addresses a topic that I haven’t seen discussed in many novels. I’m going to discuss that topic because it’s not really a spoiler, it comes up early in the book, but I know some people like to go into Hoover’s book totally blind, so if that is you, stop reading my review here. Just know that this book did surprise me in a good way. The rest of you, let’s get into it.

This book is about infertility and it is what drew me into it since I’m not a big lover of romance novels. Infertility is something a lot of people struggle with and it really is an invisible grief. Society doesn’t talk about infertility, miscarriage, or people who just plain don’t want children. For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that a women’s reproductive decisions are a fair topic in any conversation, and it’s not uncommon to ask women if and when they want to have children. Lots of people aren’t bothered by it, but I think we need to quit asking this question outside of close personal relationships because it can be extremely uncomfortable, even painful, to some people.

I know women who aren’t planning to have kids at all and find this question uncomfortable because they don’t like telling strangers and acquaintances they don’t want kids because it’s not really the acceptable answer in our society and is generally followed up with some flippant comment about how they’ll regret not having kids or change their mind. I know fewer women who have struggled with infertility, but this is likely a by-product of me still being in my 20’s and the fact that unless it happened to a really good friend, most people don’t talk about struggles with infertility. Even the stats are unclear, a quick search on miscarriage rates in Canada reveals that somewhere between 15 and 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and 12 to 16% of Canadian couples have infertility. So I was inspired to pick this up and see how Hoover would address some of these uncomfortable topics.

Overall I thought she did a pretty good job. All Your Perfects basically tells the story of a couple, Quinn and Graham, and how they meet, fall in love, and then start to fall apart in the wake of Quinn’s infertility and desire for them to be parents. It’s an extremely emotional read and I would definitely give a trigger warning for those who have experienced infertility. I do want to applaud Hoover for this book because she addresses a wide range of symptoms of infertility, such as how Quinn struggles to answer questions about when she’ll have children and how she had to leave social media because she couldn’t take all the posts about other people’s children because they just continuously reminded her of what she considered her failure as a woman. But Hoover also address how heartbreaking and damaging infertility can be to a marriage when you discover all the hopes and dreams you had for yourselves might be out of reach. The story broke my heart, but I had a huge amount of empathy for Quinn and understood how this one thing could become so monumental in her relationship and how difficult it could be to come back from that.

Like I said, the story focuses not just on Graham and Quinn’s infertility, but also on how they meet and fall in love. It’s told in an alternating time line, switching back and forth between the first time they met and their current struggle to become parents and the effect it has on their marriage. I thought this was a great way to break up the story because even though I was more interested in the infertility story, it was so sad that I think it would have been emotionally overwhelming to only tell that story. It was nice to get a break every chapter to go back to the excitement of when Quinn and Graham are falling in love and discover what it is they love about each other.

This is still ultimately a romance novel, but I like that it’s a romance novel with substance. It’s not all sunshine and roses in a marriage and Hoover’s not afraid to get into the nitty gritty of it. The only thing I have to say though it that as sweet as Graham was, I still had some problems with his character, or more specifically, how Hoover writes his character. Graham was definitely a sweet guy like 90% of the time, but he had some problematic behaviours that I’m almost certain Hoover doesn’t recognize as problematic. What I mostly had a problem with is that Graham actually had some questionably abusive behaviours that were sometimes passed off as romantic. The most concerning to me was how he would punch and hit things when he was upset. Just because he’s never physically violent against people, when you hit things it still conveys a message of the violent feelings you have for a person, even if you don’t take them out directly on that person. I don’t find violent expressions of rage attractive ever and I’m not going to be impressed just because you never actually hit people. Plus Graham comes on really strong in the beginning of the novel and I thought it was just too much and he needed to respect Quinn’s space and her relationships. That was my main beef with the book, because we’re obviously meant to like Graham, but he was never going to totally win me over because of some of these behaviours.

That said, I just have to say that Colleen Hoover is the MASTER of first chapters. This is my third CoHo book and as much as I disliked Without Merit, all three chapters have had dynamite beginnings. You wouldn’t think that romance books would be capable of totally hauling you into a plot in the first chapter, but Hoover has first chapters on lock.

So overall, still not the biggest fan of how Colleen writes romance, but really into how she’s not afraid to tackle important women’s issues in her books. I do like a good romance novel every now and then and I like that this is more than just a romance book and that it has a plot that I’m sure will mean a lot to many women who share this pain, but have never seen it written to paper.

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Jun. 2017 (read Oct. 2018 on Audible)

Whoa! This was WAY more intense than I was expecting and had a lot more depth. I’ve been seeing this book going around for a while nice since it was featured by Reese Witherspoon’s book club, and my book club decided to pick it for our October read.

I really didn’t know what the book was about, but based on the title I was expecting a light-hearted story and a few laughs. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows definitely delivered on the laughs, as well as copious amounts of blushing! I wasn’t actually expecting erotic stories, but I definitely got them.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is about the Sikh community living in Southall, London. It features 22 year old Nikki, who dropped out of law school, moved out of her parents house, and has been making ends meet by bartending at her local pub. She considers herself a “modern girl”, scoffing at her older sister for seeking an arranged marriage. When she sees a posting for a creative writing teacher at the temple, she applies, seeing it as a great opportunity to make some extra money and to help women. But due to a miscommunication, it turns out to be a basic English literacy class, attended primarily by Punjabi widows.

The widows aren’t enthused about learning to write and roll their eyes at Nikki’s learning exercises. But they are interested in storytelling, and in their loneliness as widows, they have a particular interest in sharing erotic stories.

There was a lot that I liked about this book. First off, the widows are hilarious and I love that Jaswal breathed such life into these (mostly) elderly characters. Society forgets about widows and seniors, especially in Southall where the women are seen as irrelevant without their husbands. There’s a limited amount of literature about elderly people and I loved how the author created these smart and dynamic characters. Sure, they couldn’t read and they were afraid of Nikki’s “modern” ways, but they were also funny, clever, and kind. They were very much mired in tradition, but the sharing of their stories was incredibly empowering for them. Reminding them of their commonalities, and the power of community, of standing up and supporting one another.

I also liked that the book had a lot more depth than I expected. Jaswal explores the challenges of breaking free of traditional, cultural beliefs, but she also explores the merits of those beliefs as well. Nikki’s feminism felt radical to the widows, and their conservatism was frustrating to Nikki, but the more they all got to know each other, they were able to realize they weren’t so different. Nikki discovered there are merits to having strong community values and a support network, and the widows discovered their own brand of feminism.

Believe it or not, this book also has a mystery element to it, as well as a romance. I liked that Jaswal kept adding additional layers to the story. While the story is mostly narrated by Nikki, some parts are narrated by Kulwinder, Nikki’s boss at the temple who recently lost her daughter. It was hard to relate to Kulwinder initially, but I enjoyed learning more of her story and where she was coming from.

While I mostly loved this book, there were a few things I didn’t like about it. I found it dragged a lot in the middle. There were a lot of erotic stories shared by the widows, but after a while I didn’t think it really added that much to the story. It also got really intense, really fast at the end, which I had trouble buying. It was a little too dramatic for this type of story and I didn’t think it fit that well with the tone of the rest of the book. I also would have liked to see a better resolution of Mindy’s attempts at arranged marriage and more growth from the brotherhood. They cast a foreboding shadow over a good part of the book, but ended up seeming not that relevant to the story. I wanted the characters to shake the brotherhood up a little bit more, although that might not have been the most realistic.

But overall I really liked this book. I listened to it as an audiobook and the narrator was fantastic! It provided some fascinating insight into Sikh culture and I really liked the dichotomy between conservative traditionalism and feminist awakening!

Wuthering Heights

Rating: 
Author: Emily Bronte
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Classics
Pub Date: 1847 (read on Audible Sep. 2018)
Audiobook Narrator: Joanne Froggatt

This was AMAZING! I know most people read Wuthering Heights in high school, but it was never on my curriculum for some reason. I read Jane Eyre a few years ago and didn’t really like it that much, but when I saw Wuthering Heights for sale on Audible, I decided to try it out. I listened to Emma earlier this year, so audible has been helping me knock back some classics.

I did not expect to like this. I haven’t had that much luck with classics, they tend to be slower paced and the writing is often difficult to get through, but every now and then you find an old classic that totally surprises you! I can see what this book is so polarizing. People seem to either love it or hate it. I can totally understand why people would hate this. None of the characters are likable and Heathcliff is just downright evil. But if you’re able to enjoy books with unlikable characters, then Wuthering Heights may be the book for you!

I loved it. Granted I found it a little bit confusing at the beginning because I couldn’t tell who was narrating the story and I was overwhelmed by all the characters and what their relations were to one another. But once I figured out all the characters, I was totally enthralled with this from start to finish! I was not expecting the level of drama that I got from this book and the 18th century scandal was just delicious to read about.

Wuthering Heights tells the story of the passionate love affair between Catherine and Heathcliff (the goodreads synopsis describes their love as “intense and almost demonic” and that is pretty much the most accurate description ever). Catherine grew up at Wuthering Heights, wandering the lonely moors as a girl. And boy is this setting lonely. There is a neighbouring village, but the only other neighbours are the Lintons, who live at Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff is a poor orphan boy adopted by Catherine’s father, but loathed by her older brother Hindley. When Catherine’s father passes away, Hindley becomes extremely abusive to Heathcliff, forcing him to be a servant to the family. Nonetheless, Catherine and Heathcliff grow close wandering the moors together and fall in love.

The story follows a series of 18th century dramatic events in which Catherine ends up marrying her neighbour, Edgar Linton, and Heathcliff disappears in a rage. He returns years later, now wealthy and determined to enact his revenge upon the entire Ernshaw and Linton families.

It’s an interesting story in that it is told (mostly) from the point of view of Nelly Dean, a housekeeper who has played maid to both the Ernshaw and Linton families over many years, as she recounts the story to the visiting Mr. Lockwood. So it does call into question the reliability of the narrator. She has some obvious biases. but overall I liked her. The story is really split into two parts, the first focusing on the original Catherine and Heathcliff, and the second half focusing on the second generation. Nellie has been involved in the lives of both generations, so she brings an interesting perspective to the story.

So why did I like this? Besides being super entertaining, I loved all these characters, despite how horrible they are. I couldn’t help but root for Catherine and Heathcliff early in the novel. Heathcliff is abused at the hands of Hindley Ernshaw and brought extremely low, so you can initially forgive him for his hatred of Hindley’s family and the wealthy neighbours, the Lintons. Catherine is fickle and ignorant of her privilege. She regularly belittles Heathcliff and despite loving him, accepts Linton’s marriage proposal because she feels he is more of her station and social standing.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

This is probably one of the most popular Wuthering Heights quotes, but I love it just the same. I was more a fan of Heathcliff in the beginning because he was at least a victim of his circumstances, whereas Catherine was just haughty and mean, throwing tantrums and letting her temper get the better of her. So I didn’t really see what the attraction was between them, but really it is because they are both the same and have that same darkness and haughtiness in them. They are so enraptured in both themselves and each other and they don’t care who they hurt, so long as they will be happy. Catherine even considers her marriage to Edgar as a way to elevate Heathcliff’s position, which Nelly rightfully scoffs at, as if Catherine, a married woman, could just continue her relationship with Heathcliff after marrying Linton.

These characters are lonely and I feel like they are all victims of circumstance in a way. They have known only their wealth and they are not sympathetic to the plights of others. Lockwood draws our attention to how very out of touch they are with the world and after just a week at the manor, feels compelled to return to London to get away from the drama of it all. The entire novel is chaotic and feels very all consuming. Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights is a world unto itself, focusing solely on it’s inhabitants and their isolated drama.

I preferred the first half of this book to the second. The novel reaches a climax at around the midpoint, which is when the focus switches from the first Catherine, to the second generation: Hareton (Hindley’s son), Catherine (Catherine’s daughter), and Linton (Heathcliff’s son). While I preferred the first half of the book, the second half is what makes this a classic. The second generation of characters parallels the first generation and serves to highlight how the cycle of violence is destined to repeat itself. The use of the same set of names serves to further highlight the cycle. Heathcliff becomes Hindley, Hareton becomes Heathcliff, and Linton and Catherine become Edgar and the first Catherine.

In the second half of the novel, Heathcliff returns to enact revenge on the Ernshaws and Lintons and descends further into himself as the novel progresses. Heathcliff is really a monster of a character, even having been abused himself, he perpetuates the cycle of violence worse than anyone who came before him. He is devastated by Catherine’s death and we are led to believe that he is haunted by her ghost for the rest of his life. Catherine’s daughter is just as haughty as she was, Linton is a sniveling mess, and Hareton is an uneducated servant boy. It is hard to like any of these characters, and yet Bronte has written them in a way that has made me hugely invested in them. I wanted to hate Heathcliff, he is truly awful, and yet I always hoped for him to be redeemed. I kept waiting for him to honour Catherine by loving her daughter, but he becomes so mired in his revenge scheme and haunted by Catherine’s ghost that he looses any sense of humanity and becomes obsessed with having total and complete power over everyone involved. Yet the characters still persevere and despite losing absolutely everything and being indentured to Heathcliff, Catherine is still able to find joy in life – to feel pity for Heathcliff and find it in herself to love another.

Like I said, I can absolutely see how people hate this. There’s pretty much no likable characters, save maybe for our narrators, Nellie and Lockwood. But even they have their flaws. Nellie disliked the first Catherine and tried to help Heathcliff as a boy, so it is maybe her hope for Heathcliff to repent that sustains this feeling of hope throughout the novel. We just keep waiting for Heathcliff to finally decide that his revenge is now complete. But he is never able to fully break the characters and I love when he realizes this at the end. Despite every atrocious act he commits, the young people are still able to find love and happiness through their trials. It is only at this point that Heathcliff is able to recognize how revenge has consumed his life and sanity. He finally realizes the futility of his hatred and thinks only of his longing to be reunited with Catherine.

It’s essential to give credit to the audible narrator, Joanne Froggatt. She is absolutely wonderful in this rendition of Wuthering Heights and probably a big part of what contributed to my enjoyment of the book. Her accents are excellent and I loved the different tone of voice that she used with each character. I was dismayed to learn that she also narrated a version of Jane Austen’s Emma, because I listened to Emma a few months ago and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more had I listened to Froggatt’s version. Anyways, I would highly recommend this audiobook. It’s probably also worth mentioning that while reading this, I followed up the chapters with a quick read of the Sparknotes chapter summaries. It helped a lot at the beginning with figuring out who each of the characters were. I wish I’d done this for Emma too because I found the cast of characters super confusing in that book too.

So in conclusion to this long winded review – I am definitely a fan of Wuthering Heights! I get why people don’t like it, but it’s also clear why this has become a beloved classic.

An American Marriage

Rating: ⭐
Author: Tayari Jones
Genres: Fiction
Pub Date: Feb. 2018 (read Jul. 2018)

This is so hard to review! I loved the first 2/3 of this book – I thought the writing was fabulous and the character development was so fantastic. Jones created this heartbreaking scenario and dynamic between the characters and I thought it was executed brilliantly. But I didn’t love the last third of the book, not because of how it ended (endings frustrate me all the time, but it doesn’t make them bad), I just didn’t love the character dynamics in the last third of the book. Although it wasn’t enough to deter me from rating this highly because I did really think that the writing in this book was fantastic.

Here’s the scenario: Celestial and Roy have been married for just over a year and are very much still learning about each other when Roy is falsely accused and prosecuted for a crime he didn’t commit. He is incarcerated for 12 years and it is just heartbreak to watch these two characters be torn apart and the injustice of having your life stolen from you just when you were settling down to really start it.

Like I said, I thought the set-up for this story was brilliant. The author spends just enough time introducing you to these two characters before breaking your heart for them. They were both in their early 30’s when Roy goes into prison and have essentially had the core of their marriage and life together stolen from them. They stay together, but Celestial eventually starts to move on with her life and moves on to another relationship, while Roy is stuck in the limbo of prison. Unable to fight for himself or his wife or to be their for his parents when his mother becomes ill.

When Roy gets a surprise early release after serving only 5 of his 12 years, Jones places her characters in an impossible situation, where no one is wrong, but everyone is hurting. The outside world has moved on without Roy, but he is not ready to let his old life, or his wife, go.

I loved this scenario because there is no right or wrong answers. Everyone feels wronged, but no one is necessarily wrong. They were placed in a mess of a situation and they all tried to move forward as best they could. I loved the emotional dilemma of this story because it really made me think and the simple storytelling evokes a lot of emotions. Roy and Celestial’s parents play a large role in the story too and I loved how Jones wove this characters into the narrative and used them as support for the familial themes throughout the novel. I really do think this was an excellent piece of storytelling and it’s why I will still be giving the book 4 stars.

But let’s talk about the problematic pieces (for me anyways). I didn’t love the last third of the story because I thought it fell too heavily on Roy and Andre. They spent forever fighting over Celestial like she wasn’t even a human being with any agency. They both felt they were entitled to her for the own reasons and neither was particularly interested in who Celestial really wanted to be with (especially Roy). Celestial’s voice in the story totally died out and she became so malleable to the two characters that I had no idea who this character even was any more. I wanted her to stand up for herself and I wanted the two men to acknowledge that the choice was ultimately hers, no matter how wronged they might feel by the decision. I mean, essentially I don’t think Celestial even knew what she wanted, which may be why the author wrote her this way, but I just got frustrated listening to the two men talk about her.

I mean, I know this is accurate to how a lot of men do think, so I can’t fault Jones too much. I just wanted Celestial to have more agency. It reminded me of TV shows and movies produced by men where the female characters only serve to advance the male protagonist’s storyline. I sometimes felt that Celestial was a secondary character to Andre and Roy and that at the end, she only really existed to serve their development.

The ending did actually redeem it a little bit though because one of the characters finally came to some realizations about the relationship and their behaviour. But Roy’s entitlement made me mad. He made some pretty questionable choices after he got out of prison that made me lose my respect for him. I really think he had no high ground to stand on at all after some of the choices he made, but he still felt entitled to Celestial and their marriage. Even with some of these realizations at the end, Celestial is still only a reactionary character.

I may have to do a bit more research on the author. I’m interested to know what she based Roy’s prison and release experience on and whether she has any personal exposure to how people in similar situations have felt and acted upon being released from prison. I don’t want to judge Roy too harshly because I know that 5 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit must mess with you and I’m sure played a large role in how he acted upon his release.

To conclude, I’m still giving this 4 stars because I did really enjoy it and even though I didn’t like how the characters acted, they were still absolutely believable characters and accurate to how I’m sure some people would react in this situation. They didn’t have the maturity and respect I wanted them to have, but that doesn’t mean that weren’t good characters. Mostly I just wonder if the author intentionally wrote Celestial as such malleable character, or if she just didn’t even realize she’d given her character no agency and placed everything on the two male characters. If it was a male author I’d definitely call it a blind spot, but as a female author, I really don’t know if it was intentional or not.

The other reason I feel this still deserves 4 stars is because it is also a fantastic commentary on race, without being fully about race. I haven’t even mentioned that the entire cast of this book is black and that this undoubtedly plays a huge role in why Roy is wrongly convicted. Jones makes an important commentary about racial profiling and the injustices of the justice system, without making it her central theme. It’s ultimately a book about the long lasting impacts that the justice system can have on not only the individual, but their families and communities.

Girls Burn Brighter

Rating: 
Author: Shobha Rao
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 2018 (read June 2018 as audiobook)

This was a super heavy read. At one point I’m sure I read the synopsis for this and thought, a book about disenfranchised women who find power within themselves, how empowering, sign me up. But between reading the synopsis and downloading this book as an audiobook, I totally forgot the plot and was super disturbed at how dark this was!

Girls Burn Brighter is set in India (amongst other places) and focuses on the friendship between two young women, Poornima and Savitha. They are only friends for a short period of time, but they develop a strong relationship during that time and come to realize that the other is the only person to ever truly love and care for them throughout their lives. They are torn apart by the circumstance of being young women of marrying age in India and both suffer some truly atrocious acts of hatred and spite against them.

It’s totally evident if you read the synopsis, but I did not realize this was a book about human trafficking. Human trafficking is one of the great injustices facing our world today and yet there is very little literature devoted to it and it makes for a truly upsetting read. I suffered through this book along with both Poornima and Savitha. It was uncomfortable and hard to read and that’s exactly how a book about human trafficking should be. A few months ago I read a book, A Girl Like That, about the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia and was truly appalled.

For some reason I thought India treated women better (than Saudi at least), but this book shocked me in its malice. The men in this book had so little regard for women and many of the men in the novel truly despised them. Yet I had no problem imagining these men and their cruelty. I did know I was getting myself into a tough read, but this book really made me despair for humanity. It also tells the story of two strong women who, despite all the suffering that has been visited upon them, still yearn and aspire to a better life. They find strength in the love they have for one another and no matter what shit life throws at them, they always continue to pursue something better for themselves, and in Savitha’s case, something better for her family too.

I listened to Girls Burn Brighter as an audiobook, but I’ve since decided to switch back to non-fiction for my audiobooks for a while because this is another book that the audio just didn’t quite do justice to. The writing is quite flowery and I think I would have liked it a lot in written form, but in audio I tended to get a bit distracted by the writing and sometimes would zone out.

The ending is oh so frustrating. I knew I was approaching the end and I was so nervous as to how the author was going to end things and while I don’t fault her for the ending, it was still torture! The plot was a little unbelievable for me, partly because I couldn’t believe so much hardship could be experienced by two people, but also in that the coincidences in this novel were just a little too far past believable for me. But it is a great story about the strength and perseverance of women. Just mentally prepare yourself before you go into this book because it was honestly one of the most emotionally draining books I’ve read it a long time.