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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Swing Time

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Zadie Smith
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2016 (read Nov. 2018)

Okay, so despite it taking me literally months to read this book (super rare for me), I actually did really like it. This was my first Zadie Smith book and I can see why people tend to have a love/hate relationship with her. I don’t think this is one of her more well liked books, so I kind of wish I started with a different one, but oh well.

I actually really liked this story and style of writing, it’s just not a book you feel inclined to pick up again once you put it down. It wasn’t that I struggled to read it, there were several times I sat down and read 50 pages or more in one sitting, but whenever I would put it down, I would inevitably decide to start something else and this one always took the back-burner. It’s an interesting story, but at 450 pages, I just think it’s a bit too long for what was actually said.

But let’s get into it. Swing Time is the story of two black girls growing up in London. They both love to dance and have always been somewhat separated from their peers. They have a tumultuous childhood together. Tracee is bold and daring, thinking herself better than those around her, while the narrator struggles to really know who she is. They have a falling out after high school, but despite never really seeing each other again, their lives have a marked impact on each other.

Tracee goes on to become a dancer, while our narrator is hired to work as a personal assistant to a famous singer and dancer named Aimee. The narrator was a huge fan of Aimee’s as a child, but struggles with some of her decisions when becoming her PA. Aimee is very involved in international development and builds and supports a school in Africa, but she is blind to the privileges of her race and appropriates culture on more than one occasion. For Aimee, the world is all about her own indulgence and the narrator struggles with being a black woman in this environment,

There was so much going on in this book, and I can’t pretend like a lot of it wasn’t over my head. I was never really sure where Zadie Smith was going with the story and themes, but she includes some really thoughtful social criticisms in the book. I really enjoyed these thoughts and reading about them from the narrators experience, but they often just seemed disjointed. The whole format of the story is a bit odd. The timeline jumps around a lot, which wasn’t overly confusing, but I think it’s part of what made it a hard book to pick up again. There was never really much tension in the story. You wonder what happened with Tracee, but the story never seems to be working towards anything, so it was hard to have the motivation to pick it up again.

But the most interesting part of this book for me was the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name! I’m not sure at what point I realized she didn’t have a name, but I kept thinking maybe I just missed it and it was driving me crazy not being able to remember what it was. But no, I’m not crazy, she does not have a name. Zadie Smith why doesn’t she have a name?!?! I feel like there’s some deep reason why she remains nameless throughout, but I do not know it and I want to know why! I wonder if it’s because her life was never really about her. The first half of her life was about Tracee and the second part of her life was about Aimee. Even when she moves on from both of these women, she is still caught up about Tracee. She seemed to have very little sense of self or character and her life totally revolved around those around her. We learn about her friends, family, and co-workers. but we never really learn that much about her and what makes her tick. She is very much an observer of the world around her and to an extent, an observer of her own life.

It’s an interesting relationship between the narrator and Tracee because I think that both are actually jealous of the other. In the end, neither girl is very successful, but I think the narrator has always been a little jealous of Tracee’s confidence and abilities, while I think Tracee is jealous of the narrator’s stable family life and parental relationships. Tracee is good at manipulating the world around her to get what she wants, and even though she is able to manipulate the narrator to an extent, it never really gets her what she wants. She is still a brown girl who has been abandoned by her father and faces substantial systemic oppression to success.

Like I said, this book includes a lot of social commentary on race and privilege, which was what I really like about it. I’ve worked overseas in international development and seen how disorganized development work can be. Everyone has their own agenda and for some reason people don’t think they need to converse with government agencies when working in poor countries. Everyone has an idea of what’s needed to “save Africa” or “eliminate poverty” and they’re all working to their own ends. Without coordinated efforts, systems break down and can actually be left in worse conditions than in which they started. So I understood a lot of the narrator’s frustrations with Aimee’s work and her development agency. Aimee very much embraced the white saviour narrative and it was f-ing annoying. Although, to be honest, almost everything about Aimee was annoying. She was so blind to her privilege. Tracee was annoying too, but at least she didn’t pretend to be anything but what she was.

Overall I would give this 3.5 stars. I quite liked it, but it was just too long and it lacked enough tension to keep me reading.

The Simple Wild

Rating: 
Author: K.A. Tucker
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

5 Stars?! Are you okay Maria? Are you really going to give a romance novel 5 stars??

This book was so out of my element that I feel like it actually came full circle so that it was exactly in my element. I don’t read very many purely romance novels, but I definitely love a good romance subplot in other genres. However, I was drawn to this book for the setting over the plot. I’ve been obsessed with Alaska ever since I read The Great Alone earlier this year and I couldn’t turn this book down,

I say it’s out of my element because it’s romance. But the setting is right up my alley. I’ve been living in Vancouver for the last five years and I’ve become a little bit obsessed with the great outdoors. I spent almost every weekend this summer either hiking, backpacking, camping, or kayaking, so I love books with isolated settings. Even though I would have had a totally different approach to visiting Alaska than Calla did, I still found this book very relatable.

Calla Fletcher was born in Alaska, but she’s spent her entire life in Toronto. Her mom fell in love with an Alaskan bush pilot, but she couldn’t handle the Alaskan wilderness and moved back to Toronto when Calla was only 2. Her dad, Wren, couldn’t bear to leave his plane company, Alaskan Wild, and over time, Wren and Calla became estranged.

Fast forward 24 years; Calla is 26 and has just been restructured out of her bank job. She loves city life and has been pursuing fashion and lifestyle blogging with her best friend Diana when she receives a call from Alaska that her Dad is sick and this may be her only chance to finally re-connect with him and re-visit the place where she was born. She’s out of a job and her and Diana think the photos would be great for their blog, so she makes the trip up to Bangor, Alaska.

In the beginning, Calla struggles with Alaskan life. She’s used to fast paced city life, being able to get a soy latte where ever she wants, and spending lots of time every day making herself look good for photos. Next to the wild people of Alaska, she seems vapid and vain. I’m a lot different than Calla. I don’t wear very much makeup and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at wearing the same grungy outfit every day if I had to (I certainly would never bring two large suitcases on a one week trip to the wilderness). But even so, she’s very relatable. I understand her desire to look good and take beautiful pictures. She’s in the great unknown and I would definitely be posting pictures all over my instagram if I was her. But she has a hard time adapting to the change of pace in Alaska and struggles with other emotional issues, like re-connecting with her sick father.

The setting of this story was different than I expected. I was expecting the gorgeous mountain and glacier views that I got in The Great Alone, but what we get instead is a dingy little town in the middle of the flat, Alaskan bush. I thought Tucker’s description of the run-down buildings when Calla first drives through town was so great because I could just picture this little town in my head and because it doesn’t have the stunning mountain backdrop that I was anticipating, it was a lot easier to relate with Calla’s initial culture shock. This book ended up being a lot more than just the setting of Bangor, but the community of it. You really get a sense of what it’s like to live in a backwater community in rural Alaska – the way people depend on one another and support each other. It gave the setting depth. And though Calla was slow to appreciate it, she got there in the end.

This was my second romance book in the last month (recently read Colleen Hoover’s, All My Perfects) and what I liked about both books was that they weren’t solely romance novels. I wouldn’t really even call The Simple Wild romance because it has so much else going for it. This book is really about all the different kinds of love in the world. It’s about making peace with your past, being open to new experiences, and making time for the things that really matter to you. Tucker strikes a wonderful balance between Calla’s relationship with her dad, the romance, and all the different kinds of platonic love that are showcased in this book.

So on to the romance! I haven’t even mentioned Jonah yet. It’s obvious from the synopsis where the book is going, but it was a super fun ride. Jonah is Wren Fletcher’s best pilot. He’s a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he has a lot of love for his job and helping the villages scattered around Alaska get the supplies and resources that they need. He will go above and beyond to help someone in need. But this is not the person Calla first meets. Wren sends Jonah to pick Calla up in Anchorage and they get off to a bad start. Jonah has seen girls like Calla before and he doesn’t have any patience for them. He thinks she’s entitled and vapid. But Calla also has little time for Jonah. He’s rude to her from the get go and dismisses her intelligence. It’s the classic couple hates each other, misunderstands each other, and then loves each other dynamic. But it worked.

Calla is many of the things Jonah thinks of her, but she is not dumb and she does care about her dad and his business. In the same way, Jonah was many of the things she thought about him, he was very mean to her and his honesty starts them off on the wrong foot, but he is also a deeply caring individual. I definitely loved Jonah. Any guys who loves the outdoors already has brownie points in my book and I liked that he was honest, even though it was sometimes hurtful. He realized his mistakes and apologizes in his own way, but I think he also had a lot of fun bantering with Calla and kept it up because it was fun for him to set her off kilter. I also loved that he was able to laugh at himself and his joy for life.

I definitely got a kick out of all the pranks they played on one another. I was a little concerned when he stole her make-up bag because make-up is definitely a crutch for some people and has the potential to be pretty traumatizing (plus there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving make-up). But I ultimately decided it was okay because Calla’s prank on Jonah was pretty bold and could easily have crossed the line. She pulled a prank on him that made him more attractive to her and by swiping her make-up from her, he was essentially doing the same thing.

Overall this book makes me yearn for more quality new adult fiction. I am years past lusting over the 17 year olds in YA contemporary and most YA fantasy, but I can’t yet relate to books about parents, their kids, and their failing marriages. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good family drama, but I think the romance in this book appealed to me so much because it’s actually where I’m at in my life. I’ve talked a few times about how literature needs more books about college and university (which I still think it does), but I also think we need more books about mid to late twenties, when people are out of school and starting to figure out their lives, but haven’t yet settled down into the standard family dynamic. I would love some great new adult reads. I’m sure they’re out there already, but they definitely aren’t getting the kind of love and promotion that other types of books get.

Finally, I loved the ending of this book. I love books that hit me with tough choices. Nothing annoys me more in love triangles then when the author makes one of the triangle into a jerk so that we don’t have to feel bad for them getting the axe. There’s no love triangle in this book, but I love stories and decisions that have two equal sides that are both valid. I love when the author doesn’t try to push us toward one ideal or the other or write the story in such a way as to make one choice easier or more obvious. Calla and Jonah are basically re-living her mother and fathers love story. Calla is a city girl, Jonah’s in love with the wild. They know there’s an expiration date on their relationship, but they fall in love anyways. There’s no easy answer to their dilemma. One of them has to be willing to move for the other to make it work and no one wants to be the one to either give up their life, or ask the other to give up their life. I thought the ending happened just a little bit too fast, but I really liked how Tucker approached their conflict.

So overall, I really liked this book. My only problem was that it took me a little while to get into it at the beginning. I’m not really sure why. I wouldn’t change the beginning. Overall it’s a bit of a slow burn type novel, but it reads really fast and once I got invested in the characters, I totally flew through the book!

 

SPOILER: The ending is still left pretty vague, but I really liked Jonah’s compromise. It actually broke my heart to see him in Toronto because it’s obvious he wouldn’t be happy there and that it would never work. But he wasn’t willing to give up and he was still willing to move somewhere where they might both have a chance at being happy. Would moving to anchorage so that Calla could still have a semblance of city life be enough? Maybe not, but I loved that he recognized what wouldn’t work for them and decided to try and find something that would work. With this approach, I feel like there are a lot of places that the two of them could be happy. There are many Canadian centres where Calla and Jonah could make a life and still be on the brink of rural life. It was such a simple approach and I really think it could work for them. Relationships don’t have to always be about sacrifice – they shouldn’t be about sacrifice – but about compromise, and this compromise made me really hopeful for this fictional couple. Plus I think it sends a way better message then having Calli give up her life in Toronto for a guy. Women and girls have been preached that message enough.

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.

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!