Once There Were Wolves

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charlotte McConaghy
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

It’s fitting that Once There Were Wolves is my last post of 2021 because (unless I happen to read a really good book in late December) it was my favourite book of the whole year! I read Migrations last year and really liked it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Once There Were Wolves. I wasn’t sure if maybe McConaghy was a one-trick pony, but this book has firmly cemented her as an auto-buy author in my books!

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I read it and I have a feeling it’s going to be my favourite read of 2021. I can definitely see how this book might not be for everyone, and I could see Migrations being the more universally accepted book of the two, but I loved everything about this book and actually preferred it.

Once There Were Wolves is set predominantly in Scotland and is about the expedition 30-year old Inti Flynn is leading to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish Highlands. Wolf territory has been shrinking over time and a (real) project to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 was hugely successful. The prey had been taking over the park and without predators to keep them in check, were over-eating the flora and causing erosion at streams and water sources. The wolves completely changed the landscape of the park, breathing new life into the wilderness and bringing a balance to the ecosystem.

Inti’s childhood was split between Australia and the wilds of British Columbia and she travels to Scotland with her twin sister, with whom she is very close. Unfortunately, she is not welcomed by the farmers in Scotland and receives a cold reception and opposition to her work. Nevertheless, she finds some allies and is determined that her project be a success. But when a villager turns up dead and the townspeople suspect the wolves, Inti makes some questionable choices.

So the plot is pretty straightforward, but like most of my favourite books, this is not a plot driven novel. The key word when talking about this book is atmosphere. Charlotte McConaghy is a talented wordsmith, but part of what makes her novels so compelling is her ability to create a very strong sense of setting and atmosphere. The loneliness and wild of the highlands seeps from every scene and creates this overarching feeling of great loss and sadness. It maybe sounds a bit depressing, but it’s also enthralling. It’s not a fast paced story and yet I was totally invested in Inti’s project and her past.

McConaghy’s characters are broken and damaged people and as she slowly reveals their histories to you, you become more and more invested in their characters. This is not a happy story and it deals with difficult and complex themes like abuse, violence, trauma, and how our childhood and formative years can impact us into adulthood. I feel like McConaghy packs so much punch in so small a novel. There are so many parts I haven’t even touched on yet – Inti’s relationship with the town sheriff, her relationships with her family members, and the fact that Inti has a rare condition called mirror touch, which causes her to literally feel what she sees those around her experiencing.

It’s ambitious for a novel that’s under 300 pages, and yet it all works. McConaghy doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter and she trusts her reader to draw their own conclusions from the story rather than spelling everything out for us. I feel like there were no ideas out of place. To write such beautiful prose, while also delivering on a character driven mystery novel is an impressive feat!

Definitely a trigger warning for rape and domestic violence. But I do feel that McConaghy handles these topics well. I’ve read several rape/harassment scenes this year that really bothered me because I felt that they were included for shock value, whereas I think in this book they are handled with sensitivity and purpose. It is not included to shock us, but rather to invite the audience to reflect on the devastating impact to the victim and how those events influence and shape a person. It is a dark book, but also a hopeful one. Inti is a broken person, but like the wolves, she is willing to try again, to try and heal herself and keep moving forward. The wolves can heal landscapes, but maybe they can also heal people and communities.

5 stars – I can’t wait to read this again soon.

Side note: I can’t help but mention that I find it fascinating that prior to her two literary novels, McConaghy wrote YA fantasy. I have no idea how they compare in terms of writing, plot, or quality, but I do find it a bit annoying that she seems to be trying to distance herself from them and pretend they don’t even exist. Her author blurb on the back of the book literally calls Migrations her “debut novel”. Like I get trying to re-invent yourself, but that’s a straight up lie. What’s wrong with making your debut in the YA fantasy scene? Be proud of all your books and where you started, it just shows your versatility and growth as an author.

The Strangers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Katherena Vermette
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

I read and loved The Break several years ago, so I was really excited to see The Strangers on the long-list for the Giller Prize. I think this was my favourite of the four nominees I read, so I was a little disappointed not to see it make the short-list.

The Strangers focuses on 3 generations of metis women in the Stranger family, featuring 4 perspectives in total. The first two perspectives are from Phoenix and Cedar, sisters and some of the youngest members of the family. Phoenix is in a youth detention centre and Cedar has been bouncing around in foster care before settling in to live with her father’s new family. The other two perspectives are from Elsie, their mother, who suffers from a drug addiction and is continually trying to get clean, and Margaret, their grandmother (Elsie’s mother), who never quite got to live the life she wanted. 

Vermette is a very accomplished writer. She had me hooked from chapter 1, which is so emotional and left me immediately gutted. The first two chapters are about Phoenix and Cedar and these two characters kept me captivated throughout the entirety of the novel. They both have two very different stories and I think the juxtaposition of their two lives is what made this narrative so compelling. Elsie’s storyline was probably my least favourite of the 4 as I found her narrative to be a bit repetitive, but the inclusion of her perspective is so important to the overall themes of the novel. 

I liked Margaret’s storyline as well and found her to be a fascinating character, but it’s the only perspective that’s not told at the same time period as the rest of the characters. We get flashbacks from all characters, but none of Margaret’s story is told in present day, which I found made it feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the novel. Singularly, every single one of these perspectives is powerful, but I found the first 3 to work together as a more cohesive story. Margaret’s felt like it could have been it’s own narrative and while it added further context, it was somewhat separate from the rest, though still impactful.

But really this is a minor complaint. Multi-generational family dramas are my favourite kind of story and this is one that packs a punch. I was sad not to see this make the shortlist for the Giller, but so glad it’s still getting the praise it deserves! Definitely recommend checking this one out. Also, that cover art is gorgeous!! 4.5 stars.

Fight Night

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Miriam Toews
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

My attempt to read a bunch of the Giller Prize longlist has been going so well this year! As a Canadian I always get excited about this list, but I’ve never dedicated so much time to working through the nominees before. I usually get more into Canada Reads in March, but I have to say, reading through the Giller nominees was a much more satisfying experience than I’ve ever had participating in Canada Reads. This just seemed to be a much more quality selection for me and I can say that I really liked everything I read!

In total I read 4 of the 12 nominees on the long list, but Fight Night was the only one I read that made it to the short list. I’ve been aware of Miriam Toews for a long time, but the only book of hers I’ve read is Women Talking, which I absolutely loved. I didn’t like Fight Night as much as that one, but I was so pleasantly surprised with this book! Because Women Talking tackles such a heavy topic, I think I was expecting something a little darker from this book – it was so lovely to read this humourous take on a multi-generational family instead.

Fight Night is told from the point of view of 9 year old Swiv. She has been expelled from school and as a result is living at home full time and being (somewhat) tutored by her grandmother. Her mother is pregnant and her father is missing; to help her process her circumstances and surroundings, her grandmother has her write letters to her unborn sibling “Gord”.

I’ll say upfront that I struggled a bit with Swiv’s voice – not that I found it hard to read or that I didn’t enjoy it – just that I struggled to believe she was actually 9 years old. She read a bit more mature to me and kept picturing her as a 12 year old rather than 9, but otherwise, this was such a sweet and fun book to read.

We get to spend time with Swiv, her mother, and her grandmother and I came to love each of them very dearly. Grandma has an incredible zest for like that immediately endears everyone around her, while her mother struggles with her mental health and missing husband. She loves Swiv fiercely and fights to stay strong for both her and Gord. It is an entirely character driven novel that captures a truly beautiful relationship between 3 generations of women.

I don’t have too much else to say about the novel except that it’s a great read if you’re ever feeling down and the humour is really what carried the book for me. I did think there were some structural weaknesses – one of my favourite parts was when Grandma recounts Swiv’s mother’s history for her while they’re on the plane to California, but I found the timing and delivery to be a bit awkward, like Toews knew what she wanted to include, but couldn’t find a graceful way to do it. Overall I could have done without the trip to California entirely and found it a bit distracting to the greater themes of the novel. I don’t think it’s the strongest of the nominees I read (I really would have liked to see The Strangers make it to the shortlist), but I would definitely still recommend Fight Night. Overall it was a joy to read!

We Are the Brennans

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Tracey Lange
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Sep. 2021)

I was so stoked for this one, but it turned out to be such a disappointment. It’s an easy read, with the flow between chapters being pretty smooth, but I wasn’t really a fan of the writing style. It was pretty simplistic, which is fine, but I feel like this has been marketed as literary fiction and I just didn’t see it.

We Are the Brennans tells the story of the Brennan family and their life in an Irish suburb of New York. I’m sure you guessed it from the cover, but the Brennans are Irish and as such, had a pretty conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing. Everything seemed to be going great until Sunday Brennan up and left 5 years ago and the family started falling on tough times. But now Sunday is back and the entire Brennan Family are forced to face the secrets of their past.

I live for family dramas, but this one just didn’t work for me. Aside from disliking the writing style, I thought the entire plot was predictable and pedestrian. I disliked almost all of the characters, which isn’t usually enough for me to dislike a novel, but I felt like everything in this book was overly dramatized because in reality, the author didn’t have that great a storyline. I feel like she had somewhere she wanted to take this story, but it was so poorly executed. It had a lot of the pitfalls of a debut novel in that Lange had a lot of ideas and no idea how to tie them all together in a meaningful way.

But mostly I think I just disagreed with her central themes. She had a lot of ideas about family and shame and I struggled to agree with any of them. I’ll get into the details in the spoiler section of the review, but by the end of the book I couldn’t help but acknowledge that me and Lange are just not on the same page. I feel like this Irish immigrant space is something that she knows really well, and maybe other Irish immigrants in NY might be able to relate more, but I also grew up on an island full of Irish immigrants and I felt that she really romanticized the Brennans in an unhealthy way. The book is all about family, but I thought every member in this family was toxic. She kind of tries to acknowledge this towards the end of the book (via Vivienne), but then she’s just like “sod it, they may be toxic, but they all love each other, so it’s fine”.

Anyways, it’s hard to really get into it without spoilers, but a lot of this book hinges on the reveal of a big secret about halfway through the book and this is where it all went downhill for me. I thought the secret was so problematic and that the author had so many blind spots about it that I just couldn’t move past it. So for me this book was a big miss. It’s still a somewhat entertaining read, but I wouldn’t recommend it – there are so many better family dramas out there – skip this one.
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Okay, now for the spoilers. There were two parts that killed this book for me – the “secret” reveal and the ending. Let’s start with the secret.

So the big secret is basically that Sunday got drunk one night when her family was in Ireland and the bartender tricked her into coming up to his room with him. He comes on to her, she leaves, and then he pushes her down the stairs and leaves while she bleeds from a miscarriage.

This scene is so traumatic for her that she leaves New York for 5 years because she can’t bear to tell her family. She is obviously traumatized, embarrassed, and ashamed by the incident. We had an interesting discussion about this secret at book club because we thought it was silly that she didn’t feel she could tell anyone about this. She didn’t do anything wrong and her family should really only feel sympathy for her. In the long list of things that could have gone wrong for her as a woman, we felt like maybe this wasn’t the worst case scenario, the trap of “it wasn’t really that bad”.

This is the one part of the book Lange gets right. Any situation that harms a woman physically or mentally is “that bad”. Society has a tendency to create an unfair hierarchy of trauma, which only results in silencing a lot of women. I read a whole anthology about this concept (Not That Bad by Roxane Gay) and I did really like that Lange never belittled the trauma that Sunday felt from this incident.

What I didn’t like was how it all played out. Because the real reason Sunday feels she can’t tell any of her family members is because she thinks they’ll literally go out and kill Billy, which turned out to be a pretty damn justified fear. So she doesn’t tell anyone out of the fear of how they will react. Sure, it plays into her catholic upbringing, but it drove me crazy that she underwent 5 years of self-imposed exile over how someone else might react to her pain. So she not only takes ownership of what happened to her, but she takes on the added responsibility of what her brothers might or might not do in their anger.

Now I know women do this all the time – take on the responsibility of other people’s actions, but I’m f*cking sick of it. Lange could have taken this whole ordeal and written something really meaningful and healing about it, but instead she takes a woman’s pain and uses it for drama. There are several instances of victim blaming where both Sunday and Kale (maybe Denny too?) think that she had too much to drink, indirectly blaming her for Billy’s actions. There’s some exploration of how the ordeal was traumatic for Sunday, but I don’t feel like Lange ever explores that in any depth. Sunday’s assault is simply used as a lazy way in which to create this time and space between her characters and to spurn on the actions of the rest of the book’s male characters. I detest when assault is used solely for drama and the motivations of other characters and try as I might, I just couldn’t look past it throughout the entire second half of the novel. Denny, Mickey, and Kale are all toxic characters and the fact that they “love” Sunday doesn’t excuse them all going out and being violent assholes about it. In fact, it’s so toxic, her fear of it drives her away from them for 5 years.

Which brings me to my second point – the ending. So Kale leaves Vivienne even though he knows the Brennans are all toxic and liars (but their “his” liars, AWWW), and everyone seems to finally be moving forward, acknowledging that as a family they can band together and support one another because that’s what families do. But then we find out Mickey actually murdered Billy (which was also super predictable), and they’re just like, “oh…. but it’s okay, we’ll get through it together like we always do”.

I’m sorry, but what kind of messed up theme is that. What a way to end your book, with a family condoning and shielding a murderer – yeah, that’s exactly the kind of message I want to take with me from this book! If this was a thriller, sure, but it’s not and it doesn’t fit. I feel like Lange just places the Brennans on this pedestal and because of her proximity to the subject matter, she can’t see what kind of bias she brings into this story. Love doesn’t excuse your actions. You show love by showing up for your family members and creating safe spaces for them. If the theme was about surviving these kind of toxic behaviours it would be great, but this book only condones them.

Anyways, there’s other things I didn’t like (namely the treatment of Vivienne), but I feel I’ve ranted enough. Obviously I didn’t like it and I like it even less now that I’ve taken the time to vocalize why I didn’t like it. I’m honestly blown away by how many high reviews this got on goodreads. I feel like I missed something, maybe I did, but I’m still done with this book. Good riddance.

Luster

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Raven Leilani
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2020 (read May 2021 on Audible)

It’s been too long since I read this for me to write a proper review for it, but I do want to write a short one to capture my thoughts.

I saw lots of buzz about Luster and read that it was a bit of a polarizing book. It was compared to Queenie, which is also somewhat of a polarizing book, but I read it several years ago and loved it, so I thought I might enjoy Luster as well. Sadly, I did not. I can see why this is compared to Queenie, but in my opinion it had none of the charm of Queenie.

Both books feature black women trying to find their way in the world while simultaneously combatting racism and micro-aggressions at every turn. Both women pursue (often abusive) sexual relations to avoid their personal trauma, but that is pretty much where the comparisons end. Despite Queenie raging against herself and looking for love in all the wrong places, she still had so much charm and spunk. A lot of people didn’t like the comparison of Queenie to Bridget Jones, but I actually thought it was pretty apt. Queenie struggled with her mental health, but she very much used that wry British humour as a coping mechanism.

Luster is a different beast than Queenie entirely. Queenie was trying to mend her broken heart with bad sex, whereas Edie pursues an entirely inappropriate relationship with an older white married man. Eric has a somewhat open marriage and when things fall apart for Edie, she finds herself living in Eric’s house with his wife and discovering they have an adopted black daughter.

While I did find the exploration of Akila’s character (the daughter) really interesting, a black girl fighting the same racism Edie is used to, but without the acknowledgement or understanding of her parents, this novel made me entirely too uncomfortable. I get that that’s kind of the point of the book, but the casual violence in Edie and Eric’s relationship, and the bizarre relationship with his wife, were just too much for me to handle. I desperately wanted to like it because I generally love books with unlikeable characters, but I had to acknowledge this book wasn’t for me.

I didn’t enjoy the writing and despite some good themes, I wasn’t quite sure what Leilani was trying to say with this book. I acknowledge this book wasn’t written for me though, and that’s okay. But given the choice between the two, read Queenie instead.