If I Tell You The Truth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jasmin Kaur
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Jan 2021 (read May 2017)

This was an impulse buy at my local bookstore because I saw the author lives in Vancouver and the synopsis sounded so good! I’m so glad I did pick it up because it was excellent! It’s half written in prose, which made for some very dynamic storytelling.

If I Tell You the Truth is about a 19 year old Punjabi girl named Kiran. She grew up in Punjab and is accepted to study at Simon Fraser University. Her parents goal is for her to get an education and then return to marry the son of the neighbour. However, before Kiran flies to Canada, she is raped by her betrothed’s brother and becomes pregnant. She travels to Canada and tries to keep her pregnancy secret as long as possible, but when she decides she doesn’t want to have an abortion, she is forced to tell her family and unfortunately is rejected by them.

She does her best to continue her education as a young mother, but it is difficult and eventually her visa expires, forcing her to take whatever work she can to survive without papers. The narrative eventually transfers from Kiran to her daughter, Sahaara, and we learn more about the struggles their family faces. There are few avenues to citizenship, so they live a small life to avoid attention.

This book is about so many things – rape, teen pregnacy, immigration, #metoo, family, diaspora, healing – just to name a few. The writing is excellent and switches from traditional text to prose throughout the book. I think the first quarter of the book is the most powerful. I was immediately drawn into the story – the trauma Kiran had experienced and her struggles to come to terms with what happened to her and her subsequent choices. It is hard to read about her fear and grief, but I think the author really touches a nerve here and the reality of Kiran’s feelings leap off the page and into your heart. I admired and empathized with her so much throughout the first part of the novel.

After Sahaara is born the narrative switches primarily to Sahaara and follows her as she grows up. I enjoyed this part of the novel as well, even though it takes us in a different direction than the first part of the book. I loved that the story is set in Surrey – it just made it so much more impactful to me as someone who also lives in the lower mainland. Since I’ve lived in Vancouver, it has become a Sanctuary City (since 2018) and I’ve always thought of it as a pretty progressive place. I’ve come to learn since the pandemic started that it is definitely not that diverse safe haven that I thought it was and I think it’s really important to have books about what it’s like to live undocumented in Canada (so many books on this topic are set in America).

So with that in mind, this is definitely a book that I would recommend to anyone and everyone, especially Canadians. That said, I did think the pacing was a little bit off. I felt like the book reached its climax around the 75% mark, and I was curious about what else would happen with so much book remaining. The author goes in a totally new direction for the final quarter. It wasn’t unrelated to the rest of the book – the main plights for the characters are resolved in the first 3 quarters – leaving the rest of the book for them to really heal and take action for others.

This part of the book is also powerful, but I didn’t love it as much as what came before. I think it’s so important to have people that are willing to speak out against injustice, but the plot took such a diversion that I found it a little distracting and almost like I was reading a different book. Don’t get me wrong, I still thought the content was really important, it just felt like the author was maybe trying to address too many things in one book, like it was almost a little too cathartic. Plus I felt it delved away from the ‘show don’t tell’ theme, which was strong for most of the novel.

Overall though, it is a minor criticism. I just thought the first part of the book was a 5 star read, but landed more around 4 stars by the end of the book. It’s still superbly written and I think something like this should be required reading for high school students. Books like this are so much more relevant and important to young people than reading books like Dracula and Catcher in the Rye (a few of my least favs from my high school education). Honestly, as much as I loved some of the classics I read in High School, I become more and more convinced over time that we need to stop forcing them on high school students. I don’t think a lot of students have the maturity at 16 to appreciate them and I fear it does more harm in fostering bad feelings about literature. A total tangent, but I do really wish our education system spent more time on contemporaries like If I Tell You the Truth, The Hate U Give, Punching the Air, Far From the Tree, and The Nowhere Girls. READ IT!

Jane Eyre

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1847 (read Mar. 2021)

This was a re-read for me. I first read Jane Eyre about 10 years ago and I didn’t love it – I think I gave it 3 stars – but I remember expecting to really like it because it’s a lot of people’s favourite classic, and then just not being into it at all.

I’ve had a lot of success with classics lately. I finished reading all of Jane Austen’s books over Christmas and was a huge fan, and I read Wuthering Heights a few years ago and absolutely LOVED it! So I thought it might be time to re-visit Jane Eyre and see if I would finally jump on the bandwagon.

I can’t talk about the book without revealing spoilers, so if you still haven’t read this one – SPOILER ALERT AHEAD.

.

.

.

Reader, I definitely liked this better the second time around. I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book about Jane’s childhood and the definite highlight of the book for me was when Jane makes the decision to leave Mr. Rochester and basically destitute herself on principal (like come on, she could have still left him and taken a bit of money with her, there’s morality and then there’s just insanity). I had forgotten a lot of the plot points of the book, so after re-reading it… I get it. I understand why this is beloved by so many people. Jane really is a true heroine and so far ahead of her time. Despite a very difficult childhood, she grows into a very well adjusted young woman who is both loving and kind. She is quiet and timid, but she is not meek. She has developed a very acute sense of self and ideals of morality. In short, she is very high in character.

Like the many readers that have come before me, I did admire her for her grit. She has finally found what she most desires in the world, love and a home, and she walks away from all of that so as not to diminish herself or live in a way that she feels is not right. She faces more hardships only to again rise from the ashes of her former life to build a new one for herself. It’s really hard to believe this book is from the 1840’s because it really is filled with so many modern ideals and I admire Charlotte Bronte for penning this in her time!

So why I am not as enamoured with this book as everyone else seems to be? It’s definitely a dense book – I listened to it on audio and there are multiple HOUR LONG monologues by some of the characters. I do think it was a good choice to rely heavily on dialogue for these and even though they were long, they did still hold my attention, but like, good riddance on all the philosophical conversations.

Honestly, what I think it comes down to for me is a bit of the ick factor. Like, I know there are women out there in love with Mr. Rochester and I find it so creepy. He’s so large and old and menacing – I just couldn’t move beyond a 40 year old man preying on a 19 year old girl. I know Jane Austen’s books are filled with age gaps too and I love those, so I shouldn’t judge because it was 1847, but the whole power dynamic and Mr. Rochester’s temper were just too much. Then the fact that he tries to wed Jane while already secretly married and the whole F-ed up idea of shutting someone up in the attic for literal years and THEN JUSTIFYING IT. And the reader is actually expected to empathize with Mr. Rochester’s plight when poor Bertha’s been suffering away up there?! So I think it’s a bit ahead of its time in some ways and other ways definitely right in its time period.

Personally I got more of a kick out of the whole ordeal with St. John. I found this escapade a bit more light hearted and loved Jane using sarcasm against his faith near the end of the novel. I did think the book had a good blend of religion and morality. Sometime classics can be a bit heavy on the religion, which to an extent this was, but I liked that even though Jane did believe in God, I felt that she had developed a strong sense of personal morals outside of religion. St. John started to manipulate his religion at the end to get Jane to marry him because he felt it was ordained by God, but Jane very firmly held her own ground and recognized that thinking something might be good for your ministry doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for you.

So how to rate this? I’m on the fence because Jane really is a first rate heroine, but I felt so uncomfortable reading about the romance. It’s funny to me that I adore Wuthering Heights, which honestly has zero likeable characters, yet I struggle with Jane Eyre, which has a truly lovable protagonist. I’m probably at a 3.5 stars, but I will round up to 4 stars because the second read through did allow me to recognize the value in this book and I understand now why it has survived the test of time. I’d just take Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy over Jane and Mr. Rochester every day of the week folks! So in conclusion, a worthy classic, but not my favourite.

Side note, why do so many people hate Wuthering Heights? I think it’s like the pinnacle of classic literature and I love everything about it, but so many people really dislike it. Give those unlikable characters a chance readers and see what you can learn from them! Also, the audiobook I read was narrated by Thandie Newton, who did a GREAT job! But she pronounces St. John like SinJin and it was really confusing for me at first.

The Kindest Lie

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Nancy Johnson
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb 2021 (read Mar. 2021)

The Kindest Lie has been getting a lot of buzz and I was really intrigued when I read the synopsis. Black female engineer, hometown racism, class war – all sounded super interesting – but this book sadly just didn’t deliver. I really wanted to like it, but it was so boring. I felt like the author had a few basic themes that she wanted to cover, but they were so poorly executed and quite frankly, I just didn’t think she was a great writer. I read somewhere she’s a journalist, which I could definitely see, but as a novelist, I think the plot was really lost and the themes just not nuanced enough.

So what’s the book about? 29 year old Ruth Tuttle is witnessing the entrance to a new era when Obama is elected President. Ruth is a successful engineer married to a marketing executive and they’ve just bought their first house together. The natural next step is children, but Ruth harbours a dark secret from her husband that upends their relationship and sends her back to her childhood home with her grandmother in search of answers.

Ruth’s secret is that she was pregnant her senior year. She hid it from her classmates and her grandmother arranged for an adoption. But Ruth’s not sure that she made the right choice and now 11 years later, she’s decided it’s time for answers. But when she returns home, she discovers that the manufacturing plant has shut down and that racial tensions in the town are at a high.

I hate having to give a bad review to a book like this. These are exactly the kind of stories we need more of and the themes that I love to see explored in literature, but nothing about this book worked for me. I really wanted to like Ruth, but nothing about her story made sense to me and I really found myself disliking her. She made herself out to be a victim that was wronged by her grandmother and the choices she made for her. In a way she was right, but she seemed totally content to reap the benefit of those choices for 11 years after. Her grandmother enabled her to go to Yale, get a good education, job, and husband. It was only when her husband starting floating the idea of children and she found herself wanting to be a mom, that she started second guessing the choices she made as a teenager.

I know the whole point of this book is that it’s a commentary on motherhood, but it just enraged me that all of sudden Ruth decided she should be the mother to her child and started trying to find out where her kid ended up and how to upend the adoption. She worries her child didn’t go to a good home and that he wasn’t loved as a mother should love a son. This was too much for me. It’s so freaking selfish to just enter your kid’s like after over a decade without their consent. I know Ruth eventually realizes this too, but I felt like I was supposed to like her character and I only ever felt resentment for her. She tried to blame everything on her grandmother rather than take ownership over the fact that she had actively decided not to be a mother for 11 years. The blame really lay within in my opinion.

While the central theme is about motherhood, there is a sub theme about black identity that I also wish had been better developed. Johnson raises all the right issues, but it was just so basic I didn’t think it added a lot to the story. Like we’re finally at a point in time when society is recognizing how it has mistreated black people for centuries and the violence and injustice that has been enacted against black bodies. I really wanted the author to take it to the next level and really make me think about what that’s like, but I felt she just beat home the same basic points over and over. It’s an age old complaint – but she told me about racial injustice rather than really showing me how that feels to a person of colour. I thought it was an interesting choice to tell part of her story through an 11 year old white boy, and I liked the dimension he added to the narrative, but I really just wanted more depth from all of the characters.

Anyways, this is one of those books that I always have to end with a disclaimer and acknowledge that while I didn’t like it, this book may mean a lot to people of colour. If this book makes you feel seen and understood, then I’m so glad it exists. I really wanted more from it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value and I hope that the audience Johnson intended for this book enjoys it.

The Wild Heavens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Louise Butler
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I rarely buy books without first looking up the ratings and reviews on goodreads or checking out the hype about it. I like to stay on the pulse and read new and upcoming books, but I’ve been trying to stop reading books solely because of the hype and focus more on finding stories that intrigue me and that I think I will really like.

I love exploring local indie bookshops because the owners always have a deep love of reading and spend a lot of time crafting their inventory. I also love them because they’re a great place to find Canadian lit and books by local authors. The Wild Heavens was a purchase from a pop-up bookshop that showed up in my neighbourhood over the holidays and I was immediately drawn to the cover, which is gorgeous, and then the synopsis, which is set in BC.

I loved this book. It is a classic slow burn character driven novel, which is one of my favourite kinds of books, and I adored everything about it. It’s an extremely atmospheric book set in BC’s interior mountains and covers most of Sandy Langley’s life spent living there. Her grandfather settled in a cabin in the woods in the 1920’s and after the death of her mother, Sandy is brought up by her grandfather and becomes close friends with the only other kid in a neighbourhood, a young boy named Luke.

They grow up together exploring the wilderness and eventually become privy to one of Sandy’s grandfather’s greatest secrets – the encounter he had with a large 2 legged creature when he was wondering the mountains in the 1920’s and has spent the rest of his life trying to understand. The creature is known to Sandy as Charlie, but to the rest of us, names like Bigfoot or Sasquatch might sound more familiar.

Did I expect to fall in love with a book about Bigfoot? Definitely not, despite my intrigue at the story, the concept did sound just a little bit weird to me. But like any good book, the story is not always about what we think it will be about and even though Charlie formulates the narrative of the story, ultimately it’s not really about him. Rather it’s a story about growing up and growing old. It’s about the ways that life will challenge us and how our early experiences shape us into the people we become. It’s about finding love and losing it, the people who influence us, and the moments that make up a life – both happy and sad.

It’s a totally different story, but it some ways it reminded me a little of The Great Alone, which I also love. Setting is a critical part of the story and the isolated cabin in the mountains contributes to a deeply atmospheric feel that permeates the whole novel. More than anything, setting formulates these characters and I got completely lost in the romanticism of it. I love the mountains and the forests and the lakes and the snow. Despite not having a Charlie of my own to inspire me, I understood how a sense of place influenced and motivated these characters.

It is a heartbreaking story, but the characters moved me. The plot is subtle and if you’re looking for a fast paced novel, this is not it. But if you’re looking for a reflection of a life lived and a place loved, pick up The Wild Heavens and get lost in the story and setting within.

Emma

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1815 (read Jan. 2021 on audible)
Narrator: Emma Thompson & full cast

Emma was my final book in the Austen Audible collection! It was a re-read, but I knew I would like it better than the last time I read it. You can see my original review here, but I have written a new one to reflect my new opinions.

Emma is really quite the character. At the start of novel I found her hilarious, but I must admit I did find that my opinion of her character regressed the more time I spent with her. She is both a person that sees the best in people, but still wants to maintain the social order. She loves Mrs. Westen and is genuinely thrilled for her happiness. Likewise, she sees only good in Harriet, someone who is in reality much below her in social status. However her determinedness to see the best in Harriet is more indicative of her desire to commend herself than to actually elevate Harriet. What she really seeks is Harriet’s admiration as a friend and mentor. This makes her blind to the reality of Harriet’s situation and causes Harriet a great deal of harm over the course of the novel.

But while she sees nothing but good in characters like Harriet (who admire her), she sees only faults in characters like Jane Fairfax, who in reality she is jealous of. For all her class and wealth, Emma is clever, but she is also undisciplined and unable to appreciate in others what she herself lacks.

This book is very smart, yet I did find the narrative a little repetitive after a while. I said in my first review that I thought the book long and I am still inclined to agree. Where I think this book differs from her other books, is that there is no true villain. There are flawed characters, like Mrs. Elton (and Mr. Elton) and Frank Churchill, but they are only that – flawed. We are suspicious of Frank and from other novels, I’d come to expect a grand deception, so it was refreshing to see only poor judgement rather than outright malintent.

What this book really has going for it though is Mr. Knightly. I think the reason I gravitated to P&P and NA is because they both have well developed male leads. Mr. Knightly is present through the entirety of the novel and offers very sound judgement and advice throughout. Austen takes a bit of a different tact in this book by having characters that discuss Emma outside of her personal narrative. Emma is vain and Mr. Knightly is one of the few people that calls her out on it. I liked that he had a meaningful relationship with Emma, though he was somewhat more of a father figure for most of her life rather than a lover.

I also loved the inclusion of Jane Fairfax in the novel. She’s an excellent character through which to judge Emma because while we’re supposed to dislike her because Emma does, it quickly becomes evident that Emma is unfair and their relationship serves more to highlight Emma’s flaws. Where the novel is disappointing though is in Emma’s treatment of Harriet.

Harriet definitely gets the worst end of the stick. Fortunately Harriet’s prospects are not ultimately damaged by Emma and once they are finally separated, I’d argue that Harriet’s prospects are actually much improved as she is finally free to accept Mr. Martin’s proposal which would easily have made her happy from the start. But Emma’s meddling causes nothing but harm to Harriet and it was disappointing to see Emma avoid the situation by basically ditching Harriet, rather than to admit she’s been a bad friend. While she does admit this to herself, she never admits it to either Harriet or Mr. Knightly. It’s an interesting choice because it doesn’t show a huge amount of growth of Emma’s character.

Overall though, I liked this a lot better on the second read through and think this is one of Austen’s tightest plots.

Some of my personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Emma immediately f*ing up Harriet’s marriage prospects
– Emma refusing to advise Harriet, but still manipulating her, only to be called out on it immediately by Mr. Knightly
– Emma’s dislike of Jane and how evident her jealousy
– Emma’s general obliviousness
– Mr. Knightly’s goodness, especially when he asks Harriet to dance
– Mrs. Elton’s meddling to the annoyance of everyone
– Emma still wanting the best for everyone, even if ill-informed