Migrations

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charlotte McConaghy
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian
Pub. date: Aug. 2020 (read Sep. 2020 on Audible)

I really liked this book. It was a total impulse buy at a bookstore in Kits when I was out shopping with my sister. I was drawn to the front cover and thought the setting sounded awesome, so I bought it and started reading it the same day.

Migrations is set in a slightly dystopian future where the majority of wildlife has become extremely endangered or extinct. There’s no year, but it’s easy to believe in the possibility of this future as we continue to speed our way towards non-reversible climate change. Our main character is Franny and the story picks up with her in Iceland trying to talk her way onto a fishing vessel heading south. She’s had a troubled past but has always had a close connection to the ocean. She studies Arctic Terns, one of the last remaining birds on planet earth and followers of one of the most extreme migrations. Every year the terns migrate from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica and back again. My husband is an ornithologist and talks about birds all the time, so I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this one.

First off, the writing is excellent. I was flabbergasted when I googled the author and discovered that this is her first foray into literary fiction and that all her previous books have been YA fantasy… quite the departure! The writing is beautiful, but also compelling and I was immediately dragged into the story. The plot and setting are equally wonderful and I was hooked from the first chapter when Franny wildly throws herself into the freezing cold ocean to rescue someone that didn’t need saving.

Franny convinces Captain Ennis Malone to take her on board under the promise that the terns will help lead them to fish. The fishery is still open despite the dwindling fish stocks and Malone is chasing after a legendary catch of fish so that he can finally return home to his family. The story takes us from Iceland to Antarctica, while the sordid details of Franny’s past are slowly revealed to us and we realize she’s not just running towards the terns, but away from her past.

It’s definitely one of the more bizarre plots, but what literary fiction isn’t just a little bit weird? It’s what makes it so compelling. Franny is a deeply damaged individual, but it’s only through traveling back into the past with her that we realize just how deeply she has hurt and been hurt. McConaghy explores the impact of our childhood experiences on who we grow up to be and whether we are doomed to repeat the cycles of our past.

There was just one part of this book I didn’t like, and that was how the author portrayed Newfoundland. That’s right, my beautiful little island was featured in this book! As we start to meet all the crew of Malone’s fishing vessel, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that this small crew of diehard fishermen would include a Newfoundlander. But when the crew are forced to land in St. John’s, I became disappointed at McConaghy’s portrayal of the island.

The crew lands in St. John’s to jeers of protestors wishing death on the fisherman for overfishing the ocean. While I believe Newfoundlanders absolutely understand the importance of not overfishing, fishing is their heritage and they’re known as some of the kindest people in the world, so I couldn’t imagine any future where fishermen would be getting death threats upon landing on shore. Also, the family the crew stayed with lived within driving distance of St. John’s at a bonafide lighthouse with a sandy beach. Like no, Charlotte McConaghy, you have clearly never been to Newfoundland. Like, is this family the Parks Canada manager at Cape Spear? Or are they going on a multi-hour drive to get to one of the like 3 sandy beaches in Newfoundland? I mean maybe we’re supposed to believe Newfoundland has become some kind of tropical paradise due to climate change, but like, come on, it’s called ‘The Rock’ for a reason.

Anyways, I can try to overlook it for the sake of the book, but it did make me question what kind of research the author put into other parts of the book. It was still a compelling 4 star read for me, but not perfect.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cho Nam-Joo
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read Sep. 2020)

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a small book that packs a punch. I think this has only recently been translated to English (although I’m not totally sure), but I’m so glad it was because it’s such an interesting read about the lives of Korean women and how relatable sexism is all over the world.

As the name suggests, this book is a short recount of Kim Jiyoung’s life, from her childhood, school years, early career, and eventually motherhood. At every stage of her life Jiyoung recognizes how she is treated differently. How her brother was prioritized above her as a child, how she was misunderstood in middle school, how hard she had to struggle to find a job and how little her employer valued her compared to her male colleagues when she finally did start working. Then it covers the challenges of becoming a mother and the different expectations that are placed on women and how their desires and dreams are always de-prioritized.

There’s nothing shocking in this book. I was in no way surprised by the way society de-valued women or the hardships Jiyoung was up against. But I think seeing these inequalities and microaggressions spread out over the course of one person’s life really does push home the unfairness of it all. When you take into account each incident on it’s own, it’s easy to dismiss, but seeing the collective impact is really frustrating and exhausting.

It’s also easy to ignore the inequalities of those in other countries. “oh but we live in a developed country, it’s much better here”, but the fact was that even though this book takes place in Korea, everything was just so damn relatable! The mentality of boys will be boys as a child just perpetuates society’s reluctance to ever hold men accountable for their actions. Prioritizing your son’s needs feeds into a culture of valuing and rewarding men’s contributions more than women’s. And preparing only your daughters for parenthood and marriage creates a generation of men that have no domestic skills and leave women to assume all the roles of unpaid labour.

It’s a simple book and a quick read, but a meaningful one. I love what the author did with the ending and thought it was so genius. It’s easy to identify the ways in which society has failed, but how can we possibly change it when there’s so little understanding or desire from men to see any change. It’s a system that has always benefited men, so even though they might empathize with women like Jiyoung, ultimately it makes no difference to them. The system benefits them and therefore there’s no incentive to change it. I think this is one of the greatest challenges feminism faces and no matter where women are from, we can all relate.

The Last Story of Mina Lee

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Aug. 2020)

Special thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with an advance copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for an honest review.

I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee because it sounds like everything I love in a book – a multi-generational family drama about an immigrant family trying to fit in in America. It instantly reminded me of Jean Kwok’s books, which I love, and is quoted as being great for fans of Celeste Ng, whom I also love.

It tells the story of korean mother and daughter, Mina and Margot Lee. Mina moved to America in the late 1980’s to escape the trauma of losing her family in Korea and ends up living in LA, becoming pregnant with Margot. 26 years later Margot is living and working in Seattle and comes home to find her mother has passed away. Margot believes there may be something suspicious in Mina’s death and begins to investigate, discovering along the way that Mina had a lot of secrets. Margot struggles to come to terms with what she learns as she mourns the death of a mother she feels like she never knew.

The story takes place across two timelines. One is the story of Mina’s arrival in America and the first year of her life in LA. The second is modern day Margot trying to find out what happened to her mom. It’s a great family drama about the challenges of bridging two cultures and what drives people to seek a challenging undocumented life in America. It’s about how you never really know the history people are carrying with them and the way in which our secrets can haunt both us and the ones we love.

I thought this was a great debut novel, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped. I felt the author struggled to keep the story moving at times and that the dual timeline wasn’t as well executed as it could have been. I was enthralled with Mina’s story and found it fascinating to learn about what drove her to America and the challenges she faced once arriving. It sheds a lot of light on how undocumented individuals are taken advantage of and can easily become trapped. How employers can abuse and manipulate their workers under the threat of reporting them to ICE. Unfortunately I didn’t find Margot’s story quite as engaging.

I struggled to understand why Margot was so suspicious of her mother’s death, I understand it was her own way of grieving her mother, but I didn’t really love the decision to try and link the present and the past. Mina’s life in the 1980’s was in most ways totally separate from her present day life, and I didn’t like how the author tried to link these two timelines so closely when they were so far removed from one another. The mystery element just didn’t really work for me and I think I would have preferred a more simple family drama about Mina’s life and Margot mourning the loss of someone she thought she knew but discovered she really didn’t. The right elements were all there, I just would have like to see some greater emotional exploration over the mystery.

But overall, it was a solid debut and I would give it 3.5 stars. Despite finding some weaknesses in the plot, I thought the writing was good and I’ll definitely be interested to see what else Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes in the future. I thought it was actually being released today and timed my review as such, but I see now on Goodreads that it actually released a week early, so happy 1 week since publication!

Where the Crawdads Sing

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Delia Owens
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2018 (read Apr. 2020)

Where the Crawdads Sing is another book I wish I’d written a review for back when I actually read it. This book has been on my TBR forever. It’s gotten consistently high reviews and was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2018. I can see that at the time I gave it 4 stars on goodreads, but this sticks out in my memory now as more of a 3 star read. I think this book had a strong sense of setting and I would say that the author did this very well, but as far as a compelling read, I was bored for a lot of the book.

Where the Crawdads Sing is about “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark. Kya had a very sad childhood growing up in the coastal wetlands of North Carolina in the 1960’s. She was the youngest of several children and her mother left when she was only a child. Her father was abusive and so the rest of her siblings quickly cleared out after that and she is eventually left home alone with her father. He is away a lot and eventually stops coming home at all, so Kya is forced to learn to take care of herself. She makes a living fishing along inland rivers of the marsh and becomes an expert at the flora and fauna that can be found in the marsh, a place that was little explored, or valued, at the time.

Kya’s mystique as the “marsh girl” draws the attention and intrigue of some of the local townspeople and when Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya finds herself at the centre of a murder trial. Can Kya overcome the prejudices of the townspeople in 1969? Will she ever find love and happiness? Or is she destined to be forever alone on the marsh.

The book passes back and forth between the present (1969) and the past (from the day her mother left to 1969). She does have interactions with several other characters and becomes successful in her own way, but she always feels a keen sense of loneliness at having no one to share her home on the marsh with. I can see why people like the book, the writing is thoughtful and the plot has all the makings of an enthralling whodunnit, complete with the righteous indignation that comes with watching someone who has been beaten down by life be wrongly accused.

The story felt kind of like 2 separate parts for me. Kya’s history, though SLOW, was compelling. It was interesting to watch how she made a life for herself in the marsh, and like I said, the author does a really good job of capturing the setting. But eventually the story descends into the murder trial, which in many ways felt to me like reading another book. I felt the tone didn’t fit in with everything that came before, and I’m sad to say it, but I just felt like it was a story I’d read many times before. The wrongfully accused individual who can’t overcome the prejudice of their time. Something about it just didn’t work for me. The setting and writing were pretty enough, but mostly I was just bored.

So overall I was left feeling a little bit disappointed with this book. It may be a problem of over-hype and ultimately it just didn’t live up to it. If you loved this book, I’m happy for you and really mean no offense, I guess it just wasn’t for me.

The Dutch House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Apr. 2020)

I read The Dutch House way back in April and I really wish I had reviewed it back when I read it. But it was in the middle of Covid back then and I wasn’t feeling much motivation to do anything, so I let it slide, which is a shame because I really loved this book. I’m going to do my best to review it now, but I apologize if some of the details are now a little foggy.

I read The Dutch House as an audiobook, which was a real treat because it is narrated by Tom Hanks! I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s touted as a family drama that spans 50 years, so I was definitely intrigued. The story is about brother and sister Danny and Maeve – from their childhood right up to their late adulthood. At the center of the story is the Dutch House, an old and extravagant manor that was purchased by their father when they were children. Through a serious of events and misunderstandings, Danny and Maeve find themselves kicked out of the Dutch House, and though it’s decades before they ever cross the threshold again, the house and the fall out from the house still dominates their lives for many years to come.

It’s really a fascinating concept for a story. You don’t think of a house as being a protagonist to a story, but I also read Melina Marchetta’s, The Place on Dalhousie, last year and it’s interesting how much value we’ve learned to place on our childhood homes and how those spaces can influence us far into our adult years. Houses are after all so much more than just buildings, they are homes and the memories and feelings we attach to them are powerful driving forces.

At it’s heart I think this is really a novel about the influence our parents have on us and how powerful family bonds can be. Danny grew up tagging along after his father, Cyril, who was a self made business man who finds wealth in owning and renting real estate. Cyril thought he had finally escaped the cycle of poverty for his family, so it comes as a shock to Danny when he finds himself at the bottom and forced with making his own way in the world. At the same time, Maeve’s childhood is defined by the disappearance of her mother. Her mother never loved the extravagance of the Dutch House and leaves to volunteer in India. Danny and Maeve are always told about their mother’s goodness, but all they can see is the woman who was never there.

Both struggle from abandonment in different ways and the eventual falling out with their stepmother Andrea over the ownership of the Dutch House casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. Maeve is discontented at being cut out of the Dutch House and puts all her effort into helping Danny become as successful as possible, despite how miserable it makes him. Each character’s greed over the Dutch House ultimately consumes their lives, with each thinking that wealth will make them happy, when really it’s only the family that lived in the Dutch House that could do that.

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love and reminds me that I really should read more family dramas. Each character is enormously flawed and nuanced. To the outsider it’s so obvious that Maeve needs to let go of the Dutch House and Danny to start pursuing his own happiness, but each continues down their own path of destruction, completely blinded by their feelings of injustice. Every character is complex, as are their relationships with one another. I suppose some people might find the plot lacking in drive, but these characters and their relationships with one another were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.

Tom Hanks narration is excellent and I think this is one book that time has improved for me. The characters were definitely frustrating at times, but looking back on it, the whole song and dance and obsession over the Dutch House was just so enthralling. Families can pick you up, but they can also let you down, and I loved watching how Danny and Maeve both grew and were stunted by their emancipation from the Dutch House. Would definitely recommend this book!