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

Mansfield Park

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1814 (read Jan. 2021 on audible)
Narrator: Billie Piper & full cast

Mansfield Park – my final Jane Austen. I left Emma for last in the Audible collection, but as it will be a re-read, I’ve now finished them all!

I was curious what I would think about Mansfield Park. I’ve heard it’s not a favourite and I was determined to like it just as much as the others, but alas, I didn’t. I still think it’s a great book and overall I would give it 3.5 stars, but something about it just wasn’t quite as endearing.

The reason a lot of people dislike MP (I’ve heard) is because of how timid and meek Fanny Price is. I admit, she doesn’t have quite the same draw as characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma, who are very self-assured, but it’s clear she’s intentionally written that way. One thing I appreciate about Austen is that despite having similar themes in all her books, each of her heroines is quite unique and Fanny was really a victim of circumstance.

Of all Austen’s books, this one reminded me the most of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favourite classics. While Fanny eventually finds her place at Mansfield Park, as a child, she is mistreated by every member of the family save Edmond. It wasn’t surprising that she grew to be so quiet and timid, yet I must praise her developing such morality. While everyone else at Mansfield lets their egos and vanity run away with them, Fanny is the sole voice of reason and propriety. Doesn’t sound like quite as much fun, but she becomes a very good reader of people.

I confess I struggled a little bit on this one to read the characters as well as Fanny. I had no idea where the plot was going as Austen is both reliable in her story telling, yet unpredictable. Knowing how it ends now I think I shall have to go back a read it again some day to see if I can’t pick up some more telltales of each of the character’s motivations. Fanny was much more perceptive than me as I found myself forgiving all of Henry’s previous transgressions and becoming quite a fan. Probably it was because I desperately didn’t want the novel to end with 2 cousins getting married, but while I could see through Mary Crawford, Henry had me quite duped.

However I think the main reason I didn’t love MP quite as much is because I didn’t find it as comic as Austen’s other books. To be fair, I had just read Northanger Abbey, which I think is the most comic of the lot, but I found the characters more vexing than funny. Still a sign of a good author, but I found it hard to find anything humorous about characters like Mrs. Norris. Likewise, while characters like Lydia are annoying, I still found her funny, whereas I found Maria extremely shallow and felt bad for thinking that she got her just reward (unfair I know when characters like Henry are just forgiven by society thanks to their wealth and sex). But mostly I was just sad about how Fanny was treated by her relatives.

The one thing I really liked about this book though was Fanny’s resolve not to marry Henry. She was pressured so much by her family and I honestly thought Henry seemed so sincere. I both wanted her to accept him, but also wanted her not to because it would only reinforce the terrible notion that a ‘no’ doesn’t really mean no, only that the individual needs to be better convinced. Women should be respected enough to know their own mind. Fortunately this wasn’t beyond Austen either and this quality in Fanny ended up raising her in everyone’s opinions when it was discovered what a scoundrel Henry really was.

Some of the my personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Sir Thomas having his character redeemed and being good to Fanny
– The realization that while Fanny had a tough time at MP, she did ultimately gain from it and was raised in social class
– Henry deciding to woo Fanny for sport only to fall in love with her
– Fanny’s decidedness in not marrying Henry despite the pressure from every single person at Mansfield
– The love triangles and lack of discretion
– Fanny’s impression of her family when she returns home
– Grown adults acting out a play like children

Northanger Abbey

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1817 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Emma Thompson & Cast

Did I read this entire book in a day? Maybe, but honestly with the pandemic there’s not much else to be doing these days and I had the most wonderful time doing a jigsaw while listening.

I thoroughly loved this! 4.5 stars! I know NA does not have the same depth as her other works, but it was just so much fun to read! Catherine Morland is the spunkiest heroine and I loved watching her grow up and learn how to read people and navigate the world. She’s so hopelessly naïve, but it was endearing. Even though most of Austen’s heroines are young, I felt NA much more a coming-of-age story than any of her other books, and I do love a good coming of age story.

I don’t have as much to say about this one because, as I said, the themes don’t really have the same depth as P&P or S&S, but as far as humour and satire go I think this might be one of Austen’s best books. The way she satirizes gothic novels and literature in general in this book is just hilarious! There’s quite a difference between the first and second halves of the book, but I got a kick out of Catherine’s naïveté in the first half and her dramatization of Northanger Abbey in the second half.

I did find the ending a tiny bit jarring (may be a theme) with Catherine being sent away so unceremoniously, but overall I thought NA was comedic brilliance. It showcases Austen’s witty dialogue and her ability to convey characterization through discussion. Isabella and John are quickly shown to be totally insipid, while Henry showcases his intelligence and wit. That said, I loved the introduction of a female villain in this book!

My personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Catherine thinking the General either murdered his wife or was hiding her in a dungeon
– Catherine having no idea about flirting or subtlety, with every comment going over her head
– Isabella’s incessant chatter and John’s egotistical ramblings
– Catherine finally dumping the Thorpe’s to go walking with the Tilney’s
– Austen’s defense of novels
– Catherine’s disappointment at Northanger Abbey being totally normal
– how Catherine’s imagination runs away with her after hearing Henry’s story
– how Catherine grows and finally learns how to judge the character of those around her