Damnation Spring

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ash Davidson
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Sep. 2021 on Audible)

The logging of old growth forests is a hot topic in BC these days and with all the big news stories about corporations polluting water supplies, the synopsis of this book really piqued my interest. It had two good narrators, so I decided to pick it up on Audible.

Damnation Spring combines the two issues I’ve summarized above into one big scandal. It’s the 1970’s and Rich and Colleen have lived in Damnation Grove for their entire lives, where Rich works as a tree-topper with a logging company and Colleen as a midwife. They have one son and have desperately been trying for a second, but poor Colleen keeps suffering miscarriages.

Through her work as a midwife, Colleen starts to remark that there have been a lot more complicated births, as well as infant deaths. Word starts to spread that other women have also been having miscarriages and rumours start to circulate that the pesticides the logging company sprays on the forest is potentially getting into the water supply and causing birth defects.

As an employee of the logging company and new owner of a swath of old growth forest that he’s dreamed of logging, Rich stands on one side of the scandal, while Colleen stands on the other. On top of everything, environmentalists and indigenous groups have been flooding the town arguing for the protection of the trees and threatening the way of life of this long time logging town.

To say this book tries to tackle a lot of issues would be an understatement. The problem was that I don’t think the author really did justice to any of them. This was actually the perfect setting for a story of such depth because so many of these issues are often related. I did really like the inclusion of the local First Nations band, who argued for the protection of the trees and waterways despite the terrible racism and abuse they suffered. I thought the idea of blending all of these issues into one was really smart and multi-faceted, it just wasn’t executed quite as well as I would have liked.

My primary criticism would actually be that this book was too long, although that’s not quite right, it’s not so much that it’s too long, but that the author didn’t really focus on the right aspects of the story. Now this is just my opinion, but the author spent a lot of time talking about logging that I just didn’t care to read. There is so much time dedicated to the logging company, the company drama, and waxing on and off about logging techniques. I just didn’t really care about any of it. I totally got and appreciated that this was a logging town and that it was the community members entire livelihood. Despite popular opinion that we shouldn’t be logging old growth forests (agree), I could still empathize with the community. I 100% bought into Rich’s dream of wanting to log the 24/7 tree, I understood why and yes, I felt bad for him. But this was the smaller part of why I wanted to read this book.

Sadly I felt Davidson just didn’t spend enough time on the whole ‘poisoning-the-water-supply’ angle. I felt like most of the book was an expose about uncovering the water pollution, versus a fight to stop it. This is covered to a certain degree, those who stood up against the spraying were definitely ostracized, but generally I found the conclusion of this plot point to be unsatisfying. It almost felt like the resolution of the two issues were tangential to one another. By which I mean, the pesticides issue was only solved because of the duplicity of the logging company selling out to the Park, negating the need for spraying. It made me question what was even the point of me reading this entire story when at the end of the day, it was still the logging company ultimately calling the shots. . It just made me feel like this was a book about logging, with all the other conflicts thrown in just for the drama of it, rather than the reverse. Likewise, I thought it should have ended earlier and felt there was some unnecessary drama thrown in at the end that didn’t really add to the story.

I did still enjoy the book, but honestly, I think I’d rather just go read some non-fiction about it instead, because we know there’s enough drama surrounding these topics that there’s no need to have to make it up.

Malibu Rising

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2021 (read Aug. 2021 on Audible)

Malibu Rising was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, but sadly it was a major letdown. Taylor Jenkins Reid had such success with Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones (both of which I loved), so I had very high expectations for this book and sadly it didn’t live up to them. Reid reminds me a bit of Kristin Hannah in that she published a ton of mediocre books before her big break (Evelyn Hugo for Reid, Nightingale for Hannah), followed it up with another smash hit (Daisy Jones and Great Alone), only to regress on the next book (Malibu Rising and Four Winds). Both are accomplished writers, I just think the question becomes whether you’re creative enough to find something else meaningful to write about. Evelyn Hugo had so much great social commentary and Daisy Jones’ format was incredibly unique, but sadly, Malibu Rising had all the trappings of a story that just didn’t need to be told.

Malibu Rising is about the Riva family. Mick Riva rises to fame as a rock artist after marrying June and fathering 4 children. The novel covers their family history before delving into the lives of each of the 4 Riva children, bringing all their family drama to a head at the annual all-night Riva party in Malibu. This had similar vibes to Daisy Jones with the whole rock n roll scene, and the structure and focus on a fire reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an all encompassing family drama with a large cast of narrators.

So here’s the thing. This wasn’t a bad book – it did remind me a little bit more of Reid’s earlier work, but it’s still fairly well written. It has a bit of a slow start, but the pace does pick up as the novel progresses and I was honestly just as invested in the past as the present day narrative. So what was the problem with this book? My main issue was that I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters and I struggled to understand why I should give a sh*t about any of them. Reid explores several different themes here, but I can’t say I found any of them particularly compelling.

I feel like she was going after something similar to Daisy Jones with the intrigue of the rich and famous (a theme in all her recent bestsellers), but it really didn’t work for me in this book. Like I mentioned, Evelyn Hugo had a lot to say about Hollywood, race, and sexuality, while Daisy Jones had a unique format and a lot to say about gender politics and privilege. But with Malibu Rising I was left scratching my head about why I should really care about this privileged white family? Sure it’s a character study (of many different characters), but a weak one. I didn’t think there was anything really special about these characters and I struggled to relate with them.

I do think one of the problems is that Reid introduces just a few too many characters. I could handle the 4 Riva siblings and June (honestly would have liked Mick to feature more), but for some reason Reid keeps introducing more character perspectives for very limited periods of time. Like, how many random characters did she start adding during the party? I couldn’t keep track of them and they played such small and insignificant roles in the plot that I questioned why bother including them at all? It’s fine to have a large cast of characters, but I don’t need to read from their perspective. It made me question if she was just trying to reach a page count and threw all these other characters in just to add some length.

The same went for Casey and the fire at the end of the book. The fire is alluded to from the beginning of the book, but we don’t actually get into it until the final hour. Very similar to Little Fires Everywhere, but at least in Little Fires Everywhere I felt like it added something to the story, whereas in Malibu Rising I felt that it added nothing to the actual plot and was just used as lazy device for symbolism. Likewise, I thought Casey’s storyline ultimately didn’t really add anything to the plot.

So overall, a very disappointing read for me. I’m between 2 and 3 stars, 2 because it was not a very compelling book, but 3 because it’s still pretty well written. So I guess I’ll end at 2.5 stars. Not a great read, but I still wouldn’t be deterred from reading her next book.

The Lost Apothecary

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah Penner
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing. 

The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men. 

At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.

The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.

There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.

I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.

So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.    

Swimming Back to Trout River

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Linda Rui Feng
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read May 2021)

I haven’t been seeing that much buzz about this book, so I have no idea how it got on my radar, but I found the name super compelling. Then when I read the plot and saw it was blurbed by Jean Kwok, I was super interested in reading it. 

What an understated book. It’s a simple plot with simple storytelling, but I really enjoyed it. I really like Linda Rui Feng’s style of writing and thought it was really lyrical storytelling about a family that becomes separated by time and circumstance. From the synopsis, this is the story of two parents who immigrate to America and leave their daughter with their parents in law, promising to come back for her on her 12th birthday. But the daughter, Junie, loves her life in Trout River and doesn’t know that her parents have become estranged in their new country.

The story delivered on this plot, but it’s really only a small part of what this book covers. I expected the book to mostly be about Junie, but it’s actually primarily about her parents and their connections to music. It’s not so much a multi generational story as a story of her parents growing up, their journey together, and then their journey apart. Her father, Momo, grows up in Trout River and is one of the first people to succeed and get out of the village, leaving to get a university education. There he meets Dawn, a budding violinist who teaches him to play ahead of China’s cultural revolution. Finally, he eventually meets his wife, Cassia, a nurse who has experienced her own loss through the revolution. 

Like I said, it’s an understated novel about growing up and subtly addresses the impact the cultural revolution had on many of its citizens, without being a heavy novel solely about the revolution. It’s about family, the ones we make and the ones we choose, and who we might be if events in our lives had gone differently. It’s not a long book and made for a really enjoyable read. 

The only part I didn’t really like was the ending. I found it very abrupt and would have preferred to spend a bit more time getting to know Junie rather than just her parents. That said, I loved Dawn’s character and even though she wasn’t a part of the main family, she was my favourite part of the book! Check it out if you’re looking for something a little different.

Brooklyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colm Toibin
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2009 (read Apr. 2021)

I have so many thoughts on this book. I’m not a big movie goer, but I saw Brooklyn in theatres when it came out at the recommendation of a friend and fell in love with the movie. I didn’t even realize it was a book until several years later – but it didn’t have the best reviews on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a pass. About a month ago I stumbled across a copy in a second hand bookstore and decided to revisit the story and give the book a try.

The movie stays very close to the book, so it’s hard to separate one from the other. As reviews suggest, the writing is good, but not great. The author has a very ‘matter of fact’ way of telling the story that can seem a little bland next to some other books. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would – Toibin is still a good writer, it’s just not the kind of moving writing that you give 5 stars too. Even so, I found the story just as compelling as the movie and flew through it in just 2 days.

In some ways I preferred the book and enjoyed getting Eilis’ internal monologue, but in other ways I thought the movie was stronger. Eilis has an indifference to Tony in the book that doesn’t quite sell this as a love story as strongly as the movie does. The most notable difference for me was the last part of the book when Eilis returns to Ireland. The first three quarters of the movie follow the book almost verbatim, but the story diverges slightly in the last quarter. The ending of the book is almost jarring in its suddenness, but that may be because I was expecting it to continue based on the movie. 

But before I get into the spoiler part of the review, I just want to talk about why I love this story. It may not be 5 star writing, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a 5 star story. Brooklyn is set following WWII, we’re not told the exact year, but based on the setting, others have dated it to the early 1950’s. Eilis grew up in a small town outside Dublin and has spent her whole life in Ireland. She studies book keeping, but as a young adult, she struggles to find meaningful work. Her sister, Rose, makes contact with an Irish priest in New York who offers to sponsor Eilis to America. He arranges her papers and finds her work in a department store and accommodations in a boarding house.

Eilis is overwhelmed with the pace at which the decision is made for her to go to New York and feels she has no other choice. She’s not looking forward to leaving Rose and her mother, but she acknowledges there’s very little for her in Ireland. So she boards a boat to America and settles in an Irish community in Brooklyn. It’s very difficult for her at first and she becomes homesick, but eventually she settles in and starts to build a life for herself. She attends Brooklyn College for book keeping and meets an Italian named Tony who starts to make her feel at home.

I love this story because it is such an accurate portrayal of how it feels to leave home and make your life elsewhere. Even though the story is set in the 1950’s, its a story so many can relate to. I grew up in a small city that has also been heavily influenced by Irish culture and while I wasn’t personally forced to leave to find work, many of my family members and to an extent, my husband, were forced to seek opportunity elsewhere. While my motivation for leaving was different from Eilis, I could relate with so much of what she went through. Toibin captures so well the heartbreak of leaving your home behind and the challenge of feeling you can longer share a part of yourself with anyone. Eilis goes through many struggles, but she doesn’t want to burden her mother and sister with her pain, so she keeps it to herself. She feels she has no one that she can share her true self with until she meets Tony.

I don’t want to go too much further and potentially spoil the story for someone, so I’ll just say that I think this a story anyone can enjoy and would highly recommend to anyone who has left one home behind for another. It’s definitely a white immigration story – the struggles Eilis faces are almost laughable to what today’s immigrants experience, so definitely read those immigration stories too.

But now let’s get into more of the SPOILER part of the review.
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Like I said above, the book doesn’t sell this as a love story quite as strongly as the movie does. That’s fine because I think the love story is secondary to Eilis’ personal experience, but it is a little disappointing to read. Eilis is lukewarm to Tony throughout most of the book, but slowly grows to love him. I definitely love Tony, but he is somewhat problematic and I wasn’t totally sold on how Toibin portrays Eilis’ feelings towards Tony. Eilis really did need Tony – she needed someone to share herself with. She keeps to herself a lot and struggles to fit in with the women she boards with, so when she connects with Tony, he is very much a lifeline to her. She’s reluctant in love, but I think it’s more a part of her character than her feelings about Tony. It just takes her a while to really warm up to him. Overall I was impressed with how Toibin communicates Eilis’ story, but there were definitely a few instances where Eilis’ internal thoughts didn’t jive with me. It was only a handful of times, but I did find myself thinking, “this is a man writing how HE thinks a young woman would think, rather than how I think Eilis would actually think” (if that makes sense).

Tony pressures Eilis into marrying him because he’s afraid she won’t come back from Ireland otherwise. It’s definitely a legitimate fear, but sad for both of them that they don’t trust their love enough to really test it. More disappointing of course is Eilis’ relationship with Jim when she returns to Ireland. This relationship is absolutely essential to the story, but Eilis’ indifference to Tony in the book as compared to the movie was a little upsetting to me. I didn’t remember her actually kissing Jim in the movie (or at least not more than once), whereas in the book she pretty much has a full on relationship with him and reflects that she regrets marrying Tony. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love how this dilemma is presented to Eilis. Suddenly everything she ever wanted is available to her in Ireland. She reflects on why life couldn’t have been like this for her 2 years ago before she was forced to go to America, but she also has to acknowledge that America helped her to grow in so many ways and is largely responsible for the success she’s now able to have in Ireland. But in my opinion the movie better presents the dilemma in having to choose between these two lives. Because in the book Eilis openly regrets her marriage to Tony, it’s a little disappointing to then see her return to that life anyways. With both the book and the movie ultimately having the same ending, I definitely prefer the movie. One of my favourite scenes from the movie is when Eilis boards the boat back to America and mentors the new Irish girl about her lived experience. It’s so moving and more cathartic than how Toibin opts to end the book. Maybe the book is more accurate in the heartbreak of her decision, but the movie definitely provides the catharsis.

I did still like Eilis’ reflections on her life in Brooklyn in the book though. She describes how it seems like a hazy dream to her now that’s returned to Ireland. I thought it was so accurate how when surrounded by people you used to know, the experiences you lived without them almost seem to disappear. Her mother and friends thought she was glamorous upon her return, but they had little interest in what actually happened to her in Brooklyn. This is accurate to my own experiences.

I’ve been away from home for a lot longer than Eilis, but aside from my parents, I generally find my friends don’t have a whole lot of interest in my life in BC. It’s not that they don’t care, I think it’s just that it’s no longer a shared experience between us, so it’s easier for them to talk about their own lives because those lives exist in a setting we can at least both relate to. It’s also a struggle because despite how much you grow, you often remain in stasis for those friends (as they do for you as well). Because of the distance it’s hard for you to grow together now and so you become stuck as former versions of yourself.

As much as I love the movie ending over the book ending. I did love the last thought that Eilis has on her way back to America. How the fact that “she has gone back to Brooklyn” is something that Jim will be upset about for awhile, but how over time it will become something that means less and less to him, while it will become everything to her. The movie ends with the line “and you realize, that this is where your life is”, which is also accurate. Despite the heartbreak of repeatedly saying goodbye to your friends and family every time you see them, the truth is that you have built a life somewhere else, and that’s okay.