Great Small Things

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jodi Picoult
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read in May 2019)

Small Great Things has been on my TBR for a while, but I doubt I would have gotten to it if we hadn’t picked it for our May Book Club meeting. I have very mixed feelings on it – my book club meeting tonight may change that, but right now I’m feeling very middle of the road about the book. I didn’t like it, I didn’t dislike it. I’m probably firmly in the 2.5-3 star range.

Small Great Things is about labour & delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson. She’s worked hard her entire life to overcome institutionalized racism and succeed as a black woman. She studied nursing at Yale and has been working in L&D for 20 years. She is well respected and has worked hard to give her son Edison the best start in life. For the most part, Ruth looks beyond race. It’s hard not to acknowledge the microaggressions she deals with on a daily basis, but she is not jaded by them. Until two white supremacists, who have just given birth to their first son, ask for Ruth to be removed from their son’s care due to personal prejudices, and the hospital acquiesces. A series of emergency events leave Ruth in an impossible position and before she knows it, she finds herself at the centre of a criminal investigation, making it harder to pretend that her race doesn’t matter.

Ruth is the protagonist of the story, but we also read from the perspective of Kennedy, Ruth’s white lawyer, and Turk, the white supremacist father. I was a little apprehensive going into this book because I’m never sure what to make of white author writing from the perspective of a black person and the last thing I wanted to read was a white saviour narrative. I’m glad the author included her note at the end, it provided an interesting perspective and I was glad to see her acknowledge her own personal shortcomings and privilege. I had questioned (while reading) whether she was the right person to write this book, which she also acknowledged, and I could appreciate that she decided to take the opportunity to target her white audience and get them thinking about racism.

The book has some interesting themes. I struggled with it at first because it’s an extremely heavy topic and I dreaded every time I would have to return to Turk’s chapter because I just hated reading from his perspective. This book is only 3 years old and it’s incredible how much more relatable (by which I mean, less shocking) Turk’s narrative has likely become since Trump came to power. I think this perspective may have shocked me a little more 3 years ago when neo-nazi’s and white supremacists were still mostly hiding in the shadows, but they’ve since become a lot more mainstream and it was exhausting and disgusting to read from Turk’s point of view, understanding there are people that think just like him in America right now.

My initial thought about Turk and Brit was that they were too much. I was sad to see the author take such a blatantly racist couple and make them the main antagonist. I was initially disappointed because I believe that white people need to read about subtle racism so they can better understand the ways in which they unknowingly perpetuate racism. Swinging too far in one direction makes it easy for people to condemn the racists and hide behind the “I’m not that bad” or “I’m not like them” narrative. But props to the author because it turns out she was trying to make the same point. I was really worried about Kennedy fitting into the white saviour narrative, which I think she still did to an extent, especially with her closing argument, but her character served the bigger purpose of drawing attention to the more subtle forms of racism and the way white people indirectly benefit from it.

So I do think the author did some small great things (see what I did there!) with this book, but it still had some shortcomings. Honestly, I just found the plot a little too basic, although maybe it fit just right for some of Picoult’s audience. I was looking for more from the plot and I wanted to challenge my thinking about race more than this book did. This is a great book if you’re just starting to think about race as a white person and you’ve never really questioned your privilege before. It was evident to me while reading that many of Picoult’s ideas came out of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on unpacking white privilege, which I think it a fantastic starting point, but I was hoping for something more thought-challenging. Personally, I’d recommend picking up Patrisse Khan-Cullors book When They Call You a Terrorist, or one of Phoebe Robinson’s books, Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay or You Can’t Touch My Hair, to better understand what it’s like to be black. (other great memoirs include Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime or Michelle Obama’s, Becoming)

Overall though, I just thought the book was too long. 500 pages is a lot and I do not feel like this plot warranted it. I wasn’t really impressed with the ending and thought some of the items were really overdone. So all of that leaves me firmly unsure of how to rate this. At the end of the day, I do hope this book challenges the perspective of Picoult’s audience, which is likely mostly white women who relate well with characters like Kennedy. I do applaud the author for taking on a topic like this, but given the choice, I would have preferred to spend my time reading a more thoughtful book written by a black author.

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Swing Time

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Zadie Smith
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2016 (read Nov. 2018)

Okay, so despite it taking me literally months to read this book (super rare for me), I actually did really like it. This was my first Zadie Smith book and I can see why people tend to have a love/hate relationship with her. I don’t think this is one of her more well liked books, so I kind of wish I started with a different one, but oh well.

I actually really liked this story and style of writing, it’s just not a book you feel inclined to pick up again once you put it down. It wasn’t that I struggled to read it, there were several times I sat down and read 50 pages or more in one sitting, but whenever I would put it down, I would inevitably decide to start something else and this one always took the back-burner. It’s an interesting story, but at 450 pages, I just think it’s a bit too long for what was actually said.

But let’s get into it. Swing Time is the story of two black girls growing up in London. They both love to dance and have always been somewhat separated from their peers. They have a tumultuous childhood together. Tracee is bold and daring, thinking herself better than those around her, while the narrator struggles to really know who she is. They have a falling out after high school, but despite never really seeing each other again, their lives have a marked impact on each other.

Tracee goes on to become a dancer, while our narrator is hired to work as a personal assistant to a famous singer and dancer named Aimee. The narrator was a huge fan of Aimee’s as a child, but struggles with some of her decisions when becoming her PA. Aimee is very involved in international development and builds and supports a school in Africa, but she is blind to the privileges of her race and appropriates culture on more than one occasion. For Aimee, the world is all about her own indulgence and the narrator struggles with being a black woman in this environment,

There was so much going on in this book, and I can’t pretend like a lot of it wasn’t over my head. I was never really sure where Zadie Smith was going with the story and themes, but she includes some really thoughtful social criticisms in the book. I really enjoyed these thoughts and reading about them from the narrators experience, but they often just seemed disjointed. The whole format of the story is a bit odd. The timeline jumps around a lot, which wasn’t overly confusing, but I think it’s part of what made it a hard book to pick up again. There was never really much tension in the story. You wonder what happened with Tracee, but the story never seems to be working towards anything, so it was hard to have the motivation to pick it up again.

But the most interesting part of this book for me was the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name! I’m not sure at what point I realized she didn’t have a name, but I kept thinking maybe I just missed it and it was driving me crazy not being able to remember what it was. But no, I’m not crazy, she does not have a name. Zadie Smith why doesn’t she have a name?!?! I feel like there’s some deep reason why she remains nameless throughout, but I do not know it and I want to know why! I wonder if it’s because her life was never really about her. The first half of her life was about Tracee and the second part of her life was about Aimee. Even when she moves on from both of these women, she is still caught up about Tracee. She seemed to have very little sense of self or character and her life totally revolved around those around her. We learn about her friends, family, and co-workers. but we never really learn that much about her and what makes her tick. She is very much an observer of the world around her and to an extent, an observer of her own life.

It’s an interesting relationship between the narrator and Tracee because I think that both are actually jealous of the other. In the end, neither girl is very successful, but I think the narrator has always been a little jealous of Tracee’s confidence and abilities, while I think Tracee is jealous of the narrator’s stable family life and parental relationships. Tracee is good at manipulating the world around her to get what she wants, and even though she is able to manipulate the narrator to an extent, it never really gets her what she wants. She is still a brown girl who has been abandoned by her father and faces substantial systemic oppression to success.

Like I said, this book includes a lot of social commentary on race and privilege, which was what I really like about it. I’ve worked overseas in international development and seen how disorganized development work can be. Everyone has their own agenda and for some reason people don’t think they need to converse with government agencies when working in poor countries. Everyone has an idea of what’s needed to “save Africa” or “eliminate poverty” and they’re all working to their own ends. Without coordinated efforts, systems break down and can actually be left in worse conditions than in which they started. So I understood a lot of the narrator’s frustrations with Aimee’s work and her development agency. Aimee very much embraced the white saviour narrative and it was f-ing annoying. Although, to be honest, almost everything about Aimee was annoying. She was so blind to her privilege. Tracee was annoying too, but at least she didn’t pretend to be anything but what she was.

Overall I would give this 3.5 stars. I quite liked it, but it was just too long and it lacked enough tension to keep me reading.

Empire of Storms

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Sep. 2016 (re-read Oct. 2018)
Series: Throne of Glass #5

It’s pub day for Kingdom of Ash! I finished my re-read of Empire of Storms in perfect timing (last night) and I already picked up a copy of Kingdom of Ash this morning! Here’s my review for Empire of Storms and I’ll be posting my review of Tower of Dawn in the next day or two while I read my way through the finale!


This book destroyed me. Even though I’ve already read it and I’ve had that cliffhanger hanging over me for the last two years, it still killed me. I am now dead, thanks Maeve.

In all seriousness though, with the exception of the ending, I barely remembered anything from this book aside from a rough outline of events. I forgot so many of the details that it was almost like reading a brand new book! I feel like this series keeps getting more and more convoluted, but I kind of love it. I don’t know if the way everything has come together was intentional from the beginning, or if Sarah has just somehow been able to make it all work out as she writes each new book, but I really hope it’s the former. I love smart plots. It’s what makes Harry Potter such a beloved classic. Sure, it’s fun and creative and heartbreaking, but it’s also insanely detailed and super clever. Empire of Storms has a crazy large cast of characters, and while I’m not super crazy about each of them, together it makes for smart and well developed story.

I really can’t guess at how Maas is going to resolve all this drama in the final book. I wonder if we’ll get some new character perspectives. In some ways I hope not because it’s hard enough keeping track of the 800 million characters we already have, but I also don’t think I could resist getting Ansel’s internal monologue.

What I loved about this book was that this is the first time we actually get all of the characters together at once (except for Chaol, not really missed TBH). In previous books the characters have all been doing their own thing, which makes for a dynamic story, but not always a fast paced one. Empire of Storms has a slightly slow start (although barely), but once you reach like… 15 or 20% it is literally impossible to put this book down! I think it has to do with our characters finally meeting up with one another. There are less storylines to follow, more badass-ery, and it just makes the whole plot flow a whole lot quicker. Like the entire final 30% of this book is just one huge nail-biter.

I definitely think this is one of the best books in the series. I’m still on the fence for which is better, Empire of Storms or Crown of Midnight, but it’s hard to compare them since they are very different in structure. CoM is more of a traditional fantasy with just 3 viewpoints, whereas EoS is undoubtedly epic fantasy. I love them both. The stakes are so high in this book and we finally get to see the full might of Aelin’s power. I know there are people out there that don’t like Aelin because it’s like she can do no wrong, but I think that in the first 3-4 books (at least), she makes a million mistakes and Queen of Shadows and EoS are the first books where she starts finally pulling her life together. Should she have held her secrets so close to her chest in this book, maybe not, but her whole life has revolved around secrecy up to this point and she does start bringing some of the members of her court into her plans. Not all of them, but hey, it makes for more dramatic reveals!

I have to talk about Lysandra first. I expressed my love for Lysandra in my QoS review and my love for her continues to grow in this book. I would argue that Aelin trusts Lysandra more than anyone, maybe even Rowan. She entrusts Lysandra with so many things in this book and with the greatest task of all at the end of the book. It’s so refreshing to see their female friendship amongst all these possessive male relationships. And I like her (mostly) non-interest in romantic relationships. Lysandra has been taken advantage of by men her entire life and I think it’s very accurate that she would have little interest in pursuing anything with men and I’m really glad Maas didn’t just impulsively hook her up with Aedion, even though that’s obviously where things are headed. Either way, Lysandra is BADASS. I can’t decide what I love more, sea dragon or ghost leopard.

Second, I have to talk about Elide. I did not love Elide in QoS. I didn’t dislike her, she was just kind of boring, but I am totally into her in EoS and think she’s actually one of Maas’ most important characters. Every other character Maas has written has been extremely physically powerful. They all have either magic or insane battlefield skills. I love that Elide has none of those things, yet she is not powerless. Fighting is not the only kind of strength. Lorcan gets Elide out of a lot of her mishaps, but she saves herself several times too and I loved that she was clever and always planning her next move to get herself out of trouble. One of my favourite scenes is early in when she successfully bluffs her way out of the Ilken attack. I was waiting for Lorcan to swoop in and save her and I loved that she got away on her wits alone. She is a bit of a pawn in the story sometimes, especially at the end, but she offers something very different from the rest of the characters. And yes, I totally ship her and Lorcan and LOVED Lorcan’s growth in this book.

Dorian’s storyline is interesting in EoS and I can’t decide if I like it or not. He is very passive for most of this book and to be honest, a lot of the time I kind of forgot he was there. He’s broken and recovering from what happened to him in QoS, so that’s to be expected, and I’m excited for where the story might take him in KoA. I like that Dorian ends up with the keys at the end of EoS because he has always deferred to Aelin in the past and I think it’s finally time for him to be one of the heroes of the story. I couldn’t decide whether I liked his darker side in this book or not though. He is definitely changed as a result of the Valg Prince and has a much darker side, portrayed most often with Manon, which I thought was realistic that he might have been a little corrupted by the valg prince, but I do miss the sweet Dorian from the first few books.

Try as I might though, I just don’t like Aedion. I find it hard to pinpoint what it is I don’t like about him. He’s too arrogant for me and I don’t like the emotional responses he has to things that upset him. He is a total asshole to Gavriel – I mean I can understand why he’d be pissed – but as far as I can tell Gavriel never really knew who he was and is blood-sworn to a psycho, so it’s not like there’s much he ever could have done about it. Plus Aedion does a 180 from QoS in his feelings about Aelin. In QoS, it’s like she could do no wrong, but in EoS he’s totally pissed at her all the time and I don’t like how he always reacts with anger. And then when he freaks out at Lysandra at the end for no one telling him about hers and Aelin’s plans – like you are not entitled to know everything or to everyone’s trust. When Lysandra was like, “I serve Aelin, not you”, I was like, “Yaaas girl, tell him”! He supposedly loves Lysandra and claims that he just wants her to be happy, whether it’s with him, someone else, or no one at all, but I still feel like he feels he’s entitled to her and it just irks me.

Anyways, I wasn’t planning to go through a detailed character portrait of everyone, but it’s hard not to because they are all such interesting people and it’s fun seeing how they’ve grown over the past few books. I won’t get into them all. I don’t think I have a whole lot to say on Rowan. The sex scenes are a little cringe-y, but overall I thought Rowan was toned down a lot in this book from the last and I liked him a lot more. PLEASE FIND AELIN FOR US ROWAN.

I also don’t have a whole lot to say about Manon. She was obviously BALLER in this book and I’m so glad to see her re-united with the thirteen. They are like the ultimate in girl power and I can’t wait to see what havoc they’re going to wreak in KoA.

In conclusion, my wish list for KoA is as follows:
– Rowan please find Aelin ASAP and save us all from the extended torture that has been the last two years. My heart has been trapped in an iron box all this time.
– More Ansel, maybe even an Ansel perspective? Love that fiery redhead!
– Dorian kicking some ass, becoming a hero in his own way and hopefully re-uniting his kingdom under a better banner than his father represented
– Manon and Asterin, I don’t care what they’re doing, I just think this is such a fun pair
– Happy Lysandra. Yes, Aelin made a huge sacrifice for her friends and her kingdom, but so did Lysandra. She is giving up everything and more than anything I just want to see her happy.
– Elide saving the day through some feat of wits, not strength. Also, even though I think Lorcan is a total coward for crawling after Maeve at the end of EoS, I hope these two can work it out because I love them together.
– Some alternative to “the queen that was promised” that doesn’t make us all blubbering messes at the end of this book

That’s all, it’s really a pretty simple wish list Sarah, my bad for not sending it to you earlier, please accommodate in tomorrow’s book release. JK, we all know we’re gonna be dead tomorrow because Sarah J Maas is going to kill us all with this finale.

The Dry

Rating: 
Author: Jane Harper
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub Date: May 2016 (read Jun. 2016)

I’ve been hearing such good things about this book and after reading Kristen Lepionka’s What You Want To See, I was in the mood for another good PI/mystery story. I had no idea “the dry” was referring to the setting (although in hindsight it’s kind of obvious looking at the cover), which is set in rural Australia during the height of a years-long drought. Everything is dry and dying and after a grizzly murder/suicide, tensions in town reach on all time high, threatening to set fire to the brush around them.

Aaron Falk is a cop in Melbourne, but returns to his childhood town when he hears the news that his childhood friend Luke has succumbed to the pressures of trying to keep a farm running at the height of a drought by murdering his wife and son before killing himself. Luke has always been a bit unpredictable and his shocking death raises questions about the death of Aaron and Luke’s friend Ellie 20 years prior. Falk had no alibi for Ellie’s death, but Luke insists the two of the them were out shooting rabbits together. Aaron is never convicted of anything, but the town was never convinced of his innocence and eventually drove him out. In light of Luke’s death, Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Luke was lying to protect Aaron, or lying to protect himself.

The setting of this book is genius. You can feel the immense strain on the town. No money from farming means no money for anything else either and everyone is starting to feel the financial strain. The heat just compounds on the town’s troubles. Even after 20 years, Aaron still isn’t welcome in town, but when the new police chief, Raco, confides that he has some suspicions about how the Haddler’s murder really plays out, Aaron decides to stick around and investigate the crime.

As Falk investigates further into Luke’s life, he raises new questions about what happened to Ellie 20 years ago. I was totally intrigued by both crimes and even though it’s a common troupe, I love stories that simultaneously examine both a past and present crime that appear to be linked. It reminded me a little of In the Woods by Tana French, but with a more satisfying ending.

I didn’t have any theories about how either crime might have been committed, but I loved the ambiguity about Falk’s role in Ellie’s death. We assume he’s innocent, but Harper never really answers that question and leaves us guessing and second guessing to the very end. I had no theories about how either crime had been committed, but I was convinced I knew who might have been involved in one of them and was a little disappointed when the plot seemed to be following that suspicion (funny how you always want to guess what happened, but are disappointed when you’re right). In this case though I was not right and that made the story all the more intriguing! Half of the red herrings in mystery novels are obvious, but I love when another red herring successfully manages to lead you astray.

Overall, I loved the traditional mystery novel aspect of this with the added person vs. nature element. I’m excited that Jane Harper already has a second book published in this series and was thrilled when I read the synopsis and discovered it would be another person vs. nature conflict! Plus it’s hikers vs. the wilderness, which I find totally intriguing as someone who loves to hike!

Can’t wait for book 2!

The Underground Railroad

Rating: .5
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genres: Historical Fiction, Re-imagined History
Pub Date: Aug. 2016 (read Apr. 2018)

This book is breaking my heart…. because I didn’t love it…. I didn’t even really like it.

I picked this for my April Challenge to read 3 award-winning books. This won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction, so I had high hopes that I would enjoy this. It’s definitely a good book, I won’t debate that, but it’s just so unbelievably SLOW! It’s only 300 pages and it took me 2 and a half weeks to read. On average I read a book every 3 days, so this felt like the longest slog ever and I actually had to take a break in the middle to read my book club selection because I wasn’t going to finish this in time.

The Underground Railroad re-imagines the network of people and safehouses that helped black people to escape the south and slavery as an actual underground railroad. It’s an interesting concept, but personally I didn’t really think the railroad had any real impact on this story. Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a young slave in Georgia who after being beaten by her masters, decides to try and escape the cotton plantation where she’s lived her entire life. The plantation has a long and sorry history of slaves escaping the plantation, but they were always caught and returned to the plantation to be killed for trying to escape, except for Cora’s mother Mabel, who abandoned her when she was just a girl and was never re-captured.

Cora begins a journey through many states and is pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher who still can forget about Mabel, the one the got away, and is determined to catch Cora to right his past failings. She travels through several states and is witness to the kindness and hate of the people around her, sometimes catching a glimpse of like as a free-woman, and other times forced back into hiding as she continues towards her ultimate goal of escaping to the North.

This is an interesting story, as difficult as it sometimes was to read (content wise, which is sometimes disturbing). But I couldn’t get past the pace of the book and like I said, I thought the whole idea of the underground railroad fell flat. It serves to move our story around, but I didn’t actually find the concept that engaging. I would have liked to know more about the railroad and how it came to be – it was obviously built by slaves, like everything else in America at that time – but we don’t learn that much about it. I understand that this is part of the mystery, but I kind of wondered what the point was. Cora could have travelled between states hidden in the back of a cart and the story wouldn’t have really been any different.

There’s not very many high points in the story. The format was interesting, with Whitehead separating each chapter by a different state and separating the states with short chapters from the points of view of some of the minor characters. I had no idea what the point of the grave digger chapter was, but some of the other chapters were interesting. I was intrigued by Ridgeway’s character and found his and Cora’s relationship interesting.

Maybe I’m too dense for this book, but I just can’t get on board. I appreciate what Whitehead did with this book, but I’m not convinced it was worthy of all the awards. I wanted to love it, but it was just so slow and boring. It had some faster paced parts where I would finally get into the story, but then the chapter would end and everything would change up and be boring again. The story just had no momentum – a disappointing read.