Verity

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colleen Hoover
Genres: Thriller, Mystery, Romance
Pub. date: Dec. 2018 (read Nov. 2019)

Every year I see the new Colleen Hoover book and say, “nah, I don’t think I’m gonna read her new book this year.” Then every year she gets nominated in the Goodreads Choice Awards and I decide to read it anyways.

I heard all kinds of reviews about how f-ed up this book is, which are all totally true. Verity is filled with plot twists, suspense, and a really creepy atmosphere, but the biggest question the book leaves me with is this: who the hell classed this book as a romance?!!!

Hoover is known for her romances, which to be honest I don’t really love, but in the last few years she’s been branching out from her normal material in favour of some more thought provoking storylines and social commentary. But romance has still always been central to her stories, so I was surprised when I started reading this one and found myself smack dab in the middle of a mystery thriller! I like a good mystery thriller, but I find them a bit repetitive after a while. Not Verity though – it gripped me from the very start and held my attention to the last page. Hoover still weaves some romance into the story (which I wasn’t that big a fan of), but I was able to move past it because the rest of the writing was great!

I’ve said this before, but Hoover is one of the best first chapter writers I’ve ever encountered. Starting a new book often feels like a bit of a chore because it takes a while to sink into the writing and the narrative, but once I made the decision to read Verity, I was really excited because I knew Hoover would deliver on a compelling beginning. But it wasn’t just the first chapter that was gripping. I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours and pretty much never put it down except to go to work. Say what you want about her romances, but Hoover is a compelling writer.

So what is Verity about might you ask? I skipped reading the synopsis on this one and honestly, I’d advise you to do the same. If you want a mind-bendy, slightly disturbing book with a killer twist, read no further and pick it up. If you need a bit more to go on, Verity is about ghost writer Lowen Ashleigh. She’s asked to author the 3 remaining books in an immensely popular thriller series because the original author, Verity Crawford, is no longer able to do so. To search for material on the rest of the series, she visits the author’s house to go through her office and strikes up a friendship with Verity’s husband, Jeremy. While there, she discovers a disturbing manuscript that makes her question everything she’s been told about Verity.

The setting reminded me a little of Ruth Ware’s, The Turn of the Key, while the plot and storytelling reminded me a lot of Alice Feeney’s, Sometimes I Lie. Lowen discovers a number of disturbing revelations about Verity’s past as creepy things start happening in the house that make her question her sanity. There’s a few random plot lines that don’t really seem to go anywhere, but they still add to the overall atmosphere of the book.

I’ve also said before that I’m not a big fan of the men Hoover writes as the love interests. This was the first Hoover book I read that focused less on the romance than the other aspects of the story though, so it was a welcome change. Emily May sums of my feelings about Hoover’s love interests well in her review where she notes, “I think I enjoy Hoover’s fucked-up books so much because I usually find her regular romances kinda fucked up. I like her books so much more when she’s writing about trauma and morally-questionable characters than when she’s trying to sell me a douche as a love interest.” Which brings me back to my original question – who decided to market this book as a romance? Everything about this book is “mystery/thriller” and someone needs to get this out of the romance genre so that more people pick it up.

Anyways, to sum it up, I really enjoyed it. The themes don’t have the same significance as some of her previous work, but it was still really fun to read and gripped me the entire time I was reading it.

Educated

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tara Westover
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

Educated was our book club pick for November and I really wanted to listen to it on audiobook, but it took me forever to finish my previous audiobook (The Amber Spyglass), so I was a bit late in starting it and had to really rush through it.

Fortunately it had a good narrator and it was a compelling story, so it wasn’t too hard to listen to and push through. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book since it came out, but I’m not a big non-fiction reader and it sounded a lot like The Glass Castle to me, so I never bothered to pick it up. I was excited to finally read it, but I do have to say that after finishing it, despite some differences, it did still remind me a lot of The Glass Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Glass Castle and I really liked Educated, but it was really hard not to compare the two and at times I definitely got some serious deju-vu from Westover’s story. While Tara Westover and Jeannette Walls did have different stories, there were still a lot of similarities. They both grew up in families with fathers suffering from mental health issues who are very much paranoid about the government and as a result, decide to mostly live off the grid – taking advantage of their families by keeping them isolated and somewhat in the dark to what the outside world is really like.

However, Mormonism plays a very large role in Westover’s story and was one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me. I haven’t had much exposure to the Mormon religion and it was really interesting to learn about Mormon beliefs, how they were interpreted by Tara’s father, and how those beliefs oppressed and impacted Tara throughout her childhood, formative years, and even into adulthood.

Despite the title, Westover’s story was about so much more than just education. In retrospect, her education was probably the part that interested me the least. I like how she examines at the end of the book the role her education played in opening up her eyes and allowing her to escape the cycle of violence in her family, but overall I don’t think most people read this book to learn about her education.

That said, how Tara managed to get into college and obtain a PhD from Cambridge with no formal childhood education is still a mystery to me and something that seemed to be glossed over in the book. I really struggled to believe she would be so successful with so little support (emotional and financial) and I did wonder if we were really getting the full story at times. She says she was bad at math and that she really only ever read the book of Mormon, so its a bit mystifying to me how she managed to get through multiple degrees, much less excel at them. But obviously their family life taught the children something because 3 of the 7 Westover’s went on to earn doctorates.

So while I did like this book and Westover’s writing, I was neither shocked by the content, nor totally convinced of the story. What I do admire though, is that Westover actually wrote and published this account of her family. The entire book really is about her struggle to both emancipate herself from her family, but still be loved and accepted by them. She sacrifices a lot in order to gain an education and even though she recognizes the harmful and destructive tendencies of her family members, she still yearns to be one of them.

It was really interesting to read about the long term impacts that Mormonism had on her life and how long it took her to recognize the ways in which she has been oppressed and ignorant. I say her book is admirable because the very act of committing to paper this story of her family and then sharing it with the world pretty much guarantees her continued exile from her family. The ending is very nebulous because her story really is not over yet and her family story is still unresolved. But I admire her for recognizing the harmful parts of her family’s behaviour and deciding to expose them when her family refused to listen to her or to change. Her father has obvious issues, but her recount of her brother Shawn was much more chilling. Good for her for finally saying, enough is enough, if you won’t change, I will expose you.

I still gave it 4 stars, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as the rest of the world seems to be. It’s well written and thought provoking and it works well as a memoir, I just found it a bit of a challenge to suspend my disbelief when it actually came to her education. That said, Tara was gaslighted by her family for years and as a result her memories have been tampered with and are likely unreliable. But I guess it just makes her story all the more inspirational and like I said, at its heart, I don’t really think this was a book about education. Still a 4 star read for me despite some of these criticisms.

Lord of the Butterflies

Rating: ⭐
Author: Andrea Gibson
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Nov. 2019)

Poetry can be a bit tricky to review sometimes, so more often than not I don’t write a full review for it. But I was so impressed with Andrea Gibson’s anthology, Lord of the Butterflies, that I have to make an attempt at a review.

Poetry is definitely not for everyone and it’s something I’ve only recently started reading. I’d read the occasional novel written in prose and started easing into poetry a few years ago with Rupi Kaur’s anthologies, which are pretty easy reading if you’re new to poetry (which I am). Then I discovered Robert Service when I read The Great Alone last year and I am totally obsessed with his style of poetry. I’m still working my way through a few of Service’s anthologies, but I haven’t been able to find any other works of similar style or subject, so if anyone knows of any poetry that centres around a love and reverence for the outdoors, please let me know!

Anyways, Gibson’s poetry is a whole different kind of beast than Robert Service of course, but equally as enjoyable (for me) in a whole different way. I dabbled in some other poetry this year, reading Danez Smith’s, Don’t Call us Dead, and Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but to be honest, both were a bit over my head. I really liked Gibson’s poetry because it had an incredible amount of depth, but wasn’t filled with so many metaphors that it was a slog to wade through.

Gibson’s poems focus on our sorts of topics, from gender and sexuality, to mental health and depression, to politics and reform. They’re not afraid to be honest and vulnerable and even though me and Andrea are so different, their poetry was so relatable. Apparently Gibson is a pretty well known poet in the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond and they won the very first World Slam Poetry competition in 2008. They have published 4 anthologies as well as a ton of spoken word albums, all of which I am definitely planning to check out. I went through a brief obsession with slam poetry last year after I heard Zariya Allen’s “Somewhere in America” poem, but I didn’t really know where to look for more slam poetry, so I’m thrilled to have discovered Gibson.

It’s hard to pinpoint specific poems that stood out from this anthology because they are all fantastic, but a few memorable ones for me were Orlando, which is about the club shooting in Florida, Black and White Angel, which is about Gibson’s sister awaiting trial in jail for petty crimes she committed while suffering from substance addiction, and America Reloading, which is about America’s lack of gun control and its impact. But what’s make’s all of these poems so powerful is Gibson’s vulnerability and their courage in holding nothing back. They’re not afraid to go to some very dark places, but are so perceptive of how closely entwined everything is in our society and how the system continues to oppress and work against those who do not fit the status quo.

If you’re looking to dabble in poetry and are at all interested in gender politics, I would definitely recommend this anthology!

Lands of Lost Borders

Rating:
Author: Kate Harris
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Travel, Canadian
Pub. date: Jan. 2018 (read Aug. 2019)

This was a really excellent book! It wasn’t really at all what I was expecting, but Kate Harris is a wonderful writer and I ended up really liking it.

Lands of Lost Borders primarily tells the story of Kate’s almost year long bike ride across Central Asia on the “Silk Road” an ancient trade route used by Marco Polo. But Kate also shares a little of her childhood and formative university years with us as well, which surprisingly ended up being some of my favourite chapters of the whole book.

I’m not sure what I was expecting Kate’s character to be like, but so many of these travel-type memoirs are from hippie types, teens on a gap year, or people wealthy enough to be able to go on extended vacations. I don’t want to say Kate’s not a hippie, but I didn’t really think she fell into any of those categories.

Kate is a Rhodes scholar and MIT graduate whose livelong obsession with Mars drove her to become a modern day explorer. She’s incredibly smart and accomplished, but she isn’t driven by fame, money, or accolades. She’s driven by a desire to get out into the unknown and explore. She’s a wonderful writer and she had a good blend of interesting facts, philosophical thoughts, and funny anecdotes. Although I did think the story started out stronger and declined a little bit when she starts writing about the silk road. She does get a bit bogged down sometimes in the historical and scientific facts, when I would have loved a few more stories and anecdotes from her time on the silk road and what it was like day-to-day.

After finishing the book I went to Kate’s website to learn a bit more about her and discovered that she has a ton of albums from the trip on the website. I would say that photos are the one thing missing from this memoir and I wish I’d discovered them earlier because it would have been lovely to look at each country album as I progressed through the book. So if you decide to read this one, I’d recommend following along with the photos on her website.

Overall though, this was a really strong debut novel and I would definitely be interested in reading more about Kate’s adventures. This was definitely a part of the world I haven’t read very much about and I think most travellers tend to pass over the “stans” in favour of other countries like India, Thailand, and Vietnam.

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Rating:
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Aug. 2019 on Audible)

Woo, this was a fun little novella! It was a mistake to buy this on Audible because I listened to it way too fast! Seriously, I flew through it in like 3 days. Great narrator though!

I’ve seen this book popping up in a few places, but I wasn’t sure if the premise was exactly as the name suggestions… it is. My Sister, the Serial Killer is set in Nigeria and is told from the point of view of Korede, a young nurse whose sister has a suspicious tendency to be forced to kill her boyfriends. Ayoola always has a reason, either he attacked her, or tried to rape her, or he just happened to be poisoned while they were out to dinner together. But she consistently looks to her straight laced sister to help her clean up the mess.

Korede is torn between her obligations and loyalty to her family, and her fear for the men of Lagos. Either way, she decides to keep quiet. But when Ayoola starts getting close with one of the doctor’s at her hospital, she can’t deny she is torn about what to do.

Despite the gruesome nature of the plotline, this was a fun little book. Honestly, I found Korede’s dilemma highly entertaining. The author infuses a lot of humour into the story and the juxtaposition of the humour against the dark storyline really compliment each other wonderfully. This is the kind of extremism that really highlights human nature. On one hand, Ayoola is clearly crazy and should be locked up, but on the other hand, you can’t help admire her guts. Korede totally enables her, but what other choice does she have unless she decides to turn her sister in. After the first time, she’s an accessory in the murders, so to turn on her sister would also be the end of her life too.

it’s a short book, but I liked it that way. It was tightly plotted and you have to admire an author who says what they need to say and then moves on. No superfluous writing in this one!