Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Rating: 
Author: Liane Oelke
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Jan. 2019)

Wow! This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to read it on a whim and ended up reading the whole 400 page book in a single sitting! I read pretty fast, but it’s been a while since I’ve marathoned a single book that fast! It’s an extremely fun read and the style and content really lends itself well to a quick read.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is about senior year high school student Jane Sinner. She’s been expelled from school in her final semester and we’re not sure why, but in order to finish her diploma, she enrolls in a community college for the Spring and Summer semesters. She feels it’s important to move out of her parents house for a while, but she doesn’t really have much money, so when she sees an advert for really cheap rent in a house near campus, she jumps on it. The only catch is that she’ll be one of six people living in the house and will have to participate in a big brother style reality show called House of Orange. Jane is looking to re-invent herself, so she decides to apply.

I really liked this book. I thought Jane was hilarious and the book never takes itself too seriously, even though it does still have some pretty serious underlying themes. It’s by a Canadian author from Calgary who now lives in Vancouver, so I could definitely relate with the content and setting and thought it was a breath of fresh air from all the American YA books set in the south (I also laughed a lot at all her disparaging comments about Edmonton). I am always looking for new adult books about college/university students, and while I will still definitely categorize this as YA, I liked the college setting and that it focused on the transition to college, which can be a challenge.

This book has a lot of different themes; the pressures of high school and college, the challenges of overcoming our past, and dealing with mental health and suicide. However, one of the main themes in this book, which I really liked, was about religious tolerance and finding and leaving Christianity. Christian lit is really not very good, so I’m always intrigued when there’s a good side story about a character’s relationship with Christianity. In Jane’s case, she’s grown up going to church her whole life and her parents and many of her friends are devout Christians. Jane eventually comes to the realization that she doesn’t believe in God and then finds it very difficult to cope when her entire belief system suddenly crumbles around her.

I liked that Jane was able to come to terms with her beliefs, without the book being hugely critical of Christianity. She still has Christian friends, one of which is a bisexual teenager who has been able to successfully reconcile both her faith and sexuality with one another. I thought the book was very respectful of both Christians and atheists, which I really appreciated. It’s not a theme I was expecting to find in this book and it was a pleasant surprise.

Primarily though, this book is just a lot of fun. The dialogue is written like a movie script, which I think helped move the story along quickly and I was enthralled from start to finish. The reality tv show idea is brilliant and I thought the author executed it perfectly! You can tell she works in the film industry because it was just so easy to visualize this book as a tv show. When Jane would talk about each episode and the way the footage was cut, with the little humourous bits added in, I could see it in my mind and I just really wished it actually existed so that I could watch it and laugh along.

The reality tv show bit is hilarious and I loved Jane’s voice. She is super sarcastic and initially you think she’s overly introverted and I wondered if she might be agoraphobic. That was not the case at all and Jane ended up being extremely smart and witty. I loved all the characters in House of Orange, but Jane was definitely my favourite. I thought all of the other contestants and characters were very authentic and I had no trouble believing that any of these people might exist. My only minor criticism might be that I thought not a lot of the other characters had much character growth, but Jane had an immense amount of character growth, so I can deal.

Overall, I really wish this was a more talked about book because it is actually really good and I think it deserves a lot more praise. What a great debut novel! I really hope Liane Oelke writes more books because I will definitely read them!

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Becoming

Rating: 
Author: Michelle Obama
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2018 (read Jan. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Michelle Obama

I admit, I’ve been postponing writing my review on Becoming because I’m at a bit of a loss for what to write. I still don’t really know what I’m going to say, so let’s just go for it and see what comes out (honestly, this is why I like writing reviews because half the time I don’t know how I really feel about a book until I actually sit down and write something about it).

I listened to Becoming as an audiobook – it’s narrated by Michelle so that’s a huge benefit to reading it this way. Like pretty much every other liberal Canadian out there, I love the Obama’s. I’ve always liked Barrack and his policies when he was President, and though I didn’t think too much about Michelle most of the time, I admired her for her attitude. Together I thought they brought something fun and new to the White House and having the Obama’s replaced by the Trump’s has only served to make me miss them more.

I’m not sure what I expected this book to be about. To be honest, I didn’t really know that much about Michelle except that she had nice arms, cared about healthy eating, and always radiated positive thinking in her speeches. I guess I thought this would mostly be about her time as first lady, but it was actually a pretty substantial look at her entire life. It’s broken into three parts; the first part focuses on her childhood and education, the second part on her relationship with Barrack, and the last part on her time as First Lady. Barrack obviously features heavily in the memoir, especially since she essentially had to give up her own career to accommodate his dreams when he became president, but it is really still just about Michelle.

Michelle grew up in Chicago and her memoir takes us through her early years growing up on the south side. Her family wasn’t wealthy, but they weren’t poor either, mostly they were just a family that stuck to their guns. Michelle and her brother were both very smart and are both Princeton graduates. She graduated with a law degree and worked as a lawyer for many years, trying many different things. She worked for a big law firm, which is where she met Barrack, but found this high paced life wasn’t for her, which inspired her to seek out more meaningful work. She is a very successful individual in her own right.

What I liked most about her memoir was how personal it was. She shares her struggles being the wife of a senator and how hard she had to work to maintain her own career and family life. Both her and Barrack had big dreams for their futures and she struggled with the traditional roles that were expected of her as a mother. She always wanted to support Barrack, but it was hard on her and the family when he had so many commitments all over the country. Honestly, I was kind of annoyed for her. Most of the domestic responsibilities fell to her over the years and she’s honest about how difficult it felt to manage that. She says multiple times that she never really wanted Barrack to be in politics.

As a couple, Barrack and Michelle are pretty inspiring themselves. They’re both very ambitious people, but they were able to make it work. Michelle was able to stay out of politics when Barrack was a senator, but when he ran for President, she was essentially forced to give up her job to support him. I think I personally would have really struggled with that if I was in her shoes. I would hate to have to set my own ambitions aside, especially as a woman who hates fitting into traditional gender roles. But people have to make sacrifices in relationships all the time and sometimes you will have to prioritize one career over the other if you want to make your relationship work. So I really admired Michelle for deciding what concessions she was willing to make and for the compromises they made in other areas. As First Lady she had a huge platform from which to work and I think all of her experience in the workforce and as a lawyer really worked to her advantage.

I did struggle with this book at times. I never found it boring and I was always into it while listening to it, but you already know how the story ends, so sometimes I did tune out a little bit. Even though I think Michelle is really honest in this memoir, something about it still felt a little sanitized to me. I think that’s to be expected from someone who had to constantly censor themselves at all times lest she say something that could be construed in a poor light or misinterpreted. It’s too bad, because I think the Obama’s are probably one of the most down to earth couples that have ever been in the White House, but because they are black they are held to a much higher standard and there’s really no room for them to make mistakes or be messy. Being messy is what makes people real, but that privilege will never be conferred on a couple like the Obama’s. Trump can say all the dumb shit he wants (and does) and his supporters will still look the other way. Michelle had to be a role model in every aspect of her life and she did it really well.

Overall I think she offers up a lot of herself in this book. I also think it’s a bit of a chance for her to tell her side of the story- to clear the air on the ways she was misunderstood or misquoted on the campaign trail and during her time as First Lady. Without Barrack, Michelle is still an inspiring individual and it was really interesting to learn about her roots. I have tickets to hear her speak in March and I’m excited to hear what else she has to say!

Nine Perfect Strangers

Rating: ⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub date: Nov. 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Nine Perfect Strangers was totally different than what I was expecting. For some reason I thought this was going to be a murder mystery (spoiler, it’s not), not really sure why, so the plot ended up taking me totally by surprise, but in a good way.

Nine Perfect Strangers centers around Tranquillum House, a spa/resort where people come for all sorts of reasons, but primarily to make some kind of change, whether it’s with their body, personal habits, or even to save their relationship. The resort was founded by russian immigrant, Masha, who had a near death experience when she suffered a heart attack from overwork and neglecting her health, and found a new outlook on life that centered around personal health and wellbeing. Nine people have assembled at Tranquillum for a 10 day retreat.

Tranquillum House is known for having slightly revolutionary practices; no electronics are permitted at the spa and there are mandatory fasts, juice cleanses, and periods of silence throughout the 10 day retreat. However, many people swear that Tranquillum House gave them a whole new outlook on life, so most of the guests are willing to give it a try for 10 days. This group of guests includes a washed up romance novelist and footballer, a tired mom, a divorce lawyer, a couple trying to save their marriage, and a family trying to heal after the death of their son/brother. They are mostly optimistic about the retreat; however, what these strangers don’t know is that Tranquillum House has decided to try a new protocol for this retreat and that they will be physically and emotionally tested over the course of their ten day visit.

I’ve read two other books by Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, and I must say, she is really good at tackling tough subjects with humour. Her characters are all pretty humourous in this book in how ridiculous they are. They all grapple with some pretty serious issues, yet still provide a lot of comic relief. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the plot. It was a really different concept and it was actually quite shocking where Moriarty took the plot in the seond half of the book.

What I liked most about the book though was the theme, which centered around the idea of change. All of the guests decide to attend the retreat because they are seeking some kind of change in their lives, and the resort itself was founded because of the change that Masha underwent after her near death experience. Masha experienced a huge change in her life and really wants to help others to change their lives for the better. However, what she begins to realize is that it’s easy to help people change over a 10 day period, but that it is immensely difficult for her guests to make permanent changes once they return to their old lives. It raises the question of whether people really can change.

It really is a roller coaster ride because some of Tranquillum House’s practices seem really out there and it’s easy to dismiss them as “hippy-dippy nonsense”. But the further you read, you start to question yourself because it’s hard to deny that the practices actually do seem to work. However, when the plot takes a drastic turn around the half way point, you see the characters starting to revert back to their original tendencies, which again begs the question of whether change is truly possible. I liked the book because even though the resort seems to be a bit of a farce and I think a lot of the people would only be temporarily changed by the experience, it’s hard to deny by the end of the novel that the guests have been changed by their time at Tranquillum, just in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to ruin the plot and I think it is actually best to go into this book blind if possible. It is quite different from the other work I’ve read by Moriarty, but it did make me think and reflect and I think it is an interesting commentary on the human ability to change, so I did quite like it. It also does a great job at developing each of the nine characters and I was really impressed with how each them grew throughout the novel and I enjoyed getting each of their back stories. I read this for my January book club, so I’m really interested to hear what the rest of my book club thought because I can see how some people might not like this book.

Wildcard

Rating: .5
Author: Marie Lu
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Warcross #2

I read this book on my way home for the holidays and I fear I may have waited too long to review it. I’m already starting to forget parts of this, but I will do my best to review.

Warcross really surprised me last year and ended up being one of my favourite books of the year. Sci-fi is not my favourite genre and I did not like Marie Lu’s Young Elites trilogy, so I didn’t expect to like Warcross, but ended up falling in love with this vibrant and futuristic version of Japan. Sadly I hadn’t heard great things about Wildcard, but I tried to go into it with an open mind.

I thought Wildcard had a pretty strong start. It jumps right back into the action and I was really excited to be re-introduced to the Phoenix Riders and Emika’s world. There is a strong mystery element in Wildcard and you really don’t know who you can trust, so I was definitely intrigued.

Sadly though, Wildcard was not able to live up to the world Marie Lu created in Warcross and I felt it started to buckle under the weight of the plot and the lack of character development. I love a good fast paced plot – and despite everything else, this plot remained fast paced throughout the entirety of the book – but I felt that Lu abandoned a lot of the characters and character development from the first book in favour of new characters and it caused this one to just fall flat.

In Warcross, Emika struggles in trusting her teammates. She is used to working as a lone wolf and takes a lot of pressure and responsibility upon herself. Her teammates want to help and she eventually learns to trust them and realizes that being part of a team is better than operating alone. While the Phoenix Riders are still present in this book, I felt they weren’t integral to the plot and much of the book focuses on Emika and Zero. I liked that Emika made a new girlfriend in this book (I’m sorry you guys, I literally can’t remember her name!! Zero’s second, can anyone help me out here?!), but I really wanted to see more development of the characters we were introduced to in the first book and the Warcross world, but this was really Hideo and Zero’s party and I thought Emika struggle to carry the story.

Where Wildcard lost me was in the plot. I think Marie Lu made this too technical and tried to throw in way too many plot twists. I’ll admit, she got me on a lot of them, but I felt the plot got way too convoluted towards the end that I just kind of tapped out on the book. Warcross introduced this really interesting VR world that I could totally see happening within my lifetime. Lu introduced a lot of thought-provoking moral issues like is it justified to remove people’s freewill in order to completely eliminate crime? I thought there were a lot of interesting ethical questions to explore in this book, but I think Lu sacrificed this development in the interest of writing more action, which really did a disservice to the world she created. It’s a resounding YES that Hideo’s technology to eliminate crime was a bad idea, but we never really explored the benefits and consequences of his algorithm and jumped right to the need to destroy it.

There was so much action in this book, and yet, I was kind of bored. The entire last 30% of the book is just one extended action scene with very limited character development. I stopped caring about the Phoenix Riders and I thought Emika added very little to the development of the story. This really became more about Zero and Hideo and even though there was a lot of action, things started to feel a bit repetitive. I like a good plot, but for me, stories are always first and foremost about the characters. A book needs a good plot to move the characters forward, but I would never sacrifice development for action. I wanted to think about the ethics of a VR world and how to integrate morality with technology, but I guess Lu just wanted to deliver a fast-paced action novel. She delivered on the action, but I’m not sure why I should care about it.

Top 10 Books of 2018

I read over 100 books this year, so it is incredibly hard to narrow the list down to just 10 books! I really like reading new releases and this year almost half of all the books I read were published in 2018, so like last year, I’ve decided to publish two lists. This will be my top 10 favourite books that were published in 2018, and my second follow up post with be my top 5 favourite books that I read in 2018, but were published in other years. Without further ado, here’s my top 10 of 2018, in order this year!

10. Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie has been making waves this year and was my first Courtney Summers book. I started reading it on a 3 day kayak trip and was totally enthralled with it the entire weekend. It’s a powerful read, but one of the things I actually liked most about it was the format. Sadie tells the story of a young woman named Sadie – when her sister turns up dead, Sadie disappears from town and goes on a mission to track down her sister’s killer. What made the format so unique was that half of the book is told in the style of a podcast investigating what happened to Sadie, while the other half is told from Sadie’s point of view as she moves through rural America trying to track down the killer. The podcast reminded me a lot of Serial and I thought it made for a really interesting and dynamic read. Summers doesn’t hold back any punches in this story and it’s really a book about how girls and women disappear and are murdered far too often. I can’t take another dead girl.

9. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After was a bit of a slower read compared to some of the other books on this list, but is the writing and the story ever beautiful! It tells the story of Taiwanese-American teenager, Leigh, whose mother has committed suicide. In her grief, Leigh believes that her mother has come back as a bird and is trying to communicate with Leigh. In an effort to learn more about her mother, she decides to take a trip to Taiwan for the first time to meet her grandparents. The story is filled with magical realism and is a beautiful coming of age story about grief, mental health, the pains of growing up, and the importance of chasing after the things that you love. I really liked the portrayal of mental health and depression and how anyone can be impacted by them and how there’s often no rhyme or reason to why someone might suffer from depression. I loved the cultural aspects that were woven into this story as well as Leigh’s relationship with her friend Axel and how it evolves throughout the story. Mostly though, I just loved this for the beautiful writing and would definitely recommend to anyone!

8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage has been featured on pretty much every “must read books of 2018” list I’ve seen on the internet and was featured in Oprah’s book club, so I was intrigued to read it. It’s about a newly married couple, Celestial and Roy, who’s marriage is abruptly cut short when Roy is accused of a crime he didn’t commit and incarcerated for 12 years. They try to maintain their marriage, but 12 years is a long time and Celestial starts to drift away from Roy. However, when Roy gets a surprise early release after 5 years, everyone’s lives are thrown into turmoil. Celestial has moved on and is unsure what to do in the face of her husband’s release. Roy on the other hand, is still hugely invested in Celestial and wants to give their marriage another shot. It’s a thought provoking novel on the justice system and what it means to be black in America. I really liked it because there were no easy choices for the characters and it was a critical look at the impact prison can have on the individual and their greater family and community.

7. Saga, Volume 8 by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

I’ve been reading Saga for the last two years, but for some reason, Volume 8 hit me a lot harder than any of the other volumes. I also read Volume 9 this year, which I liked, but didn’t love, but something about Volume 8 struck me differently. Saga is a graphic novel series about an intergalactic romance between two soldiers on opposing sides, Alana and Marko. The series starts off with them giving birth to their daughter, Hazel, and the entire series is them gallivanting around the galaxy trying to avoid all the individuals that think their marriage and relationship is an abomination. Volume 8 deals with abortion and I think it’s one of the reason’s why I liked it so much. The whole series is incredibly diverse and examines a number of different relevant social issues, and this issue looks at some of the reasons why women and couples decide to have abortions and why all reasons are valid. Overall, I would highly recommend the series, I’ll just put a disclaimer that the series does include a lot of sex and nudity.

6. The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker

To be honest, it’s a bit of a mystery to me why I liked this book as much as I did. Maybe I was just in the mood for a good romance, but I think it was because this was one of the rare New Adult books that I could actually relate to. I find there’s a huge gap in literature between stories about teenagers and stories about adults. There’s not a lot of great books about people in their mid-twenties and this book really that need. The Simple Wild is about 26 year old Calla. She grew up with her mom in Toronto, but she’s been estranged from her father, who is an Alaskan bush pilot, since she was 2. When she finds out her father has cancer, she decides to finally make the trip up to Alaska to meet him. She’s never understood her father’s life or why he would never leave his job to be with her and her mother. She finally has the opportunity to get to know him a little better, but fears it may be too late. At the same time, she meets her father’s best pilot, Jonah, and despite having almost nothing in common, they strike up a friendship that evolves mostly out of the two of them teasing one another. I’m not going to lie, I totally fell in love with Jonah, but this book has so much more going for it than just romance. I’m obsessed with any book set in Alaska and this was a great story about taking risks, getting out of your comfort zone, and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

5. Not That Bad edited by Roxane Gay

Not That Bad is a collection of stories about rape and rape culture that definitely needed to be told. I listened this anthology as an audiobook and I thought every single essay added something valuable to the collection and as a whole, the essays were extremely diverse. The premise of the book is that any story about rape, assault, or rape culture deserves a space and to be heard. People often refrain from sharing the things that have happened to them because they think they are not that bad compared to what has happened to other people they known. Gay wants to break down that idea that there is any kind of scale for breaking down the things that happen to us. Every story is that bad and every pain deserves to be acknowledged. It is only by sharing our stories that it becomes evident just how pervasive and widespread rape culture is. Your voice deserves to be heard – what happened to you is that bad – there is no hierarchy of pain and we acknowledge you.

4. Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This was my first Toews book, but I was totally blown away by it. It’s a short and simple book, but so startling in it’s honesty. Women Talking is based on a Mennonite community in rural Bolivia where the women were continuously subjected to sexual assault in secret by members of the community. They were not believed and were told that they were being punished for their sins. Eventually it came out that several men in the community had been knocking the women out with animal anesthetic and raping them in their sleep and they were arrested. This is the re-imagined conversation that took place between the women in deciding how to move forward from this ordeal. As they see it, they have three options: they can do nothing, stay and fight, or they can leave. It is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking. Even though these characters are imagined, I was inspired by the women and their ability to forgive, love one another, and use humour to move on with their lives.

3. Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Okay, now we’re into the top 3! It’s hard to organize the lower end of this list because I liked all those books but they’re not the top books that stand out to me and it’s difficult to rank them. But the top of list is easier because they were my favourite books that I read this year, starting with Wundersmith, the sequel to Nevermoor. The Nevermoor series is a new middle grade fantasy series that I am obsessed with. I’ve compared it multiple times to Harry Potter, not because it’s like Harry Potter, but because it reminds me of all the things I loved about Harry Potter and in how it makes me feel. Morrigan Crow is a cursed child, destined to die on the eve of her 11th birthday. But instead, she is whisked away by enigmatic Jupiter North to the land of Nevermoor, which is filled with magic and flying umbrellas and gigantic talking cats. It is such a fun series filled with so much whimsy! The world building is incredible and the plot is clever and has a lot of depth. I am in love with the characters and the world Jessica Townsend has created and I cannot wait to see where she takes this series in the future!

2. Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

Our Homesick Songs took me totally by surprise. It’s historical fiction about Newfoundland’s cod fishery and the moratorium in 1992. It’s about family, community, loneliness, music, and love of place. The Connor family has always lived in the small rural, island town of Big Running and has  always survived off the cod fishery. When the fish disappear, many families are forced to make tough decisions about their future and leave their homes in search of work on the mainland. Aidan and Martha try and avoid that fate for their children, Cora and Finn, and instead decide to share a job at one of the camps in Northern Alberta. But as their community slowly disappears, Cora and Finn struggle with the changes to the life they’ve always known and the hole in their community. As a Newfoundlander, this book spoke to a part of my soul and I absolutely fell in love with Hooper’s writing style. I can see how it might not work for everyone, but her writing evoked such a feeling of homesickness that I felt I’d just moved right into the pages with Cora and Finn and Aidan and Martha. It’s a beautiful story about family and community and the links that tie us together. It’s a heartbreak story that was a reality for many Newfoundland families and I thought Hooper did a wonderful job of transporting her readers back to this time and place. I love the way she tied music into the story and I know this family will stick with me for a long time.

  1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

And the number one spot goes to The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. I read this book back in June and nothing has been able to top it since. It was an extremely emotional, but enjoyable, reading experience and even 6 months later, I still can’t stop thinking about it. Setting is everything for me in this novel. The Great Alone is set in Alaska in the 1970’s and focuses on the Albright family: Ernt, Cora, and their daughter Leni. Ernt is a POW from the Vietnam War and suffers from PTSD. He’s worried about the direction the government is going and in an effort to get back to the land, moves the family to the small town on Kaneq in Alaska. They move in the height of summer and Leni is totally enamoured with the landscape and their hand to mouth existence. It’s hard work to survive in Alaska and the sense of purpose and the long summer days keep Ernt’s PTSD at bay. However, when the long winter starts, Ernt’s demons start to get the better of him and Leni begins to wonder if she’s more at risk from the dangers lurking outside her door or from the dangers lurking within. It is a heartbreaking story, but Hannah creates such a sense of place and community that I just totally fell in love with. The writing is beautiful and every character is so well imagined and developed. A wonderful story about family and community, but also about the challenges women faced in the 1970’s and still face today.