Greenwood

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michael Christie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

It’s been just over a month since I finished Greenwood, so I’ll do my best to review. Like a lot of my audiobooks, I didn’t really have any intention of reading this book, but I stumbled across it, liked the sound of the narrator, and thought it seemed interesting enough. The story did get bogged down in places, but overall, I really liked it.

Greenwood tells the story of the Greenwood family over 4 generations and is a mixture of literary fiction, mystery, and dystopia all rolled into one compelling book. The highlight of the storytelling for me was in the structure. The novel starts on Vancouver Island in 2034. In recent years a tree virus has felled the majority of the world’s trees, but there’s still a pristine old growth forest that remains on a small island near Pacific Rim and it’s here that ecologist Jake Greenwood works, taking wealthy vacationers walking along the last remaining giants.

From here, each part of the story takes us back in time, to Liam Greenwood in 2008, a carpenter who renovates homes using reclaimed wood. Then to Willow Greenwood in 1974, a hippy and environmentalist who protests her father’s rich timber company. Then back to Everett Greenwood in 1934, a poor hermit who lives in the woods farming maple syrup, and then finally to 1908 and the events that started everything for the Greenwood Family. Once we reach 1908, the story reverses again as we slowly start to make our way back to 2034. It’s a fascinating structure. I loved going back in time to learn more about the events that preceded each storyline, only to learn new mysteries that I won’t find the answers to until the story reverses itself again.

The majority of the story takes place in 1934 and the actions Everett takes have a lasting impact on the Greenwood Family for generations to come. It’s interesting to see how secrets are hidden and how easily history can be lost over multiple generations. How quickly the cycle of poverty can reverse itself. My favourite timelines were 1934 and 2034, but I think they all offered something unique to the story. I did think the author dragged out the 1934 storyline a little bit too much – it is the critical part of the book, but I don’t really think this book needed all it’s 500+ pages and easily could have been more in the 400-450 range.

I did love how this book takes us all over Canada and parts of America and how it incorporates trees as its central theme. Even though some of the family members use the trees as a resource for profit and others seek to protect the trees, they all make their living from the trees and are impacted by them. It’s interested to see something inanimate like a tree take on such a central role in the novel. As someone who lives in Western Canada and loves the landscape here, I really enjoyed the exploration of the value of trees and was moved by the imagination of a world without them. Our old growth forests are incredibly valuable and I can’t imagine the loss of them, much less the majority of trees on the planet. How they scape our cities, towns, and parks and the number of resources that we pull from them.

So overall I did find the story slowed down in places, but overall I really enjoyed and would recommend to lovers of Canadian lit!

The Silent Patient

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Alex Michaelides
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Feb. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I can’t deny that the ending was pretty good and the story was compelling for the last hour (I listened to this one). but the rest of the book was just so damn boring!!!

The Silent Patient tells the story of Alicia Berenson and her therapist, Theo Faber. Alicia was found years earlier in her home having shot her husband in the head 5 times. But after the event she completely clams up and refuses to speak, being admitted to a psychiatric hospital called The Grove. Theo is a psychotherapist and is intrigued by Alicia’s story and believes he can help her. He gets hired on at the Grove and begins looking into Alicia’s past, trying to get her to speak.

What surprises me most after finishing this book is how everyone calls it a page turner and says they couldn’t put it down. Until the big twist, I honestly thought this book was so dull. I really didn’t like Theo and found his repeated attempts to get Alicia to speak super boring. There’s a bunch of red herrings along the way, but I didn’t find any of them particularly compelling either.

At the same time that Theo is investigating Alicia’s past, we get snippets from her diary that she wrote prior to the murder of her husband. In the audiobook, her diary is narrated by a female voice actor, while the rest of the book is narrated by a male voice actor for Theo. I do have to acknowledge that the audiobook may have played a role in my lack of enjoyment of this book. The audio sample was of the female voice actor, who I actually really liked, but it turned out that 70-80% of the book is actually narrated by Theo, and I really didn’t like his voice actor. Although that might be the point because in the audiobook Theo comes across as really pretentious and patronizing. Not sure if others got the same tone from reading the book.

Anyways, despite liking Alicia’s voice actor, I still had a lot of problems with the diary, namely that NO ONE WRITES LIKE THIS IS A DIARY. Alicia includes full dialogue in her diary, which to me was a huge oversight on behalf of the author. I found the story in Alicia’s diary compelling, but it just wasn’t the right medium to tell it if you’re not going to commit to the idea that your character actually wrote it as a private memoir. Diaries are written for the writer and this diary was clearly written for an audience. It just felt like sloppy writing to me.

Moving on, I thought the twist was pretty good, but not totally shocking. I kind of saw it coming, I just wasn’t really sure the logistics of how the author was going to make it work. It’s one of those things where I felt like I knew what the end result was going to be, I just didn’t know how I would get there. I’ll give the author some credit though because I definitely did miss the signs.

I think I’m going to rate to rate this one 2.5 stars. I get the attraction, but I was definitely disappointed with it and was anxious to just finish so that I could move on to something more enjoyable. Maybe I would have had a different experience with this book had I read the paperback, but I just really didn’t like Theo and I felt the story was lacking in intrigue.

Disappearing Earth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Julia Philips
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: May 2019 (read Mar. 2020)

so 2020 is definitely not my best reading year. I always knew reading 100 books a year was not sustainable, but I’ve really struggled this year. I feel like I should be reading more books then ever during this pandemic, but I did just get a new puppy and have generally been feeling unmotivated when it comes to reading. That said, after giving it some thought, I think public transit might be one of my critical success factors. I spend about an hour on public transit every day and I always read during that time. So on top of the benefit of getting a consistent hour of reading in every day, it also forces me to stay super engaged with my books because I’m forced to pick them up every day. Without that I think I’ve just been feeling less inclined to pick up new books or stick with them through the early chapters.

Anyways, enough with the life update, the real goal here is to sit down and finally write a review for Disappearing Earth, which may be somewhat challenging as it took me 4 months to read and I finished it over a month ago. However, the length of time it took me to read is not at all indicative of how much I enjoyed the book. I made the mistake of starting this one at the beginning of my 5 week honeymoon in New Zealand over Christmas. I got about 40% in and then didn’t read anything for the rest of the vacation because I was having too much of a blast! So it was months later by the time I picked it up again.

Disappearing Earth is about 2 sisters in rural Russia who disappear one day while out visiting the beach. The disappearance rocks the community, impacting many who never even knew the girls, and serving to highlight the inequities that exist among the many community members.

The book has an interesting structure – each chapter is narrated by a different character and we never return to the same character twice. All of the characters are loosely connected in some way, but many are still strangers to each other. Regardless, they are all in some way impacted by the disappearance of the two girls.

While interesting, I do think the structure of the novel was one of the contributing factors to why it took me so long to read the book. It was a little disheartening to finish the end of a chapter and then feel like you had to start again with getting to know a new character. However, I do think the structure is one of the beauties of the book, so it’s not something I would change. The writing is fantastic and I loved how everyone was somewhat connected and somewhat impacted by the disappearance of the sisters. It really highlights the impact that tragedy can have on a community and how it can be perceived by different people.

Class, race, and gender are all important themes in Disappearing Earth. Many of the characters are native and while they lament the probable death of the girls, the community’s reaction to the disappearance of two young white girls mostly serves to highlight how native women are de-valued and de-prioritized by law enforcement and the general public. Culture is an important piece of this book and it is steeped in Russian culture and attitude, but I still found it a stark reminder of the inequalities here in our Canadian indigenous communities as well.

Atmosphere is one of the key parts of the book and a dark atmosphere pervades the entire novel. The disappearance of the sisters in the first chapter clouds a sense of unease over the entirety of the novel. All of the characters are struggling in some way or another, with some being made scared or uncomfortable by the disappearance of the girls, and others jaded about it. All the while you wonder if it will ever be revealed what happened to them, or if, like much of life, we’re destined to go on forever not knowing. The real pain and anguish of disappearance is the uncertainty and unknowing.

So I don’t think this book is for everyone. I wouldn’t call it a fast paced read and I do wish I had read it at a different time. It’s a heavy read, but with gorgeous and perceptive writing, I’m so glad that I stuck with it.

The Giver of Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Jojo Moyes
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)

Gah, the disappointment! I am definitely the minority, but only 2.5 stars from me.

My book club voted for The Giver of Stars as our February pick and it came highly recommended. I was a bit weary of it because I didn’t love Moyes most popular book, Me Before You, but the content of this book couldn’t be more different, so I was optimistic that as a lover of historical fiction, I would enjoy it.

I didn’t not enjoy the book. It’s a fine piece of work that creates an interesting enough fictional narrative about a real piece of history (the pack horse library). I’ve since learned that this is the second fictional book about the subject though, so please note that there is another book called, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, which is also about the pack horse library. I liked the story well enough, but it was just so damn slow and I can’t deny I find Moyes writing a bit amateur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Giver of Stars is about two women, Alice Van Cleve, a newly married Englishwoman who moves to rural Kentucky with her new husband Bennett, and Margery O’Hare, a free spirit who refuses to be defined by her father’s poor reputation or be forced into the narrow confines of what it means to be a woman in 1930’s Kentucky.

The women are recruited to be part of the Pack Horse Library, to deliver books to rural families in hopes of increasing education and literacy among the population. Despite initial suspicion of the library, the people are won over, finally getting access to information on everything from recipes, to their rights, and even clandestine info on the joys of “married love”. As you can imagine, the more conservative of the townspeople feel threatened by the women and tensions rise.

What I liked about the book was learning about the Pack Horse Library. It’s an initiative that was started by then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was incredibly successful. The writing of the early days of the library itself was somewhat dull, but It was interesting to learn about the conditions the women worked in, the amount of hostility they received, and how books eventually won the hearts of their readers. I found Margery’s character a bit more interesting than Alice’s, but they both had their own strengths.

But I do have to admit there was a lot I didn’t like about the book too. My biggest complaint is that I thought the author fell victim to the age old trap of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. I really wanted to see the relationships between characters grow on their own, but I felt that almost every relationship in the book was dictated to me. Moyes tells me that Bennett was a caring and attentive suitor in England and I feel like it’s supposed to be a shock when he does a 180 when they arrive back in America, but as Alice provides no recollections of how the two fell in love, I wasn’t very torn up about the Van Cleve’s turning out to be assholes and thought they were just another sexist Southern family like many others during that era.

Likewise, there’s very little interaction between any of the women in the Pack Horse library to actually cement their friendships. I thought it was obvious the women would eventually become friends because women are generally pretty sociable and supportive of one another and have been finding great value in female friendships LITERALLY FOREVER. It’s sad that suddenly having female friends seemed to be a great revelation to almost every character except maybe Margery, but I didn’t believe it. No way none of these women wouldn’t have built any other meaningful relationships before this point. Although regardless, we weren’t given a lot of anecdotes about how these friendships developed, except for Kathleen, whose story arc I really liked. I guess they eventually all bond with Alice over their dislike of Bennett, but like, friendships are generally born out of mutual interest and respect rather than pity.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead, there’s really too much I want to discuss to keep it all spoiler free.
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The same went for the romantic relationship. Supposedly Fred loves Alice from the moment he sees her, but can anyone give me some interactions that led to their mutual interest in one another? I thought they had no chemistry and even though it was obvious Moyes was going to put them together, it was only because she told me they were constantly aware of the other and sneaking peeks at each other rather than any meaningful interactions that would cause two people to be attracted to one another. Maybe I’m a grump, but I wasn’t feeling it and thought the whole thing stank of Instalove.

On a similar note, I wasn’t impressed with how the author handled Bennett’s character. We never find out what his deal is. Is he gay? asexual? repressed from the era’s opinions on sex and therefore just uncomfortable with it? I’m fine with any of these reasons and think any of them are understandable. Personally, I would have loved to see a thoughtful look at how the church’s views on purity and abstinence impact both men and women and create unhealthy perceptions about sex, but I really don’t think that’s what Moyes was going for in this book. Mostly it seemed he just didn’t have any actual information on what sex is? When he marries Peggy at the end I thought “Oh, I guess he was just in love with someone else”. But when Peggy comes looking for the Married Love book I just felt bad for everyone involved and mad at the author and her characters for finding the whole thing funny, which I did not. Like goodness, you think they’d feel some compassion for unsuspecting Peggy who was essentially in the same position Alice had been months prior. It’s not like Peggy stole Alice’s husband – they had no reason to mock or resent her.

So I didn’t love it. It’s a good book in that it raises a lot of questions and I think it’ll be fun to debate at book club, but overall disappointing. I thought my biggest complaint was just going to be that I found it boring, but evidently I had a bit more beef with some of the characters. I was planning to give it 3 stars, but I might have to bump it down to 2.5 (I really don’t think it’s a 2 star book though). I felt it just didn’t measure up to its potential.

There were a lot of side narratives happening that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The birth of the travelling library was interesting, but it did beg the question, what is the story leading up to? We start to get a glimpse into the poor conditions in the mine and how the mining company was essentially tricking people out of their land. When this happened, I was like, “okay cool, I see where this is going now, the librarians are disseminating information on land rights that will start some kind class war between wealthy mine owner (Van Cleve) and the poor”, but that’s never really where the story went. It all seemed to just be ammunition for why we shouldn’t like Van Cleve (as if we needed any more) and to serve his feud against Margery.

Then there was the side story with the flood and the slurry dam. I was like, “OMG the mining company destroyed all this land with a toxic tailings pond that of course disproportionately impacts black people, this is going to start another class war that gets us thinking about how wealthy people get away with murder because the injustice is always perpetrated against poor people and minorities.” But then that storyline went absolutely no where too, so I can only assume it was just another anecdote to make us dislike Van Cleve even more and provide an opportunity for the women to shine by saving everyone from the flood. But honestly, the whole flood scene ended up seeming like it was just drama for drama’s sake, which I have very little interest in.

Overall there were just too many loose ends and undelivered plot lines. I couldn’t believe that with all these other great themes, Moyes decided to focus the climax of her book on a single random incident with a character (McCullough) who doesn’t feature in any other part of the novel! It felt so unrelated to the rest of what was happening. I would have much rather read about the women using their influence as librarians to lead a charge against Van Cleve and his poor mining practices. I know that never actually happened historically, but from what I understand Margery’s whole trial was fabricated anyways, so what’s the point in any of it.

That said, one thing Moyes got right was the righteous anger at how women are treated. Van Cleve was a bit too classically evil for my tastes, but he did serve the purpose of highlighting how rich white men can get away with whatever they want. Margery being thrown in jail and then FORCED TO GIVE BIRTH THERE was enraging and definitely upped the ante, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure what the point was? What theme was the author really trying to make? The only impact that the outcome of the trial has is that Margery gets to return to her family. There’s no ultimate consequence for Van Cleve. Nobody in the town really changes, they just eventually go back to business-as-usual with no lessons learned. Am I supposed to be impressed that Bennett is pushing for a concrete wall on the next slurry dam? Because I’m sure that idea will be steamrolled by his father in 2 seconds because neither of them ever sees any consequence to their actions.

The only message I’m left with is that women are resilient? Not really groundbreaking stuff. I felt like the whole narrative was just manipulative and trying to force an emotional response that I just didn’t feel. I felt like Moyes was constantly trying to tell me how to feel when her characters and writing should just speak for themselves.

Deathcaster

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)
Series: Shattered Realms #4

I’m a bit torn on how to rate this book and I think I’m somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I still flew through it – loving all the different characters and relationships, but I thought the plot could have been a little stronger. I was still really engaged in the story, I just wanted a more!

It was nice to finally see some resolutions between characters and some new relationships forming. As always, I think Chima writes interesting and flawed, but relatable, characters. Lyss and Hal were probably my favourites of the series, but I also really liked Lila and had a bit of a soft spot for Destin. I liked that he was introduced as a bit of a villain in Flamecaster, but turned out to be really nuanced and even though he’d done some questionable things, you still really wanted to root for him.

So the series still gets full points for characterization, but let’s get into where I thought the plot suffered. I have two main complaints – the first is about pacing and the second is about where the importance of the story was placed.

A lot of information was revealed in this book. Chima holds on to a lot of secrets throughout the series. I think it’s a huge bonus when a series has an overarching mystery that continues throughout each book. But I also think it’s important to provide some answers and closure to other mystery elements as the series progresses. I think Chima held on to a bit too much information and as such, the story felt a little overwhelming at the end, with too many things being tied up too quickly.

For example, we have to wait through this whole series to find out who attacked Ash in the first book, what the Darian brothers are, who was behind the attack on Lyss, and who the mole at court is. When everything is finally revealed, the answers just feel a little anti-climactic. The plot elements weren’t necessarily large enough to carry this mystery through 4 books and I was left feeling disappointed by the answers. I think the individual books would have benefited had Chima given up a little more information earlier in the story.

That said, there were some elements where I think it made sense to string along your readers for 4 books, namely with the mystery of Celestine and her relationship to Jenna, Breon, and Evan. Which brings me to my second criticism – how Chima chose to frame the story around these 4 “casters”, but then didn’t really give their story the airtime if deserved.

The books are named for 4 individuals. I’m assuming that Celestine was ‘deathcaster’. Every thing about Celestine and the north islands and her dynasty is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know who she is or what her tie is to any of the other characters. We can tell she is seeking more power and represents a big threat to the realms. But Chima holds out on the significance of these individuals until the very last minute and then throws in a couple of (in my opinion) poorly cobbled together explanations of their relations and then quickly defeats the empress in a chapter. I was left not really understanding who the empress was or why she was so powerful, and then disappointed at how easily she eventually seemed to be defeated. It just left me wondering what bearing she really even had on the story, except providing enough of a threat to the realms to finally mend the relationship between the Fells and Arden. I just wanted SO MUCH MORE.

Like I said, overall I still loved the series. It just felt rushed and I felt we were still left with some unanswered questions. It wasn’t totally clear what happened with Raisa and Han and I would have loved a little more time devoted to Aedion and the healing of this family the reader has grown to love. Still a fan though and I am planning to read Chima’s first series, which I’m pretty sure is now the only one I have left. 3.5 stars overall – disappointed I never got a 5-star book out of this series.