Anxious People

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Jun. 2020)

Fredrik Backman writes some of the most random and interesting stories. I’ll admit I didn’t really know what to expect going into this book, but I definitely was not expecting what I did get. Anxious People is about a bank robbery that accidentally turns into a hostage situation where the bank robber somehow goes missing at the end. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters as the police interview all of the hostages to try and determine what happened to the bank robber.

After Beartown, I can confidently say that Backman is great at large cast stories. His packs a lot of heart and character development into a 300 page book and his characters never become confused with one another. His writing style is very different, but in some ways he reminds me of Melina Marchetta in his style of relationship development. His characters and their relationships to one another always grow in ways you don’t expect.

Beartown is one of my favourite books of all time, Anxious People definitely isn’t a contender to unseat it, but I still really enjoyed this book. It’s about a serious topic without ever feeling serious, something I wouldn’t say about Beartown. Backman’s writing style continues in this book with the same level of gravitas and though given to each sentence, but the humour here is a lot more reminiscent of his earlier books. The story has a nice mystery component without every feeling like a heavy mystery novel.

Backman is just so wonderful at crafting his characters. This book has some flawed characters, yet you grow to feel an attachment to each and every one of them. I love that he can take something like a bank robbery gone hostage situation and somehow make you feel empathy for the bank robber. He explores our traditional notions of good and bad, black and white, and the very real grey area in between. I don’t think this book has quite the same depth as some of his other novels, but it was a fun and thoughtful read.

And of course I have to say special thanks to Atria Books for sending this over to me. I vaguely remember getting an email about this book, but I had no idea they were sending me over a copy and it was an awesome surprise. Backman is a wonderful writer and I’m always thrilled to see what he decides to write about next!

American Dirt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2020 (read Apr. 2020)

So I know this book has had its fair share of good and bad reviews. We threw this one on our book club list right after it came out because the synopsis sounded so compelling and it wasn’t until later that I heard about some of the criticisms surrounding the book. Between then and now I forgot completely everything I’d read about the book and ended up going into it completely blind. For some reason I thought this was a book about adjusting to life in America after immigration – that is clearly not the case.

American Dirt tells the story of mother and son, Lydia and Luca, as they are forced to flee across their home country of Mexico to escape the violence of the big drug cartel in Acapulco, Los Jardinos. They end up joining the many migrants who make the epic journey across Central America in the hopes of finding sanctuary on the other side of the American border.

I can see why the book is popular – it’s been compared to a modern day Grapes of Wrath and deals with a topic close to the heart of all Americans – not just those in the United States who’ve taken ownership over the term. The catch is that the book is written by a white American woman with no first hand experience of what it means to be a migrant.

Honestly, I think that even 5 years ago few people would have raised a flag about the author. Unfortunately most mass consumed literature is written by white people, but I think there has been a real shift in recent years to highlight other authors and other stories – that representation matters and that’s there’s so much value to be gained from Own Voices writers. Obviously there’s a whole genre of historical fiction where this is largely impossible and I don’t think that we shouldn’t write about that which interests and inspires us. But it’s definitely a sensitive topic and I understand why the book has been criticized for this fact.

I’d like to try and explore both sides of this issue in my review. I cannot deny that I loved this book. I am the exact intended audience. A white woman that cares about social justice but is woefully ill-informed about the migration crises south of the American border. Whether the author correctly captured the migrant experience or not, I found this book incredibly eye-opening and though it describes something I knew was happening, it really drove home the plight of migrants. I think it will likely draw attention to this injustice and hopefully inspire people to become better informed and take action on it.

That said, as a reader, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge where this account may have its shortcomings. For this I look largely to the internet, from people who have had first hand experience of migrating to America. American Dirt has a very dark plot and I found the characters had almost no positive experiences. I’m sure this is largely the case for a lot of migrants, but I also wonder if in an effort to shock and engage – Cummins took every traumatic experience she’d ever heard of and combined it all in to one book. I did worry that she was stealing from the migrant experience to create an edge of your seat social justice thriller. While this trauma is likely all based in reality, its not meant for entertainment. I thought Cummins did maintain a good hold on this balance for most of the novel, but veered a bit to the extreme towards the end. Lydia’s interaction with Javier at the end of the book and what happened to Beto really pushed it over the edge for me into the use of someone else’s trauma for the sake of a dramatic climax.

The other area where I questioned Cummins authenticity on the subject was in her portrayal of America. I read in other reviews that her rudimentary use of Spanish in the novel is belittling and that she was ignorant to large parts of Mexican culture. I’ve seen it criticized that Lydia seemed way too shocked about the things that happened in her own country, things that any other Mexican would not find shocking but be well aware of. What I did note was the consistent portrayal of America as the ultimate salvation. It took on a bit of a mythos among the characters, though I think we all know America is still hugely flawed. Cummins did capture this somewhat better towards the end with the introduction of Marisol and other deportees. but I think there needs to be some sense of reality that even people fleeing to America recognize its shortcomings.

So the book is not without flaws. To further educate myself, I did some research on other existing literature about the experiences presented in this book that are actually based on first hand knowledge. I decided to add the following books to my TBR to hopefully get a broader and more accurate perspective of the issue: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, which was actually already on my TBR.

Moving on to what I liked about the book. I can’t deny I liked the writing. I connected with these characters. Not because I pitied them, but because they had such rich and emotive back stories. I liked the depth that Cummins brought to Lydia’s character and her relationship with Javier, Rebeca’s depiction of her mystical village in the cloud forest, Soledad’s quiet and reverent love for her sister and father, and the relationship that developed between Lydia and Luca, born of the grief they shared. I liked the exploration of how the immediate need to survive can overpower trauma and the fear that arises out of having no one you can trust – when anyone could be a potential informant. How violence can make you doubt even the authenticity of a 10 year old boy and how even in periods of extreme stress, people are still willing to sacrifice anything to help someone else in need.

Once I started this book, I struggled to put it down. I was on edge the entire time I was reading it and even though this will never make the reader understand how it feels to be in the characters situation first hand, I really felt the sense of urgency, the fear, and the unknown plaguing these characters throughout the course of the book. I don’t regret reading it, in fact I am definitely glad that I did. I lament that Latinx writers are not getting the same exposure as Cummins did, but I am glad to have been exposed to this story. I will try and do my best to pick up some other books on the subject with authors more closely connected to their subject matter. Looking forward to discussing this one at book club!

Wild at Heart

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: K.A. Tucker
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Feb. 2020 (read Mar. 2020)
Series: Wild #2

Okay, I have many feelings about Wild at Heart and it’s time to write them down before I forget! I was super apprehensive when I first heard that Tucker was writing a sequel to The Simple Wild. The Simple Wild was an unexpected favourite read from 2018, so I was kind of excited when I heard about Wild at Heart because I wanted to see what happened to Calla and Jonah and laugh along at all their witty banter again. But I’m also weary of books with sequels that don’t really need them because they’re often pandering to the readers or cheapen the story from the original book. Plus I really didn’t like Tucker’s new book from last year and I was afraid she was a one hit wonder.

But there’s a lot to like about Wild at Heart! I’m don’t think it has quite the same charm as The Simple Wild, but I really liked the direction Tucker decided to go with the story in her sequel. It was easy to predict the trajectory of the story, like I could pretty much guess it without even reading the synopsis, but it ended up being less predictable than I thought and explored a lot of new themes.

So let’s get into it. If you haven’t read The Simple Wild, please don’t bother with this review, just go check out my glowing review for the first book. For readers who have read The Simple Wild, but not Wild at Heart, I’ll try and keep it spoiler free or give you a warning if I’m about to get into major spoilers.

What made Wild at Heart a winner for me was that it really met the requirements of what I’m looking for in a New Adult book. There’s so few good books out there in the New Adult genre and until I read this book, I didn’t realize how much I’m actually looking for relatable fiction about adults who have started their career, but haven’t yet moved into the parenting world. So much literature is either YA or about fully developed families. That’s all totally fine and I’m sure I’ll be thrilled once I enter that next demographic, but right now it was so refreshing to read about a mature couple just trying to make it work and figure out their professional lives. Wild at Heart is free of childish relationship drama and older family drama. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love me a good family drama, but this really delivered something that I haven’t seen in many books.

At the end of The Simple Wild, Jonah shows up in Toronto to ask Calla to move to Anchorage with him. We don’t know what she decides, but it’s a safe assumption that she says yes. Wild at Heart picks up exactly where The Simple Wild left off and we see Calla pack up her life in Toronto to go all in on a life in Alaska with Jonah.

The move is scary, but also exciting, and at the beginning Calla and Jonah strike a wonderful balance of accommodating one another and making compromises to try and make each other happy. As you can imagine though, as time goes on, things become more challenging. Calla struggles to fit in in the Alaskan wild and Jonah stresses about money and doing something where he feels he’s making a meaningful contribution to the world. Neither doubts their love for the other, but they have to acknowledge that the new relationships is not without its struggles.

The first half of the book does have a bit of a meandering plot. It’s not obvious where the story is going and their relationship is still in its honeymoon phase, and so it’s somewhat lacking in tension. However I don’t fault Tucker for this because what I think she does provide is a very accurate portrayal of a relationship between two mature adults. It was wonderful to read about two people thinking about buying their first home together and making decisions about their professional careers. I just bought my first home and it wasn’t until Calla and Jonah started house hunting that I realized I’ve literally never seen this aspect of a relationship portrayed in a book before! It’s so much more common to read about how a couple falls in love, or how a married couple is struggling. There are so few stories dedicated to what happens after the big romantic gesture that brings a couple together. Arguably this is because romantic tension is what sells a story and it’s just not as exciting to read about the “happily ever after”, but it really worked in this book and I found it extremely relatable.

The other thing I liked about this book was Calla and Jonah’s maturity. Sure,they have their moments of weakness, and I kept waiting for them to fall apart, which they inevitably do, but not at all in the way I expected. They’re both afraid of resenting each other and they put a lot of effort into how they communicate with each other. Resentment has always been what has scared me the most about my own relationships. My fear is that if communication breaks down, then resentment builds, and that is what can ultimately kill a relationship. I spend so much time in my own life ensuring that resentment stays out of my relationships, and it was really nice to see that maturity reflected in these characters. I think Tucker had an easy narrative she could have followed in this book and she could have dramatized Calla and Jonah’s relationship more, but I’m glad she didn’t. I think it would have cheapened the story. Instead this was more a book about two people learning to live with each other and deciding if it’s something they can do forever.

I will admit, Tucker is pretty gratuitous with the sex scenes in this book. None of them were as romantic as their first night together in the safety cabin in The Simple Wild and they did start to get a bit repetitive after a while because apparently they’re both just so damn perfect. But if you’re coming to this series as a romance reader, you’ll probably be pretty happy. The book does have a lot of side plots though, which give the story more substance and I really enjoyed meeting all the new characters. I liked both Calla’s relationship with Muriel and with Roy, though I would have loved to see her make some real girl friends earlier in the book, because I think that would have made the transition a lot easier for Calla. I was really hoping for her to strike up a close friendship with Marie because I think that would have been quite radical and progressive, but I think we ended up getting something in the middle.

To conclude, Wild at Heart was a real winner for me. It wasn’t quite a 5 star read, but I’d put it at a solid 4.5 stars. Please bring this energy and insight with you to your next book K.A. Tucker, because Say You Still Love Me was such a miss for me and I really want to love all your books!