Watch Over Me

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Dec. 2020)

Watch Over Me was an impulse buy at a local bookstore. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Nina LaCour’s other book, We Are Okay, and the phrase “aged out of foster care” in the book synopsis intrigued me. Plus the cover art and end pages for this book are absolutely gorgeous, so I wanted it for my shelf. Publishers, never underestimate the power of beautiful end pages! I really wish more books had them.

Anyways, I started reading this almost right away and it’s one of those slow burn character driven novels that I absolutely love. The plot wasn’t quick paced, but I was sucked into the story and more or less read it in two sittings (it’s a short book). This was a weird mix of magical realism and ghosts and it just really worked for me.

18 year old Mila has aged out of foster care and been accepted to work as a teaching intern on a farm. The owners, Terry and Julia, have supported many foster children over the years and offer Mila room and board in exchange for help teaching some of their existing foster children. Mila eagerly accepts and travels to the remote farm to stay in her little one room cabin.
 
At first everything seems too good to be true. Everyone on the farm is extremely welcoming and she finally has a little space and family to call her own. But she soon discovers that the farm is haunted and that she may be forced to confront the trauma of her past. 

It’s a bit of a weird book and I could definitely see this not being for everyone, but I really loved it. First off, the writing is gorgeous – I really felt that there were no words or ideas out of place. At 250 pages, with a large font, it’s a short book, but I felt that the author said what she needed to say and then ended it. She spent time on what mattered and didn’t waffle around on what didn’t. 

Ultimately this is a story of grief and loss and learning to forgive ourselves. Mila had a very traumatic childhood, which compelled her to make choices that she’s not proud of. Yet she’s still an incredibly kind and loving person – her mistakes have not influenced her caring demeanor and ability to see good in others. But they are tearing her apart inside and not permitting her to grow and flourish. 

I really didn’t know how this book was going to go once Mila showed up on the farm. There’s an atmosphere of grief and longing that permeates throughout the entire novel and I wasn’t sure whether to expect good or bad things from the farm and the people who lived there. Everyone was so kind at the farm that I kept waiting for a big reveal for what’s actually going on underneath the surface. This happened, but not in the way I expected.
 
Overall, LaCour does a really good job of conveying the longing we all feel to be loved and accepted. Though Mila is forced to confront her demons, she finds everything she’s ever been longing for on the farm. We can always begin anew. We don’t have to be defined by the mistakes of our past and we are always still worth being loved. Especially in these pandemic times, aren’t we really all just longing for home? Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a person, but we all long to belong.

Hollowpox

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica Townsend
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct. 2020 (read Oct. 2020)
Series: Nevermoor Book #3

I wish I’d taken the time to write a review for Hollowpox closer to when I actually read it, but that’s pretty much the story of my life this year.

What to say about a series that is just so fun and perfect. What can I add that I haven’t already said in the first two reviews? I decided to re-read the first two books before reading Hollowpox, which was definitely a good decision because I’d forgotten almost everything that happened in Wundersmith. Seriously, almost every single twist caught me by surprise again, so it was a real joy to basically experience it for the first time again. 

Given the choice between the three books, I’d probably say this one is my least favourite, but know that it is a super high bar and I still gave this book 5 stars. Everything about the Nevermoor series is so wunderful. The world building is excellently managed, the writing and plot are fun, the characters have depth, and there’s an intriguing mystery that threads its way throughout the entire series. Jessica Townsend has created something magical and along with her complex cast of characters, she weaves a number of subplots into the story that have real life relevance and meaning. 

At the same time though, the series does have an element of frustration because there are a lot of unanswered questions and you want answers. I’ve seen some criticism of this book that it doesn’t take the story anywhere new. I can understand some of the criticism – people want to unravel the greater mystery of Nevermoor, but I disagree that Hollowpox had no relevance. We learn so much more in this book about the Wretched Arts and Morrigan develops so much of her power (even if some think she is still woefully under trained). The very mystery of where the Hollowpox came from reveals so much to us about this world and the relationships that exist between every faction of it. I thought it struck a good balance of giving us answers without giving the game away. 

With a series like this, it’s really all about the journey and I will happily read a dozen more books about Morrigan Crow and Nevermoor! 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

Addie LaRue was my book club’s pick for December. Despite having already read a lot of V.E. Schwab’s work and having liked most of it, I wasn’t super enthused to pick this one up for some reason. It’s probably related to my ongoing fatigue with fantasy, but mostly I just wasn’t that into the premise of a 300 year long love affair with the devil.

I heard a lot of good things about this book though and I ended up eating my words as I was completely sucked into the narrative almost immediately. Addie is born in the late 1600’s and yearns for the opportunity to travel and really experience life. She’s disenfranchised by the expectations of her sex and wants to marry for love rather than duty. So on the eve of her wedding, she strikes a deal with the devil to allow her to escape her obligations and be granted the time to live her life. The catch, she becomes invisible. She can still interact with people, but the second she is out of their sight, they immediately forget her – nor can she tell them her name – giving her a long life, but one where she is unable to develop relationships or leave a mark on the world.

If this sounds like a nightmare to you, it is to Addie as well. The first few years of her life are dedicated to just surviving in 1700’s Paris. It was horrifying to read about, but Addie is still determined to make the most of her life and does her best with the gift of time she has been given.

Like I said. I was sucked into the story pretty quickly. Addie was ahead of her time and her determination and stubbornness are endearing. The devil continually tries to break her, but it only spurs Addie on and she becomes more determined in her quest to leave her mark on the world. She discovers that while she cannot be remembered herself, she can inspire ideas and dedicates the rest of her life to seeking out artists and musicians for whom she can be a muse. Until 2014 when she walks into a bookstore in New York and suddenly everything changes.

While this is a compelling story, it’s also a long one. The story jumps back and forth between the past and modern day. Initially I was more intrigued in Addie’s early days trying to make sense of her curse, while after Henry enters the story, I wanted to spend more time in the modern day. The story is both entertaining and made me think a lot, but I also thought it could have been about 100 pages shorter. The length and scope of storytelling definitely made me feel like I was reading an epic, but I think the author could have shortened a few parts of the book. After a while the past did start to feel a bit repetitive and I wanted to spend more time in the present since at least something new was happening there. 

I also felt there were a few plot holes with how Addie’s curse actually worked, but I can let it go because it doesn’t take away from what the author is trying to evoke. It’s both enthralling and horrifying to think of what it would be like to have all the time in the world but to be forgettable. I really enjoyed the relationship that developed between Addie and Luc over the years and despite the length, I did really enjoy reading this one. Can’t decide where it sits in my repertoire of Schwab books though… certainly better than her monsters duology, but on par with Vicious and Darker Shade of Magic. 

Transcendent Kingdom

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.

Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.

Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.

I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.

That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom. 

But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place. 

But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.

Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.

Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing. 

The Pull of the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emma Donaghue
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: July 2020 (read Oct. 2020 on Audible)

With everything that’s going on right now, I was super intrigued by the plot of The Pull of the Stars. It’s set in 1918 Ireland during the last global pandemic. The entire book revolves around 30 year old nurse Julia, who works in the maternity ward of the Dublin hospital. However during the pandemic, she is assigned to the pandemic part of the maternity ward, which is where all the women with flu symptoms have been sent.

The Pull of the Stars wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was definitely compelling. Emma Donaghue made the somewhat interesting choice to set almost the entire novel within the hospital over a span of only 2-3 days. Throughout that time, we see the strain that Julia is under as a nurse and the limited resources of the hospital due to the pandemic. Donaghue focuses both on the challenges the flu has on the mothers and their labours (in many cases it caused the women to go into pre-mature labour, which obviously complicated the births), as well as the challenges women in general faced during the time period.

At 30, Julia is unmarried and considered a bit of a maid. Besides nursing, she mostly takes care of her brother, who came back from the war severely traumatized. The hospital is extremely understaffed, so they bring in a young volunteer named Bridie to help in the ward. Bridie was raised in the convent by nuns and her situation shines a light on the catholic church and the unfair advantage they took of girls and women without families or who found themselves in bad situations. Bridie was abused by the nuns and then forced to continue working for them to pay off her indenture for the care she received as a girl (even though the nuns are paid by the state). Donaghue explores this theme of abuse of power by the church throughout the novel and I found it really eye-opening and enraging.

Finally, the novel also has a small focus on female doctor, Kathleen Lynn, a former rebel who’s supposedly on the run from police. I liked how Donaghue explored what it meant to be a female doctor at the time, how she was perceived by men, and how her approach to medicine and labour differed from that of the male doctors. She definitely saw more of the humanity of the new mothers when they experienced complications in labour and generally was less judgmental of those who had fallen pregnant outside of wedlock.

So overall I thought it was a really interesting book. The themes were subtle and a lot of time did focus on the new mothers and their complicated births, so I liked how the author explores the other links between church and state, especially since it’s so relevant with the story being set in 1918 Ireland. The only thing I didn’t like is that there’s a hasty romance thrown into the story near the end that felt very much out of place. I get what Donaghue was trying to do and I appreciate her for trying to explore some other themes, but it just didn’t work for me. It was too short lived and I don’t think it really added much to the story overall. 

Otherwise, this was a good book that wasn’t too long or overwritten. I listened to it on audiobook and thought the narrator did a good job.