Swimming Back to Trout River

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Linda Rui Feng
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read May 2021)

I haven’t been seeing that much buzz about this book, so I have no idea how it got on my radar, but I found the name super compelling. Then when I read the plot and saw it was blurbed by Jean Kwok, I was super interested in reading it. 

What an understated book. It’s a simple plot with simple storytelling, but I really enjoyed it. I really like Linda Rui Feng’s style of writing and thought it was really lyrical storytelling about a family that becomes separated by time and circumstance. From the synopsis, this is the story of two parents who immigrate to America and leave their daughter with their parents in law, promising to come back for her on her 12th birthday. But the daughter, Junie, loves her life in Trout River and doesn’t know that her parents have become estranged in their new country.

The story delivered on this plot, but it’s really only a small part of what this book covers. I expected the book to mostly be about Junie, but it’s actually primarily about her parents and their connections to music. It’s not so much a multi generational story as a story of her parents growing up, their journey together, and then their journey apart. Her father, Momo, grows up in Trout River and is one of the first people to succeed and get out of the village, leaving to get a university education. There he meets Dawn, a budding violinist who teaches him to play ahead of China’s cultural revolution. Finally, he eventually meets his wife, Cassia, a nurse who has experienced her own loss through the revolution. 

Like I said, it’s an understated novel about growing up and subtly addresses the impact the cultural revolution had on many of its citizens, without being a heavy novel solely about the revolution. It’s about family, the ones we make and the ones we choose, and who we might be if events in our lives had gone differently. It’s not a long book and made for a really enjoyable read. 

The only part I didn’t really like was the ending. I found it very abrupt and would have preferred to spend a bit more time getting to know Junie rather than just her parents. That said, I loved Dawn’s character and even though she wasn’t a part of the main family, she was my favourite part of the book! Check it out if you’re looking for something a little different.

What’s Mine and Yours

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Naima Coster
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy because I liked the audiobook narrator. I always have such a hard time finding audiobooks because I own so many hard copies of the books on my TBR and I don’t want to pay for them twice. I’ve seen a bit of buzz about What’s Mine and Yours, but I wish I was seeing more because this book was excellent! Honestly, I don’t know why this is only rated 3.67 on goodreads, I feel like it must be misunderstood because so many of the characters are unlikeable, but definitely a 4.5 star read for me.

Unfortunately the synopsis of the book is a bit misleading. The book is pitched as being about the lives of two students from North Carolina whose school is being forced to integrate. This is a small part of the story, but really this is a multi-generational saga about the families of those two students – the impact of their childhoods and their parents’ influence on who they become and how their lives continue to intersect throughout the years. It reminded me a little bit of Ask Again, Maybe because of the ripple effect that single circumstances can have on a person and on a family. In this case there’s not necessarily one catalyst so much as a series of events, but it still makes for a really interesting character study.

This novel touches on so many themes: grief, growing up, race, class, abuse, family, love. Gee grows up with his headstrong mother Jade, who wants the best for her son, but struggles to be there for him in the way he needs after a tragic incident. Noelle grows up under the shadow of her mother, a white woman who has been dealt her own difficult hand in life, but fails to recognize how her white privilege blinds her and creates a wedge between her and her half-Latina daughters.

With so much going on in the book, I did find it a little hard to follow by audiobook in the beginning. The author doesn’t use a linear timeline to tell the story, for a good reason understanding the surprising ending, but it did make it hard to follow at times. I think the strongest themes of the book are those of race and class, but Costa accomplishes a lot in under 350 pages. I didn’t love the ending, but I loved how this book is a character examination of these two families. The narrative isn’t proportionally split between all the characters, but by looking at each of the family members, we get to recognize the larger scope of the story. 

Lacey May was the most interesting character for me. I struggled with her character because she really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. She’s blind to how her children perceive her and she’s not ashamed of her blatant racism. Despite her strong character, she fails to be able to stand on her own two feet, always relying on the men around her, and even as an old woman, she still uses the same old antics to manipulate her daughters. But she makes for an interesting character study because you know there are tons more women out there just like her. 

Unfortunately the plot is already getting hazy in my memory, but definitely recommend this if you’re looking for a nuanced and engaging story!

With You All the Way

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cynthia Hand
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021)

I’m not quite sure how this book got on my radar – I like Cynthia Hand’s Lady Janies series that she wrote with two other authors, but I haven’t actually read any of her other stuff. I saw somewhere that this was a sex positive YA book and I guess I felt like I didn’t get enough of that as an actual young adult and decided to read it. It also might have been that the cover was gorgeous… who knows.

With You All the Way tells the story of 16 year old Ada. She wants to have sex with her boyfriend, but when she finds out he’s been cheating on her just before her family trip to Hawaii, her plans are dashed. At the same time, she is worried about her parents who seem to be losing their connection to one another and she’s constantly fighting with her older sister, who she used to feel very close to. She’s tired of sex being such a big deal and so she hatches a plan to lose her virginity while in Hawaii.

So what I did like about this book was the sister relationship. I love sister stories and I love family dramas, so I liked that the plot had a bit more depth to it than just a teenager trying to lose her virginity. But overall the book was a bit underwhelming for me. I thought Ada was going to be 18 and 16 just felt so young for a girl to be putting so much thought into sex (in reality I know it’s not, and me saying that is probably not very sex positive, but 16 year olds just seem like babies to me now). Though it is handled pretty well; Ada receives advice from her sister and while she’s anxious to lose her virginity, it’s never a shameful or embarrassing thing, so I did like that portrayal. (view spoiler)

But in reality, I am just too old for this book. I do think there’s lots of YA that can be enjoyed by adults, but I did feel that this is a YA book that really is intended for young adults, and that’s great! Young people should have books that focus on sex in a positive way, that tells them it’s okay to want to have sex and it’s okay to wait. You don’t have to put a ton of pressure on making your first time super special, but it’s also okay if you want to! 

Overall it’s a pretty quick read and I would recommend to teenagers, but otherwise maybe give it a pass.

Firekeeper’s Daughter

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Angeline Boulley
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021)

I’ve been putting off reviewing this book and I’m not sure why. Firekeeper’s Daughter is getting so much buzz this year, and with good reason. First off, the cover art is dreamy, and second, it’s the most wonderful mix of genres. It’s YA, which I know might be a turn off for some, but there’s so much else going on in this book, you don’t need to be a young adult to enjoy it.

Daunis Fontaine is an unenrolled member of the Ojibwe Nation. She’s about to start her first year of College and despite her lofty dreams, she decides to stay home for College to be closer to her mom and grandmother after the death of her Uncle. Daunis is a shining star, but unfortunately drugs have started making their way around her town and on the reservation. After a shocking murder, Daunis becomes entwined in the drug investigation and goes undercover with the FBI. They think the drug producers might be using traditional tribal medicine to create a new hallucinogen and Daunis is able to use her traditional knowledge to help in the investigation.

Daunis is a great character and Boulley does some really interesting things with this book. Daunis is coming to terms with the deaths of multiple people who were important in her life and the struggle of finding where she belongs. She’s biracial, so though she’s accepted within the Ojibwe Nation, she’s not an enrolled member and always feels one step removed from the tribe. She has a traumatic family history, having lost her Dad young, but has a close relationship with her step brother, her mother, and her Dad’s extended family. 

What makes this novel special is that it blends so many aspects of Ojibwe culture into the narrative. Boulley is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians and sets the story in an area that she knows well. She tackles a lot of different issues in her book, from racism and drug abuse, to grief and growing up. It’s a murder mystery, while also being a family drama. My only complaint is that it’s just too long. 500 pages is long for any book, but especially for a YA mystery novel. It felt like it took a long time for the narrative to really get going. It wasn’t uninteresting and I felt like I was given adequate time to really get to know and love the characters, but it was a little overdone and I think 100 pages could be cut without losing the impact of the story.

Otherwise, I would still recommend. We are seeing more and more books from indigenous authors, but this one definitely blew up in a big way, which is great to see. Definitely hope to see more from this author! 

Finlay Donovan is Killing It

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Elle Cosimano
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I listened to this entire audiobook during one rainy weekend while doing jigsaw puzzles and LOVED it! GabbyReads recommended it on her booktube channel and said it was a good audiobook, so I downloaded it on Audible and was immediately pulled into the story. The whole plot is an absolute nightmare train-wreck, but in the most unputdownable way!

Finlay Donovan has recently divorced her husband after he started shacking up with their realtor and she’s struggling to manage her two kids while simultaneously trying to deliver on a book deal for which she has huge writer’s block. She’s spent the advance on her book and the bills are piling up – if she doesn’t submit the rest of her book soon, she might be asked to return the advance.

She meets her agent in a shop to discuss the outline of her murder mystery and an eavesdropper misinterprets their conversation, thinking that Finlay is actually a hired killer. Finlay receives an anonymous note with a huge sum of money to dispose of the woman’s husband. The whole thing is a huge misunderstanding and Finlay tries to tell the woman she’s not a killer, but after doing some research on the husband and reflecting on the huge sum of money, is it possible she could be?

It sounds like an intense book, but the writing is so light and the author packs a ton of comic relief into the narrative that made it such a fun read. It reminded me a little of How to Get Away With Murder because of the run-away storyline. Finlay is a mess and she always seems to be a step behind everything that’s happening around her, which would make for a very stressful reading experience if not for Finlay and Vero’s comedy. 

I don’t want to give anything away about the story because you should definitely experience it for yourself – I’ll just say that Finlay and her sidekick, Vero, make for some truly excellent heroines. I don’t normally give 5 stars to mystery novels and this is by no means quality literary writing, but it was just so much fun to read and when I reflected on it, there was really nothing I would change about it, so 5 stars it is! Recommend if you’re looking to get out of a book slump!