The It Girl

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Jul. 2022

The title of this book has been driving me nuts ever since I saw the cover. I hate that the title is in all-caps because I can’t help but read it as The I.T. Girl every time! After having read it, I can confirm this is about an “it” girl and in fact has nothing to do with I.T. In case you also work in a technical field and were unsure, lol.

It’s no secret that I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s ever written. In terms of storytelling, I don’t think she’s the best mystery/thriller writer ever and I actually rate most of her books very middle of the road. But I do think she is an excellent suspense writer and I find her books so compulsively readable, which is why I return to them over and over again. Even though I haven’t loved all her books, this was the first one where I actively struggled to read it.

This book is about 50-100 pages longer than all of her other books, and it felt like it. She employs the dual timeline in this book and while I think it was effective, in the first half, it only served to slow down the story. Hannah Jones is our main character and we learn from the start that her Oxford University experience came to a quick end when her roommate, April, is murdered at the end of her first year. An Oxford Porter is convicted of the crime based on Hannah’s testimony and when he dies in prison, Hannah starts questioning her memory and whether there was more to that night than she remembers.

The story is told between flashbacks to her time at Oxford and her cool group of friends that centered around “it girl” April Coutts-Cliveden, and her quiet current day life in Edinburgh. I was mildly interested in her life at Oxford – April is an interesting character. She is manipulative and makes a lot of questionable choices, but you know from the beginning that she ends up dead, so it’s hard to be overly critical of her. Hannah is more of a forgettable character, which is not aided by the fact that in her desire to forget April’s death, she is leading a very forgettable life herself – a life that is undeniably tedious and boring to read about. 

I understand why Ware uses the dual timeline and I do think it is effective later in the story, but it’s too indulgent in the early stages and it slowed down the pace. I think if the book had been shortened by about 50 pages, it would have tightened up the story a lot and made the whole book more compelling. In general, the second half of the book was executed better and I was much more invested in the story past the 50% mark. It has some classic Ruth Ware twists and I felt like we were finally getting to the grit of the story.

Overall, I think Oxford is a compelling setting for a story like this because of the whole “closed campus” intrigue. The notion of the “it girl” was interesting – April is a vibrant and outgoing character with a lot of self-confidence, yet there’s no denying that she is mean-spirited. Why do these two things often seem to go hand in hand? Do people get drunk on their popularity and privilege? Why do other people tolerate such meanness from their supposed friends? These are all interesting questions (to me anyways), that I would have loved to see Ware address to give the book more depth. Unfortunately, we don’t look at any of these themes and I was left feeling conflicted about what I was supposed to think about April. 

Overall, I think this book held a lot of promise, but unfortunately was poorly executed. Not her best.

Lessons in Chemistry

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Bonnie Garmus
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022

I have been seeing this book absolutely everywhere this year! When it first popped on my radar I immediately wrote it off because it sounded kind of boring and I wasn’t interested in reading about a cooking show. But then I kept seeing non stop reviews for it and my book club decided to read it and I became pretty excited to finally pick it up.

I was a little bit nervous because I find when a book is really hyped up it often doesn’t live up to the hype, but this one actually did! I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t have the highest expectations, but it was so much funnier than I was anticipating! I’ve seen it compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which I think is apt; and I would also compare it to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1960’s and focuses on the life of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist turned TV cooking personality. As you can imagine, being a female chemist in the 1960’s was not a fun time and Elizabeth is forced to endure sexist attitudes everywhere she goes. She is fired from her research job when she becomes pregnant and a series of mishaps land her with the opportunity to work in television, which she begrudgingly accepts in order to provide for herself and her young daughter.

I do want to acknowledge upfront that this is 100% white feminism rhetoric. I’m sure that women of colour were a lot more concerned with the human rights movement and segregation in the early 1960’s than they were about breaking into the extremely racist and sexist academic spaces. While Elizabeth had limited access to these spaces, BIPOC women were shut out of them entirely and it’s important to acknowledge this disparity and that the setting is very white feminist in nature.

Acknowledging the limitations of the narrative, I enjoyed it for what it was. I think it’s a real skill to write the kind of conflict that is both relatable and enraging while maintaining sharp wit and humour. In this case I think the humour is actually key because otherwise the narrative could easily get bogged down in anger, turning it from a perceptive comedy to a drama. Some might argue that with these kinds of themes, maybe it should be a drama, but I liked how Garmus uses the juxtaposition of straight-faced humour to expose blatant sexism.

The women in this story were a joy to read. Elizabeth is downright comical, which eases the tension, while Mad and Harriett are great supporting characters. I was even endeared to characters like Ms. Frask by the end of the book. In some ways, women who enable sexism sometimes seem worse than men, so it was prudent to be reminded that those women are often victims themselves. Although it is a fine line and we should be wary of any kind of gatekeeping, especially keeping in mind that though white women have broken into many of these academic spaces in more recent years, BIPOC women are often still excluded.

There are some really frustrating antagonists in the book, but there were still some meaningful male characters. I had a soft spot for Calvin and I thought characters like Dr. Mason, Walter, and the Reverend were also great additions. The inclusion of a dog as a character is both genius and insane. It feels like it should be out of place, but it somehow works so well in the story. Which is really what left me so impressed with the book. It has a surprisingly large cast of characters and yet somehow they’re all well realized. I think it’s a skill to carry so many meaningful secondary characters and when done well, it really adds to a story. It’s what brings a story to life and enables the characters to walk right off the page.

I haven’t really gotten into the plot – this book covers a lot of ground and I liked the way Garmus ties everything together. I did find the ending a bit abrupt and I didn’t like the storyline about Calvin’s past and the mysterious donors. It got a little bit confusing and garbled at the end and I don’t think it added much to the overall story.

Keeping in mind the limitations of the character diversity, I do think the book captures women’s desire to break out of traditional gender roles and find their own place in the world. It’s not a new concept in 2022, but I still enjoyed Elizabeth’s character and the humour Garmus brought to the story. She is unapologetic about her desire for more and she doesn’t ask permission or try to manipulate her way into her field. She knows she deserves to be there on the basis of her drive and accomplishments and she’s not going to dim her shine to make some self-important man feel like he’s doing her a favour.

So overall, I can acknowledge that the book has some shortcomings, but I still had a great time reading it!

The Winners

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Oct. 2022
Series: Beartown #3

This is the book I’ve been waiting for since 2018. I didn’t really like Us Against You that much on my first read through because I found it very depressing, but I did concede that it works as the second book in a 3-part series. When I re-read Us Against You a few weeks ago, I did like it a lot more knowing there was more to the story. 

The Winners is a beast of a book at almost 700 pages. It brought exactly what I was expecting in terms of the quality of writing and depth of characters. We get to revisit a lot of characters: Benji, Amat, Bobo, Ana, Zackell, and the entirety of the Andersson family, while also getting introduced to some new characters. Primarily, a family from Hed, a young boy named Matteo, and a new star hockey player: Big City. I was sad to lose all of the hockey players from the first book – I never liked Lyt, but I can’t deny he brought a lot of conflict to the story.

I love how Backman continues to examine Maya’s story and its lasting impact on her family. In some ways the family has recovered and in other ways it’s still very broken. Kira and Peter keep breaking and mending my heart in every book and I liked the exploration of your sense of self discovery within a relationship. Sometimes we need to prioritize ourselves, sometimes we need to compromise for the good of our partner, and sometimes we need to both be our own person. When we compromise too much we risk losing what drew us to one another in the first place. At least that’s my cryptic take while trying not to give anything away.

Likewise, I loved where Backman took Amat in this story. It reiterated a lot of David’s fears from the first book about letting young stars rise too quickly. Amat had nowhere to belong. He outgrew the Hollow, while never really fitting in with the rich kids. He was propped up by the club as a mascot when he was a winner, but he was only useful to them when he was winning. I thought his rebellion was sad, but natural when you feel you’ve been used by your community and you know that no one would look twice at you if you didn’t win. The idea that you owe people something because you couldn’t have got there without their charity, but that they were only charitable because you had something that they desired or could benefit from. My only complaint was that I wanted to see Amat play more hockey! For a book about hockey, a very limited amount of hockey actually takes place.

I’ve always loved Bobo’s transformation and I feel like he really came into his own in this book. I love when authors take questionable characters and re-invent them to show our capacity for change. Bobo goes from bully, to friend, to coach, to lover. Overall, I’m not sure the inclusion of Hannah and Jonny’s storyline really added that much to the narrative, but it did give us the opportunity to see things from another perspective and I love how Bobo becomes the voice of reason between the two towns. That someone who starts off as a bully can become the voice of reason and a vehicle for good.

Finally, let’s talk about Benji. Is there anyone whose favourite character isn’t Benji? This quiet, broken boy with his strong moral compass and penchant for violence to dull his own pain breaks my heart in every scene. Backman really lays it on strong with the foreshadowing of Benji’s story and even though you know you’re on a train barreling toward a broken track, you can’t help but think that maybe you can pull the brakes and save yourself the heartache. But I thank Backman for the friendship he creates between Benji, Maya, and Big City. And for Benji’s big heart. He’s one of those people that you wish could see himself through the eyes of characters like Alicia, rather than through his own distorted lens. The scene where they all play a fun game of hockey before the rink closes is probably my favourite scene in the entire book.

But let’s talk a bit about the plot. Beartown has a very strong sense of plot. There’s a catalyst and you know where the plot is going, even if you don’t quite know how we’ll get there. I found that to be a bit lacking in both sequels. With Us Against You and The Winners, I felt that Backman had developed such meaningfully real characters that they literally walked off the page and he couldn’t ignore the pull to continue writing about them. There are major events in both novels, but they felt more tangential to the characters. In some ways the plot in the Winners felt a bit too random for me. The writing has gravitas, but the way things unfolded felt chaotic.

I loved the inclusion of Ruth’s story and the comparison between her and Maya and how these things often go, but I felt Matteo to be a bit too radical. I liked the juxtaposition of his character when it came to the funerals and how he and Leo and Ruth and Maya were living the same but different lives. But the ending felt like it was there to break my heart for the sake of it rather than for purpose. The inclusion of characters like Mumble are a brilliant way to draw parallels to the reality of how these kind of events unfold and how the silence surrounding them can tear us apart. Rarely do they culminate in the kind of violence we see at the end of The Winners, which is why I found it less relatable and impactful. I’m being purposefully vague to avoid spoilers, but basically I want meaningful social commentary that is still believable. 

While I still really liked the book, my main criticism is that it was just too long. It’s a great story, but it takes so long for the plot to get moving and there weren’t even close to 700 pages worth of notable events. The entire book takes place over the span of 2 weeks and it felt like it dragged in the first half. It’s a character driven book, I get it, but it could easily have been 150 pages shorter in my opinion. 

Anyways, it’s still a strong 4 stars from me. Even with flaws, any book and author that can make me feel so attached to fictional characters is talented. Like I said, I honestly feel like these characters walk right off the page into reality. They are so well developed that you can predict how they are going to act and react. I’m honestly sad to say goodbye to this world, though I won’t miss the heartache!

Black Cake

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2022 (read Sep. 2022 on Audible)

I have been sitting on this book all year! I’ve heard so many good things about it and have been meaning to pick it up for months, so I finally got the audiobook version and flew through it in a few days. 

Black Cake tells the story of two siblings and the life of their mother, who has just passed away. The siblings have been estranged for several years, but their mother, Eleanor, leaves a recording for them to listen to together telling the real story of her life – all the things she never told them about herself. 

It has a bit of a slow start, focusing on the 2 siblings, Byron and Benny, but once they start listening to Eleanor’s recording, I was hooked. Eleanor grew up in one of the Caribbean Islands (exact location not named), which has left its mark on her entire family, despite her children never having been there. 

It’s a long book, and as with most long books, I do think it could have been shorter, but the author does cover a lot of ground. We are introduced to a lot of characters over the course of the novel and while it was sometimes overwhelming, every character was well placed and had a role to play. It’s a smartly written book, it could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s the kind of narrative where there are no thoughts out of place. The author is intentional about both the plot and the characters and I like a book that is plotted that way. That said, while everything has its place, the author does tackle a lot and I think she could have done more justice to her ideas had she focused more on a few central themes (primarily as they relate to Eleanor). 

While I liked it a lot (it’s an engaging story), where I think it fails is in adequately developing Byron and Benny’s stories. Eleanor’s story is incredibly well developed, but for such a long book, I still didn’t really feel like I knew Benny or Byron or understood their relationship with one another. Their stories are briefly developed and we examine Benny’s struggles with being queer and Byron’s struggles with unconscious bias and racism in his workplace, but I felt their stories were topical and not given enough depth to be really meaningful.

Maybe it’s just that they paled next to Eleanor, but I felt that this story could have been historical fiction solely about Eleanor and it would have been just as good, if not better. There were complex relationships between all of the characters, but I do think the narrative is partially strained by the fact that we never get to meet Eleanor alive. Everything is recounted, which creates a level of separation between the events, how the main characters feel about them, and how the reader perceives them.

Despite how this review is making it seem, these are just minor criticisms of how it could have been improved, I did still really enjoy the book. It’s a great story and I loved the centering of it around the black cake. Culture and food do play a big role in who we are or become and I loved how the black cake grounds the story. I would definitely recommend and I’m interested to see what else Charmaine Wilkerson writes!

Love on the Brain

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Aug. 2022 (read Sep. 2022)

Oh dear, I haven’t written a book review since June… I usually don’t read a lot in the summer, although I did read more than I anticipated this year, so it’s time to get caught up!

Love on the Brain was one of my most anticipated new releases for 2022. The Love Hypothesis was wildly popular last year and I really loved it – in retrospect I can recognize that it has some flaws, but it opened me up to the whole world of romance reading, so I have to give it some credit. Love on the Brain is the second of Ali Hazelwood’s STEM novels, though she did write 3 novellas in between that I haven’t read. 

Love on the Brain features Bee and Levi, a brainy neuroscientist and engineer who end up working on an astronaut helmet together for NASA. They’re both leaders in their fields, but the catch is they used to be in grad school together, and Levi had a very clear dislike of Bee, so she’s not sure how they are going to work together.

From there it follows the trajectory you would expect of any romance novel. Bee has a very strong character voice and I won’t lie that I devoured this book in 3 days while on holiday. I love the setting of Hazelwood’s books and that they focus on women in STEM and the various injustices they face. Unfortunately, Love on the Brain just didn’t have the same charm as The Love Hypothesis and even though it’s very readable, I couldn’t overlook its shortcomings. 

Let’s start with what I liked. I did mostly like Bee as the main character. She’s funny and she has a strong personality. She’s not afraid to go for it and she does call people out on their shit instead of just suffering in silence. She was a victim in her previous relationship, but she didn’t let that define her. She did have a tendency to go off on tangents though and I did feel she was a little manic pixie dream girl in that she’s “not like other girls”. Otherwise, I liked her relationships with her sister and her assistant – I can’t remember her name, but omg, the assistant was hilarious! She was pretty much the highlight of the book for me.

Unfortunately I didn’t like a whole lot else after that. My biggest gripe is that Hazelwood does absolutely nothing new with this book. I think that Olive and Bee are quite different characters, but Levi and Adam are carbon copies of one another and it’s still impossible to ignore that this is just Adam Driver fan fiction. I’m over the whole brooding, tall man trope and the romance genre’s obsession with large men and tiny women. It’s like Hazelwood tried to shake up the characters by having Adam be mean to everyone and only nice to Olive, whereas Levi was supposedly nice to everyone and only mean to Bee, but they still read like the same person to me and it just made me not like Levi. At least I understood Olive’s attraction to Adam (he was nice), but Levi was a jerk to Bee. Personally, I would never have forgiven his dress code comment. Levi read like a mess, like he can’t act like a normal human being around the woman he likes?

Speaking of understanding the attraction – I’d love to know what either of these characters saw in one another? Seriously though? Levi has been supposedly in love with Bee since he met her and has been harbouring the same pathetic crush for 6 years? That ain’t romantic! Get a life man! The whole “it was always you” trope drives me nuts because people have way more depth than that. Who wants a lover that’s obsessed with them? Isn’t it way more romantic to fall in love with someone with other interests and a nuanced personality? Hazelwood tells us these two characters love each other, but I didn’t understand why. There’s no context as to why Levi likes Bee or vice versa. Sure, I could get Bee’s sexual fantasies about Levi, but what does he ever do that makes her look deeper? We are never shown what makes these two love each other.

Which brings me to my next gripe – the miscommunication trope. I don’t like the miscommunication trope on a good day, but this book was the miscommunication trope on steroids. God, the level of misunderstanding between the two characters was unbearable. Can we please just all stop being idiots? Why do these super smart scientists have the emotional intelligence of a potato? They were so juvenille, I couldn’t handle it.

Finally, let’s talk about the ending, because that really went off the rails. Suddenly we go from a romance novel to an action mystery? Which gets resolved in the span of a chapter? Have you lost your place in the world Hazelwood? The drama at the end felt so out of place and crammed into the final pages that my jaw was on the floor. It didn’t belong. I feel like Hazelwood wanted some kind of physical confrontation because all of her characters are based on Star Wars, which is action, but like, girl you’re gonna have to write a dark romance or a fantasy if you want to go there. The ending didn’t work here when the rest of the novel was extremely bubbly. Also, the fact that both characters are obsessed with Star Wars when the reader knows this book is basically Kylo Ren fanfic is too meta for me. 

Anyways, I should probably clue up this rant, but plotwise, I do want to say that what I found the most disappointing is that in addition to the characters having no depth, the plot had none either. I loved what TLH did with the sexual harassment and reporting storyline. I feel like Hazelwood had a lot of balls in the air about sexism in academia and the workplace, but I felt like they were all ideas and none of them were developed. The story didn’t have any real meaningful social commentary. Sure, she draws awareness to ideas like men stealing women’s ideas, not listening to them, or only acknowledging women’s legitimacy when it’s pointed out by another man, but as a woman in STEM, these are really basic concepts and she doesn’t do anything with them. The most focus was on admissions standards, which was great, but it still felt surface level. There was no real tension in the storyline and everything with Marie Curie being exposed was too easily resolved. I didn’t feel the anguish or despair. The situations just felt contrived. 

So yeah, I didn’t like it. Initially I rated it 3 stars because I still flew through it, it is an easy read, but after reflecting on all its flaws, I think I’m going to have to bump it down to a 2. I haven’t read her novellas, but I’ve seen other reviews saying it’s more of the same, so I think I’m probably going to have to give them a pass. I will probably still read her next book, but I hope she branches out a bit and does something new, because this was such a disappointment.