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!

Things You Save in a Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Katherine Center
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Sep. 2019)

Things You Save in a Fire is a book I was wildly excited for, but somehow got missed in my reviews. It’s now been about a month and a half since I read it, but I still really want to review it, so I’m going to do my best, but must admit that some of the details are a little fuzzy.

Things You Save in a Fire is about firefighter Cassie Hanwell. Cassie graduated top of her class and has spent the last few years building up a good reputation for herself at a progressive firehouse in Texas. She’s well respected by the rest of the male firefighters and has the pleasure of working for another female fire chief. But then at the peak of her career, her estranged mother asks her to move to Boston for a year to help her recover her health after a recent surgery. Cassie is reluctant to return, but due to other circumstances, it ends up not being a bad time for her to try something new.

The thing is, her firehouse in Texas was pretty progressive and well funded, but her new firehouse in Boston is not. The firehouse has fallen into disrepair is not well equipped in terms of what Cassie would consider important safety equipment. But the biggest difference is that Cassie is the first female to ever be hired at the firehouse and the male firefighters are not pleased about it. They’re used to things running a certain way and having the freedoms to act and speak as they choose, and despite Cassie’s protests that they can do and say all the same things around her, they choose to believe that they can’t.

As a female, Cassie has obviously had to work twice as hard to gain the respect of her peers, but she’s never worked in an old-school-boys-club firehouse like this one and she is really challenged. Cassie is used to training hard and knows how to fit in, when to speak up, and when to stay quiet, but she really struggles to be taken seriously and the other firefighters continue to be threatened by her female presence in their traditionally male place of work.

On paper, this story has everything I usually look for in a book. Although it is a romance, which is not something I’m usually drawn to, it is a book about powerful women subverting the status quo. There were parts of this book that I really liked – it draws attention to the challenges women face in male fields – how they have to work so much harder to be taken seriously and that everything that is expected of them is contradictory. You have to be as good as your male counterparts, but you can’t be better than them lest they feel emasculated by you. You can’t be girly, but you’ll never be one of the boys. And you can’t expect to be treated differently, even though everyone adamantly treats you differently. On top of the challenges at work, Cassie struggles with an incident that happened to her in her past. An incident that has made her keep her distance from dating for many years and is triggering when she finally develops a crush on one of the other firefighters.

Like I said, there’s a lot to like. Cassie is powerful, but also immensely vulnerable. She has built up a wall around her in order to keep herself safe, but you want nothing more than for her to finally tear that wall down so that she can really experience and interact with the world. So overall I quite liked the story. The romance was a little embarrassing at times, but overall I bought into it. While I generally liked the book though, there were definitely some parts where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and wished the author had maybe taken a slightly different approach.

This is namely when Cassie repeatedly shows up the guys in her firehouse. I understand that Cassie has to work really hard to be taken seriously, but I was frustrated by how much she relied on physical strength to show up her colleagues or try and gain their respect. It just felt like she was good at everything and I didn’t buy that she would continuously beat everyone in every challenge. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, just that no one is that good at everything. I think its still okay to let female characters be vulnerable and not the best at things. It’s unrealistic to think that to be a successful female firefighter, you have to epically better than your male peers at everything. That is never going to happen and it’s discouraging to portray this as the only way to be successful in this field.

Cassie was just good at everything, even non physical feats, like applying for funding. Now don’t get me wrong because I thought this was actually a brilliant example of where a woman would bring valuable skills to a firehouse and a great example of how you don’t need to best everyone physically to be an asset. Though Cassie was vulnerable emotionally, I just would have liked to see a little more vulnerability at work.

Overall, I did like the book, but I didn’t love it and this was what made it a run of the mill 3 star read for me instead of a 4. A good read, but not a great one.

Special thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press, who provided me with a free e-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Turn of the Key

Rating:
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Sep. 5, 2019 (read May 2019)

Let’s just start by saying: I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s written and it’s taken me a while to figure out what it is I like so much about her. None of her books are my favourite, yet I always can’t wait to get my hands on her newest book. It took a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I love her books because they are just so damn readable. She has this old school Gothic mystery thing going on and her closed-door crimes are very reminiscent of Agatha Christie.

The Turn of the Key has similar elements to some of her other books, but I actually found it quite different. Ware takes a different approach to this book, telling us upfront what the central crime is, just not who is involved or how it happens. Rowan Caine is our main character and has been working as a nanny for the past few years when she takes a position in a private home in remote Scotland looking after the Elincourt family. Sandra and Bill are both wealthy architects and have converted their home from an old estate into a modern architectural marvel, integrating all kinds of fancy technology into the design to make it a “smart home”.

It’s a lucrative position for Rowan, but when Sandra and Bill take off immediately after arriving, leaving her alone in the huge house with their 4 children, she starts to wonder if there may be more secrets about this post than she was made aware. Previous nannies quit the position because of fears of the house being haunted, of which Rowan is skeptical, but as strange things start happening, she can’t help but wonder if the weird things happening are a result of the faulty smart home technology, or something more sinister.

Ware takes an interesting approach by opening the story with Rowan in prison for the death of one of her charges. We don’t know which child has died, or how, but Rowan maintains that she is innocent and recounts her story in a letter to a lawyer requesting he help her. This book is creepy. I could see how some readers might not like it as much as some of her others because it is more of a slow burn mystery, but I really liked it. Ware spends a lot of time developing the atmosphere of the story and drawing us further and further in to this creepy house in Scotland. It does take a while for the action to get going, but I loved how remote the story was and how it made me question every single interaction for potential answers. I also loved her use of smart home technology in the story. Technology has gotten so creepy and this really drew attention to the ways it has invaded our lives and in some cases made things more complicated.

One of the main complaints I’ve had with Ware’s books in the past is that I think she has really weird pacing. She tends to hit the climax at around 70% in the book, the mystery always continues, but when you hit the high point that early it’s hard to stay engaged for the last 30%. That was not the case with this book. She keeps you on edge, with the creepiness continuing to amp up until the very end.

The only thing I will say is that things finish up so quickly at the end and are so easily explained that it was a bit of a let down. I mostly correctly predicted the ending, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. The atmosphere was what won this book for me and I really liked the creepiness factor. My only complaint now is that I have to wait 4 months for everyone else to read this and another year or more for her next book!

Special thanks to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss+ for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.

A Bend in the Stars

Rating:
Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.

I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.

A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.

The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.

Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.

At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.

But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.

I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.

So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.

Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.

The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.

Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.

A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.