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!

The Simple Wild

Rating: 
Author: K.A. Tucker
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

5 Stars?! Are you okay Maria? Are you really going to give a romance novel 5 stars??

This book was so out of my element that I feel like it actually came full circle so that it was exactly in my element. I don’t read very many purely romance novels, but I definitely love a good romance subplot in other genres. However, I was drawn to this book for the setting over the plot. I’ve been obsessed with Alaska ever since I read The Great Alone earlier this year and I couldn’t turn this book down,

I say it’s out of my element because it’s romance. But the setting is right up my alley. I’ve been living in Vancouver for the last five years and I’ve become a little bit obsessed with the great outdoors. I spent almost every weekend this summer either hiking, backpacking, camping, or kayaking, so I love books with isolated settings. Even though I would have had a totally different approach to visiting Alaska than Calla did, I still found this book very relatable.

Calla Fletcher was born in Alaska, but she’s spent her entire life in Toronto. Her mom fell in love with an Alaskan bush pilot, but she couldn’t handle the Alaskan wilderness and moved back to Toronto when Calla was only 2. Her dad, Wren, couldn’t bear to leave his plane company, Alaskan Wild, and over time, Wren and Calla became estranged.

Fast forward 24 years; Calla is 26 and has just been restructured out of her bank job. She loves city life and has been pursuing fashion and lifestyle blogging with her best friend Diana when she receives a call from Alaska that her Dad is sick and this may be her only chance to finally re-connect with him and re-visit the place where she was born. She’s out of a job and her and Diana think the photos would be great for their blog, so she makes the trip up to Bangor, Alaska.

In the beginning, Calla struggles with Alaskan life. She’s used to fast paced city life, being able to get a soy latte where ever she wants, and spending lots of time every day making herself look good for photos. Next to the wild people of Alaska, she seems vapid and vain. I’m a lot different than Calla. I don’t wear very much makeup and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at wearing the same grungy outfit every day if I had to (I certainly would never bring two large suitcases on a one week trip to the wilderness). But even so, she’s very relatable. I understand her desire to look good and take beautiful pictures. She’s in the great unknown and I would definitely be posting pictures all over my instagram if I was her. But she has a hard time adapting to the change of pace in Alaska and struggles with other emotional issues, like re-connecting with her sick father.

The setting of this story was different than I expected. I was expecting the gorgeous mountain and glacier views that I got in The Great Alone, but what we get instead is a dingy little town in the middle of the flat, Alaskan bush. I thought Tucker’s description of the run-down buildings when Calla first drives through town was so great because I could just picture this little town in my head and because it doesn’t have the stunning mountain backdrop that I was anticipating, it was a lot easier to relate with Calla’s initial culture shock. This book ended up being a lot more than just the setting of Bangor, but the community of it. You really get a sense of what it’s like to live in a backwater community in rural Alaska – the way people depend on one another and support each other. It gave the setting depth. And though Calla was slow to appreciate it, she got there in the end.

This was my second romance book in the last month (recently read Colleen Hoover’s, All My Perfects) and what I liked about both books was that they weren’t solely romance novels. I wouldn’t really even call The Simple Wild romance because it has so much else going for it. This book is really about all the different kinds of love in the world. It’s about making peace with your past, being open to new experiences, and making time for the things that really matter to you. Tucker strikes a wonderful balance between Calla’s relationship with her dad, the romance, and all the different kinds of platonic love that are showcased in this book.

So on to the romance! I haven’t even mentioned Jonah yet. It’s obvious from the synopsis where the book is going, but it was a super fun ride. Jonah is Wren Fletcher’s best pilot. He’s a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he has a lot of love for his job and helping the villages scattered around Alaska get the supplies and resources that they need. He will go above and beyond to help someone in need. But this is not the person Calla first meets. Wren sends Jonah to pick Calla up in Anchorage and they get off to a bad start. Jonah has seen girls like Calla before and he doesn’t have any patience for them. He thinks she’s entitled and vapid. But Calla also has little time for Jonah. He’s rude to her from the get go and dismisses her intelligence. It’s the classic couple hates each other, misunderstands each other, and then loves each other dynamic. But it worked.

Calla is many of the things Jonah thinks of her, but she is not dumb and she does care about her dad and his business. In the same way, Jonah was many of the things she thought about him, he was very mean to her and his honesty starts them off on the wrong foot, but he is also a deeply caring individual. I definitely loved Jonah. Any guys who loves the outdoors already has brownie points in my book and I liked that he was honest, even though it was sometimes hurtful. He realized his mistakes and apologizes in his own way, but I think he also had a lot of fun bantering with Calla and kept it up because it was fun for him to set her off kilter. I also loved that he was able to laugh at himself and his joy for life.

I definitely got a kick out of all the pranks they played on one another. I was a little concerned when he stole her make-up bag because make-up is definitely a crutch for some people and has the potential to be pretty traumatizing (plus there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving make-up). But I ultimately decided it was okay because Calla’s prank on Jonah was pretty bold and could easily have crossed the line. She pulled a prank on him that made him more attractive to her and by swiping her make-up from her, he was essentially doing the same thing.

Overall this book makes me yearn for more quality new adult fiction. I am years past lusting over the 17 year olds in YA contemporary and most YA fantasy, but I can’t yet relate to books about parents, their kids, and their failing marriages. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good family drama, but I think the romance in this book appealed to me so much because it’s actually where I’m at in my life. I’ve talked a few times about how literature needs more books about college and university (which I still think it does), but I also think we need more books about mid to late twenties, when people are out of school and starting to figure out their lives, but haven’t yet settled down into the standard family dynamic. I would love some great new adult reads. I’m sure they’re out there already, but they definitely aren’t getting the kind of love and promotion that other types of books get.

Finally, I loved the ending of this book. I love books that hit me with tough choices. Nothing annoys me more in love triangles then when the author makes one of the triangle into a jerk so that we don’t have to feel bad for them getting the axe. There’s no love triangle in this book, but I love stories and decisions that have two equal sides that are both valid. I love when the author doesn’t try to push us toward one ideal or the other or write the story in such a way as to make one choice easier or more obvious. Calla and Jonah are basically re-living her mother and fathers love story. Calla is a city girl, Jonah’s in love with the wild. They know there’s an expiration date on their relationship, but they fall in love anyways. There’s no easy answer to their dilemma. One of them has to be willing to move for the other to make it work and no one wants to be the one to either give up their life, or ask the other to give up their life. I thought the ending happened just a little bit too fast, but I really liked how Tucker approached their conflict.

So overall, I really liked this book. My only problem was that it took me a little while to get into it at the beginning. I’m not really sure why. I wouldn’t change the beginning. Overall it’s a bit of a slow burn type novel, but it reads really fast and once I got invested in the characters, I totally flew through the book!

 

SPOILER: The ending is still left pretty vague, but I really liked Jonah’s compromise. It actually broke my heart to see him in Toronto because it’s obvious he wouldn’t be happy there and that it would never work. But he wasn’t willing to give up and he was still willing to move somewhere where they might both have a chance at being happy. Would moving to anchorage so that Calla could still have a semblance of city life be enough? Maybe not, but I loved that he recognized what wouldn’t work for them and decided to try and find something that would work. With this approach, I feel like there are a lot of places that the two of them could be happy. There are many Canadian centres where Calla and Jonah could make a life and still be on the brink of rural life. It was such a simple approach and I really think it could work for them. Relationships don’t have to always be about sacrifice – they shouldn’t be about sacrifice – but about compromise, and this compromise made me really hopeful for this fictional couple. Plus I think it sends a way better message then having Calli give up her life in Toronto for a guy. Women and girls have been preached that message enough.

Us Against You

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Read: Mar. 2018 (Pub date: Jun. 5, 2018 in North America)

Thank you to Atria Books, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

As some people might be aware (because I can’t stop talking about it), Beartown was my favourite book of 2017, so I was super happy to get an advance copy of the sequel, Us Against You, and I even re-read Beartown to get back up to speed on all the characters. I loved Beartown just as much the second time around, but I was really nervous about this one because I didn’t think Beartown really needed a sequel and it’s easy to kill a good thing milking the cash cow too long.

Disclaimer: Beartown spoilers below plus minor spoilers for Us Against You, but nothing you don’t learn early in the story.

Us Against You starts where Beartown leaves off. It’s summer, but everyone is anxiously awaiting to see what will happen to their beloved hockey team in the fall and Peter is worried that there may not even be a hockey club to be anxious about. Kevin and his family disappear overnight, but Maya’s family decides to stay. Beartown is their town as much as anyone else’s and they believe they shouldn’t be made to feel unwelcome.

Most of the former Junior team has followed their coach David to Hed, but Amat, Bobo, and Benji remain behind in Beartown. In the absence of the former team and coach, several newcomers arrive on the scene and hockey and politics become more intertwined than ever.

Fredrik Backman’s writing is just as beautiful as ever in this book. The novel continues in the same voice as its predecessor and it is just as lyrical and insightful. My copy of Beartown is tabbed everywhere with quotes that I loved and I tabbed a lot of well written passages in this book as well. But sadly, some parts of this book just didn’t work for me.

As a standalone, Beartown offers a varied perspective of the plot. Backman takes us on a journey with his characters and their perspectives are all incredibly moving. Beartown is very much a character driven book, but it still had a strong plot to carry it forward. Us Against You is still a character driven novel, but the plot isn’t as strong and it struggled to carry all these voices.

The plot is slower than Beartown and there is a lot of political drama that is just too convoluted and honestly, doesn’t even really matter that much. Backman tells us in the synopsis that before the end of the novel someone will be dead, and he builds his plot around this climax. The drama builds between Hed and Beartown and hate and violence lead to more hate and violence, culminating in tragedy for everyone.

Backman continues with some of the themes from Beartown, examining the long-lasting impact that rape can have on a girl and her family, and the sense of community that comes from a shared love of sports. Backman also explores the compounding impact of violence and our resistance to change. Hockey has always been seen as a men’s club and those men can feel very threatened when faced with equality politics and will try and protect themselves at the expense of anyone who does not fit within their idea of who hockey is for.

So I very much loved the themes of this book, but I struggled more with the perspectives. We’re given a lot of new perspectives in this book, which is great, but we also lose a lot of the perspectives from the previous book of characters we’ve already come to know and love. I really liked that this book expanded to include Maya’s brother Leo and more of William Lyt, but it also included a lot about the Pack and this is where it got bogged down for me. I wasn’t really interested in Peter’s feud with the Pack or with Richard Theo’s schemes. Richard Theo serves to mount the tension within the towns, but I don’t think he was needed. His schemes were too convoluted and the characters could have carried the plot without him. Hed and Beartown would have been at each other’s throats, regardless of the drama with the factory jobs and the political scheming.

I thought the novel had a great start with William and Leo fighting and the breakdown of the Andersson Family. I thought Kira and Peter’s storyline was so heartbreaking, but it felt so real and I could empathize with how the strain of losing your firstborn and your daughter being raped would slowly start to breakdown your marriage. Likewise, I love where Backman takes us with Maya, Ana, and Benji in this book. Benji was one of my favourite characters in Beartown and you just ache for him reading his story. He is one of those totally perfect, imperfect characters. I thought all of these storylines were strong and they really carried the novel for me.

But like I said, I struggled with the Pack. I didn’t care about Teemu and I thought Vidar came in too late into the story for me to really care about him either. I get what the Pack means to Teemu, Woody, Spider, and Vidar, but I think Backman communicates this concept of family and community just as well through his other characters. Likewise, the Pack served to escalate the violence between Hed and Beartown, but again, I think this theme could have been carried just as well through other characters like Lyt. I really liked the idea of Vidar and I’m thrilled Backman decided to spend some time on the goalie, which is an essential part of any team, but Vidar lacked developed at the expense of the rest of the Pack. I would rather see his character fully realized than have all the secondary Pack characters.

I am disappointed that David didn’t have a voice in this story and that Amat and Bobo’s voices were limited. I really liked all of these characters and I really think Backman could have given them more in this story. We hear very little from the Beartown players who switch to Hed. They go to Hed to play for David, not Hed and I would have liked to hear more about how they felt about suddenly playing for their rival and the struggle of losing the support of their community. It’s kind of taken for granted that the boys and their families would all just change allegiance to Hed (and that Hed would accept them), but they were all Beartown born and still lived there, so I felt that suddenly playing for their rival would be a real source of conflict for some of the players and that they would struggle to be accepted by Hed and the other members of the existing A-team.

My biggest struggle with this book though is the emotional pacing. I felt this book was more emotionally manipulative than the first book and the writing started to feel a little repetitive. Beartown is an incredibly powerful, emotional read and Backman uses a lot of the same phrases and wording to try and create those cathartic moments, but they lose their impact when you read them 3 and 4 times throughout the novel.

This book is just damn depressing. Like I said, Beartown is definitely an emotional read, but it still has hopeful and happy moments to contrast the sad ones. Us Against You has very few hopeful moments. It is just down, down, down for the entire novel and any happy or hopeful plot points are just too small to bring this book back up. I felt like I was falling into the pits of despair throughout the whole book and I never had any chance of climbing back out.

We’re told in Beartown that 2 of the boys will turn professional and that the young girl, Alicia, will grow up to be the best hockey player Beartown has ever seen. So I can’t help but assume that Beartown must succeed at some point for these players to achieve success and I want to read about it! I don’t know if Backman has a third book planned for this series, but I could see this having another book and I really hope it does because I need to see Beartown transformed. I’ve seen them beaten down and shit on and now I need to see them heal and grow. I didn’t think Beartown needed a sequel, but now that it has one, I really need it to be a trilogy so that this can be the dark middle book. This works as the angst-y middle book, but not as the finale. This story feels unfinished and I really hope it gets a (better) conclusion.

For this reason it’s a hard book to rate. Granted, I am holding Backman to a higher standard because of how phenomenal Beartown was, and I still loved the writing and several of the character arcs in Us Against You, but I need more from this series now! I think there’s a lot of potential for a final book and if that is the case, it would change my review. I don’t mind being brought low in book 2 if you’re going to raise me up in book 3. But if this is where it ends, I am definitely left disappointed.

FYI, you can pre-order Us Against You at fredrikbackmanbooks.com