March Summary

I struggled a bit at the end of March to finish my Monthly Challenge, but overall it ended up being my most successful reading month! I read 3 Fantasy Novels for my monthly challenge, a few advanced reader copies of books from Netgalley, and several audiobooks. Here’s my March Summary:

Books read: 13
Pages read: 4,425
Main genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Favourite (new) book: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Favourite re-read: Beartown

I started off the month with a few ARC’s, which are early copies of books that publishers share with a limited number of readers to provide early feedback before the books are released. I’ve been getting more ARC’s from Netgalley since I started my blog and I’ve been starting to build some relationships with publishers, which has been a lot of fun for me!

The two ARC’s I read this month were The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (which came out in early March) and Us Against You (which comes out in June). The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore was a short read about several girls that get lost in the woods at a summer camp when they were 12 and how it affects them later in life, which I really enjoyed. Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown, which was my favourite book of 2017, so of course I had to re-read Beartown this month as well. I loved Beartown just as much the second time around, but sadly I didn’t love Us Against You as much. I wrote a pretty in depth review about it and I did still really like it, it just couldn’t hold up to the masterpiece that is Beartown. But I’d still recommend reading it and I’m hoping for a third book!

Next I read 2 of books for my monthly challenge, The Thief and This Savage Song. I really liked The Thief, which is a fast read, and I’m excited to read further into the series, but I didn’t really like This Savage Song very much. I have it 3 stars, but as time passes I’m starting to like it less and less and I think it might be more of a 2.5 star read. I can’t quite pinpoint what I didn’t like about it, I just never really got into it and I didn’t think it was that engaging.

I had great success with Audiobooks this month though! I haven’t listened to any audiobooks since November (probably because I stopped running and I recently started again), but I got back into them this month. I was bored with the one I was listening to and I was never motivated to listen to it, so I decided to ditch it and start fresh, which was a great idea because I finished Before We Were Yours this month and absolutely flew through I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and The Authentics.

Before We Were Yours was an interesting historical read about the birth of adoption in Tennessee, but I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter totally blew me away! I didn’t really expect that much from it because I’d read the main character was pretty unlikeable, but I loved the audiobook narrator for this one and I thought the main character was just so well portrayed. I picked my last audiobook, The Authentics, because it had the same narrator and similar themes to I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, but while I liked it, it definitely wasn’t as strong a book.

My Book Club’s book of the month was The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld. I gave it the highest rating of the group with a 7 out of 10, but the general consensus of the group was that we liked it, but didn’t love it. It has a fantastic setting and atmosphere, but the mystery plot leaves a little to be desired. I also read The Marrow Thieves this month in an attempt to read another of the Canada Reads shortlist before the debates. The other book I read from the Shortlist was The Boat People, and while I gave them both 4 stars, I liked The Marrow Thieves more. I thought the writing and story were both great and incredibly moving.

I snuck in a poetry reading this month as well and read Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. This is her debut novel, but I read her other book, The Sun and Her Flowers, last year and really liked it. I didn’t like Milk and Honey quite as much, but it was still a nice, fast read.

Finally, I thought my last book of the month was going to be my final challenge book, The Fifth Season, because it was taking me forever to get through, but I managed to cram in a reading of Avenged over the Easter weekend (the sequel to Ruined). I didn’t love The Fifth Season as much as I was hoping because it was a pretty heavy read and it took me a while to get into, but I’m optimistic about the rest of the series. Avenged was almost as much fun as Ruined, which I loved. I know the Ruined series is not even on the same level as the Fifth Season, which is quality fantasy writing and world building, but I can’t help but love it because it’s just so fast-paced and fun!

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

Top 10 Books of 2017

I read so many fantastic books this year, it is impossible to choose only 10! Honestly, I really couldn’t narrow it down, so I decided to do two posts. I read a lot of new publications this year, so this is my top 10 books of 2017 that were actually published in 2017, and I’m planning to follow up with another 5 of my favourite non-2017 publications that I read this year. So without further ado, here we go:

Beartown by Fredrik Backman (Fiction)

Hands down, Beartown tops my list this year. I get most of my books from the library, but I went out and bought this one because I just HAD to own it! Fredrik Backman is a Swedish writer best known for A Man Called Ove, which I read last year along with Britt-Marie was here. Both novels were touching stories centred around ornery old people who you grow to love, so I was surprised to read the synopsis for Beartown, which sounded like something totally different from what Backman usually writes. In retrospect, it did have a lot of the same elements and examines the impact individuals can have on their community, but it tackled a lot of different issues.

Beartown is obsessed with hockey, namely the high school boys hockey team. This is supposed to be their year to finally win the championship and the community will do whatever it takes to help get them there, until a shocking event occurs that polarizes the community and threatens their chance to finally put Beartown on the map. It’s a fantastic story and study in character development. The novel has a huge cast of characters and somehow Backman made me care about each and every one of them. But holy smokes, this book was all about the writing for me. I thought it was just the most beautiful style of writing and had such insight into individual and community dynamics. Highly recommend to everyone – READ THIS BOOK!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Fiction)

This is Celeste Ng’s second book – I read her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, in 2015, which was a slow-build family drama about a mixed-race family in the 1970’s. Even though it wasn’t very fast-paced, I loved Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere proved to have the same magic. It’s also a slow-build family drama and takes place in the community of Shaker Heights in the 1990’s (Ng’s real-life hometown). The story looks at the “perfect” Richardson family and their 4 kids and how they are impacted by the arrival of single mother/artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl live in the Richardson’s rental property and unintentionally find themselves wrapped up in the Richardson’s family secrets.

Everyone seems to get along until a local scandal makes headlines when a young Chinese women contests the legitimacy of the adoption of her baby by the Richardson’s neighbours. Pearl begins to suspect her mother has been keeping her own secrets and friendships and relationships are challenged. Similar to Beartown, the writing is what made this a win for me. Ng is so perceptive and I love how she explores familial, platonic, and romantic relationships throughout the novel. I can see how this book might not be for everyone, but I absolutely loved it.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (Historical Fiction)

I know Lisa See has a huge fan base out there, but this was the first time I had heard of her. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane had so many good reviews that I begrudgingly picked it up. For some reason I had it in my mind that this one was over-hyped and I wasn’t going to like it, but I’m a sucker for historical fiction and this book had so much to love!

This is the story of a poor, indigenous (Akha) Chinese girl, Li-yan, who grows up picking tea leaves in a small village in Yunnan province. The novel takes place at the height of the one-child policy and when Li-yan becomes pregnant out of wedlock, she feels forced to give up her daughter in order to maintain her place in the community and chase after an education. The book flashes back and forth between Li-yan’s daughter as she grows up in American and Li-yan as she tries to make a life for herself and escape the poverty she was born into. Lisa See explores so many different issues and did a beautiful job writing Li-yan’s character. I’ve never found tea more interesting than I did in this book!

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (Non-Fiction)

The Radium Girls is a non-fiction book that reads like fiction, and damn is it ever devastating. Kate Moore tells the true story of hundreds of girls and women that worked as dial painters in American factories in the 1920’s that died of radium poisoning. Radium-based paint was used to paint everything from watch faces, to airplane dials, to military equipment because it was luminous. While the extent of the harmful effects of radium was not totally known, their employers definitely knew the paint was dangerous and in many cases, purposefully hid it from their female employees.

The girls eventually starting getting sick and many of them died horrible deaths. When their illnesses were finally attributed to radium poisoning, many of the girls began to sue and fight back against the Radium Corporation. This is the story of their struggle and how they changed the laws surrounding workers rights and subsequently likely saved the lives of thousands of future workers. It is very well researched and written. It’s a tough read as it is infused with a lot of emotion, but so important to women’s history.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Young Adult)

This is such an important book for teenagers (and probably even more so for adults). Black men and women are routinely stopped, questioned, and made to feel unsafe by law enforcement. As was the case in The Hate U Give (and Dear Martin, which I also read this year), black men are often (unjustly) the victims of police violence. Starr Carter’s world is turned upside down when her best friend, Khalil is shot and killed in front of her because the officer thought his hairbrush was a gun.

Starr is traumatized by the event and fears that it may have catalyzed her community. She wants to speak out, but is frustrated by the way her words are twisted and how her best friend is villainized by the media and her white friends. I do think Angie Thomas wrote this book with white people in mind, which is why I think every teenager should read it. It’s a good introduction to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important for white people to realize the ways in which our privilege protects and blinds us, and it’s important for people of colour to have stories, characters, and authors they can relate to and look up to.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton (Memoir)

Look, I know Hillary is polarizing for people. Some of you hate her or think she’s a corrupt politician, but you can’t deny she is persistent. I’m Canadian, so I never could have voted for her, but we’re still waiting for our first elected female Prime Minister in Canada too and we are largely impacted by American politics (as is most of the world), so it matters to me that Trump is President. I know a lot of people aren’t interested in hearing about Hillary’s “losing” story and think she blames everyone and anyone but herself for her loss, but that is not true and if you read this book, you’ll see how much harder she had to work to be taken seriously and how much harsher she is judged (and judges herself).

I listened to this as an audiobook. I usually only listen to audiobooks when I run, but I found myself carrying my phone around with me everywhere so that I could listen to this non-stop. Is Hillary perfect? no, but she still inspires me. I loved getting the opportunity to actually learn about her policies, which got virtually no airtime during the election, and learn about her experiences as a female politician. This book with fill you rage, but it will also fill you with hope. I found parts of it very upsetting, and I imagine it would be even harder to read as an American directly impacted by Trump’s policies. But whether or not you read this book, start engaging in politics and supporting the amazing women in your community, because Hillary has at the very least built a stepping stool to get us that much closer to smashing the damn glass ceiling.

Warcross by Marie Lu (Science Fiction)

In the past I’ve been pretty rough on Science Fiction and Marie Lu, but I might have to start changing my tune because Warcross was fantastic! It’s set in a futuristic Japan, where a virtual reality game called Warcross has enveloped the globe. Emika Chen is living in New York and is down on her luck when she decides to hack into the Warcross opening games to make a quick dollar. She is caught and quickly whisked off to Japan to try and track down other hackers that are wreaking havoc in the game.

This book was so vibrant and fast paced! It was so easy to believe that our world could evolve in the same way as the world Marie Lu has created and I loved reading all about this futuristic version of Tokyo. The characters were really well written, although some could be more developed. However, this is only the first book in the series and I’m fully expecting to see some wonderful character growth in the next one!

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (Graphic Novel)

The Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir of Thi Bui’s family, their escape from war-torn Vietnam in the 1970’s, and their eventual relocation to America. I think it’s definitely comparable to Maus and Perspepolis (which are both great), but I think this might be my favourite of the three. The opening scene in the book is Bui giving birth to her first child with the support of her mother, and the scene was just so gritty and honest that I felt like I was in the delivery room with them.

Bui goes on to reflect on her journey from Vietnam to America and the struggles she’s faced with both of her parents. The graphics are great and she was just so honest in the telling of her history that I really empathized with her family.

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway (Young Adult)

I used to love Robin Benway as a teenager, so when I saw this one had won the National Book Award, I had to give it a read! In my opinion it was very deserving of its win. Far From the Tree switches between 3 different teenage narrators – Joaquin, Grace, and Maya. Joaquin has been in the foster child system since he was very young and Grace and Maya were both adopted at birth. When Grace becomes pregnant at 16 and decides to give her daughter up for adoption, she goes in search of her own birth mother and along the way discovers the existence of her 2 siblings.

Joaquin, Maya, and Grace are all struggling with their own challenges and begin to lean on each other for support. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this novel, but the writing was so wonderful and the stories so moving. I was hooked from the first chapter and even though I have almost nothing in common with Joaquin, Grace, or Maya, their characters and pain were so well written that I had no problem relating with any of them. I loved every minute of this novel and I would highly recommend to anyone who loves a good well written, emotional story.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (Fantasy)

I read 4 full trilogies this year and started several other series that are only 1 or 2 books in. So even though I’ve only listed one fantasy novel on my top 10, it was actually my most-read genre. It was hard to pick a favourite. Actually, it was easy, but my favourite fantasy series of the year wasn’t published in 2017, so I’m saving it for my follow-up post. Even though I didn’t like the first two novels in this series as much as some of the other books I read, I settled on A Conjuring of Light as my top fantasy novel of 2017. It was such an epic conclusion to the Shades of Magic trilogy.

I absolutely love the characters in this series. In a nutshell, the plot of the series is about these 4 parallel versions of London, the dark magic that is slowly escaping between them, and our protagonist’s (Kell) attempt to stop the spread of evil. But the plot was really secondary to the character development for me. The series had some truly kick-ass characters, my favourite of which was Lila, a cross-dressing pirate. Every character is fully realized, even the villains, and the relationships they developed were so real and beautiful. I did struggle a little with the first novel, but this one definitely got me!

Shout-out to Now I Rise, from the Conqueror’s Saga, which was a close second for the final spot.

Beartown


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Read: May 2017

 

I really liked A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie was Here, but Beartown was definitely my favourite Fredrik Backman novel to date! This was quite different then his other work, but it was excellent!

This is how you do large casts. I just read Paula Hawkins’ new book, Into the Water, which had a huge cast of characters, but she did justice for none of them. Beartown has a huge number of characters as well, but it really worked in this book. The characters are slowly introduced throughout the course of the novel and their relationships to one another are clearly indicated, so it wasn’t hard to follow and I was thrilled to see a lot of who I thought would be minor characters have some really interesting stories. Every character was well realized and well developed considering how little focus some of the characters got.

The characters reminded me a little of Melina Marchetta‘s work in that they grew in ways you did not anticipate and that you grew to like characters that you didn’t like initially. This shouldn’t have been a surprise though as Backman does an excellent job at making you love slightly unlikeable characters in all his novels. I loved the way Backman would present characters in different ways depending on whose point of view you were reading and that perspective could totally change your opinion of any character. For example I loved how characters like Bobo flip-flopped throughout the entire novel – you wanted to love him and then he would disappoint you and then you would love him again.

“It doesn’t take long to persuade each other to stop seeing a person as a person. And when enough people are quiet for long enough, a handful of voices can give the impression that everyone is screaming.”

I was totally impressed with the writing in Beartown. I highlighted so many passages throughout reading the book and I was really impressed with how Backman handled the serious topics in the novel as a male writer. I don’t want to give anything away because I think it’s best to go into this book blind, but it was definitely culturally relevant and very moving.  

I found the entire novel to be very insightful into sports culture and rape culture, both of which are often largely entwined, as well as the emotions that cause us to perceive things the way we do. It was a great novel about family, friends, sportsmanship, winning, and community (among many other things). There was so much going on in this book and so many different themes explored alongside the main theme.

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”

Definitely recommend this one for everyone! There was no part of this novel that I disliked and I think anyone can relate to the story.