Miracle Creek

Rating: ⭐
Author: Angie Kim
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. date: Apr. 2019 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I heard really good things about Miracle Creek, which is what inspired me to pick it up, but I was still totally blown away by this book! I like mystery/thrillers,but they don’t normally stand out in the way a good literary fiction or historical fiction book does. Miracle Creek was everything I didn’t know I was looking for in a mystery novel.

What makes this such a great read is that the author weaves so much nuance into the rest of her story. It’s primarily about solving a crime, but there’s so much else going on and the characters are incredibly well developed and have a huge amount of depth. Kim tackles everything from alternative medicine, to parenting less-abled children, to cultural diaspora, to the challenges of simply growing up.

Miracle Creek is primarily about the Yoo family. Pak, Young, and their daughter Mary, moved to the United States from Seoul, Korea. Each character faces their own challenges in moving to America and their new routines start to create a distance between each of the family members. Pak decides to start up a new business called Miracle Submarine, which is all about the healing powers of hyperbaric pressure chambers, or HBOT. HBOT is a pressurized chamber that allows the patients to breathe in pure oxygen, which is touted as having all kind of medical benefits. However, the benefits are not totally proven and it is a controversial practice.

Pak, Young, and Mary’s lives, as well as the lives of their friends, are totally torn apart when one evening, someone lights a cigarette outside the chamber and blows it up, killing two of the patients inside. The rest of the book is a courtroom drama, investigating who was responsible for the explosion and what exactly happened to lead up to that moment.

The courtroom drama is the focus of the novel, but everything else that happens outside the courtroom is really what makes this read so thrilling. We get to experience the trial from a number of different perspectives. We are never really sure who actually committed the crime, with new evidence continuously keeping you guessing. But the decision to tell this story through multiple perspectives is super effective. Kim humanizes every single one of her characters, making it easy to empathize with them, even when some of their actions shock you.

Outside of the courtroom, she explores so many different conflicts that each character is facing. I loved that I got to explore what it was like for Young living within the confines of a traditional Korean marriage and the impact that moving to America had on her family. I sympathized with Pak being a goose father and the perceived loss of his wisdom when he could no longer communicate himself eloquently. I was captivated by Elizabeth and the other autism moms – the level of responsibility that was thrust upon them and the continued heartbreak every day as they had to watch their children be only a fraction of who they knew they could be. The conflict they felt about HBOT and all the treatments they put their children through and whether it was really worth it and who they were doing it for? I felt bad for Janine as she struggled in her relationship with Matt and the fetishization of Asian women and her indignation that being attracted to Asian women could even be considered a “fetish”, like it was something dirty.

Every single character in this book is so nuanced. I constantly marveled at the author for how she played with so many different social issues and commentaries, all while maintaining an equally thrilling courtroom drama. I loved how she played with regret and “what if’s. How things could have been so dramatically different had one character taken a slightly different action. I wasn’t particularly surprised with the solving of the crime, but I was impressed with how Kim decided to end her novel. In the same way that the story was filled with moments of frustration, bitterness, and anger at the hand that had been dealt to each character, the ending carried on the same theme of cold, hard reality. It reminded me at times of a Greek tragedy in that you saw how easily things could have been different, but the characters, blind to their own shortcomings and missing information, barrel into the unknown, only increasing their mistakes. This book had a lot of irony and that’s what really sticks with you. It get’s under your skin and you get caught up in the what ifs.

I can’t believe this is a debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Angie Kim writes next. Highly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling book!

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The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.

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.

Say You Still Love Me

Rating: .5
Author: K.A. Tucker
Genres: Fiction, Romance, New Adult
Pub. date: Aug. 6th, 2019 (read May 2019)

Thanks to Atria Books and Netgalley for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Simple Wild was one of my favourite books of 2018, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on K.A. Tucker’s new book. I’ll admit, this one didn’t appeal to me quite as much as The Simple Wild, but as someone who worked as a camp counselor as a teenager and also works in a male dominated field, I thought me and Piper could probably relate.

Overall, I liked this book and it kept me engaged throughout, but it definitely couldn’t hold a candle to The Simple Wild. I was looking forward to a slow burn romance, which I got to a certain extent, but mostly this book just left me scratching my head about who the intended audience is.

Say You Still Love Me is about 29 year old Piper Calloway, a senior VP at her Dad’s billion dollar development firm, Calloway Group. Piper is slated to take over the company when her father retires, but as a young woman, she struggles to be taken seriously in this male-dominated environment. Piper is thrown further off guard by the arrival of her first love, Kyle, who takes a job as a security guard in her building. Piper and Kyle fell in love 13 years ago at Camp Wawa when they were counselors at 16. The relationship ended suddenly and PIper always wondered what happened to Kyle and his sudden reappearance forces her to confront questions that have been buried in the past.

The story is told in alternating timelines between 2006 and 2019. The 2006 timeline is a whirlwind camp romance, while the 2019 timeline is more of the slow burn romance I was looking for. 16 year old Piper is totally head over heels for Kyle and acts how you might expect a dopey teenager in love to act. Whereas 29 year old PIper is a high-powered executive who’s trying to figure out her love life while also running a billion dollar company.

Which is why I questioned who the intended audience is. As a 28 year old, I was thrilled to read a new adult book about a successful young woman in her late twenties. I was less interested in reading about a gushy teenager having her first romantic and sexual experiences.

I really think this book is intended for young professionals rather than young adults (teenagers), and no offense, but as a 28 year old, I don’t want to read about Piper’s first fumbling experiences with sex. I’m not a prude, but I don’t really think this book is appropriate for 16 year olds, which begs the question, who is it appropriate for? I don’t have a problem with sex scenes in young adult books because we all know teenagers are having sex, but I’m more a fan of the less-explicit, cutesy love scenes. These are definitely explicit adult sex scenes and as an adult I don’t want to read about two 16 year olds experimenting with blow jobs.

So a lot of the romance made me uncomfortable because I felt too old to be reading it, even though I think I was the intended audience for the book. I also struggled to buy into Kyle and Piper’s romance 13 years later. I do think that your first love holds a bit of a special place in your heart, but these two dated for 6 weeks and then never saw each other for 13 years. I did believe that they would still be attracted to each other and maybe pursue something, but I didn’t buy into the whole no-one-else-measures-up-to-you, I’ve-been-missing-you-for-13-years bit. Mostly because it’s kind of sad. I had to agree with Kyle that he and Piper came from such different backgrounds, it was never going to work between them. Everyone changes and grows an inordinate amount between the ages of 16 and 29 and I thought it was a bit disingenuous to pretend like they were still the same people.

So as a romance, this didn’t really work for me. But part of what made the Simple Wild so great was that it wasn’t just a romance. It was a book about family relationships and choices. If you removed the romance from The Simple Wild, it still had a lot to offer. That’s what I was hoping for from this book and like I said, I was excited to read about an ambitious 29 year old woman trying to make it in real estate development and construction.

Piper was pretty baller as a VP, but unfortunately I didn’t love this story line either. I was thrilled to see a young woman in a position of power, but I was disappointed by how she got there. Was she deserving of a senior partner role? Potentially – I think she had the skills to get there some day, but I’m sorry, as a 29 year old, she was definitely only there because of her father. I was angry about how a lot of the men treated her, but I couldn’t help but agree that it was nepotism that put her there and that’s not the kind of role model I’m looking for. I felt like I was supposed to believe that she got to her position by her own merits, but she so obviously didn’t. It’s so hard for women to get senior management positions and it was irksome to see someone who only made it there because of her father. It was uninspiring.

I also struggled to like Piper. She was a spoiled rich girl. I like that Tucker’s heroines are flawed – Calla definitely got on my nerves sometimes, but at the end of the day, she really grew as a person and I loved watching that process. Piper answered all of her problems with money. She really doesn’t understand how people like Kyle live and her privilege and wealthy father provided her the opportunity to basically live in ignorance. I saw the ending coming a mile away and I was disappointed in Piper for never checking in on her friends after camp or following up on the “incident” that we wait the whole book to find out about.

Kyle talks about how grounded Piper is being nice to her assistant and talking to the old security guard every day and letting her friends live in her penthouse, but I thought those were all just signs of being a normal, nice human being, nothing extraordinary. Piper was a total Daddy’s girl and I always find those kinds of father-daughter relationships creepy. Like she’s your daughter Kieran, she’s not your possession. You have no right to make decisions for her or keep things from her. But I think a lot of girls will still probably like this because America romanticizes the father-daughter relationship and creepy, overprotective, possessive behaviours. It was just not for me.

Unfortunately the writing of this review is diminishing my opinion of this book and I’m struggling to find what I did like about it. I didn’t like Piper’s dad, who demonstrates textbook signs of emotional abuse, I didn’t like how entitled Piper was, and I didn’t like how easily she forgave some pretty sketchy things that Kyle and her Dad did. Even her friends were a bit of a mystery to me. I understand why she stayed friends with Ashley, but I never really understood Christa or how they ended up being friends. They seemed to have nothing in common.

Overall, I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief for this book. I know romances are sometimes over the top, but I prefer ones that are more grounded in reality. I didn’t think this book had a whole lot going for it outside the romance and since that didn’t cut it for me, it didn’t have a lot to offer. The writing is still good though – I didn’t struggle to read this – even though I didn’t enjoy the subject matter. Tucker is good at writing witty dialogue and I thought that held true in this book, it just wasn’t as good coming from two lovestruck teenagers.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

Rating:
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Apr. 2014 (read Apr. 2019)

I really put off writing my review for this book, so it’s probably going to be a bit short since the book is no longer fresh in my mind.

Overall The Storied Life of AJ Fikry was a little disappointing for me. Not because it wasn’t good or I didn’t like, but because so many of my goodreads friends have rated the book so high that I went into it with really high expectations, and the story just didn’t quite live up to those expectations. I definitely liked the book, hence the 3 star rating, but it’s not going to make my favourites list.

Gabrielle Zevin has an interesting writing style – I do have an unread copy of one of her other books, Young Jane Young, on my shelf, so I would like to pick that one up soon. This one reminded me a little bit of A Man Called Ove. I wasn’t sure what to think of a lot of the characters initially, but ended up growing to appreciate them all, minor characters included.

It is an interesting book. It’s definitely more of a character driven book than a plot driven book, which I generally prefer, and it was sometimes hard to know where the story was going. I like books that can take the mundane from everyday life and make it fascinating. I really liked AJ Fikry’s character. He’s suffering from the loss of his wife and then loses his fortune, so things are really not looking great for him, but I loved his no nonsense approach to life and the logic through which he ended up welcoming Maya into his life. So I liked that I never really knew where the story was going and that it never really followed any predictable narratives. For example, when Maya showed up, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a Fredrik Backman type book where Maya opens AJ up to love again”, which she did, but it was never really the focus of the book and the plot went to some places I wasn’t expecting.

As a book lover, it’s hard not to like a story about other book lovers and I liked the way that AJs bookstore became a sort of community centre for the people living on the island. The bookstore wasn’t really doing well after the death of AJ’s wife because people’s pity for AJ kept them out of the store, but after he adopts Maya, I guess the community felt that AJ might need their support and his bookstore became more of a community space as his customers starting joining book clubs.

To conclude, it was a nice story about community and how sometimes misfortune and the mundane can actually end up changing your life.