Great Small Things

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jodi Picoult
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read in May 2019)

Small Great Things has been on my TBR for a while, but I doubt I would have gotten to it if we hadn’t picked it for our May Book Club meeting. I have very mixed feelings on it – my book club meeting tonight may change that, but right now I’m feeling very middle of the road about the book. I didn’t like it, I didn’t dislike it. I’m probably firmly in the 2.5-3 star range.

Small Great Things is about labour & delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson. She’s worked hard her entire life to overcome institutionalized racism and succeed as a black woman. She studied nursing at Yale and has been working in L&D for 20 years. She is well respected and has worked hard to give her son Edison the best start in life. For the most part, Ruth looks beyond race. It’s hard not to acknowledge the microaggressions she deals with on a daily basis, but she is not jaded by them. Until two white supremacists, who have just given birth to their first son, ask for Ruth to be removed from their son’s care due to personal prejudices, and the hospital acquiesces. A series of emergency events leave Ruth in an impossible position and before she knows it, she finds herself at the centre of a criminal investigation, making it harder to pretend that her race doesn’t matter.

Ruth is the protagonist of the story, but we also read from the perspective of Kennedy, Ruth’s white lawyer, and Turk, the white supremacist father. I was a little apprehensive going into this book because I’m never sure what to make of white author writing from the perspective of a black person and the last thing I wanted to read was a white saviour narrative. I’m glad the author included her note at the end, it provided an interesting perspective and I was glad to see her acknowledge her own personal shortcomings and privilege. I had questioned (while reading) whether she was the right person to write this book, which she also acknowledged, and I could appreciate that she decided to take the opportunity to target her white audience and get them thinking about racism.

The book has some interesting themes. I struggled with it at first because it’s an extremely heavy topic and I dreaded every time I would have to return to Turk’s chapter because I just hated reading from his perspective. This book is only 3 years old and it’s incredible how much more relatable (by which I mean, less shocking) Turk’s narrative has likely become since Trump came to power. I think this perspective may have shocked me a little more 3 years ago when neo-nazi’s and white supremacists were still mostly hiding in the shadows, but they’ve since become a lot more mainstream and it was exhausting and disgusting to read from Turk’s point of view, understanding there are people that think just like him in America right now.

My initial thought about Turk and Brit was that they were too much. I was sad to see the author take such a blatantly racist couple and make them the main antagonist. I was initially disappointed because I believe that white people need to read about subtle racism so they can better understand the ways in which they unknowingly perpetuate racism. Swinging too far in one direction makes it easy for people to condemn the racists and hide behind the “I’m not that bad” or “I’m not like them” narrative. But props to the author because it turns out she was trying to make the same point. I was really worried about Kennedy fitting into the white saviour narrative, which I think she still did to an extent, especially with her closing argument, but her character served the bigger purpose of drawing attention to the more subtle forms of racism and the way white people indirectly benefit from it.

So I do think the author did some small great things (see what I did there!) with this book, but it still had some shortcomings. Honestly, I just found the plot a little too basic, although maybe it fit just right for some of Picoult’s audience. I was looking for more from the plot and I wanted to challenge my thinking about race more than this book did. This is a great book if you’re just starting to think about race as a white person and you’ve never really questioned your privilege before. It was evident to me while reading that many of Picoult’s ideas came out of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on unpacking white privilege, which I think it a fantastic starting point, but I was hoping for something more thought-challenging. Personally, I’d recommend picking up Patrisse Khan-Cullors book When They Call You a Terrorist, or one of Phoebe Robinson’s books, Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay or You Can’t Touch My Hair, to better understand what it’s like to be black. (other great memoirs include Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime or Michelle Obama’s, Becoming)

Overall though, I just thought the book was too long. 500 pages is a lot and I do not feel like this plot warranted it. I wasn’t really impressed with the ending and thought some of the items were really overdone. So all of that leaves me firmly unsure of how to rate this. At the end of the day, I do hope this book challenges the perspective of Picoult’s audience, which is likely mostly white women who relate well with characters like Kennedy. I do applaud the author for taking on a topic like this, but given the choice, I would have preferred to spend my time reading a more thoughtful book written by a black author.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Rating:
Author: Stuart Turton
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Mar. 2019)

Where do I start with this book? It has such great reviews on Goodreads and I was super excited to read it, but honestly every time I picked this up I found myself literally starting to fall asleep after a single chapter. I really can’t explain it, the plot is totally bonkers but for some reason I just didn’t find it compelling. The book did pick up around the 50% mark and I found it a bit easier to read, but it’s so confusing in the first half that it was just painful to read.

The plot synopsis is super compelling though. The story is set at Blackheath Manor, home of the wealthy Hardcastle family. It’s not clear what year the story is set – there’s both cars and carriages in the story so it’s certainly not modern day and had a bit of an old-timey feel to it, with maids, butlers, and footmen. The Hardcastles have invited a ton of guests to the manor for a party, but what they don’t know is that at the end of the night, their daughter Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered, though it won’t look like a murder.

Enter our main character, Aiden Bishop. Aiden wakes up in the body of one of the party guests, Sebastian Bell, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. Through a series of events, he is tasked with determining who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. The catch is that every day he will wake up and re-start the day of Evelyn’s death in the body of a different guest. He will have 8 hosts and therefore, 8 chances to re-live the same day and solve the crime.

Confusing right? But also, super compelling! Why is Aiden stuck in this body-snatching loop, we have no idea, but the idea is certainly intriguing. Overall I thought this was the most well done part of the book. Did I love the writing or the way the characters were portrayed? No, but I liked how the personalities and quirks or each host influenced Aiden’s abilities and slowly started to take over his mind the longer he was in their body. He moves from the cowardly doctor, to the quick-witted Lord, to the perverted creep, to the clever cop, all of who aid and hinder him in his search for the truth.

There’s a lot going on in this book. I won’t get into the intricacies of the plot, but as you can imagine, with 8 different hosts, plus several rival hosts, and tons of party guests – the cast of characters and sequence of events becomes easily confused. It is somewhat effective to chuck your reader into the middle of story without any preamble, because it helps them to relate with Aiden, who has absolutely no memories prior to waking up as Sebastian Bell. It’s just as confusing for the reader as it is for Aiden. But this only takes your reader so far. If they can’t eventually make sense of the story, it makes for a confusing and frustrating read.

There is a really fine line with mystery novels. You want to trick your readers and leave them guessing, but you also want to give them enough information to encourage them to try and solve the mystery themselves. For me, the most satisfying mystery novels are the ones where I think I have things figured out and then the author throws you for a loop with a killer twist and then totally blows your mind (Alice Feeney’s, Sometimes I Lie, and Riley Sager’s, The Last Time I Lied, come to mind – also pretty much anything by Ruth Ware). Mystery books that give you nothing annoy me. I love a twisted, clever plot, but when it’s too convoluted, I don’t even bother trying to think up what happened and it kind of takes the fun out of it. JK Rowling’s latest book in the Cormoran Strike series suffered from this and I wrote a review for that book about how I dislike the dramatic multi-chapter info-dumps for convoluted plots like this. (I love this series though and the characters! Her latest plot was just a little too confused)

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is definitely a clever plot, I’ll give Turton that. He says in his acknowledgements that he spent 3 years working on this book and I believe it. Any book that looks at the same day 8 times is going to require a tightly plotted story. But there were just too many unexplained details in this book to keep me interested. I do think there’s overdoing it, and for me, this story got lost in the plot. I also disliked how he had Aiden’s different hosts following up on these leads without including us, the reader, in them! Like when Ravencourt starts leaving these random notes everywhere and Rashton was secretly recruiting support to confront Daniel? Turton just sprung those things on his readers without really explaining them. The plot is so convoluted, you can include your reader in some revelations without worrying they’ll solve the mystery. I need some pay-off to follow along with this 450 page book. I don’t want to invest in a confusing mess of a story for this long with no pay-off until the last 10%. Especially if your ending is going to be as f-ed and anti-climatic as this one was (more on that later).

Overall, this book was just too long. We have to read about every single thing all 8 hosts do without even getting any of Aiden’s revelations or clues. I felt like Aiden was getting nowhere with his investigations for 80% of this book and then suddenly he has all the answers? I really wish Turton had taken us on that journey with him. I actually quite liked the story arc with the 19-year old murder mystery and I thought that death was actually easier to solve and we had more clues to work with. But the present day death was a bit of a mess.

The idea of the 8 different hosts was definitely a clever one, but it was pretty painful to read. I’m really unsure what to think about the author or Aiden after reading this book. The fatphobia was disgusting. Can I believe someone would struggle to suddenly be in an obese body? Sure, but we’re supposed to like Aiden and he’s just so fat-phobic when he’s in Ravencourt’s body, it’s awful and I hated him for it. I don’t have a problem with an author writing from this lens if that’s integral to their character (ie, it’s a shitty character and we’re not meant to like them), but because we’re supposed to like Aiden, I place the blame on the author and I really don’t think the fat shaming had any reason to be in this novel. The descriptions were over the top and insulting and went way beyond mere discomfort with a body.

Also, why are none of the hosts women? I mean, thank god none of the hosts were women because I really wasn’t looking forward to reading from the perspective of a man in a women’s body after the mess that was Ravencourt, but like, what are the odds none of the 8 hosts would be women? Seems unlikely. This story was really about men though. The women are all secondary characters and only ever really serve as props to move Aiden’s story forward. This book was published in 2018, like come on, I’m so done with stories with women as props.

But my biggest problem with this book was the flimsiness of the time-travel theory. There’s all kinds of different time-travel theories out there. There’s the “everything is destined to happen” theory a la Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Time Traveller’s Wife, where everything that happens in the future is present in the past (ie. future Harry saves past Harry and knows it’s possible because he saw himself do it in the past). In this kind of time-travel theory, you don’t really have any ability to change time. You may not know all of what the future holds, but any interactions with future selves will be the same from both sides of the time travel.

The other theory that comes to mind is the Back to the Future type of time travel, where every action has a direct result on the future, such as Biff going back in time to give himself the Almanac. In this scenario Marty can no longer return to the present because the past has created an alternate future.

I’m going to get into some light spoilers on the type of time travel used in this book now if you want to tap out of the review.

It becomes clear from pretty early on in the novel that Turton is employing the first type of time-travel. Aiden interacts with future hosts and his future hosts also interact with past hosts to ensure the same sequence of events. Presumably his last host creates a compendium of all his interactions that he gifts to Anna because she has a book that she uses in every new life to ensure the days proceed as instructed by Aiden’s future host. I struggled with this type of time travel for this book because if everything is pre-destined, how is Aiden ever supposed to solve the murder? He tries several times to change the day, but ultimately his characters always follow the same course, which makes him a passive player in the whole thing. We learn this is not his first loop inhabiting these 8 bodies and the order of the hosts does change, but it all seems pre-destined to me, so what’s the point. Everyone’s just playing a role for the other hosts and nothing you do is ultimately going to change that.

But where things really get messed up is that he eventually does break the loop. He’s supposed to wake up one of his past hosts in the middle of the night with a message, but he never does, so wouldn’t that make the whole thing collapse? If he never wakes a host up, then it shouldn’t have happened in past host’s timeline. He eventually does appear to follow the rest of the loop, but once it changed I was like, what kind of theory are we following here?? The plague doctor encouraged Derby to give the compass to Bell because otherwise the whole timeline would change, impacting future Aiden, but then he goes and changes it later anyways with seemingly no consequence.

I also thought the ending was weak. I’m going to get into MAJOR spoilers now.

The whole “Blackheath is a prison” thing actually didn’t bother me that much. At least it was an explanation that was somewhat clever. But the whole thing with Anna was poorly done. First of all, despite all their interactions, Aiden and Anna have virtually no relationship. Aiden decides to trust Anna even though she’s done nothing to warrant his trust. His decision to trust her comes before she saves his life, but after he sees her with the Footman attempting to kill him. Why on earth would he trust her after that?? It made no sense. Plus, we have absolutely no sense of who Anna really is because the interactions between Anna and Aiden, while important to the plot, have no character depth or development.

I feel like the author was trying to bring some depth to his story by making it this whole “redemption plot” to move his readers or something. But it was too little, too late for me. If you want me to think Anna is a good person, you should have invested in her character more. You can’t just throw in this bombshell that she’s a horrible murderer at the end of the story and then expect us to buy into her redemption. “It’s okay, Aiden thinks she’s redeemed even though he has absolutely no evidence and can’t remember the 1000 loops that came before, but we should just trust his gut feeling anyways.” NO.

Mostly Aiden was just an enigma to me. Sometimes he was heavily influenced by the personality of his hosts, while other times he was extremely adamant in his morals and feelings. He loved Evelyn based on one interaction with her as Bell, even though all the other evidence from his other hosts indicated she kind of sucked. Also, what was up with Daniel? Now that was a more compelling character, but I didn’t really get how things worked for Daniel and Anna. Didn’t they wake up every day with no memory? I understood Anna because Aiden gave her a book of instructions to follow, but what’s up with Daniel? Would he do the same thing every day or was he different every day? Presumably he had to be the same based on the type of time travel the author employed for Aiden, so wouldn’t he just be doing the same thing for 8 days of every loop? I have no idea really. How did he know about Ravencourt’s letter? Overall, it felt like there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. Why was Bell’s arm all shredded? What happened in previous loops to make Aiden like Anna? Why did the Senior Mr. Hardcastle have to die? How did Aiden figure out who the real Evelyn was? Also, are we just going to skip over the fact that Hardcastle’s response to his artist beating the shit out of his butler is just to string him up in the gatehouse? WTF?!

So that’s my review. It’s long, so I mean, props to the author that his novel did have enough depth to write a review like this, but overall I thought it was flawed. I’m going to give 2 stars because, while I didn’t enjoy the book, it’s undoubtedly clever and original and I think he deserves props for that. Plus, clearly a lot of people really like this book. I wouldn’t recommend this book, but I also wouldn’t be deterred from reading it, except for the fat shaming. That was terrible.

Sometimes I Lie

Rating: 
Author: Alice Feeney
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub Date: Mar. 2017 (read May 2018)

Okay this was good! I don’t think I would have picked this one up if my book club hadn’t selected it, but it is definitely a nail biter and I loved the twists in this book. You know you’re missing something while reading this, but I did not guess any of the twists, and there were many in the last 25% of this book. It reminded me a little bit of Claire MacIntosh’s I Let You Go, but way better.

Sometimes I Lie tells the story of Amber Reynolds. She has been in some kind of accident and “wakes” up in the hospital in a coma. The only problem is, she doesn’t actually wake up. She becomes aware of the world around her, but can’t move or communicate with anyone. The story then takes us back in time to about a week before the accident, as well as through some of her childhood diaries. Amber can’t remember what happened to her in the accident and is slowly trying to piece things together from the snippets of events taking place around her.

This is definitely a book that is best to go into blind. I don’t think I even read the synopsis – all I knew about this book was that it featured a woman in a coma. Like I said, I thought the twists were brilliant, my only complaint was that I got a little bit bored with the coma stuff because it seemed to drag on a bit too much for me. I was fascinated with Amber’s job on morning coffee though and was super interested in what was happening in that timeline.

I’ll keep this review short because I don’t want to give any more of the story away. This is getting fantastic reviews and they are correct. It’s not a 5 stars for me, but I did really enjoy it and I was totally impressed with the last quarter of this book. Great debut!

 

SPOILER BELOW

This isn’t really a spoiler, but I don’t want to ruin things for new readers. My favourite part of the book though is probably the title, Sometimes I Lie. Amber tells us straight up in the first chapter that sometimes she lies. You know she can’t be a reliable narrator, and yet you still believe what she says. I was wondering if there was going to be some kind of Gone Girl scenario to mess us around, but I loved that Feeney just kept making these small reveals about things that didn’t happen. They would make you question everything, but then the narration would continue and I’d be back to believing everything Amber said, even though I knew I should be questioning it. I was totally impressed with the writing in that way because everything was so subtle and things still loosely make sense, but then you find out you’ve been deceived and things somehow start making more and less sense at the same time. So I thought the writing was wonderful.