Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Helen Knott Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction Pub. Date: Aug. 2019 (read Nov. 2021)
I picked this book up last summer when I was book shopping in Sidney on Vancouver Island (aka the book capital of the Island!). It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since taunting me. In an effort to finally read it, I put it on our book club voting list and it won as our December book pick.
I was momentarily daunted when I first started the book because I thought it might be a dense read, but I was quickly pulled into Helen’s writing style and engaging storytelling. He holds nothing back in her book foreward, making it clear who she wrote this memoir for and that she doesn’t want your pity or judgement. It’s a sobering reminder that might be off-putting to some, but I thought it was so great because it set the tone upfront that Helen is the custodian of her own story and it is hers to share for her own means. Colonialism has taken enough from her and it is her turn to take something for herself.
I definitely don’t judge her and I hope I empathize with her rather than pity her. But mostly I admire her. Technically, this is well written and I was really impressed by her calibre of writing. She says she is a great lover of literature and self reflection and I definitely found both of these to be true. Memoirs can often be more about the story than the writing since we can’t expect everyone with a meaningful story to tell to necessarily also be a good writer. But Knott has both and it made the reading experience all the more enjoyable.
Emotionally, this book is a roller coaster. Knott splits her story into 3 parts: the dreamless void, the in-between, and the healing. The dreamless void is the longest part of the book and covers her struggles with all kinds of abuse, both from violent acts perpetrated against her, as well as her ensuing addictions to alcohol and drugs. It is the hardest section to read and very much like peeling back the layers of an onion. Her turbulent home-life and the many racial injustices she and her family face chip away at her self worth and she looks for relief in all the wrong places. However, where the right places would be, I really have no idea.
Knott feels like a bit of an enigma to read about because through all her suffering and addiction, you still get glimpses of a very reflective and accomplished individual. She has pulled herself together on several occasions only to have it all fall apart again when she is unable to face her past trauma. What I admire her for are the in-between and the healing and these are the parts of her story that really stuck with me. She is able to identify the many ways in which colonialism and racism have worked against her and her family. She is able to pinpoint the long term impacts of residential schools while also not being afraid to look critically at herself. Many are unable to escape the cycle of abuse and addiction and I thought her incredibly courageous in being able to face her trauma head on and say, ‘no, I am worth something and I will not let this rule my life anymore.’
So while it is hard to read about the dreamless void, it is critical that we bear witness to it. Not, as Helen says, to educate ourselves or gain insight or humanize indigenous voices. But because these are voices we need to amplify and we have been silencing them for too long. We should be uncomfortable, but we should also be inspired.
Apples Never Fall is my book club’s pick for November. We’ve read a lot of Liane Moriarty books in the club and she does consistently write good books, but nothing has ever quite had the same impact as Big Little Lies and I’m starting to get a bit fatigued with her writing. This book was fine – I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it, pretty standard 3 star read.
Apples Never Fall focuses on the Delaney family, Joy and Stan and their 4 adult children. They are a family of tennis players and have had a pretty decent life until a girl named Savannah shows up on Joy and Stan’s doorstep and subsequently moves into the house, puting the Delaney children on edge. When Joy Delaney goes missing a year later and Stan looks poised to take the fall for her disappearance, it stirs up old resentments in the family and brings some family secrets to light.
Let’s start with what I liked about the book. It is a pretty good character portrait of each of the Delaney’s. Sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface and Moriarty explores the theme that every marriage has its weaknesses, no matter how stable or loving it may appear from the outside. Moriarty tackles a lot of issues, from gender roles, to mental health, to physical health, to domestic violence, to the weight of our parents expectations and how they shape children into adults.
What I didn’t like – Moriarty tackles a lot of issues. While it’s great that she highlights some issues that you don’t often see portrayed, such as dealing with chronic migraines and the fatigue of domestic labour, I think she was a little too ambitious. I felt like she tried to cram a lot into this book and it made it all seem a bit surface level. For example, I don’t think we really ever went in depth to Amy’s mental health issues or the shortfalls in Joy and Stan’s marriage. There’s a lot to dig into, but Moriarty spreads herself too thin to do any of these issues justice.
But even though she couldn’t quite tackle everything, this book was still too long. I felt like she didn’t do the issues justice and yet she still somehow spent too much time waffling on each of the characters. I felt like there was so much thrown in that just wasn’t needed. This is a mystery novel at its core, but the pacing gets caught up in so much background information on the large cast of characters that I felt the story never really picked up any momentum. I thought Savannah was a really interesting character and I wanted to know more about her and her past, but we get so much info about each of the boring Delaney siblings that I just lost interest and when we finally do get some insight into Savannah’s psyche, it’s just a bit too late.
Because sadly I just didn’t find any of the Delaney’s compelling. Joy was by far the most interesting to me, but I had almost no interest in Stan or any of the siblings. I just didn’t care about their problems. They’re a pretty well-to-do middle class white family and it was honestly just boring. I didn’t care about their tennis drama, I was unsure why I should care about Harry, and all of it just kept distracting me from the only parts I was interested in – Savannah and what happened to Joy.
Now I want to talk about the ending though, because that was fascinating. Again, I felt the pacing was a bit off. The book seems to come to a conclusion which I found fairly unsatisfying, but I was mystified to see I still had an hour left on my audiobook after this revelation. There is a second, shocking ending which is the part I found fascinating and would have loved to have seen developed a bit more. But unfortunately it comes a little too late in the story and made me question what was the point in including it at all? It is surprising, but I felt there’s so much more Moriarty could have done with it that would have made for a much more compelling book overall.
So in conclusion – the book was fine, but I wish it was 100 pages shorter and explored a bit of a different angle. The family dynamics were interesting, but in the long run, forgettable.
Rating: ⭐⭐.5 Author: Sarah Penner Genres: Historical Fiction Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)
Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing.
The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men.
At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.
The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.
There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.
I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.
So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all.
Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ Author: Ann Mah Genres: Historical Fiction Pub. Date: Jun. 2018 (read Apr. 2021)
The Lost Vintage has been on my TBR for years and I finally read it! It first came on my radar when I read an interview with the author that talked about the historical violence that has been perpetuated against women during war time. There is a plethora of literature out there about WWII (honestly I think there’s too much – I’d really like to see more about non-western countries and other time periods), but a lot of what is published about WWII focuses either on the holocaust or interesting historical stories (ie, a nurse during the blitz, a secret resistance worker, a pilot behind enemy lines, etc). The Lost Vintage focuses on German-occupied France, a topic that I’ve definitely read more than one book about, but I was immediately intrigued to explore the hidden (and not so hidden) violence against women.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely other books out there on this topic. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is the first that comes to mind, but even books like Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants series explore how in Germany’s defeat, an overwhelming number of women were raped by Russian soldiers as their spoils of war. But what I have been particularly interested in, and the main reason I wanted to read this book, is how ‘collaborators’ were treated in the liberation. I’m sorry to say, that before a few years ago, it wasn’t something I had given that much thought to.
A couple of years ago I read Mark Sullivan’s book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I strongly disliked the writing in the book, but it was based on a true story and as much as I disliked a lot of the book, there’s one scene at the end of the book that I constantly think of. This book took place in Milan and at the end of the war, the people of Italy basically mobbed the entire country, hanging Mussolini in the street and shaming, abusing, and killing tons of women that were seen as collaborators. Though Europe is filled with people who ‘collaborated’ during the war, the benefit of time is that it has allowed us to examine those whose collaboration was inexcusable (people who sold out their neighbours for personal gain) and those whose collaboration was more a victim of circumstance (accepting food to feed your family in exchange for personal favours to a German official). “Horizontal Collaboration” was strongly condemned after the war, despite the fact that many women were in fact victims of German occupation and power.
What’s so enraging about this is the fact that after the war, European citizens (of several countries) essentially enacted mob and vigilante justice on both real and perceived collaborators. I definitely believe in war tribunals and prosecuting those who are responsible for war crimes – but much of this justice was enacted without trial or evidence. In a mob-like fever, people we’re dragged from their homes and citizen justice was performed in the streets. What’s so enraging about it now, and what Ann Mah touches on briefly in her book, is that many of the people directing this justice were actually male collaborators themselves (point the finger first lest it be pointed at you instead), and that most of the ‘justice’ was perpetrated against women, particularly women who were perceived to have slept with the enemy. It ignores the fact that many women were taken advantage of and raped, and in the case of this book, required absolutely no evidence.
So this is obviously a topic I’m pretty passionate about, but what about this book? This is basically just an extended background rant about what inspired me to pick up The Lost Vintage. The Lost Vintage does grapple with questions of collaboration, and interestly, heritage. Everyone wants to believe that if they had lived through WWII they would have been on the side of the resistance. That they would have been empathetic to the plight of Jews and fought against tyranny. But war and poverty make us do desperate things and when we discover that our family history might be more than a little embarrassing, what do we do about that?
So The Lost Vintage raised a lot of interesting topics and questions for me, but I credit it to my own interest rather than what the author actually delivered because unfortunately, this book left a lot to be desired. It had a lot of potential, but there were two core storylines taking place and the one the author devotes most of her time to is the wine storyline.
The Lost Vintage is a about a wine expert, Kate, who is trying to pass the ultimate exam in the world of sommeliers – the Master of Wine certificate. In order to prepare for her final exam, she travels to her mother’s childhood home in Burgundy, a wine estate that has been passed down through her family for generations. While in Burgundy, she discovers a number of relics in the family cellar, including a cache of expensive wines from the war. She begins to search both for information on her family heritage, as well as the missing bottles of a very expensive, lost vintage.
This was the author’s debut novel and while it shows a lot of promise, it had a lot of the trappings of a debut novel. The writing is not engaging and the format and pacing of the book just didn’t work for me. It has a very slow start and I was more than halfway through the book before I finally got into it. The author dedicates a lot of time to Kate and her wine exam. It’s clear the author knows a lot about wine and this might be interesting to those ensconced in the wine world, but for me (and my entire book club), we wanted to know more about Kate’s family history and the diaries of her great-aunt Helene.
Mah does deliver on the plot points relating to female collaboration, and I did enjoy the thought exercise of reflecting on what it means to discover collaborators in your family tree, but I don’t think Mah did the topic justice. First of all, I thought that Kate’s reaction to discovering a collaborator in her history was an over-reaction. I feel like there must be a lot of people in France with similar histories and given the benefit of time, we now understand that the accusation of ‘collaborator’ from mob justice really didn’t mean a whole lot. I was able to forgive Heather’s reaction because she was Jewish, but overall I thought the entire family over-reacted and didn’t show a whole lot of maturity by just refusing to speak of Helene for 80 years.
Besides that, the book had a lot of flaws. I feel like the author had the core idea for her book and didn’t know what to do beyond that. She tried some things to increase the suspense, but none of it worked with the rest of the narrative. Characters like Walker and Louise were absolutely pointless and I found the trajectory of the love story jarring and thought the characters had no chemistry. There was so much potential that was just wasted. I wanted to see a more equal split between Kate and Helene’s story (the focus is disproportionately on Kate) and I wanted to see a better exploration of what I thought were going to be the key themes. I felt the author knew everything there was to know about wine, but was just lazy in the rest of the writing.
But I still gave this book 3 stars so what gives? I do think this was a good story – it was just a good story, poorly told. Similar to Mark Sullivan’s, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I still wanted to read the story, I just wanted to experience it from a more experienced author.
Alice Feeney’s debut, Sometimes I Lie, was a big hit with my book club when it came out. So I was excited to read His & Hers as our book club pick for February. I don’t think it’s as strong as Sometimes I Lie, but it is a quick, edge-of-your-seat thriller that I devoured in just a few hours.
I don’t want to get too much into the synopsis because it’s always better to go into these kind of books blind, but as the name suggests, the narrative bounces between two central characters, divorced couple Jack and Anna. Jack is a detective and Anna a news reporter. When a woman is murdered in the small English village of Blackdown, both Jack and Anna find themselves covering the story, but they are both also secretly connected to the victim.
Like I said, this is a quick paced thriller that takes you on a winding path. If you’re looking for a quick read that you don’t have to think about too much, this is it. The writing is good in that we really have no idea where the story is going. The author constantly toys with your train of thought, giving you some answer throughout, but always more questions. Overall it was a fun read, but there were a few things I didn’t like about it.
Before I get into the spoiler part of my review, I’ll just say that I thought the story had quite a few plotholes and while the author does always keep you guessing, I didn’t love the writing style. I found the writing a bit disjointed and confusing at times. I think that it was intentional not to give too much away, but I often felt like I just had no information. It’s hard to describe, but I felt like the fun of guessing who did it was removed from the story because the order of information was intentionally confusing I didn’t even bother.
I also found the content disturbing – I know murder mysteries are bound to be a bit disturbing, so it’s not a critique, just a note that it made me uncomfortable and that some people might like a trigger warning for rape. I also hate the use of children as a plot device in murder mysteries. Lots of mysteries center around children and trauma and that is fine, in a way this book does, but the author also leaves several children orphaned and generally I just thought it unnecessary. I felt more like they were used to make the reader feel bad rather than for any important plot reason.
Finally, this is a criticism of the title of the book more than anything. But “His & Hers” implies to me an exploration of two different sides of the same story. Yes this story had two protagonists, but to me it was really no different than any other dually narrated story. I didn’t think the book really explored his and her perspectives of an event. It really was just a simple shared narrative. A minor criticism as it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the story, but hey, I’m a reader, I care about word choice.
Anyways, those are my critiques. Overall it was a standard 3 star mystery thriller. I liked it, but didn’t love it.
Okay now for the spoiler part of my review. I found quite a few plot holes and I want to document it while it’s still fresh in my mind because it’s bound to come up at my book club discussion!
Plot holes: – Why did Anna go into Zoe’s house on the day of her murder? The end confirmed she didn’t do it, so what was she doing? – Why did the killer tip Anna off after they murdered Helen Wang? I assumed originally it was to throw suspicion on her, but wouldn’t the killer want to avoid any suspicion on Anna? – Why was Priya always talking to Anna’s mom? The author alludes that we should be concerned about this – I figured originally it was because of her mom’s dementia and the body in the backyard. But in light of the final revelation, I’m not sure why we should be concerned about this. Do we think Priya suspects the real killer? – Not a plot hole, but overall I just thought both Priya and Richard were weak red herrings. Catherine was the obvious suspect, so I did like the little plot twist with Cat Jones. – Why was Jack absolved of all suspicion? They make reference to the discovery of Catherine’s diaries, but they wouldn’t have found any murder plans within them… I know Priya witnessed Cat attack Anna’s mom as well, but again, not proof she was the murderer. Her children had been kidnapped, surely hysteria would be expected, or did the police not figure this out. They would have had to know now that both the kids parents were dead.