Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Rating: 
Author: Liane Oelke
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Jan. 2019)

Wow! This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to read it on a whim and ended up reading the whole 400 page book in a single sitting! I read pretty fast, but it’s been a while since I’ve marathoned a single book that fast! It’s an extremely fun read and the style and content really lends itself well to a quick read.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is about senior year high school student Jane Sinner. She’s been expelled from school in her final semester and we’re not sure why, but in order to finish her diploma, she enrolls in a community college for the Spring and Summer semesters. She feels it’s important to move out of her parents house for a while, but she doesn’t really have much money, so when she sees an advert for really cheap rent in a house near campus, she jumps on it. The only catch is that she’ll be one of six people living in the house and will have to participate in a big brother style reality show called House of Orange. Jane is looking to re-invent herself, so she decides to apply.

I really liked this book. I thought Jane was hilarious and the book never takes itself too seriously, even though it does still have some pretty serious underlying themes. It’s by a Canadian author from Calgary who now lives in Vancouver, so I could definitely relate with the content and setting and thought it was a breath of fresh air from all the American YA books set in the south (I also laughed a lot at all her disparaging comments about Edmonton). I am always looking for new adult books about college/university students, and while I will still definitely categorize this as YA, I liked the college setting and that it focused on the transition to college, which can be a challenge.

This book has a lot of different themes; the pressures of high school and college, the challenges of overcoming our past, and dealing with mental health and suicide. However, one of the main themes in this book, which I really liked, was about religious tolerance and finding and leaving Christianity. Christian lit is really not very good, so I’m always intrigued when there’s a good side story about a character’s relationship with Christianity. In Jane’s case, she’s grown up going to church her whole life and her parents and many of her friends are devout Christians. Jane eventually comes to the realization that she doesn’t believe in God and then finds it very difficult to cope when her entire belief system suddenly crumbles around her.

I liked that Jane was able to come to terms with her beliefs, without the book being hugely critical of Christianity. She still has Christian friends, one of which is a bisexual teenager who has been able to successfully reconcile both her faith and sexuality with one another. I thought the book was very respectful of both Christians and atheists, which I really appreciated. It’s not a theme I was expecting to find in this book and it was a pleasant surprise.

Primarily though, this book is just a lot of fun. The dialogue is written like a movie script, which I think helped move the story along quickly and I was enthralled from start to finish. The reality tv show idea is brilliant and I thought the author executed it perfectly! You can tell she works in the film industry because it was just so easy to visualize this book as a tv show. When Jane would talk about each episode and the way the footage was cut, with the little humourous bits added in, I could see it in my mind and I just really wished it actually existed so that I could watch it and laugh along.

The reality tv show bit is hilarious and I loved Jane’s voice. She is super sarcastic and initially you think she’s overly introverted and I wondered if she might be agoraphobic. That was not the case at all and Jane ended up being extremely smart and witty. I loved all the characters in House of Orange, but Jane was definitely my favourite. I thought all of the other contestants and characters were very authentic and I had no trouble believing that any of these people might exist. My only minor criticism might be that I thought not a lot of the other characters had much character growth, but Jane had an immense amount of character growth, so I can deal.

Overall, I really wish this was a more talked about book because it is actually really good and I think it deserves a lot more praise. What a great debut novel! I really hope Liane Oelke writes more books because I will definitely read them!

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Becoming

Rating: 
Author: Michelle Obama
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2018 (read Jan. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Michelle Obama

I admit, I’ve been postponing writing my review on Becoming because I’m at a bit of a loss for what to write. I still don’t really know what I’m going to say, so let’s just go for it and see what comes out (honestly, this is why I like writing reviews because half the time I don’t know how I really feel about a book until I actually sit down and write something about it).

I listened to Becoming as an audiobook – it’s narrated by Michelle so that’s a huge benefit to reading it this way. Like pretty much every other liberal Canadian out there, I love the Obama’s. I’ve always liked Barrack and his policies when he was President, and though I didn’t think too much about Michelle most of the time, I admired her for her attitude. Together I thought they brought something fun and new to the White House and having the Obama’s replaced by the Trump’s has only served to make me miss them more.

I’m not sure what I expected this book to be about. To be honest, I didn’t really know that much about Michelle except that she had nice arms, cared about healthy eating, and always radiated positive thinking in her speeches. I guess I thought this would mostly be about her time as first lady, but it was actually a pretty substantial look at her entire life. It’s broken into three parts; the first part focuses on her childhood and education, the second part on her relationship with Barrack, and the last part on her time as First Lady. Barrack obviously features heavily in the memoir, especially since she essentially had to give up her own career to accommodate his dreams when he became president, but it is really still just about Michelle.

Michelle grew up in Chicago and her memoir takes us through her early years growing up on the south side. Her family wasn’t wealthy, but they weren’t poor either, mostly they were just a family that stuck to their guns. Michelle and her brother were both very smart and are both Princeton graduates. She graduated with a law degree and worked as a lawyer for many years, trying many different things. She worked for a big law firm, which is where she met Barrack, but found this high paced life wasn’t for her, which inspired her to seek out more meaningful work. She is a very successful individual in her own right.

What I liked most about her memoir was how personal it was. She shares her struggles being the wife of a senator and how hard she had to work to maintain her own career and family life. Both her and Barrack had big dreams for their futures and she struggled with the traditional roles that were expected of her as a mother. She always wanted to support Barrack, but it was hard on her and the family when he had so many commitments all over the country. Honestly, I was kind of annoyed for her. Most of the domestic responsibilities fell to her over the years and she’s honest about how difficult it felt to manage that. She says multiple times that she never really wanted Barrack to be in politics.

As a couple, Barrack and Michelle are pretty inspiring themselves. They’re both very ambitious people, but they were able to make it work. Michelle was able to stay out of politics when Barrack was a senator, but when he ran for President, she was essentially forced to give up her job to support him. I think I personally would have really struggled with that if I was in her shoes. I would hate to have to set my own ambitions aside, especially as a woman who hates fitting into traditional gender roles. But people have to make sacrifices in relationships all the time and sometimes you will have to prioritize one career over the other if you want to make your relationship work. So I really admired Michelle for deciding what concessions she was willing to make and for the compromises they made in other areas. As First Lady she had a huge platform from which to work and I think all of her experience in the workforce and as a lawyer really worked to her advantage.

I did struggle with this book at times. I never found it boring and I was always into it while listening to it, but you already know how the story ends, so sometimes I did tune out a little bit. Even though I think Michelle is really honest in this memoir, something about it still felt a little sanitized to me. I think that’s to be expected from someone who had to constantly censor themselves at all times lest she say something that could be construed in a poor light or misinterpreted. It’s too bad, because I think the Obama’s are probably one of the most down to earth couples that have ever been in the White House, but because they are black they are held to a much higher standard and there’s really no room for them to make mistakes or be messy. Being messy is what makes people real, but that privilege will never be conferred on a couple like the Obama’s. Trump can say all the dumb shit he wants (and does) and his supporters will still look the other way. Michelle had to be a role model in every aspect of her life and she did it really well.

Overall I think she offers up a lot of herself in this book. I also think it’s a bit of a chance for her to tell her side of the story- to clear the air on the ways she was misunderstood or misquoted on the campaign trail and during her time as First Lady. Without Barrack, Michelle is still an inspiring individual and it was really interesting to learn about her roots. I have tickets to hear her speak in March and I’m excited to hear what else she has to say!

December Summary

I got so caught up in the New Year that I totally forgot to do my monthly summary for December! I’m not sure if I will continue these into 2019 or not, but I wanted to do the last one to finish off for 2018. Here’s what I read:

Books read: 8
Pages read: 2,736
Main genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Favourite book: The Feather Thief

December is always a bit of a slower month because I go home for Christmas to visit my family. But I still managed to read 8 books. I started off with my favourite read of the month, The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. This was a huge surprise to me seeing as The Feather Thief is about a guy who steals 300 bird carcasses from the Natural History Museum in order to sell the feathers to fly-tiers, but it was strangely compelling. I read it on Audible and I thought the narrator did a great job and I was totally enthralled with this little known heist for the entirety of the novel. Definitely recommend for history buffs.

I finally read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which has been on my TBR for ages. It’s historical fiction about female pilots in WW2 that is widely loved in the YA community. I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected, but I followed it up with the companion novel, Rose Under Fire, which I actually ended up liking a lot more. The second book is about notorious women’s concentration camp, Ravensbruck, and while it’s very upsetting, I thought it was really well written.

I read two mystery novels, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, and Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. Truly Devious has been lauded all over Booktube and I was totally blown away by how much I DISLIKED it. I’m actually shocked by how many people love this book because I thought it was poorly written, poorly plotted, and extremely juvenille. I really wanted to love it, but it was a huge disappointment. I didn’t have too many thoughts on Murder in Mesopotamia. It wasn’t my favourite Agatha Christie, but still a fun 3-star read.

About a week before I was due to head home for the holidays, I received an early copy of The Wicked King by Holly Black from Hatchette. I was really excited to read this one because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and as someone who liked, but didn’t love, The Cruel Prince, I was interested to see if the sequel was any better. I still didn’t love it quite as much as everyone else, but I did like it better than the first book and I am now pretty desperate for the final book!

Finally, I read two books while I was home for Christmas. I finally picked up Wildcard by Marie Lu, the sequel to Warcross, and read pretty much the entire book on the plane on the way home. Unfortunately, this was another disappointing book. I LOVED Warcross last year and while I still liked parts of Wildcard, I thought it was overwritten, with the plot being overly complicated and action for the sake of action. I finished off the year with the final book in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han. I didn’t love the conclusion as much as the first book, but overall I think this is a really strong contemporary series and I can’t wait to watch the sequel on Netflix this year!

Nine Perfect Strangers

Rating: ⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub date: Nov. 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Nine Perfect Strangers was totally different than what I was expecting. For some reason I thought this was going to be a murder mystery (spoiler, it’s not), not really sure why, so the plot ended up taking me totally by surprise, but in a good way.

Nine Perfect Strangers centers around Tranquillum House, a spa/resort where people come for all sorts of reasons, but primarily to make some kind of change, whether it’s with their body, personal habits, or even to save their relationship. The resort was founded by russian immigrant, Masha, who had a near death experience when she suffered a heart attack from overwork and neglecting her health, and found a new outlook on life that centered around personal health and wellbeing. Nine people have assembled at Tranquillum for a 10 day retreat.

Tranquillum House is known for having slightly revolutionary practices; no electronics are permitted at the spa and there are mandatory fasts, juice cleanses, and periods of silence throughout the 10 day retreat. However, many people swear that Tranquillum House gave them a whole new outlook on life, so most of the guests are willing to give it a try for 10 days. This group of guests includes a washed up romance novelist and footballer, a tired mom, a divorce lawyer, a couple trying to save their marriage, and a family trying to heal after the death of their son/brother. They are mostly optimistic about the retreat; however, what these strangers don’t know is that Tranquillum House has decided to try a new protocol for this retreat and that they will be physically and emotionally tested over the course of their ten day visit.

I’ve read two other books by Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, and I must say, she is really good at tackling tough subjects with humour. Her characters are all pretty humourous in this book in how ridiculous they are. They all grapple with some pretty serious issues, yet still provide a lot of comic relief. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the plot. It was a really different concept and it was actually quite shocking where Moriarty took the plot in the seond half of the book.

What I liked most about the book though was the theme, which centered around the idea of change. All of the guests decide to attend the retreat because they are seeking some kind of change in their lives, and the resort itself was founded because of the change that Masha underwent after her near death experience. Masha experienced a huge change in her life and really wants to help others to change their lives for the better. However, what she begins to realize is that it’s easy to help people change over a 10 day period, but that it is immensely difficult for her guests to make permanent changes once they return to their old lives. It raises the question of whether people really can change.

It really is a roller coaster ride because some of Tranquillum House’s practices seem really out there and it’s easy to dismiss them as “hippy-dippy nonsense”. But the further you read, you start to question yourself because it’s hard to deny that the practices actually do seem to work. However, when the plot takes a drastic turn around the half way point, you see the characters starting to revert back to their original tendencies, which again begs the question of whether change is truly possible. I liked the book because even though the resort seems to be a bit of a farce and I think a lot of the people would only be temporarily changed by the experience, it’s hard to deny by the end of the novel that the guests have been changed by their time at Tranquillum, just in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to ruin the plot and I think it is actually best to go into this book blind if possible. It is quite different from the other work I’ve read by Moriarty, but it did make me think and reflect and I think it is an interesting commentary on the human ability to change, so I did quite like it. It also does a great job at developing each of the nine characters and I was really impressed with how each them grew throughout the novel and I enjoyed getting each of their back stories. I read this for my January book club, so I’m really interested to hear what the rest of my book club thought because I can see how some people might not like this book.

Keeping Lucy

Rating: ⭐
Author: T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Aug 6, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a little on the fence of how to rate this book. I read Rust & Stardust last year and really liked it, so I was excited to receive a copy of T. Greenwood’s newest book, Keeping Lucy, in hopes of learning more about a period of history I didn’t know much about. I did like this book and I did learn something, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Rust & Stardust because I felt it lacked in plot.

Finding Lucy is about a family from Massachusetts in the 1970’s whose second child is born with down synodrome. Down syndrome has a sad history in the United States and the delivery doctor strongly recommended enrolling the baby, Lucy, in an institution that could better see to her needs. Her mother, Ginny, was excluded from the decision to give up the baby and years later, she struggles with the loss of her little girl. When Lucy is two years old, a journalist publishes an expose about Willowridge, Lucy’s school, that reveals the deplorable living conditions in which the children are kept. Ginny is horrified and upset by the article and travels to Willowridge for the first time to see the conditions for herself and meet her daughter.

Greenwood definitely has a unique style of writing. It is very simple and straight forward, but does an excellent job of making you feel acutely uncomfortable and anxious. Rust & Stardust was about the kidnapping of Sally Horner, the young girl who inspired Lolita, and made me feel so anxious and frustrated about the way Sally was manipulated and treated. I had a similar reaction to Keeping Lucy in that I found this part of history shocking, I was frustrated by the way the health and justice system worked in the 1970’s, particularly in how it ignores the agency of women, and I was so anxious about the decisions the characters made and the potential ramifications. I flew through the book, reading about 75% of it on a lazy saturday.

I liked that this looked at a disturbing and lesser known part of history, but unfortunately I was a little disappointed in the execution. I was expecting this book to focus on Willowridge, the poor living conditions, the pursuit of justice against the institution, and the fight for custody of the children and for people with Down Syndrome to be recognized as people with a full set of rights. Willowridge is not a real place, but I trust it was imagined based on other similar institutions. Likewise, Ginny is not a real person, but I imagine there are parents out there who unknowningly were advised to send their babies off to similar institutions. In Ginny’s case, she was more or less blindsided by her husband and father-in-law, which plays a large role in the story.

I liked Ginny’s story arc in that it highlights how little agency women had in their lives and relationships. But overall I felt the author missed an opportunity to write a more historically meaningful plot. In order for the babies to be committed to the institution, parents essentially gave up their custody rights to the state. Once the story got going, I was expecting for this to be a story about Ginny’s battle with the state to save her daughter and regain custody while fighting against the antiquanted and sexist beliefs of her father in law, who thought he was entitled to make decisions for his son and family. The story provided a great look at how the patriarchy robbed women of any power or agency and the gender dynamics that often existed in families at this time. But ultimately this story was not about a custody battle, but rather was a drawn out road trip in which Ginny tries to escape with her daughter and the trials she faces as a single woman/mother in rural America. It was an interesting story with a surprising amount of action, but meaningless in that while I understood Ginny’s desperation, her actions were drastic and not realistic. I know Ginny was only try to save her daughter from being returned to Willowridge, but her actions were short sighted and actually really harmful to the result that she wanted. She’s applauded at the end for her good motherly instincts, which I thought pretty rich because she basically just ran away from any responsibility.

Ginny and Martha made a lot of bad decisions that I felt there was really no coming back from. I disliked the ending because I thought it was extremely unlikely and absolved Ginny of any wrongdoing. (view spoiler) What I really wanted to hear about was the struggle all those other families went through in gaining custody of their children and what legal actions were taken against the institutions for their neglect. People with Down Syndrome had to fight for their legal rights, care, and education, and I would have much preferred to learn more about that.

The story did hold my interest throughout the whole book and I sped through it, but the longer GInny and Martha spent on the road, the more I wondered what the whole point was. I didn’t expect them to be on the run for so long and I was really surprised when it ended up being the main plotline of the story. This is a fascinating part of history and I really just wish we had gotten a different story. I won’t fault the author because she did still deliver on a fast paced and interesting story, but personally, it just wasn’t the story I was hoping for and I thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity. I’m still giving it 3 stars because I did learn something and I thought the writing was pretty good, but overall it just left me wanting more.