The It Girl

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Jul. 2022

The title of this book has been driving me nuts ever since I saw the cover. I hate that the title is in all-caps because I can’t help but read it as The I.T. Girl every time! After having read it, I can confirm this is about an “it” girl and in fact has nothing to do with I.T. In case you also work in a technical field and were unsure, lol.

It’s no secret that I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s ever written. In terms of storytelling, I don’t think she’s the best mystery/thriller writer ever and I actually rate most of her books very middle of the road. But I do think she is an excellent suspense writer and I find her books so compulsively readable, which is why I return to them over and over again. Even though I haven’t loved all her books, this was the first one where I actively struggled to read it.

This book is about 50-100 pages longer than all of her other books, and it felt like it. She employs the dual timeline in this book and while I think it was effective, in the first half, it only served to slow down the story. Hannah Jones is our main character and we learn from the start that her Oxford University experience came to a quick end when her roommate, April, is murdered at the end of her first year. An Oxford Porter is convicted of the crime based on Hannah’s testimony and when he dies in prison, Hannah starts questioning her memory and whether there was more to that night than she remembers.

The story is told between flashbacks to her time at Oxford and her cool group of friends that centered around “it girl” April Coutts-Cliveden, and her quiet current day life in Edinburgh. I was mildly interested in her life at Oxford – April is an interesting character. She is manipulative and makes a lot of questionable choices, but you know from the beginning that she ends up dead, so it’s hard to be overly critical of her. Hannah is more of a forgettable character, which is not aided by the fact that in her desire to forget April’s death, she is leading a very forgettable life herself – a life that is undeniably tedious and boring to read about. 

I understand why Ware uses the dual timeline and I do think it is effective later in the story, but it’s too indulgent in the early stages and it slowed down the pace. I think if the book had been shortened by about 50 pages, it would have tightened up the story a lot and made the whole book more compelling. In general, the second half of the book was executed better and I was much more invested in the story past the 50% mark. It has some classic Ruth Ware twists and I felt like we were finally getting to the grit of the story.

Overall, I think Oxford is a compelling setting for a story like this because of the whole “closed campus” intrigue. The notion of the “it girl” was interesting – April is a vibrant and outgoing character with a lot of self-confidence, yet there’s no denying that she is mean-spirited. Why do these two things often seem to go hand in hand? Do people get drunk on their popularity and privilege? Why do other people tolerate such meanness from their supposed friends? These are all interesting questions (to me anyways), that I would have loved to see Ware address to give the book more depth. Unfortunately, we don’t look at any of these themes and I was left feeling conflicted about what I was supposed to think about April. 

Overall, I think this book held a lot of promise, but unfortunately was poorly executed. Not her best.

Lessons in Chemistry

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Bonnie Garmus
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022

I have been seeing this book absolutely everywhere this year! When it first popped on my radar I immediately wrote it off because it sounded kind of boring and I wasn’t interested in reading about a cooking show. But then I kept seeing non stop reviews for it and my book club decided to read it and I became pretty excited to finally pick it up.

I was a little bit nervous because I find when a book is really hyped up it often doesn’t live up to the hype, but this one actually did! I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t have the highest expectations, but it was so much funnier than I was anticipating! I’ve seen it compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which I think is apt; and I would also compare it to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1960’s and focuses on the life of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist turned TV cooking personality. As you can imagine, being a female chemist in the 1960’s was not a fun time and Elizabeth is forced to endure sexist attitudes everywhere she goes. She is fired from her research job when she becomes pregnant and a series of mishaps land her with the opportunity to work in television, which she begrudgingly accepts in order to provide for herself and her young daughter.

I do want to acknowledge upfront that this is 100% white feminism rhetoric. I’m sure that women of colour were a lot more concerned with the human rights movement and segregation in the early 1960’s than they were about breaking into the extremely racist and sexist academic spaces. While Elizabeth had limited access to these spaces, BIPOC women were shut out of them entirely and it’s important to acknowledge this disparity and that the setting is very white feminist in nature.

Acknowledging the limitations of the narrative, I enjoyed it for what it was. I think it’s a real skill to write the kind of conflict that is both relatable and enraging while maintaining sharp wit and humour. In this case I think the humour is actually key because otherwise the narrative could easily get bogged down in anger, turning it from a perceptive comedy to a drama. Some might argue that with these kinds of themes, maybe it should be a drama, but I liked how Garmus uses the juxtaposition of straight-faced humour to expose blatant sexism.

The women in this story were a joy to read. Elizabeth is downright comical, which eases the tension, while Mad and Harriett are great supporting characters. I was even endeared to characters like Ms. Frask by the end of the book. In some ways, women who enable sexism sometimes seem worse than men, so it was prudent to be reminded that those women are often victims themselves. Although it is a fine line and we should be wary of any kind of gatekeeping, especially keeping in mind that though white women have broken into many of these academic spaces in more recent years, BIPOC women are often still excluded.

There are some really frustrating antagonists in the book, but there were still some meaningful male characters. I had a soft spot for Calvin and I thought characters like Dr. Mason, Walter, and the Reverend were also great additions. The inclusion of a dog as a character is both genius and insane. It feels like it should be out of place, but it somehow works so well in the story. Which is really what left me so impressed with the book. It has a surprisingly large cast of characters and yet somehow they’re all well realized. I think it’s a skill to carry so many meaningful secondary characters and when done well, it really adds to a story. It’s what brings a story to life and enables the characters to walk right off the page.

I haven’t really gotten into the plot – this book covers a lot of ground and I liked the way Garmus ties everything together. I did find the ending a bit abrupt and I didn’t like the storyline about Calvin’s past and the mysterious donors. It got a little bit confusing and garbled at the end and I don’t think it added much to the overall story.

Keeping in mind the limitations of the character diversity, I do think the book captures women’s desire to break out of traditional gender roles and find their own place in the world. It’s not a new concept in 2022, but I still enjoyed Elizabeth’s character and the humour Garmus brought to the story. She is unapologetic about her desire for more and she doesn’t ask permission or try to manipulate her way into her field. She knows she deserves to be there on the basis of her drive and accomplishments and she’s not going to dim her shine to make some self-important man feel like he’s doing her a favour.

So overall, I can acknowledge that the book has some shortcomings, but I still had a great time reading it!

The Diamond Eye

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022

Now here’s a review I wish I’d written earlier. HarperCollins kindly sent me a copy of The Diamond Eye when it was released in exchange for an honest review, but I held off reading it because my book club really wanted to read it together. I wrote this review back in October (just before my book club meeting to collect my thoughts), but I never got around to posting it.

This was my third Kate Quinn novel as I’ve also read The Alice Network and The Rose Code. I read The Rose Code with book club last year and that one is still probably my favourite of the 3, but I can’t decide which I liked better of the other two. The Diamond Eye is set between Ukraine and America during the second world war. Mila Pavlichenko already has sharp-shooter training when war breaks out and immediately signs up for the war effort. Women weren’t precluded from fighting in the Soviet Union and when her skills are noticed, she quickly starts making a name for herself and winds up with her own team of snipers. Her continued success earns her the title of Lady Death and eventually she is sent to the US to rally Americans to the cause and develops an unlikely friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

The book starts out really strong. We learn of Mila’s history with her ex-husband and the child she’s been raising in his absence. It’s based on a true story and Mila herself is quite remarkable. That a single mother would have gotten her sharp-shooting certification at all is pretty intriguing, as is her success in the war. Women were so often relegated to the sidelines of the war effort – as nurses, or factory workers, or sometimes spies. But the Soviet Union allowed women on the front, which is quite unique on its own and presents a narrative I’ve not seen before in WWII fiction.

The first half of the book is really excellent. We accompany Mila as the Germans push the Soviets and the Soviets fight back. She develops both good and bad relationships with the men in her unit; succeeds despite the sexism of the senior male officials; and still has the odd verbal tussle with her frustrating ex, who is now a doctor in the war effort. The story is a little overly dramatized and I was annoyed that it followed a very similar sub-plot to The Rose Code, but otherwise, an excellent first half.

Unfortunately, the second half didn’t work as well for me. This book is too long. The entire second half of the book is set in America, but this plot wasn’t as engaging as the first half and was too dragged out. Had it been shorter, it might have been more effective, but I got bored around the 75% mark, which is a really bad part of the book to lose interest. Quinn takes a lot of liberty with the story in the second half and fabricates a lot of the central plot. Considering this book is centered around the real life of a real person, making up so much of the plot didn’t work for me. I felt that Quinn progressed the plot in intentionally dramatic ways and if those are not rooted in realism, it is a stain on the story. It makes the reader question what was based in fact and what was based in fiction. You have to commit one way or the other – either tell the truth, or create a fictional character with a different name. The Rose Code amalgamated several real people to form its fictional characters and I think that is a better approach if you want to deviate from real history. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

I think where this also lost me was the inclusion of another real life person, Eleanor Roosevelt, who is much more well known in real life than our protagonist. I didn’t know what to trust or where the line was for actual vs. fabricated history. The decision to include Eleanor’s “notes” and the POV of the gunmen were both interesting choices that definitely added to the drama of the story, but again, not the realism. Mila can anchor this story on her own. She is fascinating enough, Quinn didn’t need to bring Eleanor into the story in such a large way. I felt like it was a cheap way to build intrigue in the synopsis. I had similar thoughts about the inclusion of Prince Philip in The Rose Code, but I guess this is Quinn’s new thing and I’m sure it helps to sell books when you reference well-known historical figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Prince Philip.

Anyways, overall it is a good book and an interesting story. I learned a lot and was engaged through most of the book. It wasn’t everything it could have been, but it was entertaining. Taking a peak at goodreads, my rating is on the lower side compared to the rest of my book club, who enjoyed it more than me. I’m sitting at a solid 3 star read – not bad, not great.

The Winners

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Oct. 2022
Series: Beartown #3

This is the book I’ve been waiting for since 2018. I didn’t really like Us Against You that much on my first read through because I found it very depressing, but I did concede that it works as the second book in a 3-part series. When I re-read Us Against You a few weeks ago, I did like it a lot more knowing there was more to the story. 

The Winners is a beast of a book at almost 700 pages. It brought exactly what I was expecting in terms of the quality of writing and depth of characters. We get to revisit a lot of characters: Benji, Amat, Bobo, Ana, Zackell, and the entirety of the Andersson family, while also getting introduced to some new characters. Primarily, a family from Hed, a young boy named Matteo, and a new star hockey player: Big City. I was sad to lose all of the hockey players from the first book – I never liked Lyt, but I can’t deny he brought a lot of conflict to the story.

I love how Backman continues to examine Maya’s story and its lasting impact on her family. In some ways the family has recovered and in other ways it’s still very broken. Kira and Peter keep breaking and mending my heart in every book and I liked the exploration of your sense of self discovery within a relationship. Sometimes we need to prioritize ourselves, sometimes we need to compromise for the good of our partner, and sometimes we need to both be our own person. When we compromise too much we risk losing what drew us to one another in the first place. At least that’s my cryptic take while trying not to give anything away.

Likewise, I loved where Backman took Amat in this story. It reiterated a lot of David’s fears from the first book about letting young stars rise too quickly. Amat had nowhere to belong. He outgrew the Hollow, while never really fitting in with the rich kids. He was propped up by the club as a mascot when he was a winner, but he was only useful to them when he was winning. I thought his rebellion was sad, but natural when you feel you’ve been used by your community and you know that no one would look twice at you if you didn’t win. The idea that you owe people something because you couldn’t have got there without their charity, but that they were only charitable because you had something that they desired or could benefit from. My only complaint was that I wanted to see Amat play more hockey! For a book about hockey, a very limited amount of hockey actually takes place.

I’ve always loved Bobo’s transformation and I feel like he really came into his own in this book. I love when authors take questionable characters and re-invent them to show our capacity for change. Bobo goes from bully, to friend, to coach, to lover. Overall, I’m not sure the inclusion of Hannah and Jonny’s storyline really added that much to the narrative, but it did give us the opportunity to see things from another perspective and I love how Bobo becomes the voice of reason between the two towns. That someone who starts off as a bully can become the voice of reason and a vehicle for good.

Finally, let’s talk about Benji. Is there anyone whose favourite character isn’t Benji? This quiet, broken boy with his strong moral compass and penchant for violence to dull his own pain breaks my heart in every scene. Backman really lays it on strong with the foreshadowing of Benji’s story and even though you know you’re on a train barreling toward a broken track, you can’t help but think that maybe you can pull the brakes and save yourself the heartache. But I thank Backman for the friendship he creates between Benji, Maya, and Big City. And for Benji’s big heart. He’s one of those people that you wish could see himself through the eyes of characters like Alicia, rather than through his own distorted lens. The scene where they all play a fun game of hockey before the rink closes is probably my favourite scene in the entire book.

But let’s talk a bit about the plot. Beartown has a very strong sense of plot. There’s a catalyst and you know where the plot is going, even if you don’t quite know how we’ll get there. I found that to be a bit lacking in both sequels. With Us Against You and The Winners, I felt that Backman had developed such meaningfully real characters that they literally walked off the page and he couldn’t ignore the pull to continue writing about them. There are major events in both novels, but they felt more tangential to the characters. In some ways the plot in the Winners felt a bit too random for me. The writing has gravitas, but the way things unfolded felt chaotic.

I loved the inclusion of Ruth’s story and the comparison between her and Maya and how these things often go, but I felt Matteo to be a bit too radical. I liked the juxtaposition of his character when it came to the funerals and how he and Leo and Ruth and Maya were living the same but different lives. But the ending felt like it was there to break my heart for the sake of it rather than for purpose. The inclusion of characters like Mumble are a brilliant way to draw parallels to the reality of how these kind of events unfold and how the silence surrounding them can tear us apart. Rarely do they culminate in the kind of violence we see at the end of The Winners, which is why I found it less relatable and impactful. I’m being purposefully vague to avoid spoilers, but basically I want meaningful social commentary that is still believable. 

While I still really liked the book, my main criticism is that it was just too long. It’s a great story, but it takes so long for the plot to get moving and there weren’t even close to 700 pages worth of notable events. The entire book takes place over the span of 2 weeks and it felt like it dragged in the first half. It’s a character driven book, I get it, but it could easily have been 150 pages shorter in my opinion. 

Anyways, it’s still a strong 4 stars from me. Even with flaws, any book and author that can make me feel so attached to fictional characters is talented. Like I said, I honestly feel like these characters walk right off the page into reality. They are so well developed that you can predict how they are going to act and react. I’m honestly sad to say goodbye to this world, though I won’t miss the heartache!

Black Cake

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2022 (read Sep. 2022 on Audible)

I have been sitting on this book all year! I’ve heard so many good things about it and have been meaning to pick it up for months, so I finally got the audiobook version and flew through it in a few days. 

Black Cake tells the story of two siblings and the life of their mother, who has just passed away. The siblings have been estranged for several years, but their mother, Eleanor, leaves a recording for them to listen to together telling the real story of her life – all the things she never told them about herself. 

It has a bit of a slow start, focusing on the 2 siblings, Byron and Benny, but once they start listening to Eleanor’s recording, I was hooked. Eleanor grew up in one of the Caribbean Islands (exact location not named), which has left its mark on her entire family, despite her children never having been there. 

It’s a long book, and as with most long books, I do think it could have been shorter, but the author does cover a lot of ground. We are introduced to a lot of characters over the course of the novel and while it was sometimes overwhelming, every character was well placed and had a role to play. It’s a smartly written book, it could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s the kind of narrative where there are no thoughts out of place. The author is intentional about both the plot and the characters and I like a book that is plotted that way. That said, while everything has its place, the author does tackle a lot and I think she could have done more justice to her ideas had she focused more on a few central themes (primarily as they relate to Eleanor). 

While I liked it a lot (it’s an engaging story), where I think it fails is in adequately developing Byron and Benny’s stories. Eleanor’s story is incredibly well developed, but for such a long book, I still didn’t really feel like I knew Benny or Byron or understood their relationship with one another. Their stories are briefly developed and we examine Benny’s struggles with being queer and Byron’s struggles with unconscious bias and racism in his workplace, but I felt their stories were topical and not given enough depth to be really meaningful.

Maybe it’s just that they paled next to Eleanor, but I felt that this story could have been historical fiction solely about Eleanor and it would have been just as good, if not better. There were complex relationships between all of the characters, but I do think the narrative is partially strained by the fact that we never get to meet Eleanor alive. Everything is recounted, which creates a level of separation between the events, how the main characters feel about them, and how the reader perceives them.

Despite how this review is making it seem, these are just minor criticisms of how it could have been improved, I did still really enjoy the book. It’s a great story and I loved the centering of it around the black cake. Culture and food do play a big role in who we are or become and I loved how the black cake grounds the story. I would definitely recommend and I’m interested to see what else Charmaine Wilkerson writes!