Malibu Rising

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2021 (read Aug. 2021 on Audible)

Malibu Rising was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, but sadly it was a major letdown. Taylor Jenkins Reid had such success with Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones (both of which I loved), so I had very high expectations for this book and sadly it didn’t live up to them. Reid reminds me a bit of Kristin Hannah in that she published a ton of mediocre books before her big break (Evelyn Hugo for Reid, Nightingale for Hannah), followed it up with another smash hit (Daisy Jones and Great Alone), only to regress on the next book (Malibu Rising and Four Winds). Both are accomplished writers, I just think the question becomes whether you’re creative enough to find something else meaningful to write about. Evelyn Hugo had so much great social commentary and Daisy Jones’ format was incredibly unique, but sadly, Malibu Rising had all the trappings of a story that just didn’t need to be told.

Malibu Rising is about the Riva family. Mick Riva rises to fame as a rock artist after marrying June and fathering 4 children. The novel covers their family history before delving into the lives of each of the 4 Riva children, bringing all their family drama to a head at the annual all-night Riva party in Malibu. This had similar vibes to Daisy Jones with the whole rock n roll scene, and the structure and focus on a fire reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an all encompassing family drama with a large cast of narrators.

So here’s the thing. This wasn’t a bad book – it did remind me a little bit more of Reid’s earlier work, but it’s still fairly well written. It has a bit of a slow start, but the pace does pick up as the novel progresses and I was honestly just as invested in the past as the present day narrative. So what was the problem with this book? My main issue was that I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters and I struggled to understand why I should give a sh*t about any of them. Reid explores several different themes here, but I can’t say I found any of them particularly compelling.

I feel like she was going after something similar to Daisy Jones with the intrigue of the rich and famous (a theme in all her recent bestsellers), but it really didn’t work for me in this book. Like I mentioned, Evelyn Hugo had a lot to say about Hollywood, race, and sexuality, while Daisy Jones had a unique format and a lot to say about gender politics and privilege. But with Malibu Rising I was left scratching my head about why I should really care about this privileged white family? Sure it’s a character study (of many different characters), but a weak one. I didn’t think there was anything really special about these characters and I struggled to relate with them.

I do think one of the problems is that Reid introduces just a few too many characters. I could handle the 4 Riva siblings and June (honestly would have liked Mick to feature more), but for some reason Reid keeps introducing more character perspectives for very limited periods of time. Like, how many random characters did she start adding during the party? I couldn’t keep track of them and they played such small and insignificant roles in the plot that I questioned why bother including them at all? It’s fine to have a large cast of characters, but I don’t need to read from their perspective. It made me question if she was just trying to reach a page count and threw all these other characters in just to add some length.

The same went for Casey and the fire at the end of the book. The fire is alluded to from the beginning of the book, but we don’t actually get into it until the final hour. Very similar to Little Fires Everywhere, but at least in Little Fires Everywhere I felt like it added something to the story, whereas in Malibu Rising I felt that it added nothing to the actual plot and was just used as lazy device for symbolism. Likewise, I thought Casey’s storyline ultimately didn’t really add anything to the plot.

So overall, a very disappointing read for me. I’m between 2 and 3 stars, 2 because it was not a very compelling book, but 3 because it’s still pretty well written. So I guess I’ll end at 2.5 stars. Not a great read, but I still wouldn’t be deterred from reading her next book.

The Four Winds


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021 (read Feb. 2021)

I know Kristin Hannah has over 20 books, but she’s become really popular with her last few publications, and for good reason. My book club read and loved the Nightingale and then I became absolutely obsessed with her last book, The Great Alone. So I was very excited to read another historical novel, this time about the dust-bowl era and mass migration to California.

While I knew about the great depression, I’m a little embarrassed to say I knew very little about the dust-bowl era of the early 1930’s. As a Canadian I won’t be overly shamed about this, but one of my biggest takeaways is that I really should read the Grapes of Wrath, which sounds like it is more or less the same plot as The Four Winds. I don’t mean that as a slight, it just seems like most people cover this period of history in their learnings by reading John Steinbeck’s classic, so I’m definitely anxious to read that book as well now.

The Four Winds opens in Texas prior to the great depression. Our heroine Elsa has been cast out by her wealthy family and marries into an Italian farming family. Though she struggles to satisfy her husband, she finds great happiness on the farm and takes joy in a hard day’s work and in raising her two children, Loreda and Ant. However, when drought strikes Texas the family falls on tough times and Elsa must make the decision whether to head west with her family in search of work and better days.

The Dust-bowl era coincides with the Great Depression and is a period of history in which many southern states experienced severe drought and dust storms. Agriculture crashed and many developed dust pneumonia as a result of the storms. This resulted in mass migration to California where migrants faced even more hardship – cast out and vilified by the locals, aid was denied to many and the only work to be found was hard labour at a pitiful wage.

It is this hardship that Elsa and her children experience. I found the plot really interesting in that I knew very little about the dust-bowl era and didn’t realize there had been a mass migration in America in the 1930’s. What’s most striking is the way that history has a tendency to repeat itself and that no matter the individual, America does a great job at othering “outsiders” and vilifying the poor.

Before southerners migrated to California, Mexicans would cross the border to work in the cotton and fruit farms as pickers, earning minimal wages, then leaving at the end of each season to return to their families. Eventually the government cracked down on this immigration and suddenly the California growers found themselves with no cheap labour to pick their goods. Until farmers from the south started flooding across the border looking for any work to feed their families. The growers took advantage of this labour and the sheer number of people allowed them to pay even lower wages, maximizing their profit because there was always someone desperate enough to pick for any wage.

This echo’s the world we still live in. Capitalism is built on cheap labour and immigrants are often still forced to work for any wage to survive. I find it hard to understand how the American Dream is even still a thing because class difference in America is so divided and there are so many people living in poverty. People with privilege rise up on what they pretend are their own merits, while a multitude of people struggle to survive every single day – many of whom are taken advantage of by their employers. The only real difference in The Four Winds is that the workers are white American born citizens. While they are absolutely justified in wanting to be treated humanely and earn a living wage, I couldn’t help but notice their indignation at being treated, for lack of another word, like immigrants. They feel that as American citizens, Californians should empathize with their plight – but it just goes to show how ingrained feelings of nationalism and state pride go and how threatened people will always feel by “others”. Heaven forbid an “outsider” receive state aid or take advantage of state services paid for by “their” tax money.

In some ways though, the migrants were just as proud as many of the Californians in that they felt they should be able to provide for themselves and should not need to take relief or government assistance. They honestly just wanted to be paid a living wage so that they wouldn’t need the relief. I’m sure many would be happy to pay taxes and contribute to services, but their poverty and the lack of work made this impossible. It’s just scary that this is a mindset that still exists today. That somehow poor people aren’t worthy of basic access to services like welfare and healthcare. That giving someone a helping hand will make them reliant on support. No one wants to be on welfare. And the fact that we still have to debate, in a pandemic, that people deserve a living wage and that the government should step up and provide financial relief, is frankly embarrassing.

I’m sure it didn’t come as a surprise to those who are more well informed than me, but what I found most shocking about this book was the Welty Farm. The sheer brilliance and evil of allowing people to run themselves into debt on your farm, all to secure their labour throughout picking season. In some ways the families that found themselves with a cabin on Welty Farms were very lucky. It put an actual roof over their heads and allowed them some modicum of comfort over living in the shanties. But the model of forcing poor migrants to buy everything on credit from the company store at triple the price and never paying them in cash is really so evil. And not allowing them to seek work elsewhere in the off season to ensure that every cent they earn during cotton picking will go into paying off their debt, ensuring they’ll have to stay around another year and survive again on credit, is just plain evil. It’s hard to believe someone can look in the face of such poverty and deny someone a living wage. But this is the world we live in – where people like Jeff Bezos make billions in a pandemic yet refuse to pay their workers a living wage. Really, what has changed since 1930?

But I should probably spend less time ranting and actually talk about the book. You’re probably wondering why I gave this 3 stars when it sounds like I was really into it. As a history book, I did really like this. Hannah showcases every aspect of this era and I liked that we got to experience how awful the dust storms were, what it was like to migrate across the country, and how in many ways, California was worse than what they experienced in Texas. So I did really like the history covered in this book and felt it was fairly comprehensive. But as far as this goes as a novel, I did think it was a little lacking.

Hannah is definitely a good writer. I fell in love with her writing in The Great Alone and the way she wrote about Alaska and her characters. I felt they all had such heart despite the hardships they faced. I love that Hannah focuses on the mother-daughter relationship in her novels and it’s what compels me to pick up each of her books. But unlike The Great Alone, in The Four Winds the land and everything around it is dying. While Elsa is undeniably a strong and inspiring character, I couldn’t help but feel this book was lacking in heart.

First of all, I thought it was too long. A lot happens in this book, but we just got a bit too much of everything. I felt like we were suffering the same thing over and over again. I know this is the reality of this kind of a life, but oh my goodness, in the beginning the dust storms seem to go on and on! I don’t think the novel was exaggerated, but we easily could have dropped a hundred pages. I repeatedly got bored throughout this book and at times felt it hard to pick it up again because it was just more and more of the same.

But like I said, as much as I liked Elsa, I just didn’t connect with her in the same way that I have with some of Hannah’s other characters. I’ll admit Hannah is somewhat emotionally manipulative in all her books, including The Great Alone, as much as I love it. She creates these grand heartbreaking situations near the end of her books, but in this one, I felt like Hannah was smashing my face into the sidewalk trying to force me to feel something I didn’t. I loved the inclusion of the wage campaigners and “communists” and seeing the migrants stand up and fight for their rights, but I struggled to buy into the romance (didn’t see the draw of the characters or any chemistry between them). I didn’t see why Elsa’s story was any more inspiring than any other migrant. The climax just felt really forced to me and it took away from the story in my opinion.

From there I thought it just went downhill altogether. I don’t want to post any spoilers, but I didn’t like how easy everything became after the climax. This is a family that has struggled and will continue to struggle. Unfortunately there is never an easy way out of these kinds of struggles. Migrants will continue to be taken advantage of. When the drought ends, yes many will likely return to where they came from, but the sad reality is that this will not be an option for many of the migrants. One, because they will literally not gave the money to return, and second, because many of them have nothing to return to. The farms they abandoned were taken over by the bank, it’s not as simple as returning to your land because the rains have returned, in many cases families will have no land to return to. It’s a really sad way to end a book, but unfortunately sometimes the bad guys win.

I’ll have to do some research about what did happen at the end of the great depression and how people were able to raise themselves back up, but I didn’t like that it wasn’t covered in this book. I assume at some point things did improve, likely some of the migrants left, enabling those that stayed behind to demand better pay. Or that job access improved with the end of the depression, but we don’t really see any of that in this book. It’s just misery straight to the end. I read some reviews that complained that the book has very few high points and too much suffering. I see the point, but I actually disagree – a lot of times the there is truth in so much suffering, but I do still want there to be a purpose for me reading the book. Yes, I learned a lot about a historical period I knew little of, but otherwise I’m not sure what my takeaways were. Yes, I know that Elsa was good and strong and that she learned to be proud of herself, but what of her relationship with Loreda? In most cases their relationship felt forced to me and I felt it was resolved with “telling” rather than “showing”. I guess overall I felt the writing too manipulative towards the end and I struggled to enjoy it.

Anyways, this turned into a pretty lengthy review. The book definitely has its strong points, but other areas that could use some work. Don’t get me wrong, I did still like it, but not Hannah’s strongest work in my opinion. That said, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I finished and I am anxious to go out and read more material about this era, so I do thank Hannah for the intro. Still recommend her books and I know a lot of readers liked this more than I did, so don’t be deterred by my review!

Watch Over Me

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Dec. 2020)

Watch Over Me was an impulse buy at a local bookstore. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Nina LaCour’s other book, We Are Okay, and the phrase “aged out of foster care” in the book synopsis intrigued me. Plus the cover art and end pages for this book are absolutely gorgeous, so I wanted it for my shelf. Publishers, never underestimate the power of beautiful end pages! I really wish more books had them.

Anyways, I started reading this almost right away and it’s one of those slow burn character driven novels that I absolutely love. The plot wasn’t quick paced, but I was sucked into the story and more or less read it in two sittings (it’s a short book). This was a weird mix of magical realism and ghosts and it just really worked for me.

18 year old Mila has aged out of foster care and been accepted to work as a teaching intern on a farm. The owners, Terry and Julia, have supported many foster children over the years and offer Mila room and board in exchange for help teaching some of their existing foster children. Mila eagerly accepts and travels to the remote farm to stay in her little one room cabin.
 
At first everything seems too good to be true. Everyone on the farm is extremely welcoming and she finally has a little space and family to call her own. But she soon discovers that the farm is haunted and that she may be forced to confront the trauma of her past. 

It’s a bit of a weird book and I could definitely see this not being for everyone, but I really loved it. First off, the writing is gorgeous – I really felt that there were no words or ideas out of place. At 250 pages, with a large font, it’s a short book, but I felt that the author said what she needed to say and then ended it. She spent time on what mattered and didn’t waffle around on what didn’t. 

Ultimately this is a story of grief and loss and learning to forgive ourselves. Mila had a very traumatic childhood, which compelled her to make choices that she’s not proud of. Yet she’s still an incredibly kind and loving person – her mistakes have not influenced her caring demeanor and ability to see good in others. But they are tearing her apart inside and not permitting her to grow and flourish. 

I really didn’t know how this book was going to go once Mila showed up on the farm. There’s an atmosphere of grief and longing that permeates throughout the entire novel and I wasn’t sure whether to expect good or bad things from the farm and the people who lived there. Everyone was so kind at the farm that I kept waiting for a big reveal for what’s actually going on underneath the surface. This happened, but not in the way I expected.
 
Overall, LaCour does a really good job of conveying the longing we all feel to be loved and accepted. Though Mila is forced to confront her demons, she finds everything she’s ever been longing for on the farm. We can always begin anew. We don’t have to be defined by the mistakes of our past and we are always still worth being loved. Especially in these pandemic times, aren’t we really all just longing for home? Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a person, but we all long to belong.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michelle McNamara
Genres: Non-fiction, True Crime
Pub date: Feb. 2018 (read Feb 2019 on Audible)

Don’t you love when you stumble upon a book that you never intended to read and you end of loving it? This is one of those books. I saw I’ll be Gone in the Dark in the Goodreads Choice Awards this year (it ended up winning in its category), but it’s so different from what I normally read that I never really considered picking it up.

Fast forward a few months and I stumbled across it on Audible. I’m extremely picky with my audiobooks and won’t listen to anything with a narrator that I don’t love. I’m even adverse to listening to books I think I’m going to love because I always fear they won’t be quite as good as an audiobook and prefer to read them as paperbacks. I stumbled across this book some way or another and I really liked the narrator because she reminded me of the old true crime tv shows I used to watch on TLC in high school. So I decided to give it a go and ended up being totally absorbed into this mystery!

I’ll be Gone in the Dark isn’t really in my wheelhouse, but I do have a weakness for a good true crime documentary as much as the next person. Gillian Flynn makes a good point in her introduction about how there’s a fine line when it comes to writing about true crime because you’re basically taking entertainment from someone else’s tragedy. McNamara does a wonderful job on this look at the Golden State serial killer because she brings press back to a case that was left unsolved without glorifying the killer.

This is both a look at the crimes of the Golden State serial killer and how he evaded capture for so long, as well as a look at the obsession that can be birthed out of unsolved mysteries such as this one. McNamara examines both the crimes of the killer, as well as her own fascination with unsolved mysteries and how this specific criminal wormed his way into her life and the impact it had on her.

I have to credit McNamara’s writing. She is extremely compelling and methodical about the details, without being gratuitous. I thought more of this book was going to be devoted to following up leads on the identity of the serial killer, but it was more of an in depth look at the crimes of the killer than anything else. Michelle does some posturing with Paul Holes on what the killers profession and history might be based on the way he moves around, but there’s not a lot of time devoted to looking at suspects. I have to give credit to McNamara’s writing for this because looking at suspects sounds way more compelling to me than simply looking at his crimes, yet her writing was super engaging anyways. I think this book was more about bringing this story back to the public eye to re-invigorate law enforcement’s investigation than anything else. And we certainly can’t fault her for that as the killer was finally caught just after the release of this book. No one credits the book as revealing new information that finally led to the capture of a man who evaded the authorities for more than 40 years, but I definitely think she deserves to be credited with shining the spotlight back on this case.

It’s an interesting book because Michelle did pass away before the completion of the book and it was completed by her lead researchers post humorously. It creates an interesting dynamic to the story when you know the writer is no longer here to pursue it and even so, Michelle is just so present throughout it. She invites the reader into both her investigation and her life.

The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was the formatting. The story is not told in chronological order, which made things a little confusing by audiobook (I was constantly consulting the table of contents to see what point of the timeline I was reading about). I’m not sure why this choice was made, the story is certainly compelling enough that it didn’t deter me from reading further, but I thought it was an interesting choice to format things this way.

But all in all, a great read! Audiobooks generally take me 2-4 weeks and I flew through this one in just 4 days!