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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Women Talking

Rating: 
Author: Miriam Toews
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub Date: Aug. 2018 (read Aug. 2018)

How do I review this book? It’s just so damn important and something everyone should read.

I saw Women Talking on display at Chapters and as soon as I opened it up and read the forward, I knew I had to read it (plus I’ve been walking to read some Miriam Toews). Women Talking is a fictional account of the real life crimes committed against mennonite Bolivian women. Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Bolivian community, women were repeatedly waking up having been attacked in the middle of the night. The attacks were attributed to demons punishing the women for their sins, but it was later discovered 8 men were sneaking in the the rooms of women all over the village, knocking them out with an animal aesthetic, and then raping them. Horrifying.

Women Talking focuses on some of the victims of these attacks, women from 3 generations of the Loewen and Friesen families. The rapists have been jailed in a nearby town and the rest of the men in the community have taken livestock to the town to try and sell to post their bail money. While the men are away, 8 women of the Loewen and Friesen families call a meeting (on behalf of all the women) to discuss what to do. When the men return home, the women will be called upon to forgive them, so as they see it, they have 3 choices:

1. Do Nothing
2. Stay and Fight
3. Leave

The entire novel consists of these women talking through these 3 choices and deciding on a course of action, and boy are their conversations illuminating. They discuss many philosophical questions about what each of these choices means and how their village got to this point. Some of the women are hurt, some of them are angry, and some of them are afraid. But while this is an upsetting story, it is also filled with love and even humour. The novel is only a short 200 pages, but I loved getting to know each of these women, watching them talk and relate with each other, share experiences, and share laughter. It is a brilliantly written novel and such a thought provoking piece of fiction. This book matters. Women matter.

There was so much of this book that I loved that it’s hard to pinpoint specific pieces. But one part I found particularly striking was when one of the women (can’t remember who… Ona maybe?) voices that maybe they should consider a 4th choice: asking the men to leave. It’s such an obvious solution. Absolutely the men should be the ones to leave. They are the ones that have violated and torn their community apart, they should no longer be permitted to participate in community life. But the option never really catches any traction with the women and they even openly laugh at it because it really is an outlandish idea to think that the men would consider leaving or even that the rest of the men and community would support the women in forcing these men to leave. It’s a sad truth, but these women understood (and I’m sure most other women do to), that even though it was the option that made the most sense, it would never really be an option.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book, so I’ll just say, please please please go to the library or the bookstore and pick yourself up a copy of this book!

The Marrow Thieves

 

 

 

 

 

Rating:  ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub Date: Apr. 2017 (Read Mar. 2017)

“Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to see it.”

This was a beautiful book! I’m so glad it’s in the Canada Reads shortlist this year because I think it’s unlikely I would have discovered it otherwise and that would have been a shame because the writing is so gorgeous!

The Marrow Thieves is a short novel by Métis author Cherie Dimaline about a dystopian Canada that has been ravaged by climate change and disease and a large portion of the population has been wiped out. In the aftermath, everyone but indigenous peoples have lost the ability to dream. In an attempt to discover why the government starts constructing new schools (that mirror the old residential schools) to study indigenous peoples. It turns out that the ability to dream comes from your bone marrow and the government starts rounding up and experimenting on indigenous peoples to harvest their bone marrow.

Frenchie has slowly lost everyone in his family and finds himself alone in the woods. He follows his family’s plan to head North and eventually runs into other bands of ‘Indians’ who are slowly treking their way North as well and he is adopted into a new family and they travel together. Their group consists of an elder, Minerva; their leader, Miig; and several other young people who have lost their families. Miig tries to preserve the old ways through story-telling and everyone has the opportunity to tell their own ‘coming-to’ story.

I loved the writing in this book and learning everyone’s story – hearing about their struggles and how they came to end up part of this little adoptive family. They all come from different backgrounds and families, but they have retained their ability to dream and their desire to survive in the angry world around them. Miig teaches them how to hunt, cook, fight, and survive in the wild and how to connect back to their original roots.

I really liked this because I thought by telling this horrifying, dystopian story, Dimaline was able to convey some of the horrors that have been committed against indigenous peoples in the past in a way that enabled you to empathize emotionally with them and better understand how they felt. On paper, everyone knows about the residential school systems and the struggles of indigenous peoples to retain their culture, but that part of history feels a degree removed and it’s shameful so I think people generally avoid thinking about it.

It reminded me a little of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, in it’s ability to use exaggeration to convey emotion. The Things They Carried is a book about O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War that is written to read like a memoir, but is actually partially fabricated. O’Brien’s essay about being drafted and his internal debate about whether he would defect to Canada to avoid going to war is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. It reads like non-fiction and is an exaggerated account of O’Brien’s experience, but it is so effective because the exaggeration is what enables to you really feel his despair, frustration, and hopelessness. Dimaline’s horrifying account of the marrow thieves is what enables you to relate and empathize with the persecution of indigenous peoples throughout Canada’s history. I mean, I obviously empathized with them before and thought the residential schools were horrifying, but this book uses science fiction and exaggeration to evoke a much stronger emotional reaction.

Indigenous peoples are obviously incredibly tenacious and this book re-iterated that. It is really a pretty simple story about family, love, and the bonds we build with those around us. Who are we when everything else is stripped away from us? What can we become when faced with adversity, antipathy, and violence? Is family blood or the bonds we build we those we love? I thought this was a thoughtful, well written novel and I would definitely recommend to all Canadians! I read both The Boat People and The Marrow Thieves and while I really liked them both, I think this was my favourite of the two.

February Summary

You wouldn’t think that 3 days would make that much of a difference, but only having 28 days in February always makes the month go by so quickly!

I’m really happy about the 3 books I challenged myself to read in February as part of my goal to read to 3 books about Canada. I think it would have taken me a while to get to any of these books if I hadn’t publicly challenged myself to do so. To be honest, I even debating dropping the last one from the list and just reading 2, but I’m glad I pushed myself to read all 3 because I really liked them all! It’s only been 2 months, but actually taking the time to do some research and thoughtfully pick my challenges has been paying off with some quality literature.

Anyways, let’s jump right in with my February Summary:

Books read: 9
Pages read: 3,276
Main genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Favourite book: Saga, Volume 8

February started off with a stream of half-star reads. I don’t like giving half star ratings, but it’s a fine line between 3 stars and 4 stars and sometimes you just need to compromise. So I gave my first 3 reads of the month all 3.5 stars.

I started off with Tiger Lily, which is a re-telling of Peter Pan from Tinkerbell’s perspective, featuring Tiger Lily as the main protagonist. I thought this book was actually fantastically written, Jodi-Lynn Anderson’s writing is very beautiful and lyrical, but I struggled to get into the story, hence the 3.5 star rating. I already bought a copy of Anderson’s latest novel, Midnight at the Electric, and I’m excited to check out some more of her writing.

Next I read an advanced reader copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest book, Then She Was Gone, that I got from Netgalley. I’ve been dying to read some of Jewell’s stuff, so I was happy to give this one a try. I liked it in that it was formatted quick differently from any other mystery/thriller that I’ve read, but it was a little bit predictable in parts and I also found it extremely disturbing. However, like Tiger Lily, I’m intrigued to try some more of Jewell’s work next time I’m in the mood for another mystery!

The last of the 3.5 star reads was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have to admit, I really didn’t want to read this one. It sounded a lot like The Rosie Project to me, which I didn’t like, but my book club picked it for our February read and I’ve been seeing a lot of good press about it, so what could I do? This was probably my least favourite of the 3. I found it kind of boring, but I do think it was a well written book (definitely better than The Rosie Project) and I appreciate what the author was trying to do with this novel.

As you can see, I was kind of putting off tackling any of my Canadian reads for my Monthly Challenge, so after I finished Eleanor I decided to tackle The Boat People and The Break. Both of these books were fantastic! I feel like it took me forever to get through The Boat People, but it was a fascinating read about immigration and morality and it really made me think. In contrast, The Break is a family drama about a Métis family and all the hurts and grievances they’ve weathered together over the years. It was a inter-generational read that was just so well written and had so much depth, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Actually, in between those 2 books I snuck in a quick reading of the latest Saga volume, which came out at the end of December. I slowly worked my way through the first 7 volumes of Saga last year, and while I really liked them all, this one affected me more than the rest. I think Brian K. Vaughan actually went a little more heavy-handed than usual on the social commentary in this one. At first I thought it was a bit much, but I guess I was wrong because this volume just stands out more than any of the others for me and it was pure enjoyment from start to finish. Vaughan tackles abortion, miscarriage, and grief in this volume and it really packed a punch, especially at the very end when parts of the cast are finally re-united.

I was avoiding starting the final book in my February Challenge all month, mostly due to length, so I fit in a quick read of The Lightning Thief. This is the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and I’ve been wanting to read this for ages because everyone seems obsessed with everything Rick Riordan writes! This was another book that was just a lot of fun. The writing was hilarious and there was so much action packed into this middle grade book! Percy was witty and I loved his sidekicks, Annabeth and Grover. I would like to read more of these, but I suspect it may take my a while to get to them, but they’re definitely good if you’re looking for a laugh.

The final book in my Monthly Challenge was The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston. I admit, I did not want to read this one, but like I said, I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it. I had a lot to say about this one that I don’t want to get into again, so I’ll just say that it’s historical fiction about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, who helped usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. Check out my full length review for more details. This book was meaningful to me as a Newfoundlander and I’m really proud that I finally read it. I gave it 4 stars.

And the last read I squeezed into February was The Power. I’ve been wanting to read this one since it came out at the end of last year since it’s been called the new ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ (along with Red Clocks). It’s dystopian science fiction where women develop the ability to produce electricity and use it through their hands. The book has such a great premise, but I was really disappointed with the author’s follow-through on the premise; I thought the book lacked focus and was poorly executed. It still make me think a lot though, so I gave it another 3.5 stars.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: 
Author: Wayne Johnston
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Where to start? This was a very long book that took a lot of motivation to pick up off my shelf, but that I ended up having a lot of opinions about. I was worried that it was going to be really dense, but fortunately, it turned out to be a very well written and engaging book about Newfoundland.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is historical fiction about Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier who helped to usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. He is both a well liked and disliked premier, depending on who you talk to. Johnston definitely takes a lot of liberties with Smallwood’s character in this novel, but the story is still pretty accurately based on his life in terms of what he accomplished.

The story starts with Smallwood as a child in the early 1900’s. His family were shoe salesmen in St. John’s and he lived up on the Brow looking over the Harbour until his uncle decided to pay to send him to Bishop Feild, the prestigious boy’s boarding school of the day. At Bishop Feild, he meets Prowse, grandson of a noted historian, and Fielding, a girl who attends the nearby sister school, Bishop Spencer.

Fielding is the other main character in this story and unlike Smallwood, her character is completely fabricated. Fielding has a cane, walks with a limp, has a wry sense of humour, with sarcasm and irony being her preferred mediums. She’s a bit of an outcast who goes on to work as a reporter for The Telegram, publishing critical articles about all branches and parties of the government. Fielding marches to the beat of her own drum and I really liked her. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and I loved her sense of humour.

This book actually had a lot more humour in it than I was expecting and it had me laughing out loud early in the novel. Below is one of my favourite quotes from the book, which is an argument Smallwood has with his mother, and had me laughing because I also grew up in St. John’s while my parents grew up in rural outport communities. This is pretty much the exact same thing my parents would say to me growing up and the biggest way you could offend my parents would be to call them townies.

“I’m a Newfoundlander, but not St. John’s born, no, not St. John’s born,” he said.
“You’re a bayman and you always will be,” my mother said.

I’ve been living on the West Coast for the last 4 years, so this was super nostalgic for me. Wayne Johnston is not even describing my St. John’s in this novel because it’s set between 1900 and 1950, but there’s something really special about still being able to vividly picture the setting of a story, especially when it’s a place like Newfoundland, which I hold so special in my heart.

I didn’t love Joe Smallwood’s character, but I did like the writing. This was one of my monthly challenge books and I’m glad I challenged myself to read it because I probably never would have gotten around to it otherwise. Johnston does a really great job with the setting. I don’t know how non-Newfoundlanders might feel about this book, but I loved the setting and the atmosphere Johnston created. Especially towards the end when we finally get to the whole business of confederation and the end of independence. I felt like Johnston did a good job of not taking a side and presenting both sides of the story. It really makes you reflect on what Newfoundland gained, what it lost, and what may or may not have been.

I read Greg Malone’s Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders several years ago and I felt that this book was a good contrast to that. Greg Malone is very clearly anti-confederation, as well as a bit of a conspiracy theorist. While I really liked Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders, because it has some great history in it and I learned a lot, it is very speculative and I liked that Wayne Johnston presented a more balanced version of history and I feel he left his personal feelings out of it.

For those of you not well versed in Newfoundland’s history, we we’re an independent country up until 1933 when we had a commission of government forced on us by the British as a result of our war debt (even though A LOT of Newfoundlanders lost their lives fighting for Great Britain in WWI – I am a little bitter, yes). I’ve written an entire blog post about Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders if you’re interested in our fascinating history (to me anyways), but basically we were supposed to get back our independence when we became self-sustaining once more, which we did after WWII. However, instead of just turning governance back over to Newfoundland, it was decided to hold a referendum to let the people choose if they wanted to join Canada instead.

Joe Smallwood wanted nothing more than to do something for which he would be remembered. He dropped out of Bishop Feild and failed at making a life for himself in New York, so he was desperate to have an influence in Newfoundland’s future. He was an avid socialist in his youth, but upon realizing that Newfoundlanders were never going to buy into socialism, he turned his talents to the Liberal government. He helped former Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires with his re-election campaign in hopes of winning the nomination to run himself, but he is jilted by Squires again and again and struggles to get into politics.

In this novel, he is a huge supporter of unions, walking across the entire provincial railroad line to start a rail-workers union, and he later travels all around Newfoundland’s most remote islands, trying to start a fisherman’s union. This really gave me an appreciation for how Smallwood became so popular and influential and why he supported Confederation. He really cared about Newfoundlanders and he spent an inordinate amount of time speaking with the poor throughout his life. He was also the host of a popular radio show that focused on sharing stories of Newfoundland and about Newfoundlanders.

The fisherman were not nationalists of any sort…They would vote for Confederation to get the mother’s allowance and would live by Confederation exactly as they had before…They had starved through a depression that had ended when the war began. Now, they were terrified that another decade like the thirties was on its way.

The crowd from St. John’s, the merchants and the wealthy, were all big supporters of independence. But Smallwood understood from his travels around Newfoundland that the majority of Newfoundlanders were poor fisherman, struggling to keep food on the table. They didn’t care about the government of the day and it rarely affected them. Confederation wouldn’t really change anything for them, except they’d be able to profit from access to Canada’s established public services.

The anti-confederates must have wondered how they lost…They had been to London and they had been to New York, but they had never been to Bonavista or La Poile, and that was why they lost.

Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders leaves you feeling angry and riled up, but The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gave me an appreciation of what it was really like for Newfoundlanders. Forget the politics and the conspiracies, rural fishermen just wanted to catch a break and this was something I never really understood before. Yet Johnston still presents the other side of the story and makes you feel very nostalgic for what might have been. Personally, I wish we could have seen what might have been had we re-gained our independence, but I do also think it’s likely that we might have ended up joining Canada anyways and I’m proud to be both a Newfoundlander and a Canadian. I think this must be one of the reasons why Newfoundlanders always retain such a keen sense of home no matter where they go. There is something unique about Newfoundland culture that does not come from Canada because we have not always been Canadian.

The ending of this book was heartbreaking for me though. I was a little bit disappointed that Johnston chose to end this book about Fielding. I really liked her, but as a fictional character, I don’t think her story was quite as powerful and it felt very anti-climatic to suddenly jump back into Fielding’s past.

“You all but gave away Churchill Falls, which you had hoped would crown your career as Confederation had crowned Mackenzie King’s”

Johnston touches very briefly on Churchill Falls and I wish he’d explored it more. If this book had been written 10 years later, I’m sure he would have because the Lower Churchill is such a hot topic in Newfoundland right now. But I found this so heartbreaking because Churchill Falls was meant to be Smallwood’s swan song – his legacy – and instead it turned out to be one of the worst deals every made and a real sore spot for Newfoundlanders. Smallwood did not have a successful start as Premier and Johnston portrays him running out of time in office and chasing after Churchill Falls as his last chance to see Newfoundland transformed.

That said, my favourite part of this book is easily the way Johnston writes about Newfoundland. You can tell he has a great love and reverence for the island. I’m sure any Newfoundlander can relate as there’s just something that makes Newfoundlanders have this deep attachment to their homeland. She’s a rocky isle in the ocean, and she’s pounded by winds from the sea, but you just can’t help but love her ruggedness and her people. Smallwood was relentless and he really did want to do something good for Newfoundland. His whole life was dedicated to making Newfoundlander better and I do really think he cared about the poor Newfoundlanders and that they are what ultimately motivated him to chase after confederation.

I have often thought of that train hurtling down the Bonavista like the victory express. And all around it the northern night, the barrens, the bogs, the rocks and ponds and hills of Newfoundland. The Straits of Belle Isle, from the island side of which I have seen the coast of Labrador.
These things, finally, primarily, are Newfoundland.
From a mind divesting itself of images, those of the land would be the last to go.
We are a people on whose mind these images have been imprinted.
We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.