Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Rating: .5
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Pub. date: Jan. 2014 (read Mar. 2019)

Okay, Emma Hooper is definitely emerging as one of my favourite writers! I read her second book, Our Homesick Songs, last year and absolutely loved it! I may have been a bit biased because it’s a book about Newfoundland, but Hooper herself isn’t a Newfoundlander and I really think it’s a book that can appeal to anyone. So when I saw her debut novel on sale at Book Outlet, I had to buy it.

Hooper has a really lovely way of writing and I could see how her style wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I really love it. I feel like joined the “Book World” last year when I started my book blog because I was suddenly exposed to all these other book bloggers and booktubers that I hadn’t before. Booktube for sure is comprised mostly of young book bloggers (like they make me feel old), so they trend towards reading a lot of YA contemporary and YA fantasy. I’ve always liked both of those genres, but when I started engaging more in the book world, suddenly I felt like this was all I was being exposed to and as a result, I started reading a lot of YA and fantasy.

This is fine, because I love both those genres, but I’ve definitely become fatigued with them over the last 4-6 months and I went on a fantasy freeze back before Christmas. I enveloped myself back in fantasy in January again and I probably should have paced myself a little because coming into March, I definitely need another fantasy break.

Anyways, this was all a long winded way of saying that I’m trying to get back into reading some more literary fiction and reading Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James was like a breath of fresh air. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories, even though they sometimes involve more of a commitment to read. I always love a good character driven story and overall I find them more rewarding.

I love Hooper’s subtle Canadian stories. I invested some time last year in reading more Canadian literature and damn, a lot of Canadian literature is just depressing. But even though both of Hooper’s books have some pretty sad themes, they are a joy to read and I love how she entwines magical elements into her stories and builds her narrative around everyday, mundane life events.

To get more to the point, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is story about people and relationships and the things we need to do in order to survive and find happiness. Etta and Otta have been married for many years when Otto wakes up one morning and finds a note from Etta saying that she needs to see the ocean and has decided to walk there. Etta and Otto live in Saskatchewan and Etta has chosen Halifax as her preferred destination. Russell is Otto’s best friend and adopted brother who lives next door and they are both affected by Etta’s absence since she has been with them since they became men.

The story follows Etta as she makes her way across Canada and Otto and Russell and they try to figure out how to live and adapt without her. We simultaneously get flashbacks to their shared childhood and the historical events that defined their lives. And like Hooper states in the synopsis, if you want to find out who James is, you’ll have to read the book.

Everything about this book is subtle, but I love how Hooper creates this sense of atmosphere throughout her novels. Do I believe Etta could survive walking across Canada without even a sleeping bag or a raincoat? Absolutely not, but Hooper makes her stories seem incredibly simple, while at the same time being very complex. I know I don’t understand even half of the nuances and themes of this story, but I like thinking about them. I love that Hooper never tells us how to feel, or even really how her characters feel. Everything is left up to our interpretation.

Like Our Homesick Songs, this is a look at the people who leave and the people who stay and how both of those journeys are impacted by that decision. Is home a place or is it the people who make up that place? How do our experiences and memories shape us?

I originally gave this book 4 stars, but after reflecting and writing this review I’m bumping it up to 4.5. I’m filled with such melancholy thinking about this book and there was honestly nothing I disliked about it. Our Homesick Songs is still my favourite of the two, but this one was wonderful too.

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All the Wandering Light

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy
Pub Date: Dec. 2018 (read Feb. 2019)
Series: Even the Darkest Stars #2

I was REALLY REALLY hoping this would be a trilogy! I didn’t love Even the Darkest Stars that much the first time I read it, but since re-reading it, I’m pretty much trash for this series! I’ve read a lot of fantasy and to be honest, I haven’t been loving a lot of it that much. I took a 3 month break from fantasy and after reading mostly fantasy in January, I think I’m ready for another break.

But I LOVED this series! I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series in a while and I loved the outdoor adventure aspect of this one. I can tell Fawcett loves the outdoors and I really related with Kamzin’s desire for adventure. I was really impressed with the depth Fawcett added to the plot and to her world building in this book. There were several subplots and a few mystery elements that ran throughout the series, like what is Ragtooth? What will be the long term impact of creating a contract with Azar-at? and what’s up with Tem and River?

But before I get ahead of myself, Even the Darkest Stars is a duology set in a fantasy world based on Nepalese culture and early exploits of Mount Everest. The legendary Mount Raksha is the focus of the first book, with Kamzin chasing after her dream to be a Royal Explorer by attempting to climb the treacherous mountain to claim a lost talisman so that the emperor can stop the witches from regaining their powers. In All the Wandering Light, Kamzin has succeeded in climbing Raksha, but failed in her task and the witches have regained their powers and now threaten the empire. When a falling star lands in the Ashes Mountains, Kamzin sets out to retrieve it and stop the witches from using it’s incredible power.

Even the Darkest Stars was told entirely from Kamzin’s point of view and in the second book, we get some more perspectives, mostly from River and occasionally Mara. Kamzin and River have split up, but because of Kamzin’s new contract with Azar-at, their fates seem to be closely entwined. Kamzin sets out with Lusha and Tem to claim the star, while River fights with his brothers about the future of the witches and empire. I wasn’t really sure what the focus would be of book 2, but I was glad it included more wandering around the wilderness. Kamzin eventually makes her way to the Three Cities, which changes the direction of the plot, but introduced some new elements and tension into the book. Up until Kamzin arrives in the Three Cities, the conflict in this book was mostly person vs. nature, with the exception of the internal and relationship conflicts. But the story becomes a bit more of a traditional fantasy when River’s brother Esha claims the witch throne and becomes the main villain of the story.

So what did I like so much about this book? Obviously, I loved the adventure element of the story and the fight against the natural elements. I really loved Kamzin as a character. I thought she was a fantastic heroine for the story. She is courageous, but extremely relatable. She makes a lot of mistakes, but is driven by a desire to shape her own destiny. She very much wants to be recognized and this desire sometimes gets her into trouble and causes her to make poor decisions. But ultimately she cares about those closest to her and will do everything to protect them.

I also really liked River’s character. He was so fickle in the first book and it always catches me off guard how detached he is. I like that Kamzin is driven by feeling, while River is mostly driven by logic, except in the case of Kamzin, who inexplicably holds a powerful influence over him. I think it’s because he’s never really been tested and is used to always being the best. Kamzin was the first person the challenge him. River is conflicted in this book and I loved the dichotomy of him wanting to free the witches, but also wanting to protect the empire he has grown to care about.

Like I said, the depth of the world building in this book surprised me. The first book was a little confusing, but the world building in this book felt fully formed, with just enough mystical elements to keep us guessing. Fawcett explores what is right and wrong and how our perceptions can be influenced by our experiences. The witches are undeniably evil in this book, pillaging villages and seeking revenge for the binding of their powers. But their rage is born out of having their powers stolen from them for the last 200 years by the emperor. At one point there was balance between the witches and the shamans, but that balance is lost and seeks to be restored. Kamzin struggles to think of the witches as inherently bad because of the time and experiences she had with River.

There’s also the question of what impact Kamzin’s contract with Azar-at will have on her soul and what kind of powers Ragtooth is actually hiding? I loved Ragtooth in this book (and the last book) and I was really happy to see Fawcett spend time on smaller plot points, because the culmination of all these thoughtful details is really what makes a book great. She also explores the power of the fallen star and whether power is always a good thing. All power comes at a cost and Fawcett repeatedly re-visits this idea in her characters.

My biggest complaint would be having this series only be a duology instead of a trilogy. I know now that the series was originally purchased as a duology, but I really think this series has the potential for a third novel and that it’s actually doing the series a disservice not to have one. I think the world Fawcett expanded on in this book outgrew it’s 400 pages. She took the story to more depth than she was able to resolve in the confines of this book.

The ending was very unsatisfying to me because I don’t think the conflict has been resolved. I no longer think Kamzin in interested in merely wandering the empire as an explorer, but rather that she wants to be an agent for change and for good in the empire. She’s one of the few people who understands the plight of the witches and questions the ultimate power of the emperor. I don’t think the witches would just roll over and move on after the showdown in the palace and I think there is so much room to explore more about the Emperor and where his powers come from. He’s a pretty big enigma in the story and it was never clear to me if he was eventually meant to be a hero or a villain. He’s up to some shady-ass shenanigans and I would really love to see his power explored more, as well as the relationship between the empire and the witches.

Mostly I just think this world and story has so much more potential. I’d love to see it expand and grow to include more character perspectives, like Tem and Lusha’s. I would say the character development of the secondary characters is probably the second flaw with this series. Kamzin has a wonderful character arc and I thought her development was really well done, likewise River. But I don’t think either Tem or Lusha’s characters were fully developed. Especially Lusha. She’s a bit of a controversial character in that she is so important to Kamzin, yet constantly acts as a foil to her. Lusha is really interesting and I’d love to know more about her history and the experiences that have formed her into who she is now. She’s a bit of a grating character, but I’d like to understand her better.

Don’t get me wrong though. I think this is an extremely strong debut series. I think there are ways it could be improved, but I had a great time reading it. Fawcett has already been signed for a middle grade series and you can bet I’ll be reading it! In the meantime, I’ll be lamenting the third book to this series that never was, but should be!

Even the Darkest Stars

Rating: ⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Sep. 2017 (read Jan. 2019)
Series: Even the Darkest Stars #1

I’ve decided to write whole new review about this book because I was only a little baby reviewer when I wrote my first review and I have so many more feelings about this book after the second read-through. You can still read my original review here.

I remember liking, but not loving this book the first time I read it, but I was so impressed with the setting that I decided to round up my rating to 4 stars. I definitely loved this the second time around though and I am now 100% on board with my original 4 star rating. I found the beginning a bit slow on my first read through, but I totally flew through it this time. Kamzin is just so spunky! I definitely didn’t give her enough credit in my first review and I thought she was super funny at the beginning on the book and I loved how much her character grew throughout the course of the novel.

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s do a little synopsis of the story. Even the Darkest Stars is set in a fantasy world based very heavily on Nepalese culture and early exploits of the Himalayas and Mount Everest. I have always been really interested in climbing expeditions (as a reader, not a real person – I have to say this because my sister’s partner is like, obsessed with climbing and if he reads this, which I know he never will, but if he did, he would make me go climbing with him and climbing in real life is SCARY. That’s why I prefer to read about it.). I’m going to credit my early interest to Gordon Korman’s Everest series, which I read as a kid, and was totally obsessed with (yay for Canadian authors!). Actually, I was obsessed with most of Korman’s books and would highly recommend to middle graders!

I would sincerely like to meet this author because we both live in Vancouver (she may be one of those rare native born Vancouverites?) and despite not wanting to climb, I’m super obsessed with mountains and hiking and feel like we would both have a lot in common. So Heather if you’re ever looking for some adventure and book loving friends, I’m here.

But back to her book. The story starts in the small village of Azmiri, with our main character Kamzin. Because her father is the village elder, her older sister Lusha is slated to succeed him and Kamzin is expected to become the village shaman. The only problem is that Kamzin has zero interest or natural talent for shamanism. Her friend Tem is a great Shaman, but his talents go unacknowledged because his father is a yak herder and that’s all Tem is ever expected to be as well. But Kamzin wants to be an explorer. She is envious of River Shara, the Emperor’s Royal Explorer and is shocked when he arrives at their village one day.

There is only one thing that would draw the elusive River Shara to Azmiri, the even more elusive Mount Raksha – the tallest and most dangerous mountain in the empire. Kamzin has always aspired to climb Mount Raksha and even participated in an expedition with her mother to Mount Raksha when she was 11. Unfortunately the journey took the lives of the entire expedition, with the exception of Kamzin and Lusha. So when Kamzin learns that River is there to climb the great mountain, she sees it as her big chance to impress the Royal Explorer.

Kamzin, River, and Tem all set off on a journey to climb Mount Raksha, with Kamzin leading the way. Witches have been banished from the empire for many years, their magic stolen from them by a spell placed by the Emperor. But the spell is breaking and they must reclaim a lost talisman from the top of Mount Raksha to re-cast the spell.

I loved everything about this book, but the setting was by far my favourite. Fawcett creates this wonderful atmosphere throughout the story – it’s that lonely, reverent feeling you get when you’re out in the wilderness. An appreciation for the beauty around you and a respect for the destructive power of nature. There are internal and interpersonal conflicts in this book, as well as the threat of the witches, fire demons, and fiangul that call this unforgiving landscape home. But I really liked that this book also had the person vs. nature conflict as well. What Kamzin is really up against is the elements and her own personal competitiveness. She’s repeatedly told to turn around if the consequences become too dire, but she is driven by a need to explore the unknown and to prove her skills to the world. In many ways, she is her worst enemy.

I loved the little triangle action between Kamzin, River, and Tem. Tem has been Kamzin’s best (and really only) friend for her entire life and they share a special bond. But Kamzin also shares something special with River, the first person who truly seems to understand her drive and can keep up with her on the expedition. He’s the first person to really challenge her. But Tem is distrustful of River and Kamzin has to admit that he does seem to be holding back some important information from them. Something is off with River’s shaman, and Tem rises to the occasion, acting as the group’s shaman and setting protections for them.

This book also had some humour in it. Kamzin is so stubborn, but her stubbornness made me laugh at lot. I also loved that she had what is referred to as a “familiar”, which is an animal that is basically attracted to you from birth and stays with you. Her familiar was a mangy little fox named Ragtooth and besides being really sweet, I thought he made for some great comic relief.

I can see how this book might not be for everyone. Pretty much the entire book is devoted to the journey to the top of Raksha and I know not everyone love journey books. Like I said, I didn’t really love it the first time, I think because I kept waiting for them to get there so I could learn the “so-what” of the story. But knowing the second time that the whole book was going to be devoted to the journey, I enjoyed it a lot more. I think there’s just the right amount of tension between the characters and I liked how much Kamzin grew over the course of the novel.

There are still some unanswered questions and I’m looking forward to see how Fawcett further develops her characters in the next book. Does anyone know if this is a duology or a trilogy? Would love to know going into the second book!

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!

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!