The Strangers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Katherena Vermette
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

I read and loved The Break several years ago, so I was really excited to see The Strangers on the long-list for the Giller Prize. I think this was my favourite of the four nominees I read, so I was a little disappointed not to see it make the short-list.

The Strangers focuses on 3 generations of metis women in the Stranger family, featuring 4 perspectives in total. The first two perspectives are from Phoenix and Cedar, sisters and some of the youngest members of the family. Phoenix is in a youth detention centre and Cedar has been bouncing around in foster care before settling in to live with her father’s new family. The other two perspectives are from Elsie, their mother, who suffers from a drug addiction and is continually trying to get clean, and Margaret, their grandmother (Elsie’s mother), who never quite got to live the life she wanted. 

Vermette is a very accomplished writer. She had me hooked from chapter 1, which is so emotional and left me immediately gutted. The first two chapters are about Phoenix and Cedar and these two characters kept me captivated throughout the entirety of the novel. They both have two very different stories and I think the juxtaposition of their two lives is what made this narrative so compelling. Elsie’s storyline was probably my least favourite of the 4 as I found her narrative to be a bit repetitive, but the inclusion of her perspective is so important to the overall themes of the novel. 

I liked Margaret’s storyline as well and found her to be a fascinating character, but it’s the only perspective that’s not told at the same time period as the rest of the characters. We get flashbacks from all characters, but none of Margaret’s story is told in present day, which I found made it feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the novel. Singularly, every single one of these perspectives is powerful, but I found the first 3 to work together as a more cohesive story. Margaret’s felt like it could have been it’s own narrative and while it added further context, it was somewhat separate from the rest, though still impactful.

But really this is a minor complaint. Multi-generational family dramas are my favourite kind of story and this is one that packs a punch. I was sad not to see this make the shortlist for the Giller, but so glad it’s still getting the praise it deserves! Definitely recommend checking this one out. Also, that cover art is gorgeous!! 4.5 stars.

Fight Night

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Miriam Toews
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

My attempt to read a bunch of the Giller Prize longlist has been going so well this year! As a Canadian I always get excited about this list, but I’ve never dedicated so much time to working through the nominees before. I usually get more into Canada Reads in March, but I have to say, reading through the Giller nominees was a much more satisfying experience than I’ve ever had participating in Canada Reads. This just seemed to be a much more quality selection for me and I can say that I really liked everything I read!

In total I read 4 of the 12 nominees on the long list, but Fight Night was the only one I read that made it to the short list. I’ve been aware of Miriam Toews for a long time, but the only book of hers I’ve read is Women Talking, which I absolutely loved. I didn’t like Fight Night as much as that one, but I was so pleasantly surprised with this book! Because Women Talking tackles such a heavy topic, I think I was expecting something a little darker from this book – it was so lovely to read this humourous take on a multi-generational family instead.

Fight Night is told from the point of view of 9 year old Swiv. She has been expelled from school and as a result is living at home full time and being (somewhat) tutored by her grandmother. Her mother is pregnant and her father is missing; to help her process her circumstances and surroundings, her grandmother has her write letters to her unborn sibling “Gord”.

I’ll say upfront that I struggled a bit with Swiv’s voice – not that I found it hard to read or that I didn’t enjoy it – just that I struggled to believe she was actually 9 years old. She read a bit more mature to me and kept picturing her as a 12 year old rather than 9, but otherwise, this was such a sweet and fun book to read.

We get to spend time with Swiv, her mother, and her grandmother and I came to love each of them very dearly. Grandma has an incredible zest for like that immediately endears everyone around her, while her mother struggles with her mental health and missing husband. She loves Swiv fiercely and fights to stay strong for both her and Gord. It is an entirely character driven novel that captures a truly beautiful relationship between 3 generations of women.

I don’t have too much else to say about the novel except that it’s a great read if you’re ever feeling down and the humour is really what carried the book for me. I did think there were some structural weaknesses – one of my favourite parts was when Grandma recounts Swiv’s mother’s history for her while they’re on the plane to California, but I found the timing and delivery to be a bit awkward, like Toews knew what she wanted to include, but couldn’t find a graceful way to do it. Overall I could have done without the trip to California entirely and found it a bit distracting to the greater themes of the novel. I don’t think it’s the strongest of the nominees I read (I really would have liked to see The Strangers make it to the shortlist), but I would definitely still recommend Fight Night. Overall it was a joy to read!

We Are the Brennans

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Tracey Lange
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Sep. 2021)

I was so stoked for this one, but it turned out to be such a disappointment. It’s an easy read, with the flow between chapters being pretty smooth, but I wasn’t really a fan of the writing style. It was pretty simplistic, which is fine, but I feel like this has been marketed as literary fiction and I just didn’t see it.

We Are the Brennans tells the story of the Brennan family and their life in an Irish suburb of New York. I’m sure you guessed it from the cover, but the Brennans are Irish and as such, had a pretty conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing. Everything seemed to be going great until Sunday Brennan up and left 5 years ago and the family started falling on tough times. But now Sunday is back and the entire Brennan Family are forced to face the secrets of their past.

I live for family dramas, but this one just didn’t work for me. Aside from disliking the writing style, I thought the entire plot was predictable and pedestrian. I disliked almost all of the characters, which isn’t usually enough for me to dislike a novel, but I felt like everything in this book was overly dramatized because in reality, the author didn’t have that great a storyline. I feel like she had somewhere she wanted to take this story, but it was so poorly executed. It had a lot of the pitfalls of a debut novel in that Lange had a lot of ideas and no idea how to tie them all together in a meaningful way.

But mostly I think I just disagreed with her central themes. She had a lot of ideas about family and shame and I struggled to agree with any of them. I’ll get into the details in the spoiler section of the review, but by the end of the book I couldn’t help but acknowledge that me and Lange are just not on the same page. I feel like this Irish immigrant space is something that she knows really well, and maybe other Irish immigrants in NY might be able to relate more, but I also grew up on an island full of Irish immigrants and I felt that she really romanticized the Brennans in an unhealthy way. The book is all about family, but I thought every member in this family was toxic. She kind of tries to acknowledge this towards the end of the book (via Vivienne), but then she’s just like “sod it, they may be toxic, but they all love each other, so it’s fine”.

Anyways, it’s hard to really get into it without spoilers, but a lot of this book hinges on the reveal of a big secret about halfway through the book and this is where it all went downhill for me. I thought the secret was so problematic and that the author had so many blind spots about it that I just couldn’t move past it. So for me this book was a big miss. It’s still a somewhat entertaining read, but I wouldn’t recommend it – there are so many better family dramas out there – skip this one.
Okay, now for the spoilers. There were two parts that killed this book for me – the “secret” reveal and the ending. Let’s start with the secret.

So the big secret is basically that Sunday got drunk one night when her family was in Ireland and the bartender tricked her into coming up to his room with him. He comes on to her, she leaves, and then he pushes her down the stairs and leaves while she bleeds from a miscarriage.

This scene is so traumatic for her that she leaves New York for 5 years because she can’t bear to tell her family. She is obviously traumatized, embarrassed, and ashamed by the incident. We had an interesting discussion about this secret at book club because we thought it was silly that she didn’t feel she could tell anyone about this. She didn’t do anything wrong and her family should really only feel sympathy for her. In the long list of things that could have gone wrong for her as a woman, we felt like maybe this wasn’t the worst case scenario, the trap of “it wasn’t really that bad”.

This is the one part of the book Lange gets right. Any situation that harms a woman physically or mentally is “that bad”. Society has a tendency to create an unfair hierarchy of trauma, which only results in silencing a lot of women. I read a whole anthology about this concept (Not That Bad by Roxane Gay) and I did really like that Lange never belittled the trauma that Sunday felt from this incident.

What I didn’t like was how it all played out. Because the real reason Sunday feels she can’t tell any of her family members is because she thinks they’ll literally go out and kill Billy, which turned out to be a pretty damn justified fear. So she doesn’t tell anyone out of the fear of how they will react. Sure, it plays into her catholic upbringing, but it drove me crazy that she underwent 5 years of self-imposed exile over how someone else might react to her pain. So she not only takes ownership of what happened to her, but she takes on the added responsibility of what her brothers might or might not do in their anger.

Now I know women do this all the time – take on the responsibility of other people’s actions, but I’m f*cking sick of it. Lange could have taken this whole ordeal and written something really meaningful and healing about it, but instead she takes a woman’s pain and uses it for drama. There are several instances of victim blaming where both Sunday and Kale (maybe Denny too?) think that she had too much to drink, indirectly blaming her for Billy’s actions. There’s some exploration of how the ordeal was traumatic for Sunday, but I don’t feel like Lange ever explores that in any depth. Sunday’s assault is simply used as a lazy way in which to create this time and space between her characters and to spurn on the actions of the rest of the book’s male characters. I detest when assault is used solely for drama and the motivations of other characters and try as I might, I just couldn’t look past it throughout the entire second half of the novel. Denny, Mickey, and Kale are all toxic characters and the fact that they “love” Sunday doesn’t excuse them all going out and being violent assholes about it. In fact, it’s so toxic, her fear of it drives her away from them for 5 years.

Which brings me to my second point – the ending. So Kale leaves Vivienne even though he knows the Brennans are all toxic and liars (but their “his” liars, AWWW), and everyone seems to finally be moving forward, acknowledging that as a family they can band together and support one another because that’s what families do. But then we find out Mickey actually murdered Billy (which was also super predictable), and they’re just like, “oh…. but it’s okay, we’ll get through it together like we always do”.

I’m sorry, but what kind of messed up theme is that. What a way to end your book, with a family condoning and shielding a murderer – yeah, that’s exactly the kind of message I want to take with me from this book! If this was a thriller, sure, but it’s not and it doesn’t fit. I feel like Lange just places the Brennans on this pedestal and because of her proximity to the subject matter, she can’t see what kind of bias she brings into this story. Love doesn’t excuse your actions. You show love by showing up for your family members and creating safe spaces for them. If the theme was about surviving these kind of toxic behaviours it would be great, but this book only condones them.

Anyways, there’s other things I didn’t like (namely the treatment of Vivienne), but I feel I’ve ranted enough. Obviously I didn’t like it and I like it even less now that I’ve taken the time to vocalize why I didn’t like it. I’m honestly blown away by how many high reviews this got on goodreads. I feel like I missed something, maybe I did, but I’m still done with this book. Good riddance.

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 Last Story of Mina Lee

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Aug. 2020)

Special thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with an advance copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for an honest review.

I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee because it sounds like everything I love in a book – a multi-generational family drama about an immigrant family trying to fit in in America. It instantly reminded me of Jean Kwok’s books, which I love, and is quoted as being great for fans of Celeste Ng, whom I also love.

It tells the story of korean mother and daughter, Mina and Margot Lee. Mina moved to America in the late 1980’s to escape the trauma of losing her family in Korea and ends up living in LA, becoming pregnant with Margot. 26 years later Margot is living and working in Seattle and comes home to find her mother has passed away. Margot believes there may be something suspicious in Mina’s death and begins to investigate, discovering along the way that Mina had a lot of secrets. Margot struggles to come to terms with what she learns as she mourns the death of a mother she feels like she never knew.

The story takes place across two timelines. One is the story of Mina’s arrival in America and the first year of her life in LA. The second is modern day Margot trying to find out what happened to her mom. It’s a great family drama about the challenges of bridging two cultures and what drives people to seek a challenging undocumented life in America. It’s about how you never really know the history people are carrying with them and the way in which our secrets can haunt both us and the ones we love.

I thought this was a great debut novel, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped. I felt the author struggled to keep the story moving at times and that the dual timeline wasn’t as well executed as it could have been. I was enthralled with Mina’s story and found it fascinating to learn about what drove her to America and the challenges she faced once arriving. It sheds a lot of light on how undocumented individuals are taken advantage of and can easily become trapped. How employers can abuse and manipulate their workers under the threat of reporting them to ICE. Unfortunately I didn’t find Margot’s story quite as engaging.

I struggled to understand why Margot was so suspicious of her mother’s death, I understand it was her own way of grieving her mother, but I didn’t really love the decision to try and link the present and the past. Mina’s life in the 1980’s was in most ways totally separate from her present day life, and I didn’t like how the author tried to link these two timelines so closely when they were so far removed from one another. The mystery element just didn’t really work for me and I think I would have preferred a more simple family drama about Mina’s life and Margot mourning the loss of someone she thought she knew but discovered she really didn’t. The right elements were all there, I just would have like to see some greater emotional exploration over the mystery.

But overall, it was a solid debut and I would give it 3.5 stars. Despite finding some weaknesses in the plot, I thought the writing was good and I’ll definitely be interested to see what else Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes in the future. I thought it was actually being released today and timed my review as such, but I see now on Goodreads that it actually released a week early, so happy 1 week since publication!