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.

The Dutch House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Apr. 2020)

I read The Dutch House way back in April and I really wish I had reviewed it back when I read it. But it was in the middle of Covid back then and I wasn’t feeling much motivation to do anything, so I let it slide, which is a shame because I really loved this book. I’m going to do my best to review it now, but I apologize if some of the details are now a little foggy.

I read The Dutch House as an audiobook, which was a real treat because it is narrated by Tom Hanks! I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s touted as a family drama that spans 50 years, so I was definitely intrigued. The story is about brother and sister Danny and Maeve – from their childhood right up to their late adulthood. At the center of the story is the Dutch House, an old and extravagant manor that was purchased by their father when they were children. Through a serious of events and misunderstandings, Danny and Maeve find themselves kicked out of the Dutch House, and though it’s decades before they ever cross the threshold again, the house and the fall out from the house still dominates their lives for many years to come.

It’s really a fascinating concept for a story. You don’t think of a house as being a protagonist to a story, but I also read Melina Marchetta’s, The Place on Dalhousie, last year and it’s interesting how much value we’ve learned to place on our childhood homes and how those spaces can influence us far into our adult years. Houses are after all so much more than just buildings, they are homes and the memories and feelings we attach to them are powerful driving forces.

At it’s heart I think this is really a novel about the influence our parents have on us and how powerful family bonds can be. Danny grew up tagging along after his father, Cyril, who was a self made business man who finds wealth in owning and renting real estate. Cyril thought he had finally escaped the cycle of poverty for his family, so it comes as a shock to Danny when he finds himself at the bottom and forced with making his own way in the world. At the same time, Maeve’s childhood is defined by the disappearance of her mother. Her mother never loved the extravagance of the Dutch House and leaves to volunteer in India. Danny and Maeve are always told about their mother’s goodness, but all they can see is the woman who was never there.

Both struggle from abandonment in different ways and the eventual falling out with their stepmother Andrea over the ownership of the Dutch House casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. Maeve is discontented at being cut out of the Dutch House and puts all her effort into helping Danny become as successful as possible, despite how miserable it makes him. Each character’s greed over the Dutch House ultimately consumes their lives, with each thinking that wealth will make them happy, when really it’s only the family that lived in the Dutch House that could do that.

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love and reminds me that I really should read more family dramas. Each character is enormously flawed and nuanced. To the outsider it’s so obvious that Maeve needs to let go of the Dutch House and Danny to start pursuing his own happiness, but each continues down their own path of destruction, completely blinded by their feelings of injustice. Every character is complex, as are their relationships with one another. I suppose some people might find the plot lacking in drive, but these characters and their relationships with one another were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.

Tom Hanks narration is excellent and I think this is one book that time has improved for me. The characters were definitely frustrating at times, but looking back on it, the whole song and dance and obsession over the Dutch House was just so enthralling. Families can pick you up, but they can also let you down, and I loved watching how Danny and Maeve both grew and were stunted by their emancipation from the Dutch House. Would definitely recommend this book!

Ask Again, Yes

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pub. date: May 2019 (read Jul. 2019)

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love to read. After last year’s fantasy-fest, I’ve been reading a lot of different stuff, much of which falls into the general and lit fiction genres and I’ve really been enjoying it. Ask Again, Yes gives me so many vibes from Little Fires Everywhere (even the cover looks the same!), but it definitely holds its own in the genre.

Ask Again, Yes tells the story of two families that grew up together in New York state and the impact and consequences of their actions over 4 decades. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope worked together for a brief time in the police force and end up living next door to one another in Gillam. Both their wives are pregnant around the same time and while Lena Gleeson gives birth to 3 daughters, Anne Stanhope struggles with fertility before eventually giving birth to a son, Peter. Anne never got along with the Gleeson’s and when her son, Peter, and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, become best friends, all parents struggle with it, eventually leading to a tragic event in Peter and Kate’s 13th year.

Eventually everyone goes their own separate ways, but the consequences of that night ripple through everyone’s lives for years after. It’s not a fast moving story and I could definitely see some people struggling with it, but Keane explores a lot of different themes and I thought the book was super insightful into different human behaviours.

Ask Again, Yes explores a lot of different questions. Can we ever escape the past? Can we learn to forgive those who have hurt us? Are we really capable of change? Are our behaviours learned or inherited? It’s a sad read at times and hopeful at others. But what I really loved was how well developed and how genuine every single character was. When it gets down to it, I didn’t actually have very much in common with any of the characters, but their thoughts, emotions, and reactions are all incredibly relatable. On paper their relationships look great and if you try to articulate how they aren’t, it’s really hard, and yet you understand why some of the characters make such bad decisions.

As someone who is getting married within the month, I was so anxious reading about some of the relationships and marriages in this book. More than one marriage is challenged; some of them fail, others survive. But what made it so scary was that I felt most of the problems in the relationships were solvable, and yet I understood why someone might choose to walk away from that relationship anyways. A scary thought when you’re getting ready to walk down the aisle yourself, but impressive for an author. She has incredible insight into human nature and I had no trouble believing that the characters would act the ways they did.

Overall I didn’t think this book had quite the charm of Little Fires Everywhere. I think they both had a lot of interesting things to say, but Ask Again, Yes does drag in some parts, whereas I always felt propelled forward by the narrative in Ng’s books. But it still explores a lot of relevant themes and I found it a little more realistic in its character portrayals. Mental Illness is a big part of this book, although I struggle to verbalize what the theme was. Mostly it was just something that was present throughout the book. Keane never tells us how to feel about it, but does demonstrate how our feelings on mental illness have grown over the decades. It’s not something to be ignored and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Recommend to lovers of character-driven stories.

Saving Francesca

Rating:
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Mar. 2003 (re-read May 2019)

This was super enjoyable to read for the second time and I actually enjoyed it more on my re-read than I did the first time I read it. I’ve been dying to read her newest book, The Place on Dalhousie, but it’s not available at any bookstores in Canada or on the kindle store, so I finally broke down and ordered a copy from Book Depository. After ordering it, I discovered that it actually includes some of the same characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son.

Saving Francesca was Marchetta’s second book, published in 2003, and The Piper’s Son was published several years after that. I believe all 3 books involve some of the same characters, but could all be read as stand-alones. The Piper’s Son is the only remaining Marchetta book that I haven’t read, so I decided to take the opportunity to re-read Francesca and Piper before I read the newest book.

I liked Saving Francesca on my first re-through, but it didn’t stand out to me. I think this is because I read it right after the first time I read On the Jellicoe Road. Jellicoe Road is one of my favourite books of all time, so after reading it I was enthusiastic to try out some of Marchetta’s other books, but Francesca couldn’t really compete with Jellicoe, so I didn’t rate it as highly. I’ve probably read Jellicoe 4-5 times since the first time I read it, but this was my first time re-reading Francesca and I really liked it a lot more. Now that I’ve had the time to separate it from Jellicoe Road and view it on its own merits (rather than just comparing it to Jellicoe), it’s actually a really good book.

Saving Francesca is about 16 year old Francesca Spinelli and her family. Francesca has always had a really close relationship with her mother and then one day, her mother basically shuts down and fails to get out of bed. She suffers from depression, which is something Francesca has never really been exposed to and struggles to understand. At the same time, Francesca has just started a new school and she misses her old friends and doesn’t feel like she belongs at her new school.

Even though none of her other books have been as great as Jellicoe Road, I have always loved Marchetta’s writing style and characterization. I would absolutely classify her as one of my favourite authors and even though I’ve outgrown a lot of YA, I don’t feel like I’ll ever outgrow Marchetta’s work. I love the way she writes teenagers and friendships. I don’t know how to describe it, but when I read her books, I feel like I’m walking into a world already fully realized. She is great at Show, Don’t Tell, and I never feel like I’m being introduced to a story, so much as just becoming immersed in it.

Her characters are so vibrant and I love the way they relate to one another. Melina is the master of the “from-hate-to-love” relationships and I love how she develops friendships in her books. Saving Francesca is a coming of age story as well as a book about mental illness. I mostly liked her approach to mental illness, with the exception of the aversion to taking medication for it. There shouldn’t be any stigma associated with taking medication for mental illness and wish it would be normalized more in books. Many people suffer from many different mental illnesses and medication really helps them. Francesca’s family was pretty adverse to it in this book, which was too bad because I think drugs could have helped Mia get back on her feet a lot faster.

But I did like her other themes about being there for one another and that having good days doesn’t mean that you’re better, but that having bad days also doesn’t mean that you’re not okay. The characters gave each other space to work through their issues and I liked that Francesca understood that while there maybe wasn’t a lot that she could do for her mother, simply being there might be enough.

One thing that really makes a book a winner for me is when an author writes well developed secondary characters. I loved all the secondary characters in this book, especially the teenagers. Every single one of them was flawed, yet they all had traits that made them special and likable. I loved Tara’s spirit and Siobhan’s unapologetic approach to life and Justine’s goodness and Thomas Mackee’s nonchalance and Jimmy’s soft understanding and support. I even kind of liked Will this time around, who I definitely didn’t on my first read through. He’s a bit of a shitty character, but I was willing to forgive him for his mistakes this time around and appreciated that he was able to grow and make choices outside of the rigid plans he set for himself.

This is a short book and subtle. I liked the honest depiction of mental illness, but as usual with Marchetta’s books, what really made it stand out was the characters. I love a good character driven book and she never lets me down. Can’t wait to read The Piper’s Son and The Place on Dalhousie!

Heidi

Rating: 
Author: Johanna Spyri
Genres: Children’s, Middle Grade, Classic
Pub date: 1880 (read Jan. 2019)

Oh Heidi, a girl after my own heart. I bought a new copy of Anne of Green Gables last year after my childhood copy was accidentally donated and decided to pick up copies of both Heidi and the Secret Garden, which had cute matching covers. I never read Heidi as a child, but I was into the mountain setting and was basically hoping for Anne of Green Gables set in Switzerland.

Heidi definitely does not have the same charm as Anne, who is one of my all-time favourite female characters, but I could appreciate her love of the simple life and the fresh mountain air. Heidi is a little orphan girl who, up to the age of 5, lived with her Aunt in the small Swiss town of Dorfli. At the age of 5, her aunt decides she has spent enough resources on Heidi and drags her up the mountainside to instead live with her Grandfather. Her grandfather is seen as a bit of a hermit by the townspeople and is fairly misunderstood, so they all pity Heidi when they see her on the way up the mountain.

However, Heidi immediately settles into life at her Grandfather’s cabin and is totally enamored with the beautiful mountain views, the wildflowers, and her neighbour Peter, the local goat-herder. Likewise, her Grandfather’s life is taken over by Heidi and he starts to find a new joy in life. I thought the whole mountain setting – two misfits finding love with one another – story was brilliant and was totally into this book at the beginning. I can see why it’s a classic, but like I said, Heidi just doesn’t have quite the same charm as my other beloved children’s books and it’s pretty slow moving. I struggled through the story at times and unfortunately, the ending of the book hasn’t really aged all that well.

It is a sweet story with christian undertones and themes. In the middle of the story, Heidi is extremely distraught when she is removed from her grandfathers and forced to live in Frankfurt. She finds the town so dark and dreary and she doesn’t understand the way of life, so she is misunderstood by those around her and yearns more than anything to return to Grandfathers. She learns about God and is taught to put her trust in his plan and is ultimately rewarded by her prayers and faith. While some elements were problematic, I was impressed that this book features both a girl in a wheelchair and a blind person.

I can’t write this review without discussing the ending, so if you’re unfamiliar with this classic and plan to read it, please stop reading here. SPOILERS AHEAD.

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So I didn’t really like the ending of this book. I definitely don’t fault the author for it because this was written in the 1800’s, but in my opinion the ending doesn’t really hold up today. I had two issues with the ending, the first of which is that Peter sucks! Peter is a pretty big introvert, whereas Heidi loves people and making new friends, and he is constantly threatened by Heidi’s other relationships and acts out pretty aggressively in his jealousy (both with the Doctor and Clara). My problem was that Peter’s behaviour was totally wrong, but he never really suffered any consequence from it. He destroys Clara’s chair for heaven’s sake and though he feels bad after, no one ever holds him accountable to his actions. They were just teaching him it’s okay to be an asshole.

My second issue was with Clara suddenly gaining the ability to walk by sheer force of will and the power of fresh mountain air (supposedly). I don’t fault the author because I’m sure people with disabilities had it rough in this era and their disabilities were not as well understood. So gifting her character with the ability to walk again seems like the perfect ending to a childhood story. It just doesn’t really stand up today and I’d hate for little girls in wheelchairs to read this book and be preached the message that if they just pray and want it enough, they might be able to walk again too. Or to feel like they can only achieve happiness by the curing of their disability and that the ultimate dream is to escape your disability. I liked Clara because despite her disability and sickness, she had a great attitude and didn’t actually seem that hampered by her disability. Being in a chair is nothing to feel bad about and is not an impediment on happiness. So I just don’t think this ending holds up in light of the body positivity movement and is a little insulting to the less able-bodied.

3 stars for the sweet story and setting, but beware some of the ideas are a little preachy and out-dated.