Little Women

Rating:
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. date: 1869 (read Sep. 2019)

Little Women has been on my TBR FOREVER and I’m so happy to finally have read it! I picked up the world’s ugliest copy of Little Women at a book sale back before I was a book collector and it has just been sitting on my shelf taunting me for years. So thanks very much to my book club for this one because we decided to do classics month for September and we all read a different classic. Plus I couldn’t have had better time timing to read this with the new movie coming out this Christmas.

So what did I think? Little Women is exactly the kind of classic I love. It’s poignant and character driven. At times it reminded me of Anne of Green Gables, although it poses no threat at dethroning Anne as one of my all time favourites. I really liked Meg, Jo, and Beth, and even Amy grew on me over time. It’s a book about many things, but mostly it’s about family, love, and growing up. And I do love a good coming of age book.

I have to admit though, as much as I enjoyed the themes of this book, it is damn boring at times. I felt like I never built up any momentum while reading it. When I started I calculated that I had to read 2 chapters a day in order to finish in time for book club, which would usually be a joke for me, but I really did struggle to read more than 2 chapters a day and finished it with only 2 days spare. I did pick up speed at the end, but it was more out of a desire to move on to something else.

So I did want to acknowledge that there is a lot of fluff in there that I think could be cut out, but honestly that could be said of most classics. However, I did still give this 4 stars, despite my pacing frustrations. It is a little heavy with 1800’s morality, but there’s a lot to love about Little Women. Namely, Jo. The novel features all 4 of the March Sisters, focusing on different sisters at different times, but it’s hard to deny that Jo is the main protagonist of the story. Which makes sense when you learn that this is a largely autobiographical novel, with the author cast as Jo.

Jo is the kind of independent, rule-breaking, inspiring woman that I love to read about. So much of classic literature is focused on men and written by men, that it’s always amazing to see mold-breaking women like Anne Shirley, Francie Nolan, Scarlett O’Hara, and Jo March. There were (and still are) so many expectations placed on women about what their goals should be and what roles they should fulfill as they mature. The roles primarily being wife and mother. But women are amazing and not content to sit within the roles that society has defined for them and I love reading about women who try and break free of that mold – doesn’t matter what the era – but it is particularly more impressive in older books.

Jo March is a girl who wishes to an extent that she could be a boy. Not because she particularly wants to be a boy, but because she wants the opportunities afforded to men. The only role that’s ever been defined for her is housewife and she wants to be free and independent to chase after her own dreams. And Jo’s biggest dream is to be a writer. She faces all kinds of challenges in getting her work published, but it’s something she decides to go after because she loves to be able to provide and take care of her family.

So I do think that Jo is pretty revolutionary for her time, but what I really loved about Little Women is that Alcott doesn’t want to showcase just one kind of woman. Yes, Jo is different and important, but I loved the contrast between each and every sister and how each of them was just as special as Jo and their dreams just as important. Jo initially struggles to understand her older sister Meg because she sees all the talents that Meg has to offer the world and it breaks her heart to see them lost for Meg to be a housewife. But we all have different dreams and they are all valid. We need women that want to break down the barriers that have confined us, but we also need women that have a great love for people. Women who are kind and empathetic and want to take care of others.

Amy and Beth have different dreams still. Amy is spoiled and selfish and thinks mostly of herself, but learns to control her ego and to put her efforts into others and not just herself – that being kind and selfless can still bring us rewards beyond what we could dream. I do wish Beth had played a larger role in the story. She is extremely shy and battles health issues throughout most of the book, so her interactions with other characters are much less than the other sisters, but she does serve to demonstrate how every individual has the ability to have a profound impact on those around them.

I have to get into some spoilers now, though this is a 150 year old book, so there’s probably not a whole lot left to spoil for people, but I have warned you nonetheless. Spoilers ahead.

One of my favourite parts of this book was Jo and Laurie, though they broke my heart more than once throughout reading. I loved that they became such good friends in an era where boys and girls weren’t really encouraged to be friends with one another. Their upbringings and circumstances were very different from one another, but they were still able to develop a close bond, despite the differences in their experiences. But what I loved most was that Jo rejected Laurie’s romantic advances and that was the end of it!! I thought that was totally revolutionary for a book published in the 1860’s! Because they’d been such close friends growing up, you expected for romantic feelings to develop between them. I wasn’t surprised that Jo rebuffed Laurie because that was totally in line with her character as an independent woman, but I was totally expecting for Laurie to try again to win her over and that she would change her mind. I loved that she knew they weren’t meant to be together, was firm in that belief, expressed her feelings, and then moved on without jealousy or regret. It was wonderful.

But then of course, Alcott has to go and ruin it all by deciding to pair up Laurie and Amy. This was completely disappointing to me because it’s a jarring change after watching Jo and Laurie interact together for 80% of the novel. It was like she had to give everyone a happy ending. I’m glad that Jo and Laurie were reconciled, but I’m sorry, if my best friend who professed to be in love with me started shacking up with my sister, I would definitely be a little pissed and jealous. So I guess Jo is just a better person than I am. I’ll also blame the setting a little because it’s not like casual dating was a thing back then.

I wasn’t really feeling the professor either, but hey, even the most independent of women still want to love and be loved and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that message.

On a side note, I finally let myself watch the trailer for the new movie coming out at Christmas and OMG it looks so good! Like I seriously think it looks even better than the book because there won’t be any over-indulgent rambling. Emma Watson and Saiorse Ronan are two of my absolute favourite actresses and I think Saiorse is actually the perfect casting ever for Jo! Plus Emma as Meg and Meryl Streep as Aunt March! Not a huge Laura Dern fan though, so we’ll see how she does as Marmee. I haven’t really seen any of Timothee Chalamet’s movie’s, but he’s pretty much exactly how I pictured Laurie, so I’m excited for it!

So overall, I thought this book had some flaws. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the patience to read through it again, but I can finally say I have read it and it did live up to my expectations!

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Rating:
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Aug. 2019 on Audible)

Woo, this was a fun little novella! It was a mistake to buy this on Audible because I listened to it way too fast! Seriously, I flew through it in like 3 days. Great narrator though!

I’ve seen this book popping up in a few places, but I wasn’t sure if the premise was exactly as the name suggestions… it is. My Sister, the Serial Killer is set in Nigeria and is told from the point of view of Korede, a young nurse whose sister has a suspicious tendency to be forced to kill her boyfriends. Ayoola always has a reason, either he attacked her, or tried to rape her, or he just happened to be poisoned while they were out to dinner together. But she consistently looks to her straight laced sister to help her clean up the mess.

Korede is torn between her obligations and loyalty to her family, and her fear for the men of Lagos. Either way, she decides to keep quiet. But when Ayoola starts getting close with one of the doctor’s at her hospital, she can’t deny she is torn about what to do.

Despite the gruesome nature of the plotline, this was a fun little book. Honestly, I found Korede’s dilemma highly entertaining. The author infuses a lot of humour into the story and the juxtaposition of the humour against the dark storyline really compliment each other wonderfully. This is the kind of extremism that really highlights human nature. On one hand, Ayoola is clearly crazy and should be locked up, but on the other hand, you can’t help admire her guts. Korede totally enables her, but what other choice does she have unless she decides to turn her sister in. After the first time, she’s an accessory in the murders, so to turn on her sister would also be the end of her life too.

it’s a short book, but I liked it that way. It was tightly plotted and you have to admire an author who says what they need to say and then moves on. No superfluous writing in this one!

When All is Said

Rating:
Author: Anne Griffin
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read in Aug. 2019)

I’d heard such wonderful things about When All is Said that I convinced my book club to read it… and then missed the discussion for it! Turns out, they all loved it! It was our highest rated book so far this year and a much needed “good read” after a bunch of disappointments.

That said, while I liked this one, I think it might have been slightly overhyped to me and it wasn’t quite as good as I was anticipating. It definitely delivered on the heartwarming novel I was expecting, but there wasn’t really anything unexpected in the plot, which ended up being a tiny bit of a disappointment. I kept hoping for just a little bit more, but I guess that is the beauty of the book too. It’s narrated by Maurice as he looks back on his life after the death of his wife. What makes it beautiful I guess, is that his life is both remarkable and unremarkable at the same time, much like most of us that live on this earth.

The story is told through a series of 5 toasts to 5 of the most important people in Maurice’s life. There’s a real feeling of nostalgia and finality throughout the course of the book as Maurice toasts all the people that had an impact on his life to his son. Each toast reveals a different part of Maurice’s life, from his childhood, to the courtship of his wife and birth of their children, to the great sadness of his life, the death of his wife. Throughout his life story, he also reveals the impact that some of his early interactions working for a rich Irish family, the Dollards, had on both his life and on the Dollards. How one action can have long lasting impacts and influence your outlook on life for years to come.

The story with the Dollards was quite interesting and I liked how the author wove it into the rest of the novel. It’s never the center of the story, but it pulls it together. I thought the writing was good and I’m impressed that this was a debut novel. But like I said, nothing really unexpected happened in this story and I kept wanting just a little bit more out of it. It reminded me of other books I’ve read that have featured senior protagonists (A Man Called Ove is the most popular book that comes to mind), and while I love all these books, I would have liked to see this one do something a little bit different with the story, although the storytelling through toasts was undeniably creative.

An excellent debut though and I’m excited to see what Anne Griffin writes next!

Searching for Sylvie Lee

Rating: ⭐
Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Aug. 2019)

I really like Jean Kwok’s writing style. I read Girl in Translation last year and loved it and have been dying to read Searching for Sylvie Lee since I first read the synopsis. Both books are quite different, but left me with similar feelings. I feel like both were probably 4 star books, but something about the writing and the characters just makes me feel very strongly about them and in the end, I rated both books 5 stars. Searching for Sylvie Lee does get a little dramatic and unbelievable towards the end, but because the book was really about character development for me, I can let it slide.

Searching for Sylvie Lee is told from multiple perspectives, with the most dominant (for me anyways), being told from the point of view of Amy. Amy is younger sister to Sylvie and both are daughters of Chinese-American immigrants. Their parents moved to America and struggled to survive, deciding to send their first daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother until they could afford to give her a better life. She returns at the age of 9 (I think, can’t quite remember), after the birth of the second daughter, Amy. The story is narrated by Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, so we get many perspectives from this small family.

To Amy, Sylvie is the epitome of accomplishment and she greatly looks up to her, considering herself the lesser sister. To Sylvie, Amy is the image of innocence. She works very hard to be successful because she feels her parents will never love her as much as Amy since she was raised away from them for the first part of her life.

When their grandmother becomes ill, Sylvie returns to the Netherlands to say goodbye, but disappears before returning home. No one knows what happened to her and Amy’s dutch relatives don’t seem too concerned about Sylvie. But Amy knows Sylvie would never just disappear like that, so she jumps on a plane for the first time in her life and travels to the Netherlands to search for the truth.

This is the prefect family drama about all the feelings of love and resentment that exist within the family dynamic. Everyone has their own secrets and the unspoken past has had longstanding and far-reaching consequences on the entire family. Sylvie has a life in Holland that none of her family in America could really understand and the impact of growing up under the thumb of her Aunt impacted her in ways the sisters don’t understand until much later. Sylvie struggles to be the daughter she thinks she should be, while Amy is afraid to live her life the way she would like to.

Everyone has secrets and they have been tearing the family apart for decades without them even realizing it. This is very much a book about the immigrant experience, but also a book about living courageously. I thought that each character was well realized and developed. Everyone had flaws, but it only made them more relatable and served to make me empathize more with each character.

Like I said, it’s a character driven book, but it does have a strong plot to support it. We’re propelled by the mystery element of what happened to Sylvie, but discover so many secrets and deceptions along the way. That said, don’t come to this book looking for a mystery/thriller. It’s not the driving force of the story, but rather a tool to connect with the deeper pain and anguish of each of the characters. The ways they’ve been wronged, the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways in which they’ve been misunderstood.

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.