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!

Anxious People

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Jun. 2020)

Fredrik Backman writes some of the most random and interesting stories. I’ll admit I didn’t really know what to expect going into this book, but I definitely was not expecting what I did get. Anxious People is about a bank robbery that accidentally turns into a hostage situation where the bank robber somehow goes missing at the end. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters as the police interview all of the hostages to try and determine what happened to the bank robber.

After Beartown, I can confidently say that Backman is great at large cast stories. His packs a lot of heart and character development into a 300 page book and his characters never become confused with one another. His writing style is very different, but in some ways he reminds me of Melina Marchetta in his style of relationship development. His characters and their relationships to one another always grow in ways you don’t expect.

Beartown is one of my favourite books of all time, Anxious People definitely isn’t a contender to unseat it, but I still really enjoyed this book. It’s about a serious topic without ever feeling serious, something I wouldn’t say about Beartown. Backman’s writing style continues in this book with the same level of gravitas and though given to each sentence, but the humour here is a lot more reminiscent of his earlier books. The story has a nice mystery component without every feeling like a heavy mystery novel.

Backman is just so wonderful at crafting his characters. This book has some flawed characters, yet you grow to feel an attachment to each and every one of them. I love that he can take something like a bank robbery gone hostage situation and somehow make you feel empathy for the bank robber. He explores our traditional notions of good and bad, black and white, and the very real grey area in between. I don’t think this book has quite the same depth as some of his other novels, but it was a fun and thoughtful read.

And of course I have to say special thanks to Atria Books for sending this over to me. I vaguely remember getting an email about this book, but I had no idea they were sending me over a copy and it was an awesome surprise. Backman is a wonderful writer and I’m always thrilled to see what he decides to write about next!

Greenwood

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michael Christie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

It’s been just over a month since I finished Greenwood, so I’ll do my best to review. Like a lot of my audiobooks, I didn’t really have any intention of reading this book, but I stumbled across it, liked the sound of the narrator, and thought it seemed interesting enough. The story did get bogged down in places, but overall, I really liked it.

Greenwood tells the story of the Greenwood family over 4 generations and is a mixture of literary fiction, mystery, and dystopia all rolled into one compelling book. The highlight of the storytelling for me was in the structure. The novel starts on Vancouver Island in 2034. In recent years a tree virus has felled the majority of the world’s trees, but there’s still a pristine old growth forest that remains on a small island near Pacific Rim and it’s here that ecologist Jake Greenwood works, taking wealthy vacationers walking along the last remaining giants.

From here, each part of the story takes us back in time, to Liam Greenwood in 2008, a carpenter who renovates homes using reclaimed wood. Then to Willow Greenwood in 1974, a hippy and environmentalist who protests her father’s rich timber company. Then back to Everett Greenwood in 1934, a poor hermit who lives in the woods farming maple syrup, and then finally to 1908 and the events that started everything for the Greenwood Family. Once we reach 1908, the story reverses again as we slowly start to make our way back to 2034. It’s a fascinating structure. I loved going back in time to learn more about the events that preceded each storyline, only to learn new mysteries that I won’t find the answers to until the story reverses itself again.

The majority of the story takes place in 1934 and the actions Everett takes have a lasting impact on the Greenwood Family for generations to come. It’s interesting to see how secrets are hidden and how easily history can be lost over multiple generations. How quickly the cycle of poverty can reverse itself. My favourite timelines were 1934 and 2034, but I think they all offered something unique to the story. I did think the author dragged out the 1934 storyline a little bit too much – it is the critical part of the book, but I don’t really think this book needed all it’s 500+ pages and easily could have been more in the 400-450 range.

I did love how this book takes us all over Canada and parts of America and how it incorporates trees as its central theme. Even though some of the family members use the trees as a resource for profit and others seek to protect the trees, they all make their living from the trees and are impacted by them. It’s interested to see something inanimate like a tree take on such a central role in the novel. As someone who lives in Western Canada and loves the landscape here, I really enjoyed the exploration of the value of trees and was moved by the imagination of a world without them. Our old growth forests are incredibly valuable and I can’t imagine the loss of them, much less the majority of trees on the planet. How they scape our cities, towns, and parks and the number of resources that we pull from them.

So overall I did find the story slowed down in places, but overall I really enjoyed and would recommend to lovers of Canadian lit!

Wild at Heart

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: K.A. Tucker
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Feb. 2020 (read Mar. 2020)
Series: Wild #2

Okay, I have many feelings about Wild at Heart and it’s time to write them down before I forget! I was super apprehensive when I first heard that Tucker was writing a sequel to The Simple Wild. The Simple Wild was an unexpected favourite read from 2018, so I was kind of excited when I heard about Wild at Heart because I wanted to see what happened to Calla and Jonah and laugh along at all their witty banter again. But I’m also weary of books with sequels that don’t really need them because they’re often pandering to the readers or cheapen the story from the original book. Plus I really didn’t like Tucker’s new book from last year and I was afraid she was a one hit wonder.

But there’s a lot to like about Wild at Heart! I’m don’t think it has quite the same charm as The Simple Wild, but I really liked the direction Tucker decided to go with the story in her sequel. It was easy to predict the trajectory of the story, like I could pretty much guess it without even reading the synopsis, but it ended up being less predictable than I thought and explored a lot of new themes.

So let’s get into it. If you haven’t read The Simple Wild, please don’t bother with this review, just go check out my glowing review for the first book. For readers who have read The Simple Wild, but not Wild at Heart, I’ll try and keep it spoiler free or give you a warning if I’m about to get into major spoilers.

What made Wild at Heart a winner for me was that it really met the requirements of what I’m looking for in a New Adult book. There’s so few good books out there in the New Adult genre and until I read this book, I didn’t realize how much I’m actually looking for relatable fiction about adults who have started their career, but haven’t yet moved into the parenting world. So much literature is either YA or about fully developed families. That’s all totally fine and I’m sure I’ll be thrilled once I enter that next demographic, but right now it was so refreshing to read about a mature couple just trying to make it work and figure out their professional lives. Wild at Heart is free of childish relationship drama and older family drama. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love me a good family drama, but this really delivered something that I haven’t seen in many books.

At the end of The Simple Wild, Jonah shows up in Toronto to ask Calla to move to Anchorage with him. We don’t know what she decides, but it’s a safe assumption that she says yes. Wild at Heart picks up exactly where The Simple Wild left off and we see Calla pack up her life in Toronto to go all in on a life in Alaska with Jonah.

The move is scary, but also exciting, and at the beginning Calla and Jonah strike a wonderful balance of accommodating one another and making compromises to try and make each other happy. As you can imagine though, as time goes on, things become more challenging. Calla struggles to fit in in the Alaskan wild and Jonah stresses about money and doing something where he feels he’s making a meaningful contribution to the world. Neither doubts their love for the other, but they have to acknowledge that the new relationships is not without its struggles.

The first half of the book does have a bit of a meandering plot. It’s not obvious where the story is going and their relationship is still in its honeymoon phase, and so it’s somewhat lacking in tension. However I don’t fault Tucker for this because what I think she does provide is a very accurate portrayal of a relationship between two mature adults. It was wonderful to read about two people thinking about buying their first home together and making decisions about their professional careers. I just bought my first home and it wasn’t until Calla and Jonah started house hunting that I realized I’ve literally never seen this aspect of a relationship portrayed in a book before! It’s so much more common to read about how a couple falls in love, or how a married couple is struggling. There are so few stories dedicated to what happens after the big romantic gesture that brings a couple together. Arguably this is because romantic tension is what sells a story and it’s just not as exciting to read about the “happily ever after”, but it really worked in this book and I found it extremely relatable.

The other thing I liked about this book was Calla and Jonah’s maturity. Sure,they have their moments of weakness, and I kept waiting for them to fall apart, which they inevitably do, but not at all in the way I expected. They’re both afraid of resenting each other and they put a lot of effort into how they communicate with each other. Resentment has always been what has scared me the most about my own relationships. My fear is that if communication breaks down, then resentment builds, and that is what can ultimately kill a relationship. I spend so much time in my own life ensuring that resentment stays out of my relationships, and it was really nice to see that maturity reflected in these characters. I think Tucker had an easy narrative she could have followed in this book and she could have dramatized Calla and Jonah’s relationship more, but I’m glad she didn’t. I think it would have cheapened the story. Instead this was more a book about two people learning to live with each other and deciding if it’s something they can do forever.

I will admit, Tucker is pretty gratuitous with the sex scenes in this book. None of them were as romantic as their first night together in the safety cabin in The Simple Wild and they did start to get a bit repetitive after a while because apparently they’re both just so damn perfect. But if you’re coming to this series as a romance reader, you’ll probably be pretty happy. The book does have a lot of side plots though, which give the story more substance and I really enjoyed meeting all the new characters. I liked both Calla’s relationship with Muriel and with Roy, though I would have loved to see her make some real girl friends earlier in the book, because I think that would have made the transition a lot easier for Calla. I was really hoping for her to strike up a close friendship with Marie because I think that would have been quite radical and progressive, but I think we ended up getting something in the middle.

To conclude, Wild at Heart was a real winner for me. It wasn’t quite a 5 star read, but I’d put it at a solid 4.5 stars. Please bring this energy and insight with you to your next book K.A. Tucker, because Say You Still Love Me was such a miss for me and I really want to love all your books!

Disappearing Earth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Julia Philips
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: May 2019 (read Mar. 2020)

so 2020 is definitely not my best reading year. I always knew reading 100 books a year was not sustainable, but I’ve really struggled this year. I feel like I should be reading more books then ever during this pandemic, but I did just get a new puppy and have generally been feeling unmotivated when it comes to reading. That said, after giving it some thought, I think public transit might be one of my critical success factors. I spend about an hour on public transit every day and I always read during that time. So on top of the benefit of getting a consistent hour of reading in every day, it also forces me to stay super engaged with my books because I’m forced to pick them up every day. Without that I think I’ve just been feeling less inclined to pick up new books or stick with them through the early chapters.

Anyways, enough with the life update, the real goal here is to sit down and finally write a review for Disappearing Earth, which may be somewhat challenging as it took me 4 months to read and I finished it over a month ago. However, the length of time it took me to read is not at all indicative of how much I enjoyed the book. I made the mistake of starting this one at the beginning of my 5 week honeymoon in New Zealand over Christmas. I got about 40% in and then didn’t read anything for the rest of the vacation because I was having too much of a blast! So it was months later by the time I picked it up again.

Disappearing Earth is about 2 sisters in rural Russia who disappear one day while out visiting the beach. The disappearance rocks the community, impacting many who never even knew the girls, and serving to highlight the inequities that exist among the many community members.

The book has an interesting structure – each chapter is narrated by a different character and we never return to the same character twice. All of the characters are loosely connected in some way, but many are still strangers to each other. Regardless, they are all in some way impacted by the disappearance of the two girls.

While interesting, I do think the structure of the novel was one of the contributing factors to why it took me so long to read the book. It was a little disheartening to finish the end of a chapter and then feel like you had to start again with getting to know a new character. However, I do think the structure is one of the beauties of the book, so it’s not something I would change. The writing is fantastic and I loved how everyone was somewhat connected and somewhat impacted by the disappearance of the sisters. It really highlights the impact that tragedy can have on a community and how it can be perceived by different people.

Class, race, and gender are all important themes in Disappearing Earth. Many of the characters are native and while they lament the probable death of the girls, the community’s reaction to the disappearance of two young white girls mostly serves to highlight how native women are de-valued and de-prioritized by law enforcement and the general public. Culture is an important piece of this book and it is steeped in Russian culture and attitude, but I still found it a stark reminder of the inequalities here in our Canadian indigenous communities as well.

Atmosphere is one of the key parts of the book and a dark atmosphere pervades the entire novel. The disappearance of the sisters in the first chapter clouds a sense of unease over the entirety of the novel. All of the characters are struggling in some way or another, with some being made scared or uncomfortable by the disappearance of the girls, and others jaded about it. All the while you wonder if it will ever be revealed what happened to them, or if, like much of life, we’re destined to go on forever not knowing. The real pain and anguish of disappearance is the uncertainty and unknowing.

So I don’t think this book is for everyone. I wouldn’t call it a fast paced read and I do wish I had read it at a different time. It’s a heavy read, but with gorgeous and perceptive writing, I’m so glad that I stuck with it.