Transcendent Kingdom

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.

Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.

Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.

I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.

That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom. 

But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place. 

But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.

Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.

Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing. 

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lara Margaret Marjerrison
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Woohoo! First person on goodreads to rate and review this book!

I’ve been going through a bit of a poetry phase and stumbled across this anthology in the Poetry section at Chapters. I had no idea it was a brand new release, but I liked the premise of it and decided to buy a copy. It’s only 50 pages long, so I read through it in 2 sittings.

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex is about all of the above, but mostly grief. Lara’s sister passed away by suicide and this is really her response to dealing with that grief. She includes a prologue about the book and her sister that was really moving, before getting into some of the poetry she wrote about how she was impacted and affected by her sister’s death. I really like her style of poetry. It’s not too dense to read and I like the spoken word feel of it. It has a good beat to it and I like that much of it rhymed. I feel like not that much poetry rhymes these days, which is totally fine, but I appreciate clever and well written prose.

In my opinion, most of the anthology focused on grief and loss, but Marjerrison does start exploring themes of love in the last third. Personally I didn’t find this poetry quite as engaging, but since this anthology very much reads like a personal, healing journey, I don’t think it really matters if it didn’t pull me in as much. There’s a strong emotional theme present throughout the entire anthology and I really do hope that the writing of it helped the author to heal. A great debut – very moving.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.

Top 5 Reads of 2018

This is the companion post to my Top 10 Books of 2018, which features my favourite reads of the year that were actually published in 2018. This post will feature my top 5 books of the year that weren’t published in 2018. This works out well for me because its hard to narrow it down to just 10 books and the majority of the books I read are new releases. So here’s my top 5 reads of 2018 in no particular order:

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

You know how sometimes you read a book and you really like it, but then the more time passes, the more unsure you are of whether you actually liked it as much as you thought? This book was the opposite of that for me. I really liked it when I read it, but the further removed I’ve gotten from reading it, the better I think I actually like it. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tells the story of Julia, the teenage daughter of Mexican immigrants, and how she deals with the death of her older sister Olga. I know some people aren’t a fan of this book because honestly, Julia is super unlikable and confrontational in the story, but I thought it was such an accurate portrayal of a raging, rebellious, grieving teenager. Julia is struggling with accepting the death of her sister, who was the perfect daughter in her parents eyes, and she acts out against her parents traditional Mexican values. She struggles to understand her parents and her parents struggle to understand her. It’s ultimately a coming of age story about grief and the struggles of immigrant families. I listened to it as an audiobook and I would highly recommend this format – the narrator was fantastic and the whole reading experience was super enjoyable, despite the heavy topics.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

This was probably my most unexpected read of the year. I set an informal goal for myself to start reading more classics. I tried some Jane Austen and wasn’t the biggest fan, but I found Wuthering Heights on audiobook for a really cheap price and decided to give it a go. I’m not sure whether to credit Emily Bronte or Joanne Froggatt (the narrator) for how much I liked this, but together they made me absolutely LOVE this book. I don’t always love classics because they tend to wane on too much about nothing, but I loved the drama of Wuthering Heights. Evidently I have a thing for unlikable characters because NO ONE in this book is very likable. I think most people are familiar with the plot, so I won’t get too into it, I’ll just say that it’s an inter-generational story about the cycle of abuse and the human ability to both love and hate. I’ll still give Bronte most of the props, but Froggatt’s narration definitely played a role in making me love this as she does a fantastic job with all the characters and accents!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation was one of the first books I read this year and while it was a slow-read novel, I really loved it. This book tells the semi-autobiographical story of 10 year old Kimberly Chan and spans about a decade in scope. Kim and her Ma are sponsored by her Aunt and move to New York from China. It’s based off the author’s experience immigrating to America and I thought it was such a well crafted story about the struggles immigrants face to build a new life and climb their way out of poverty. Kim and her Ma live in a run down apartment and work in her Aunt’s sweat shop sewing clothing. It’s technically Ma that works in the shop, but the workers regularly enlist the help of their children since they work on commission and it’s the only way they can make decent money. Kim attends school during the day and is driven by her desire to learn and get a job that will enable her to lift her family out of poverty. Like I said, it’s a quiet sort of story, but powerful and I really loved Kim’s character and perspective.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

I’m just now realizing that I read 3 of the 5 books on this list as audiobooks (this being the third), which is actually super impressive since I tend to dislike audiobooks a lot more than I love them. But I guess I found some real winners on Audible this year! The Nowhere Girls tells the story of 3 very different high school classmates: Grace, Rosina, and Erin. The biggest thing I can say about this book is: great representation. Grace is a fat, Christian girl; Rosina is a gay, Mexican girl; and Erin has Asperger’s. Grace is new to town and when she learns that the former resident of her bedroom was a high school girl who was essentially driven out of town when she claimed she was raped at a party the year before, she starts a secret club to do something about it. I really liked this book because it was diverse and it addressed relevant social issues that any teen girl can relate to. Plus, it has another great narrator!

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

I’ve been raving about this series since I read it back in August. I included the sequel Wundersmith in my Top 10 Books of 2018 post, and I have to include the first book in this list. I can not say enough good things about this series. It is the smart, fun middle grade book that I’ve been looking for since Harry Potter. It tells the story of cursed child, Morrigan Crow, who is whisked off to the magical land of Nevermoor on the eve of her death day by the enigmatic Jupiter North. There she participates in the trials to become a member of the prestigious Wunder Society, all while trying to hide the fact that she’s an illegal immigrant to Nevermoor. This book is so whimsical (it has a giant, talking cat and flying umbrellas), but what I love most about it is that it has depth. It’s so well written and crafted that this magical world pretty much builds itself. It’s obvious that there’s a lot more to the plot than Townsend reveals upfront and I think we’re in for a multi-layered, multi-book series that has the potential to be just as popular as Harry Potter. I really, really loved this and I can’t wait to see what Jessica Townsend publishes next!  

Top 10 Books of 2018

I read over 100 books this year, so it is incredibly hard to narrow the list down to just 10 books! I really like reading new releases and this year almost half of all the books I read were published in 2018, so like last year, I’ve decided to publish two lists. This will be my top 10 favourite books that were published in 2018, and my second follow up post with be my top 5 favourite books that I read in 2018, but were published in other years. Without further ado, here’s my top 10 of 2018, in order this year!

10. Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie has been making waves this year and was my first Courtney Summers book. I started reading it on a 3 day kayak trip and was totally enthralled with it the entire weekend. It’s a powerful read, but one of the things I actually liked most about it was the format. Sadie tells the story of a young woman named Sadie – when her sister turns up dead, Sadie disappears from town and goes on a mission to track down her sister’s killer. What made the format so unique was that half of the book is told in the style of a podcast investigating what happened to Sadie, while the other half is told from Sadie’s point of view as she moves through rural America trying to track down the killer. The podcast reminded me a lot of Serial and I thought it made for a really interesting and dynamic read. Summers doesn’t hold back any punches in this story and it’s really a book about how girls and women disappear and are murdered far too often. I can’t take another dead girl.

9. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After was a bit of a slower read compared to some of the other books on this list, but is the writing and the story ever beautiful! It tells the story of Taiwanese-American teenager, Leigh, whose mother has committed suicide. In her grief, Leigh believes that her mother has come back as a bird and is trying to communicate with Leigh. In an effort to learn more about her mother, she decides to take a trip to Taiwan for the first time to meet her grandparents. The story is filled with magical realism and is a beautiful coming of age story about grief, mental health, the pains of growing up, and the importance of chasing after the things that you love. I really liked the portrayal of mental health and depression and how anyone can be impacted by them and how there’s often no rhyme or reason to why someone might suffer from depression. I loved the cultural aspects that were woven into this story as well as Leigh’s relationship with her friend Axel and how it evolves throughout the story. Mostly though, I just loved this for the beautiful writing and would definitely recommend to anyone!

8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage has been featured on pretty much every “must read books of 2018” list I’ve seen on the internet and was featured in Oprah’s book club, so I was intrigued to read it. It’s about a newly married couple, Celestial and Roy, who’s marriage is abruptly cut short when Roy is accused of a crime he didn’t commit and incarcerated for 12 years. They try to maintain their marriage, but 12 years is a long time and Celestial starts to drift away from Roy. However, when Roy gets a surprise early release after 5 years, everyone’s lives are thrown into turmoil. Celestial has moved on and is unsure what to do in the face of her husband’s release. Roy on the other hand, is still hugely invested in Celestial and wants to give their marriage another shot. It’s a thought provoking novel on the justice system and what it means to be black in America. I really liked it because there were no easy choices for the characters and it was a critical look at the impact prison can have on the individual and their greater family and community.

7. Saga, Volume 8 by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

I’ve been reading Saga for the last two years, but for some reason, Volume 8 hit me a lot harder than any of the other volumes. I also read Volume 9 this year, which I liked, but didn’t love, but something about Volume 8 struck me differently. Saga is a graphic novel series about an intergalactic romance between two soldiers on opposing sides, Alana and Marko. The series starts off with them giving birth to their daughter, Hazel, and the entire series is them gallivanting around the galaxy trying to avoid all the individuals that think their marriage and relationship is an abomination. Volume 8 deals with abortion and I think it’s one of the reason’s why I liked it so much. The whole series is incredibly diverse and examines a number of different relevant social issues, and this issue looks at some of the reasons why women and couples decide to have abortions and why all reasons are valid. Overall, I would highly recommend the series, I’ll just put a disclaimer that the series does include a lot of sex and nudity.

6. The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker

To be honest, it’s a bit of a mystery to me why I liked this book as much as I did. Maybe I was just in the mood for a good romance, but I think it was because this was one of the rare New Adult books that I could actually relate to. I find there’s a huge gap in literature between stories about teenagers and stories about adults. There’s not a lot of great books about people in their mid-twenties and this book really that need. The Simple Wild is about 26 year old Calla. She grew up with her mom in Toronto, but she’s been estranged from her father, who is an Alaskan bush pilot, since she was 2. When she finds out her father has cancer, she decides to finally make the trip up to Alaska to meet him. She’s never understood her father’s life or why he would never leave his job to be with her and her mother. She finally has the opportunity to get to know him a little better, but fears it may be too late. At the same time, she meets her father’s best pilot, Jonah, and despite having almost nothing in common, they strike up a friendship that evolves mostly out of the two of them teasing one another. I’m not going to lie, I totally fell in love with Jonah, but this book has so much more going for it than just romance. I’m obsessed with any book set in Alaska and this was a great story about taking risks, getting out of your comfort zone, and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

5. Not That Bad edited by Roxane Gay

Not That Bad is a collection of stories about rape and rape culture that definitely needed to be told. I listened this anthology as an audiobook and I thought every single essay added something valuable to the collection and as a whole, the essays were extremely diverse. The premise of the book is that any story about rape, assault, or rape culture deserves a space and to be heard. People often refrain from sharing the things that have happened to them because they think they are not that bad compared to what has happened to other people they known. Gay wants to break down that idea that there is any kind of scale for breaking down the things that happen to us. Every story is that bad and every pain deserves to be acknowledged. It is only by sharing our stories that it becomes evident just how pervasive and widespread rape culture is. Your voice deserves to be heard – what happened to you is that bad – there is no hierarchy of pain and we acknowledge you.

4. Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This was my first Toews book, but I was totally blown away by it. It’s a short and simple book, but so startling in it’s honesty. Women Talking is based on a Mennonite community in rural Bolivia where the women were continuously subjected to sexual assault in secret by members of the community. They were not believed and were told that they were being punished for their sins. Eventually it came out that several men in the community had been knocking the women out with animal anesthetic and raping them in their sleep and they were arrested. This is the re-imagined conversation that took place between the women in deciding how to move forward from this ordeal. As they see it, they have three options: they can do nothing, stay and fight, or they can leave. It is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking. Even though these characters are imagined, I was inspired by the women and their ability to forgive, love one another, and use humour to move on with their lives.

3. Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Okay, now we’re into the top 3! It’s hard to organize the lower end of this list because I liked all those books but they’re not the top books that stand out to me and it’s difficult to rank them. But the top of list is easier because they were my favourite books that I read this year, starting with Wundersmith, the sequel to Nevermoor. The Nevermoor series is a new middle grade fantasy series that I am obsessed with. I’ve compared it multiple times to Harry Potter, not because it’s like Harry Potter, but because it reminds me of all the things I loved about Harry Potter and in how it makes me feel. Morrigan Crow is a cursed child, destined to die on the eve of her 11th birthday. But instead, she is whisked away by enigmatic Jupiter North to the land of Nevermoor, which is filled with magic and flying umbrellas and gigantic talking cats. It is such a fun series filled with so much whimsy! The world building is incredible and the plot is clever and has a lot of depth. I am in love with the characters and the world Jessica Townsend has created and I cannot wait to see where she takes this series in the future!

2. Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

Our Homesick Songs took me totally by surprise. It’s historical fiction about Newfoundland’s cod fishery and the moratorium in 1992. It’s about family, community, loneliness, music, and love of place. The Connor family has always lived in the small rural, island town of Big Running and has  always survived off the cod fishery. When the fish disappear, many families are forced to make tough decisions about their future and leave their homes in search of work on the mainland. Aidan and Martha try and avoid that fate for their children, Cora and Finn, and instead decide to share a job at one of the camps in Northern Alberta. But as their community slowly disappears, Cora and Finn struggle with the changes to the life they’ve always known and the hole in their community. As a Newfoundlander, this book spoke to a part of my soul and I absolutely fell in love with Hooper’s writing style. I can see how it might not work for everyone, but her writing evoked such a feeling of homesickness that I felt I’d just moved right into the pages with Cora and Finn and Aidan and Martha. It’s a beautiful story about family and community and the links that tie us together. It’s a heartbreak story that was a reality for many Newfoundland families and I thought Hooper did a wonderful job of transporting her readers back to this time and place. I love the way she tied music into the story and I know this family will stick with me for a long time.

  1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

And the number one spot goes to The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. I read this book back in June and nothing has been able to top it since. It was an extremely emotional, but enjoyable, reading experience and even 6 months later, I still can’t stop thinking about it. Setting is everything for me in this novel. The Great Alone is set in Alaska in the 1970’s and focuses on the Albright family: Ernt, Cora, and their daughter Leni. Ernt is a POW from the Vietnam War and suffers from PTSD. He’s worried about the direction the government is going and in an effort to get back to the land, moves the family to the small town on Kaneq in Alaska. They move in the height of summer and Leni is totally enamoured with the landscape and their hand to mouth existence. It’s hard work to survive in Alaska and the sense of purpose and the long summer days keep Ernt’s PTSD at bay. However, when the long winter starts, Ernt’s demons start to get the better of him and Leni begins to wonder if she’s more at risk from the dangers lurking outside her door or from the dangers lurking within. It is a heartbreaking story, but Hannah creates such a sense of place and community that I just totally fell in love with. The writing is beautiful and every character is so well imagined and developed. A wonderful story about family and community, but also about the challenges women faced in the 1970’s and still face today.