The Blackhouse

Rating:⭐⭐.5
Author: Peter May
Genres: Mystery
Pub. date: Feb. 2011 (read Jul. 2019)

DNF @ 67%

I was going to try and stick it out, but I can’t do it. My Dad’s been trying to get me to read this series for ages and finally picked it up as an audiobook, but it’s just not working out for me.

Even though I haven’t finished it, I feel like I have experienced enough of this book to give it a bit of a review. Honestly, I would probably still give this a middle ground 3 stars, but it started dragging on and I just don’t have the motivation to finish it. It’s possible it’s the audiobook and I might have enjoyed it better as a print book.

The premise is interesting enough. It’s a classic police investigation story where the investigator is forced to return to his childhood home and confront the trauma of his past. The setting is in remote Scotland, which I actually really liked, and I did think Finn was a complex and interesting character. But only half of this book held my attention. Interestingly enough, I actually didn’t care at all about the present day mystery. Finn is forced to go back to his childhood home to investigate the grizzly murder of the town bully. At the same time, we get flashbacks to an overall mundane childhood.

But it was his childhood that intrigued me. The story is very much character driven by a number of seriously flawed individuals and I was actually quite interested in the drama and intrigue between Finn and his best friend Arthur and their mutual crush, Marshali (don’t know actual spelling as I read as audiobook). There’s a lot of interesting details about the way of life in this remote Scottish town that I found pretty interesting. So it does beg the question why I’m deciding to DNF.

Perhaps I might return to it, but I found the murder investigation pretty boring. I’d tune out for long periods of time, such that I was listening to this while running one day and suddenly realized I had no idea what had happened and had to go back more than 20 MINUTES to get to a place I recognized because I tuned out for so long. I’ve been trying to DNF books a little more when I’m not enjoying them, so even though I think I could push through this one, I think I’ll find something else more engaging.

Sorry Dad, don’t think Peter May is for me.

Miracle Creek

Rating: ⭐
Author: Angie Kim
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. date: Apr. 2019 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I heard really good things about Miracle Creek, which is what inspired me to pick it up, but I was still totally blown away by this book! I like mystery/thrillers,but they don’t normally stand out in the way a good literary fiction or historical fiction book does. Miracle Creek was everything I didn’t know I was looking for in a mystery novel.

What makes this such a great read is that the author weaves so much nuance into the rest of her story. It’s primarily about solving a crime, but there’s so much else going on and the characters are incredibly well developed and have a huge amount of depth. Kim tackles everything from alternative medicine, to parenting less-abled children, to cultural diaspora, to the challenges of simply growing up.

Miracle Creek is primarily about the Yoo family. Pak, Young, and their daughter Mary, moved to the United States from Seoul, Korea. Each character faces their own challenges in moving to America and their new routines start to create a distance between each of the family members. Pak decides to start up a new business called Miracle Submarine, which is all about the healing powers of hyperbaric pressure chambers, or HBOT. HBOT is a pressurized chamber that allows the patients to breathe in pure oxygen, which is touted as having all kind of medical benefits. However, the benefits are not totally proven and it is a controversial practice.

Pak, Young, and Mary’s lives, as well as the lives of their friends, are totally torn apart when one evening, someone lights a cigarette outside the chamber and blows it up, killing two of the patients inside. The rest of the book is a courtroom drama, investigating who was responsible for the explosion and what exactly happened to lead up to that moment.

The courtroom drama is the focus of the novel, but everything else that happens outside the courtroom is really what makes this read so thrilling. We get to experience the trial from a number of different perspectives. We are never really sure who actually committed the crime, with new evidence continuously keeping you guessing. But the decision to tell this story through multiple perspectives is super effective. Kim humanizes every single one of her characters, making it easy to empathize with them, even when some of their actions shock you.

Outside of the courtroom, she explores so many different conflicts that each character is facing. I loved that I got to explore what it was like for Young living within the confines of a traditional Korean marriage and the impact that moving to America had on her family. I sympathized with Pak being a goose father and the perceived loss of his wisdom when he could no longer communicate himself eloquently. I was captivated by Elizabeth and the other autism moms – the level of responsibility that was thrust upon them and the continued heartbreak every day as they had to watch their children be only a fraction of who they knew they could be. The conflict they felt about HBOT and all the treatments they put their children through and whether it was really worth it and who they were doing it for? I felt bad for Janine as she struggled in her relationship with Matt and the fetishization of Asian women and her indignation that being attracted to Asian women could even be considered a “fetish”, like it was something dirty.

Every single character in this book is so nuanced. I constantly marveled at the author for how she played with so many different social issues and commentaries, all while maintaining an equally thrilling courtroom drama. I loved how she played with regret and “what if’s. How things could have been so dramatically different had one character taken a slightly different action. I wasn’t particularly surprised with the solving of the crime, but I was impressed with how Kim decided to end her novel. In the same way that the story was filled with moments of frustration, bitterness, and anger at the hand that had been dealt to each character, the ending carried on the same theme of cold, hard reality. It reminded me at times of a Greek tragedy in that you saw how easily things could have been different, but the characters, blind to their own shortcomings and missing information, barrel into the unknown, only increasing their mistakes. This book had a lot of irony and that’s what really sticks with you. It get’s under your skin and you get caught up in the what ifs.

I can’t believe this is a debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Angie Kim writes next. Highly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling book!

The Next Great Paulie Fink

Rating:
Author: Ali Benjamin
Genres: Middle Grade
Pub. date: Apr. 16, 2019 (read, Apr. 2019)

Happy pub day to The Next Great Paulie Fink! Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada who provided me with a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

I loved Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, and she hasn’t published anything new in several years, so I was thrilled when I saw she was publishing a second novel! Both of Benjamin’s books are middle grade and I’ll admit, when I read the plot synopsis for Paulie Fink, it didn’t appeal to me quite as much as her first book because it sounded more juvenille. But don’t let that deter you from reading this one because I ended up really liking it!

The Next Great Paulie Fink is about 7th grader, Caitlyn Breen, who is a new student at Mitchell School. Caitlyn’s mom got a new job and moved them both to rural Vermont from New York, a decision that was not very popular with Caitlyn. Her new school seems totally backwards from her old school and doesn’t seem to follow any of the social “rules” she learned in New York. The kids in her new class all seem eccentric to Caitlyn and they are caught up in the disappearance of one of their former classmates, Paulie Fink.

Paulie was the class clown and beloved by his classmates. But he doesn’t return for 7th grade and no one knows what happened to him. He leaves a void behind that the kids want to fill with a new Paulie, so they decide to have a reality show competition to find the Next Great Paulie Fink. Caitlyn’s struggles to get on board with the competition since she never knew Paulie, but her classmates convince her to judge the competition and suddenly she’s thrust into a totally new world that scares her, but challenges her.

Granted, it’s been a few years since I read The Thing about Jellyfish, but this book had quite a different tone from that book. It’s a lot funnier and it has a large cast of characters to carry the story. It’s overwhelming at first trying to keep track of Caitlyn’s classmates, but eventually they all start to develop personalities of their own, and while Caitlyn is always our central character, I really loved some of her classmates as well.

Like I said, I initially wondered if I would glean much from this book as an adult reader, or if it really was tailored for kids. But I ended up really liking it and even though the themes were younger, I still thought the author did a great job at making this a well rounded story that could be enjoyed at any age. I particularly liked how she approached bullying in this book. Moving to a new school and finding it absent of the social structure that was in her last school, Caitlyn starts reflecting on some of the interactions she had with her former classmates and how some of her actions may have been hurtful. Because her class is so small (a dozen students), and because they are so rural, her classmates are all very supportive of one another and Caitlyn initially struggles with that. She protected herself in her old school by growing a hard shell and disconnecting her emotions from those around her, and in her new school, she struggles to let herself be vulnerable and that hard shell actually creates a barrier with her new classmates.

I also really liked the author’s exploration of legends and kleos (glory). Paulie was a legend at Mitchell and in their search for the next Paulie, the students learn about kleos and what makes someone memorable or a legend. The catch is, kleos can make us forget things too. When we glorify someone, it’s easy to forget the things that made them human or the things that annoyed you about them. We later discover that Paulie was really just as human as the rest of the students, but because of the reputation he developed at Mitchell, the students started over-hyping who he was and to an extent, lost sight of the real Paulie and failed to notice the unique things that they have to offer in their quest to be more like Paulie.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters, but (no surprise I’m sure) Fiona was definitely my favourite. Fiona wears a power suit to school every single day because she wants to one day be a powerful woman. She’s not great at school and struggles to pay attention in class. But she is buoyed by her belief that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. All of the students at Mitchell had so much spunk and I loved watching a group of kids be so great at supporting one another. Was it realistic? I’m not really sure. But I think that was kind of the point. Mitchell school was doing something right – it didn’t seem like a place should exist like this, but somehow it did. When you find something special like that, it’s worth protecting, even if it challenges your worldview.

Mostly though, this book was just a lot of fun. There’s lots to make you laugh and lots to make you think. I think Caitlyn’s classmates are right in that sweet spot where they’re still children, but are about to become teenagers. Caitlyn was pushed to mature a little earlier growing up in New York, which is why she has hardened herself against the world. But these students are still idealistic and not yet jaded about the world. Overall, I loved the balance of humour and life lessons about growing up.

Sadie

Rating: 
Author: Courtney Summers
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Pub date: Sep. 4th, 2018 (read July 2018)

I have a copy of one of Courtney Summers other books, All the Rage, that’s been sitting on my shelf waiting for me for awhile, but I’ve been hearing a lot of hype about this book and St. Martin’s Press was so kind as to send me an advance electronic copy in exchange for an honest review, so I decided to read this one first.

As usual, I barely read the synopsis for this one and picked it up mostly based on the hype, so I went into this blind. Sadie is the story of 19 year old Sadie Hunter and her younger sister Mattie. The book starts with Sadie’s disappearance after Mattie is found murdered. The girls mother was a drug abuser and did little parenting of her two daughters. They grew up with their surrogate grandmother, May Beth, but Sadie ultimately took on the responsibility of raising Mattie. She loved her sister with every fibre of her being, even though Mattie sometimes drove her crazy, so her death tears Sadie apart.

Sadie believes she knows who murdered Mattie and runs away from their home in Cold Creek to find him. The story is told from two different perspectives and played a big role in why I liked this book. Half of the story is told from Sadie’s perspective, but the other half is the transcript of an 8-part podcast called the girls, narrated by journalist and radio personality, West McCray. I thought the podcast transcript was brilliant and totally set the scene for this book. I literally never listen to podcasts, but my partner does and this read just like Serial, which I’ve heard him listening to on occasion, and reminded me of the old town crime mystery documentaries that I used to watch on TLC growing up.

So we get two very different perspectives from this novel. Sadie’s perspective is deeply personal and emotional. She is very much a girl who’s entire world has been torn apart and she starts to damn the consequences in her desperation to find her sister’s killer. Then there’s the other perspective from West McCray, who is more clinical about Sadie’s disappearance and is always two steps behind Sadie as he tries to track her down (side note: I know West is a man, but for some reason I pictured him as a woman throughout almost my entire reading. Anyone else get that vibe?). I thought that both narratives were incredibly strong and together made this a strong novel. Most of the double narrative books I read are split timeline historical fiction novels and I almost always find the modern day timeline boring compared to the historical one, but with this book, I found both narratives extremely compelling. Sadie’s story had depth and McCray’s was intriguing. I just felt so transported during every “podcast episode” that I couldn’t help but love it. Plus it was different from anything else I’ve read.

That said, parts of this book are tough to read. “Girls disappear all the time”. It’s a sad statement, but a true one. There is child abuse in this novel and Summers tackles some disturbing topics. I appreciated though that while Summers didn’t hold back the punches, she’s not graphic. “I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered.. will not be a part of this show,.. it’s violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment.” Many books and shows are needlessly gratuitous when it comes to describing violence, so I’m glad she left it out. What she’s not afraid to tackle though are Sadie’s brutal thoughts. She shocked me several times, but she was determined that no one else suffer what she and her sister suffered, even if she had to destroy herself in the process.

The ending killed me. I won’t give any spoilers. It’s brutal, but it’s also exactly how it should be. I flew through this book in a single long weekend camping trip and I would definitely recommend it. I’m feeling a bit more of an itch now to finally pick up my copy of All the Rage.

Sadie’s publish date is Sept. 4th, 2018 if you want to pick up a copy!

The Great Alone

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: 
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub Date: Feb. 2018 (read Jun. 2018)

The Great Alone has been haunting my shelf since it first came out and I finally found time to read it as part of my June Challenge to read 3 historical novels. I read The Nightingale in 2015 and while I did like it a lot, I’ve read a lot of WWII historical fiction and had a bit of fatigue reading that genre. The Great Alone has the most gorgeous cover though (don’t pretend it doesn’t matter) and I was intrigued by a story about Alaska and a POW.

I’m so glad I finally read this because it was seriously a pleasure to read from start to finish, even though it broke my heart and tossed me into the pits of despair. The Great Alone has some of the most gorgeous writing and Kristin Hannah breathed so much life into her setting and her characters. Setting is key for this story and the author did a magnificent job a creating a sense of place. Sometimes too much descriptive imagery can bog a story down, but Hannah’s writing made me fall totally in love with a place I’ve never even been.

Alaska in the 1970’s is the last frontier of America. A place where no one really cares who you are or where you came from. A place where everyone is running to something or from something. A place where 5 of every 1,000 people goes missing and is never found. Where you’re only allowed to make one mistake, because the second one will kill you.

Ernt Albright returns from the Vietnam War a broken man. His plane crashed and he was captured early into his tour and spent years being tortured in a POW camp. When he finally returns to his family, he is broken and disillusioned with America. He was in love with his country when he signed up to go to Vietnam, but now all he can see is an America that no longer represents him – corrupt politicians and blind citizens. Between the Watergate scandal and the young girls going missing in Washington, Ernt Albright feels the whole world is just going to shit.

In his frustration, Ernt becomes an angry and volatile man, moving his family all over America before inheriting a cabin in Alaska from his late friend from Vietnam. In a last bid to find peace, he packs up his life and moves his wife, Cora, and their 13 year old daughter, Leni, to Kaneq Town in Alaska.

They arrive in Alaska in the Spring and are enchanted by the landscape. The days are long and Ernt finally has a purpose – repairing the decrepit old cottage and learning how to survive. Leni has never really had a place that she could call home, but something about Alaska calls to her. This is the great alone, where you can be whoever you want to be. There’s a real sense of community – trade is a currency and in a place where survival is all that matters, the neighbours band together to look after each other.

I’ve been living in BC for the last 5 years, and while I know it’s a lot a different than Alaska, I have become totally enamoured with the landscape here, the mountains and lakes. I spend most of my free time in the summer hiking and camping in the mountains. I also grew up in Newfoundland, which again, has little in common with Alaska, but is more remote and you spend a lot of your year suffering through a dark winter. I know the Alaskans wouldn’t be impressed with my measly camping skills when living off the land is their life, but I did feel like I could totally relate with their love of place, even though 8 months of the year that place is trying to kill you.

The author does a fantastic job with the imagery and making you fall in love with Alaska when the Allbright’s first arrive. The days are long and the flowers are in bloom, what’s not to love about Alaska. For the first time in her life, Leni sees a place where they might actually be able to be a happy family. The sun drives away Ernt’s nightmares and being responsible for your own subsistence gives them all a purpose. Plus, Leni makes her first real friend. There’s only 6 students in the tiny school in Kaneq, but Matthew Walker is 13 too and for the first time, they both have a real friend to spend time with. Matthew is the third generation of the Walker family to grow up in Alaska and he shares his love of the land with Leni and they become very close.

However, at the same time that Hannah’s writing has you falling in love with Alaska, there’s this feeling of darker things lurking on the horizon. The townspeople seem to be obsessed with winter. After school lets out, the entire summer is devoted to preparing for a long a dark winter and Leni and her family work from dawn til dusk every day doing their best to prepare. They must til the land, grow a garden, smoke and can salmon, and most important, bag a moose to see them through the long winter. And as the days start to get shorter, the long nights bring the return of Ernt’s nightmares. His temper gets shorter and Leni begins to realize that what can kill her outside the house may be second to what lurks inside their own home.

I think I could talk forever about this book. I thought it was a little slow moving at the beginning, but it didn’t hurt my enjoyment. I learned a lot about Alaska and survival, which I found just as enthralling as the character development and conflict that came later. There’s a lot going on in this book and Kristin Hannah created some truly wonderful characters. It’s hard to read about Ernt and Cora and their volatile love, as well as the heartbreak that befalls the Walker family early in the novel. But I loved watching the relationships grow. The relationships between Leni and her mother and Leni and Matthew are beautiful, as well as the relationships that develop between Leni and her mother with secondary characters like Large Marge and Tom Walker (I love both of these characters!)

This is a coming of age story for Leni and it is wrought with secrets and heartbreak. Leni loves both her parents, but she also knows they are bad for one another and she struggles to understand their love or to follow her mother’s policy of silence. Tom Walker has money and wants to invest it in the community, to promote tourism in their little piece of the world. But Ernt is opposed to change in any form and the two men find themselves at odds with one another and Ernt’s opinions threaten to tear the community apart. Leni’s friendship with Matthew and her fear of her father cause her to get caught in the middle. What matters more, her family or her future.

Like I said, this book tore my heart right out of my chest and stomped all other it. It is deeply sad, but it also makes you feel so much. It’s about the strength of women and the power of community. How some loves are good and important, but others are toxic and dangerous. There doesn’t have to be shame in our deepest, darkest secrets and that sometimes sharing them with someone else can be incredibly powerful. We don’t always have to carry our burdens alone.

This book also shines a light on some of the inequities of the past and how they still exist today. The law is not very accommodating of battered women. This hasn’t really changed. Leaving bad relationships can be the hardest thing and can sometimes even be more dangerous than staying in a bad relationship. Without help for women, sometimes there is no escape. This book will break your heart, but it will also give you that righteous anger about the way women are treated and tricked within the legal system. How in the 70’s women couldn’t even get their own credit card without a male signatory, so how are they supposed to make it on their own? But the Great Alone has some powerful characters and I loved watching Leni grow and find herself. She was forced into some tough decisions, but Alaska taught her to survive against things tougher than just nature.

I can see how this book might not be for everyone, but I absolutely loved it and now I’m dying to go visit Alaska. Recommend to everyone!