Apples Never Fall

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Oct. 2021 on Audible)

Apples Never Fall is my book club’s pick for November. We’ve read a lot of Liane Moriarty books in the club and she does consistently write good books, but nothing has ever quite had the same impact as Big Little Lies and I’m starting to get a bit fatigued with her writing. This book was fine – I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it, pretty standard 3 star read. 

Apples Never Fall focuses on the Delaney family, Joy and Stan and their 4 adult children. They are a family of tennis players and have had a pretty decent life until a girl named Savannah shows up on Joy and Stan’s doorstep and subsequently moves into the house, puting the Delaney children on edge. When Joy Delaney goes missing a year later and Stan looks poised to take the fall for her disappearance, it stirs up old resentments in the family and brings some family secrets to light.

Let’s start with what I liked about the book. It is a pretty good character portrait of each of the Delaney’s. Sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface and Moriarty explores the theme that every marriage has its weaknesses, no matter how stable or loving it may appear from the outside. Moriarty tackles a lot of issues, from gender roles, to mental health, to physical health, to domestic violence, to the weight of our parents expectations and how they shape children into adults. 

What I didn’t like – Moriarty tackles a lot of issues. While it’s great that she highlights some issues that you don’t often see portrayed, such as dealing with chronic migraines and the fatigue of domestic labour, I think she was a little too ambitious. I felt like she tried to cram a lot into this book and it made it all seem a bit surface level. For example, I don’t think we really ever went in depth to Amy’s mental health issues or the shortfalls in Joy and Stan’s marriage. There’s a lot to dig into, but Moriarty spreads herself too thin to do any of these issues justice.

But even though she couldn’t quite tackle everything, this book was still too long. I felt like she didn’t do the issues justice and yet she still somehow spent too much time waffling on each of the characters. I felt like there was so much thrown in that just wasn’t needed. This is a mystery novel at its core, but the pacing gets caught up in so much background information on the large cast of characters that I felt the story never really picked up any momentum. I thought Savannah was a really interesting character and I wanted to know more about her and her past, but we get so much info about each of the boring Delaney siblings that I just lost interest and when we finally do get some insight into Savannah’s psyche, it’s just a bit too late.

Because sadly I just didn’t find any of the Delaney’s compelling. Joy was by far the most interesting to me, but I had almost no interest in Stan or any of the siblings. I just didn’t care about their problems. They’re a pretty well-to-do middle class white family and it was honestly just boring. I didn’t care about their tennis drama, I was unsure why I should care about Harry, and all of it just kept distracting me from the only parts I was interested in – Savannah and what happened to Joy.

Now I want to talk about the ending though, because that was fascinating. Again, I felt the pacing was a bit off. The book seems to come to a conclusion which I found fairly unsatisfying, but I was mystified to see I still had an hour left on my audiobook after this revelation. There is a second, shocking ending which is the part I found fascinating and would have loved to have seen developed a bit more. But unfortunately it comes a little too late in the story and made me question what was the point in including it at all? It is surprising, but I felt there’s so much more Moriarty could have done with it that would have made for a much more compelling book overall. 

So in conclusion – the book was fine, but I wish it was 100 pages shorter and explored a bit of a different angle. The family dynamics were interesting, but in the long run, forgettable. 

Once There Were Wolves

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charlotte McConaghy
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

It’s fitting that Once There Were Wolves is my last post of 2021 because (unless I happen to read a really good book in late December) it was my favourite book of the whole year! I read Migrations last year and really liked it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Once There Were Wolves. I wasn’t sure if maybe McConaghy was a one-trick pony, but this book has firmly cemented her as an auto-buy author in my books!

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I read it and I have a feeling it’s going to be my favourite read of 2021. I can definitely see how this book might not be for everyone, and I could see Migrations being the more universally accepted book of the two, but I loved everything about this book and actually preferred it.

Once There Were Wolves is set predominantly in Scotland and is about the expedition 30-year old Inti Flynn is leading to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish Highlands. Wolf territory has been shrinking over time and a (real) project to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 was hugely successful. The prey had been taking over the park and without predators to keep them in check, were over-eating the flora and causing erosion at streams and water sources. The wolves completely changed the landscape of the park, breathing new life into the wilderness and bringing a balance to the ecosystem.

Inti’s childhood was split between Australia and the wilds of British Columbia and she travels to Scotland with her twin sister, with whom she is very close. Unfortunately, she is not welcomed by the farmers in Scotland and receives a cold reception and opposition to her work. Nevertheless, she finds some allies and is determined that her project be a success. But when a villager turns up dead and the townspeople suspect the wolves, Inti makes some questionable choices.

So the plot is pretty straightforward, but like most of my favourite books, this is not a plot driven novel. The key word when talking about this book is atmosphere. Charlotte McConaghy is a talented wordsmith, but part of what makes her novels so compelling is her ability to create a very strong sense of setting and atmosphere. The loneliness and wild of the highlands seeps from every scene and creates this overarching feeling of great loss and sadness. It maybe sounds a bit depressing, but it’s also enthralling. It’s not a fast paced story and yet I was totally invested in Inti’s project and her past.

McConaghy’s characters are broken and damaged people and as she slowly reveals their histories to you, you become more and more invested in their characters. This is not a happy story and it deals with difficult and complex themes like abuse, violence, trauma, and how our childhood and formative years can impact us into adulthood. I feel like McConaghy packs so much punch in so small a novel. There are so many parts I haven’t even touched on yet – Inti’s relationship with the town sheriff, her relationships with her family members, and the fact that Inti has a rare condition called mirror touch, which causes her to literally feel what she sees those around her experiencing.

It’s ambitious for a novel that’s under 300 pages, and yet it all works. McConaghy doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter and she trusts her reader to draw their own conclusions from the story rather than spelling everything out for us. I feel like there were no ideas out of place. To write such beautiful prose, while also delivering on a character driven mystery novel is an impressive feat!

Definitely a trigger warning for rape and domestic violence. But I do feel that McConaghy handles these topics well. I’ve read several rape/harassment scenes this year that really bothered me because I felt that they were included for shock value, whereas I think in this book they are handled with sensitivity and purpose. It is not included to shock us, but rather to invite the audience to reflect on the devastating impact to the victim and how those events influence and shape a person. It is a dark book, but also a hopeful one. Inti is a broken person, but like the wolves, she is willing to try again, to try and heal herself and keep moving forward. The wolves can heal landscapes, but maybe they can also heal people and communities.

5 stars – I can’t wait to read this again soon.

Side note: I can’t help but mention that I find it fascinating that prior to her two literary novels, McConaghy wrote YA fantasy. I have no idea how they compare in terms of writing, plot, or quality, but I do find it a bit annoying that she seems to be trying to distance herself from them and pretend they don’t even exist. Her author blurb on the back of the book literally calls Migrations her “debut novel”. Like I get trying to re-invent yourself, but that’s a straight up lie. What’s wrong with making your debut in the YA fantasy scene? Be proud of all your books and where you started, it just shows your versatility and growth as an author.

Firekeeper’s Daughter

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Angeline Boulley
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021)

I’ve been putting off reviewing this book and I’m not sure why. Firekeeper’s Daughter is getting so much buzz this year, and with good reason. First off, the cover art is dreamy, and second, it’s the most wonderful mix of genres. It’s YA, which I know might be a turn off for some, but there’s so much else going on in this book, you don’t need to be a young adult to enjoy it.

Daunis Fontaine is an unenrolled member of the Ojibwe Nation. She’s about to start her first year of College and despite her lofty dreams, she decides to stay home for College to be closer to her mom and grandmother after the death of her Uncle. Daunis is a shining star, but unfortunately drugs have started making their way around her town and on the reservation. After a shocking murder, Daunis becomes entwined in the drug investigation and goes undercover with the FBI. They think the drug producers might be using traditional tribal medicine to create a new hallucinogen and Daunis is able to use her traditional knowledge to help in the investigation.

Daunis is a great character and Boulley does some really interesting things with this book. Daunis is coming to terms with the deaths of multiple people who were important in her life and the struggle of finding where she belongs. She’s biracial, so though she’s accepted within the Ojibwe Nation, she’s not an enrolled member and always feels one step removed from the tribe. She has a traumatic family history, having lost her Dad young, but has a close relationship with her step brother, her mother, and her Dad’s extended family. 

What makes this novel special is that it blends so many aspects of Ojibwe culture into the narrative. Boulley is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians and sets the story in an area that she knows well. She tackles a lot of different issues in her book, from racism and drug abuse, to grief and growing up. It’s a murder mystery, while also being a family drama. My only complaint is that it’s just too long. 500 pages is long for any book, but especially for a YA mystery novel. It felt like it took a long time for the narrative to really get going. It wasn’t uninteresting and I felt like I was given adequate time to really get to know and love the characters, but it was a little overdone and I think 100 pages could be cut without losing the impact of the story.

Otherwise, I would still recommend. We are seeing more and more books from indigenous authors, but this one definitely blew up in a big way, which is great to see. Definitely hope to see more from this author! 

Finlay Donovan is Killing It

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Elle Cosimano
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I listened to this entire audiobook during one rainy weekend while doing jigsaw puzzles and LOVED it! GabbyReads recommended it on her booktube channel and said it was a good audiobook, so I downloaded it on Audible and was immediately pulled into the story. The whole plot is an absolute nightmare train-wreck, but in the most unputdownable way!

Finlay Donovan has recently divorced her husband after he started shacking up with their realtor and she’s struggling to manage her two kids while simultaneously trying to deliver on a book deal for which she has huge writer’s block. She’s spent the advance on her book and the bills are piling up – if she doesn’t submit the rest of her book soon, she might be asked to return the advance.

She meets her agent in a shop to discuss the outline of her murder mystery and an eavesdropper misinterprets their conversation, thinking that Finlay is actually a hired killer. Finlay receives an anonymous note with a huge sum of money to dispose of the woman’s husband. The whole thing is a huge misunderstanding and Finlay tries to tell the woman she’s not a killer, but after doing some research on the husband and reflecting on the huge sum of money, is it possible she could be?

It sounds like an intense book, but the writing is so light and the author packs a ton of comic relief into the narrative that made it such a fun read. It reminded me a little of How to Get Away With Murder because of the run-away storyline. Finlay is a mess and she always seems to be a step behind everything that’s happening around her, which would make for a very stressful reading experience if not for Finlay and Vero’s comedy. 

I don’t want to give anything away about the story because you should definitely experience it for yourself – I’ll just say that Finlay and her sidekick, Vero, make for some truly excellent heroines. I don’t normally give 5 stars to mystery novels and this is by no means quality literary writing, but it was just so much fun to read and when I reflected on it, there was really nothing I would change about it, so 5 stars it is! Recommend if you’re looking to get out of a book slump!

A Murderous Relation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Apr. 2021)

I’ve been having so much fun reading a Veronica Speedwell book each month. This was book number 5. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as book 4, but a solid follow-up for sure! Since we’re so far into the series, I’m not going to bother blurbing this one and it will contain SPOILERS, so if you’re thinking of reading this series, check out my review of the first book, A Curious Beginning, instead.
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I really liked A Dangerous Collaboration because we finally got some movement on the Veronica/Stoker front, which continues (slowly of course) into A Murderous Relation. I think it’s a wise choice on Raybourn’s behalf because romantic relationships are so much of what makes a series like this compelling and if you plan to continue on with the series for an extended period of time, you need to keep the drama! 

So I liked that there was progress in this book. As usual, Veronica and Stoker are up to some wild antics when they infiltrate a sex club to steal a diamond. Raybourn always has the most devilishly intriguing and risqué plots, but it’s part of what makes the series so fun. I liked that this book had a lot of action in it. Some of the other books are a bit slow to get started, but I didn’t find that to be the case with this one. The only thing that I didn’t like was that it was more or less a repeat of the plot of the first book. Obviously there are some changes and I really liked Eddy’s character, but overall a little disappointing not to see the author come up with something different. 

Again, I guess that’s one of the challenges with so long of a series. I did kind of feel like book 5 would actually make a good ending point for the series. We get really good closure at the end of this book and I wonder how much further Raybourn will really be able to take this series and still have it be meaningful. I really respect authors when they know the right time to walk away from a series.

So I haven’t decided if I will read the next book or not. There’s only 1 more that’s been released and since it’s only available in hardback (my collection is all paperback), I was thinking I might wait a year and read it once it’s released in paperback, if I still feel like continuing the series. Part of me definitely wants to continue because the characters are so much fun, but I also feel really satisfied with how far I’ve made it in the series, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see!