Keeping Lucy

Rating: ⭐
Author: T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Aug 6, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a little on the fence of how to rate this book. I read Rust & Stardust last year and really liked it, so I was excited to receive a copy of T. Greenwood’s newest book, Keeping Lucy, in hopes of learning more about a period of history I didn’t know much about. I did like this book and I did learn something, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Rust & Stardust because I felt it lacked in plot.

Finding Lucy is about a family from Massachusetts in the 1970’s whose second child is born with down synodrome. Down syndrome has a sad history in the United States and the delivery doctor strongly recommended enrolling the baby, Lucy, in an institution that could better see to her needs. Her mother, Ginny, was excluded from the decision to give up the baby and years later, she struggles with the loss of her little girl. When Lucy is two years old, a journalist publishes an expose about Willowridge, Lucy’s school, that reveals the deplorable living conditions in which the children are kept. Ginny is horrified and upset by the article and travels to Willowridge for the first time to see the conditions for herself and meet her daughter.

Greenwood definitely has a unique style of writing. It is very simple and straight forward, but does an excellent job of making you feel acutely uncomfortable and anxious. Rust & Stardust was about the kidnapping of Sally Horner, the young girl who inspired Lolita, and made me feel so anxious and frustrated about the way Sally was manipulated and treated. I had a similar reaction to Keeping Lucy in that I found this part of history shocking, I was frustrated by the way the health and justice system worked in the 1970’s, particularly in how it ignores the agency of women, and I was so anxious about the decisions the characters made and the potential ramifications. I flew through the book, reading about 75% of it on a lazy saturday.

I liked that this looked at a disturbing and lesser known part of history, but unfortunately I was a little disappointed in the execution. I was expecting this book to focus on Willowridge, the poor living conditions, the pursuit of justice against the institution, and the fight for custody of the children and for people with Down Syndrome to be recognized as people with a full set of rights. Willowridge is not a real place, but I trust it was imagined based on other similar institutions. Likewise, Ginny is not a real person, but I imagine there are parents out there who unknowningly were advised to send their babies off to similar institutions. In Ginny’s case, she was more or less blindsided by her husband and father-in-law, which plays a large role in the story.

I liked Ginny’s story arc in that it highlights how little agency women had in their lives and relationships. But overall I felt the author missed an opportunity to write a more historically meaningful plot. In order for the babies to be committed to the institution, parents essentially gave up their custody rights to the state. Once the story got going, I was expecting for this to be a story about Ginny’s battle with the state to save her daughter and regain custody while fighting against the antiquanted and sexist beliefs of her father in law, who thought he was entitled to make decisions for his son and family. The story provided a great look at how the patriarchy robbed women of any power or agency and the gender dynamics that often existed in families at this time. But ultimately this story was not about a custody battle, but rather was a drawn out road trip in which Ginny tries to escape with her daughter and the trials she faces as a single woman/mother in rural America. It was an interesting story with a surprising amount of action, but meaningless in that while I understood Ginny’s desperation, her actions were drastic and not realistic. I know Ginny was only try to save her daughter from being returned to Willowridge, but her actions were short sighted and actually really harmful to the result that she wanted. She’s applauded at the end for her good motherly instincts, which I thought pretty rich because she basically just ran away from any responsibility.

Ginny and Martha made a lot of bad decisions that I felt there was really no coming back from. I disliked the ending because I thought it was extremely unlikely and absolved Ginny of any wrongdoing. (view spoiler) What I really wanted to hear about was the struggle all those other families went through in gaining custody of their children and what legal actions were taken against the institutions for their neglect. People with Down Syndrome had to fight for their legal rights, care, and education, and I would have much preferred to learn more about that.

The story did hold my interest throughout the whole book and I sped through it, but the longer GInny and Martha spent on the road, the more I wondered what the whole point was. I didn’t expect them to be on the run for so long and I was really surprised when it ended up being the main plotline of the story. This is a fascinating part of history and I really just wish we had gotten a different story. I won’t fault the author because she did still deliver on a fast paced and interesting story, but personally, it just wasn’t the story I was hoping for and I thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity. I’m still giving it 3 stars because I did learn something and I thought the writing was pretty good, but overall it just left me wanting more.

Rust & Stardust

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author:
T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction, True Crime
Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2018 (read July 2018)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I got an ARC of Rust & Stardust a while ago, but I was never really in the mood to read it, so I kept postponing. But I finally started it last week and totally powered through it in 3 days.

As is my style, I knew very little about this book going in, except that it was about the true crime that inspired Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Lolita, so I’m not really sure what intrigued me so much about this one, but I’m glad I requested it because it was a really interesting fictional account, based on the true kidnapping of 11 year old Sally Horner.

Rust & Stardust features a series of narrators from Sally’s family and from individuals that crossed paths with Sally during her kidnapping, but it is predominantly narrated by Sally herself. I don’t often like child narrators that much, but I thought Sally’s voice in this book, and Greenwood’s style of writing, we’re perfect for this time setting and plot. Sally reads a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn throughout this story (one of my personal favourite books), and I thought that the writing and narration style were very similar to Betty Smith’s classic and I thought it was such a fitting comparison to have Sally relate to Francie’s experience.

For some context, this story starts when Sally gets caught trying to shoplift a notebook by Mr. Warner, a customer in the store. However, he convinces Sally that he actually works for the FBI and that she is in big trouble for trying to steal. He essentially blackmails her into coming to Atlantic City with him so that she can clear her name before a judge and convinces her she needs to keep this shame secret from her mother and sister.

What follows is 2 years of captivity for Sally at the hands of the perverted Mr. Warner (Frank La Salle in real life). While her family is desperate to find her and slowly starts to fall apart in her absence, Sally is coming of age in extremely horrifying and abusive circumstances. Her kidnapping is pretty horrifying, but I appreciated the author for not being overly graphic in her descriptions. I thought the author totally nailed Sally’s voice. As the reader, you just want to rage at Mr. Warner, but you can also understand Sally’s confusion at the turn of events, her inner guilt and shame at what she’s done and what’s been done to her, and how her thoughts get so turned around by Mr. Warner’s constant gaslighting.

In reality, almost all of this story is fabricated, but the bones of the novel are based on true events. It is mostly unknown what actually happened between Sally and Frank La Salle during the 2 years of her captivity, but Greenwood has appropriately conveyed how evil Frank La Salle is (even if some of the events are fabricated). He was a character that made me so mad, mostly because of how he mentally abuses and gaslights Sally throughout the entirety of the book. He is so manipulative and aside from physically abusing her, he really gets inside her head and makes her question everything about her family and the world. It was so heartbreaking to watch a young girl have to come of age (something that can be traumatizing enough for an 11 year old) without her mother and sister for support.

There’s also a whole side story going on with Sally’s mother, Ella, and her sister and husband, Susan and Al. I didn’t find the side plot as compelling as Sally’s story, but it did add an interesting dimension to the story.

Mostly I just liked that I learned something new from this book, and my enjoyment was greatly aided by Sally’s voice in this novel. I thought the writing fit the time period perfectly. I felt like I had been transported to 1950 and even though I thought the writing was told in a slightly detached kind of way, it conveyed so well Sally’s horror and confusion and how a single event can compound and become unimaginably bad and seemingly insurmountable without proper emotional support.

A good (but upsetting) read, I liked this a lot more than anticipated.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery
Pub Date: May 29, 2018 (read Apr. 2018)

Thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Okay, first off I love Ruth Ware and I don’t know why! I generally give her books 3 stars and yet I find them so compulsively readable that I always come back for more. I should probably start rating them higher because I cannot say no to a Ruth Ware mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway was quite different from all of her other novels. It still features a young English woman as the protagonist, but the mystery element was structured differently in this book and I wouldn’t call this one a thriller. At times the central mystery seems quite obvious, but you’re never really sure what is going on or if you have it right.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway tells the story of Hal Westaway and the Westaway family. Hal is just 21 years old and after losing her mother 3 years prior in a hit and run, she is very much alone in the world. She has no family and in her struggle to make ends meet and pay the bills, she has lost contact with any friends she once had. Her mother was everything to her and she takes over her mothers booth as a tarot card reader on the Brighton Pier to survive. But Hal is falling further and further in debt and they are starting to catch up with her.

Then one evening she receives a letter about the death of Mrs. Westaway, her grandmother, and that she has been named in the will and requested at Mrs. Westaway’s estate. The problem is that Hal’s grandparents have been dead for 20 years and she believes she must have received the letter in error. But the promise of a handout is too alluring and Hal wonders if she can trick this estranged family and walk away with enough money from the will to pay off her debts.

Things are definitely off with the rest of the Westaway family though and Hal quickly starts to wonder whether everything is actually as it seems. I think Ware does an excellent job writing Hal in this story. She is totally believable and I could totally empathize with the financial mess she’s found herself in and the desperation of trying to do whatever she can to pay her bills. I enjoyed her story arc and growth throughout the novel.

I didn’t like the rest of the Westaway family though, which I guess is kind of the point because they’re all flawed and their flaws make you wonder what is actually going on with this family and what is their real history. But I found it hard to connect with any of the other characters and I didn’t find the main twist very surprising. It’s more of a “wtf is going on in this book” moment and when the twist is finally revealed it’s not really that shocking – it was totally what I was expecting, I just wasn’t really sure how the author would take me there. I also thought the red herring was super obvious, although still pretty ominous and I do think it added to the story.

Overall not my favourite Ruth Ware book, but don’t doubt for a second that I won’t still be first in line to read whatever she writes next!

March Summary

I struggled a bit at the end of March to finish my Monthly Challenge, but overall it ended up being my most successful reading month! I read 3 Fantasy Novels for my monthly challenge, a few advanced reader copies of books from Netgalley, and several audiobooks. Here’s my March Summary:

Books read: 13
Pages read: 4,425
Main genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Favourite (new) book: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Favourite re-read: Beartown

I started off the month with a few ARC’s, which are early copies of books that publishers share with a limited number of readers to provide early feedback before the books are released. I’ve been getting more ARC’s from Netgalley since I started my blog and I’ve been starting to build some relationships with publishers, which has been a lot of fun for me!

The two ARC’s I read this month were The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (which came out in early March) and Us Against You (which comes out in June). The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore was a short read about several girls that get lost in the woods at a summer camp when they were 12 and how it affects them later in life, which I really enjoyed. Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown, which was my favourite book of 2017, so of course I had to re-read Beartown this month as well. I loved Beartown just as much the second time around, but sadly I didn’t love Us Against You as much. I wrote a pretty in depth review about it and I did still really like it, it just couldn’t hold up to the masterpiece that is Beartown. But I’d still recommend reading it and I’m hoping for a third book!

Next I read 2 of books for my monthly challenge, The Thief and This Savage Song. I really liked The Thief, which is a fast read, and I’m excited to read further into the series, but I didn’t really like This Savage Song very much. I have it 3 stars, but as time passes I’m starting to like it less and less and I think it might be more of a 2.5 star read. I can’t quite pinpoint what I didn’t like about it, I just never really got into it and I didn’t think it was that engaging.

I had great success with Audiobooks this month though! I haven’t listened to any audiobooks since November (probably because I stopped running and I recently started again), but I got back into them this month. I was bored with the one I was listening to and I was never motivated to listen to it, so I decided to ditch it and start fresh, which was a great idea because I finished Before We Were Yours this month and absolutely flew through I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and The Authentics.

Before We Were Yours was an interesting historical read about the birth of adoption in Tennessee, but I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter totally blew me away! I didn’t really expect that much from it because I’d read the main character was pretty unlikeable, but I loved the audiobook narrator for this one and I thought the main character was just so well portrayed. I picked my last audiobook, The Authentics, because it had the same narrator and similar themes to I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, but while I liked it, it definitely wasn’t as strong a book.

My Book Club’s book of the month was The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld. I gave it the highest rating of the group with a 7 out of 10, but the general consensus of the group was that we liked it, but didn’t love it. It has a fantastic setting and atmosphere, but the mystery plot leaves a little to be desired. I also read The Marrow Thieves this month in an attempt to read another of the Canada Reads shortlist before the debates. The other book I read from the Shortlist was The Boat People, and while I gave them both 4 stars, I liked The Marrow Thieves more. I thought the writing and story were both great and incredibly moving.

I snuck in a poetry reading this month as well and read Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. This is her debut novel, but I read her other book, The Sun and Her Flowers, last year and really liked it. I didn’t like Milk and Honey quite as much, but it was still a nice, fast read.

Finally, I thought my last book of the month was going to be my final challenge book, The Fifth Season, because it was taking me forever to get through, but I managed to cram in a reading of Avenged over the Easter weekend (the sequel to Ruined). I didn’t love The Fifth Season as much as I was hoping because it was a pretty heavy read and it took me a while to get into, but I’m optimistic about the rest of the series. Avenged was almost as much fun as Ruined, which I loved. I know the Ruined series is not even on the same level as the Fifth Season, which is quality fantasy writing and world building, but I can’t help but love it because it’s just so fast-paced and fun!

Us Against You

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Read: Mar. 2018 (Pub date: Jun. 5, 2018 in North America)

Thank you to Atria Books, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

As some people might be aware (because I can’t stop talking about it), Beartown was my favourite book of 2017, so I was super happy to get an advance copy of the sequel, Us Against You, and I even re-read Beartown to get back up to speed on all the characters. I loved Beartown just as much the second time around, but I was really nervous about this one because I didn’t think Beartown really needed a sequel and it’s easy to kill a good thing milking the cash cow too long.

Disclaimer: Beartown spoilers below plus minor spoilers for Us Against You, but nothing you don’t learn early in the story.

Us Against You starts where Beartown leaves off. It’s summer, but everyone is anxiously awaiting to see what will happen to their beloved hockey team in the fall and Peter is worried that there may not even be a hockey club to be anxious about. Kevin and his family disappear overnight, but Maya’s family decides to stay. Beartown is their town as much as anyone else’s and they believe they shouldn’t be made to feel unwelcome.

Most of the former Junior team has followed their coach David to Hed, but Amat, Bobo, and Benji remain behind in Beartown. In the absence of the former team and coach, several newcomers arrive on the scene and hockey and politics become more intertwined than ever.

Fredrik Backman’s writing is just as beautiful as ever in this book. The novel continues in the same voice as its predecessor and it is just as lyrical and insightful. My copy of Beartown is tabbed everywhere with quotes that I loved and I tabbed a lot of well written passages in this book as well. But sadly, some parts of this book just didn’t work for me.

As a standalone, Beartown offers a varied perspective of the plot. Backman takes us on a journey with his characters and their perspectives are all incredibly moving. Beartown is very much a character driven book, but it still had a strong plot to carry it forward. Us Against You is still a character driven novel, but the plot isn’t as strong and it struggled to carry all these voices.

The plot is slower than Beartown and there is a lot of political drama that is just too convoluted and honestly, doesn’t even really matter that much. Backman tells us in the synopsis that before the end of the novel someone will be dead, and he builds his plot around this climax. The drama builds between Hed and Beartown and hate and violence lead to more hate and violence, culminating in tragedy for everyone.

Backman continues with some of the themes from Beartown, examining the long-lasting impact that rape can have on a girl and her family, and the sense of community that comes from a shared love of sports. Backman also explores the compounding impact of violence and our resistance to change. Hockey has always been seen as a men’s club and those men can feel very threatened when faced with equality politics and will try and protect themselves at the expense of anyone who does not fit within their idea of who hockey is for.

So I very much loved the themes of this book, but I struggled more with the perspectives. We’re given a lot of new perspectives in this book, which is great, but we also lose a lot of the perspectives from the previous book of characters we’ve already come to know and love. I really liked that this book expanded to include Maya’s brother Leo and more of William Lyt, but it also included a lot about the Pack and this is where it got bogged down for me. I wasn’t really interested in Peter’s feud with the Pack or with Richard Theo’s schemes. Richard Theo serves to mount the tension within the towns, but I don’t think he was needed. His schemes were too convoluted and the characters could have carried the plot without him. Hed and Beartown would have been at each other’s throats, regardless of the drama with the factory jobs and the political scheming.

I thought the novel had a great start with William and Leo fighting and the breakdown of the Andersson Family. I thought Kira and Peter’s storyline was so heartbreaking, but it felt so real and I could empathize with how the strain of losing your firstborn and your daughter being raped would slowly start to breakdown your marriage. Likewise, I love where Backman takes us with Maya, Ana, and Benji in this book. Benji was one of my favourite characters in Beartown and you just ache for him reading his story. He is one of those totally perfect, imperfect characters. I thought all of these storylines were strong and they really carried the novel for me.

But like I said, I struggled with the Pack. I didn’t care about Teemu and I thought Vidar came in too late into the story for me to really care about him either. I get what the Pack means to Teemu, Woody, Spider, and Vidar, but I think Backman communicates this concept of family and community just as well through his other characters. Likewise, the Pack served to escalate the violence between Hed and Beartown, but again, I think this theme could have been carried just as well through other characters like Lyt. I really liked the idea of Vidar and I’m thrilled Backman decided to spend some time on the goalie, which is an essential part of any team, but Vidar lacked developed at the expense of the rest of the Pack. I would rather see his character fully realized than have all the secondary Pack characters.

I am disappointed that David didn’t have a voice in this story and that Amat and Bobo’s voices were limited. I really liked all of these characters and I really think Backman could have given them more in this story. We hear very little from the Beartown players who switch to Hed. They go to Hed to play for David, not Hed and I would have liked to hear more about how they felt about suddenly playing for their rival and the struggle of losing the support of their community. It’s kind of taken for granted that the boys and their families would all just change allegiance to Hed (and that Hed would accept them), but they were all Beartown born and still lived there, so I felt that suddenly playing for their rival would be a real source of conflict for some of the players and that they would struggle to be accepted by Hed and the other members of the existing A-team.

My biggest struggle with this book though is the emotional pacing. I felt this book was more emotionally manipulative than the first book and the writing started to feel a little repetitive. Beartown is an incredibly powerful, emotional read and Backman uses a lot of the same phrases and wording to try and create those cathartic moments, but they lose their impact when you read them 3 and 4 times throughout the novel.

This book is just damn depressing. Like I said, Beartown is definitely an emotional read, but it still has hopeful and happy moments to contrast the sad ones. Us Against You has very few hopeful moments. It is just down, down, down for the entire novel and any happy or hopeful plot points are just too small to bring this book back up. I felt like I was falling into the pits of despair throughout the whole book and I never had any chance of climbing back out.

We’re told in Beartown that 2 of the boys will turn professional and that the young girl, Alicia, will grow up to be the best hockey player Beartown has ever seen. So I can’t help but assume that Beartown must succeed at some point for these players to achieve success and I want to read about it! I don’t know if Backman has a third book planned for this series, but I could see this having another book and I really hope it does because I need to see Beartown transformed. I’ve seen them beaten down and shit on and now I need to see them heal and grow. I didn’t think Beartown needed a sequel, but now that it has one, I really need it to be a trilogy so that this can be the dark middle book. This works as the angst-y middle book, but not as the finale. This story feels unfinished and I really hope it gets a (better) conclusion.

For this reason it’s a hard book to rate. Granted, I am holding Backman to a higher standard because of how phenomenal Beartown was, and I still loved the writing and several of the character arcs in Us Against You, but I need more from this series now! I think there’s a lot of potential for a final book and if that is the case, it would change my review. I don’t mind being brought low in book 2 if you’re going to raise me up in book 3. But if this is where it ends, I am definitely left disappointed.

FYI, you can pre-order Us Against You at fredrikbackmanbooks.com