Hollowpox

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica Townsend
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct. 2020 (read Oct. 2020)
Series: Nevermoor Book #3

I wish I’d taken the time to write a review for Hollowpox closer to when I actually read it, but that’s pretty much the story of my life this year.

What to say about a series that is just so fun and perfect. What can I add that I haven’t already said in the first two reviews? I decided to re-read the first two books before reading Hollowpox, which was definitely a good decision because I’d forgotten almost everything that happened in Wundersmith. Seriously, almost every single twist caught me by surprise again, so it was a real joy to basically experience it for the first time again. 

Given the choice between the three books, I’d probably say this one is my least favourite, but know that it is a super high bar and I still gave this book 5 stars. Everything about the Nevermoor series is so wunderful. The world building is excellently managed, the writing and plot are fun, the characters have depth, and there’s an intriguing mystery that threads its way throughout the entire series. Jessica Townsend has created something magical and along with her complex cast of characters, she weaves a number of subplots into the story that have real life relevance and meaning. 

At the same time though, the series does have an element of frustration because there are a lot of unanswered questions and you want answers. I’ve seen some criticism of this book that it doesn’t take the story anywhere new. I can understand some of the criticism – people want to unravel the greater mystery of Nevermoor, but I disagree that Hollowpox had no relevance. We learn so much more in this book about the Wretched Arts and Morrigan develops so much of her power (even if some think she is still woefully under trained). The very mystery of where the Hollowpox came from reveals so much to us about this world and the relationships that exist between every faction of it. I thought it struck a good balance of giving us answers without giving the game away. 

With a series like this, it’s really all about the journey and I will happily read a dozen more books about Morrigan Crow and Nevermoor! 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

Addie LaRue was my book club’s pick for December. Despite having already read a lot of V.E. Schwab’s work and having liked most of it, I wasn’t super enthused to pick this one up for some reason. It’s probably related to my ongoing fatigue with fantasy, but mostly I just wasn’t that into the premise of a 300 year long love affair with the devil.

I heard a lot of good things about this book though and I ended up eating my words as I was completely sucked into the narrative almost immediately. Addie is born in the late 1600’s and yearns for the opportunity to travel and really experience life. She’s disenfranchised by the expectations of her sex and wants to marry for love rather than duty. So on the eve of her wedding, she strikes a deal with the devil to allow her to escape her obligations and be granted the time to live her life. The catch, she becomes invisible. She can still interact with people, but the second she is out of their sight, they immediately forget her – nor can she tell them her name – giving her a long life, but one where she is unable to develop relationships or leave a mark on the world.

If this sounds like a nightmare to you, it is to Addie as well. The first few years of her life are dedicated to just surviving in 1700’s Paris. It was horrifying to read about, but Addie is still determined to make the most of her life and does her best with the gift of time she has been given.

Like I said. I was sucked into the story pretty quickly. Addie was ahead of her time and her determination and stubbornness are endearing. The devil continually tries to break her, but it only spurs Addie on and she becomes more determined in her quest to leave her mark on the world. She discovers that while she cannot be remembered herself, she can inspire ideas and dedicates the rest of her life to seeking out artists and musicians for whom she can be a muse. Until 2014 when she walks into a bookstore in New York and suddenly everything changes.

While this is a compelling story, it’s also a long one. The story jumps back and forth between the past and modern day. Initially I was more intrigued in Addie’s early days trying to make sense of her curse, while after Henry enters the story, I wanted to spend more time in the modern day. The story is both entertaining and made me think a lot, but I also thought it could have been about 100 pages shorter. The length and scope of storytelling definitely made me feel like I was reading an epic, but I think the author could have shortened a few parts of the book. After a while the past did start to feel a bit repetitive and I wanted to spend more time in the present since at least something new was happening there. 

I also felt there were a few plot holes with how Addie’s curse actually worked, but I can let it go because it doesn’t take away from what the author is trying to evoke. It’s both enthralling and horrifying to think of what it would be like to have all the time in the world but to be forgettable. I really enjoyed the relationship that developed between Addie and Luc over the years and despite the length, I did really enjoy reading this one. Can’t decide where it sits in my repertoire of Schwab books though… certainly better than her monsters duology, but on par with Vicious and Darker Shade of Magic. 

Betty

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug 2020 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

I’ve been dying to read Betty ever since I laid eyes on the beautiful cover art and read that it was a fictional recount of her mother’s experience growing up in a large family with a white mother and Cherokee father. It’s a long book and I decided to listen to the audiobook.

I was expecting a sad story and I read there were some hard to read scenes in the book, but I wasn’t expecting just how difficult a read this would be – by which I mean difficult content, not the writing. Betty is a coming of age story about the family’s third youngest child, Betty, the author’s mother, but it really focuses on the family as a whole and I loved that the author cast such a wide scope in her story telling.

The book starts with how Betty’s parents met and then tells the story of their 8 children. It seems like a big cast at first with so many siblings, but we spend a lot of time with this family and we grow to know each of the characters deeply.

This was a hard book to read because Betty’s family experiences hardship after hardship. They lose 2 of their children at early ages (I can’t remember now when exactly either passed away, but they’re not featured in the story beyond mention), and the rest of the children suffer varying levels of trauma. Even their parents have faced a great deal of trauma and the book really showcases the cycle of violence and suffering. 

I read a few interviews with the author after finishing the book and while this is her second book, apparently she’s been trying to publish it for years and struggled to find a publishing house that would work with the manuscript she had. She was told that the story contained too much suffering, that it wasn’t believable that one person or family would suffer so much, and worse of all, that people wouldn’t relate to Betty as a young girl. That will give you an idea of the kind of story that you’re in for, but I’m glad the author opted not to change her story because while it was upsetting to read, I had no trouble believing it. 

Indigenous Peoples have been wronged by both Americans and Canadians and our governments for centuries. Betty’s dad, Landon, was Cherokee and tries his best to honour his heritage and impart his ancestral wisdom on to his children. But he has also been mistreated and wronged as a Cherokee man and we catch glimpses of this throughout the story. While most of the children take after their mother (read: white) in appearance, Betty takes most after her father, and as a result, she is the most bullied of the children outside of the home. But in her home, she is also her father’s favourite and puts the most stock and importance into his traditional wisdom.

The hardest scene for me to read in the book was when Betty’s mother describes to her the abuse she experienced at the hands of her parents. It’s a traumatizing story on it’s own, but the way her mother chooses to share it is it’s own kind of horror and deeply emblematic of the way abuse cycles down through generations. This book has everything from violence, rape, incest, animal abuse, death, self harm, and suicide. But it also has some really beautiful scenes as well.

Landon Carpenter was for sure the highlight of the story for me. It’s hard to say whether Betty’s parents were really good parents or not – they certainly had their faults and a very laid back approach to parenting, but Landon’s love for his children was so evident throughout the course of the novel that I was able to forgive some of his other misgivings. He tried to be a good dad – to provide for his children and pass on traditional knowledge. I found a lot of faults with Betty’s mom and siblings, but I think Landon really did try his best. When I read the trigger warnings about this book, I was bracing myself for a horrible father figure, so it was really nice to find a caring and empathic one instead.

This isn’t a book I think I could ever pick up again, but I’m really glad I read it and I think it is a story that will stick with me for a long time. I’m so glad the author was able to finally share it.

Where the Forest Meets the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Glendy Vanderah
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy on Audible because I liked the narrator and the cover art is really pretty. The book started so strong and I was immediately pulled into the story! The premise of the novel is that while doing her field research on buntings in a small town in rural America, Jo stumbles upon a young girl, Ursa, who claims to be an alien. Jo, of course, doesn’t believe her and tries to reunite the girl with her family. But the girl has resolved that she will stay with Jo and together they befriend their neighbour, Gabe, who runs a homestead next door and sells eggs to the locals. 

Jo and Gabe are both struggling with their own issues and the presence of Ursa is a distracting, but healing influence in their lives. However as time passes and no one comes looking for Ursa, they start to wonder how she ended up with them and what her real story might be. 

Like I said, the story starts really strong. It’s impossible not to love Ursa – she’s a vibrant character who’s full of life. She claims she’s decided to stay on earth until she “witnesses 5 miracles” and it’s hard not to be impressed with her zest for life. The author also adds more depth to Jo and Gabe, one of whom is a cancer survivor and the other who is battling depression. I really liked that the author added this complexity to the story and I was convinced I had stumbled upon something that was going to be truly magical.

Unfortunately, the further the story progresses, the more it starts to fall apart. The elements that I was impressed with early in the book start to become problematic, leaving me scratching my head about why the author chose to include them at all. The last third of the book went in a totally different direction than what I was anticipating and I found it to be both jarring how quickly the plot seemed to diverge, and disappointing how the author seemed to abandon the ideas presented at the start of the book.

I’d like to dive a bit more deeply into these issues, so the rest of my review will have spoilers and I suggest you quit here if you’re planning to read this book.
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I loved that Jo was a breast cancer survivor and I was impressed with the creation of a character who had already come to terms with her double mastectomy and the loss of her ability to bear children. She was able to look back on those decisions with no regrets, which I thought was such a great message. Similarly, Gabe was suffering from depression and I was really into the inclusion and intersection of these emotional struggles.

Beyond that, I found the author’s portrayal of depression problematic. Jo had almost no regard for his depression; she clearly didn’t understand it and continually pushed Gabe outside of his boundaries as if that was all he needed to be healed. He told her he had extreme social anxiety and had never kissed anyone before and her first instinct is to make a move on him without even asking his consent first. I thought it was so insulting and that it would have driven Gabe away from her or made him extremely uncomfortable.

But that wasn’t all, she kept badgering Gabe about his family and inserting herself where I felt she didn’t belong. Forcing Gabe to have conversations and interactions he didn’t want to have and then the author passing her off as so amazing for helping Gabe to confront his demons and grow. Personally, I thought she was a bit of an asshole and I would have been so mad at her for constantly meddling if I had been Gabe. Plus, I don’t care how much a person complains about a member of their family, you never get to insult them. They are always allowed to vent, but the way Jo bitched and complained about Gabe’s sister was so rude. 

As for the ending, I don’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, I just was really hoping for something more poignant. I wanted magic from this story. I wanted Ursa to actually be an alien. I thought her presence would be healing for Jo and Gabe and that we would witness something magical for the final miracle as a result of her presence. I was looking for more magical realism from this story and what I got instead was a hard dose of realism.

The story quickly changes track with a shootout on Jo’s property and from there a magical introspective story turns into some kind of crime drama. It was just such a change from the first half of the story that I felt like I had whiplash. The writing lost its magic and became repetitive and whiny.

The other problem I had was with Ursa’s behaviour. Suddenly our quirky little alien turns into an out of control, scheming, dangerous child. Did I believe a child could behave like this? Sure, but it was so worrying! Ursa knew exactly how to manipulate those around her to get whatever she wanted, which I found extremely frightening, not endearing like I suspect was the author’s intention. Did I want Jo and Ursa to be together? Of course, but to me, Ursa’s behaviour indicated that she would be impossible to discipline and I’d be extremely concerned about how manipulative she will be as she grows. I know she went through something extremely traumatic, but I think this girl needs a lot of therapy. It was cute when she was an alien, but as an orphaned girl, she’s a compulsive liar who will threaten those around her and throw tantrums until she gets what she wants. It was concerning. Plus I still don’t think Jo would have ever been granted the right to be her foster mom, nor did I think she deserved it.

So overall, this book had so much potential, but really flopped in the execution. I can’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, it’s her book, but it just wasn’t what I was hoping for and I can’t look past all the problematic elements. 

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.