The Grace Year

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kim Liggett
Genres: Sci-fi, Dystopian, Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 8, 2019 (read in July 2019)

Special thanks to Netgalley and Wednesday Books for providing me with a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

I was halfway through this when I had to set it aside to read my book club pick for the month, No Exit by Taylor Adams. Both of these books are f***ed and I feel like I’ve been so anxious for the last two weeks because of it.

Both of these books succeeded in racking up my blood pressure, but that’s about where the comparisons end. No Exit was not a good book, this was.

The Grace Year is dystopian fiction about a society that believes women have a powerful magic that they grow into when they get their first period and that they must be sent away for a year to burn off that magic before they can be welcomed back into the community as wives. It’s a total wild ride that had me enthralled from the very beginning. It’s a dark read with a lot of violence, but unlike some other books I’ve read, the violence achieves something. Liggett uses that violence to make powerful social commentary on the roles of women in society, the way we treat one another, and how things could be different.

The Grace Year refers to the year when the girls are sent away to live in the woods and burn off their magic. The society is very much controlled by men who believes women need to be punished for Eve’s original sins. The Grace Year is never spoken about in the community, but is a grim time in every women’s life. Many come back missing body parts or emotionally scarred, and that’s just the girls that return. Many never return and are instead taken by poachers who harvest their body parts because the community believes in the medicinal properties of the dead girls magic.

While all the other girls are concerned with landing a husband before their grace year, Tierney is perfectly content to labour in the fields when she returns, not wanting the be controlled by a man. But once the girls begin their grace year and discover the freedom they have for the first time in their lives, they start to turn on one another and realize the real danger is not the poachers, but the pain they will inflict on one another.

It’s a dark book and I did struggle with it at some points, but like I said, I think the violence serves a purpose in this book, which is why I was able to read through it. Liggett has an interesting writing style and the book itself has a really interesting structure. The girls take out their frustrations on one another because they’ve never been allowed to express emotion before or learned healthy ways to deal with their anger. They have allowed the men to control them for so long that they’ve completely lost any sense of compassion and have never experienced the beauty of female friendship and empathy.

Liggett keeps us guessing throughout the novel and I thought she did a great job with world building. At first things are a little confusing, but the confusion makes it more engaging because you don’t really understand the terrors lurking in the woods or why they exist. The narrative doesn’t follow the traditional storytelling structure, yet the concept of moving through the seasons of the grace year provides enough structure to guide us through the story.

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a standalone or not. I went into it thinking it was a standalone, but now I think it could go either way. It still works as a standalone, but I could also see the author expanding the story. There’s lots of room to continue developing the ideas of this book, but sometimes it’s not needed. The ending is ambiguous and I kind of like it that way.

The Grace Year will be available in stores Oct. 8, 2019.

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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 Turn of the Key

Rating:
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Sep. 5, 2019 (read May 2019)

Let’s just start by saying: I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s written and it’s taken me a while to figure out what it is I like so much about her. None of her books are my favourite, yet I always can’t wait to get my hands on her newest book. It took a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I love her books because they are just so damn readable. She has this old school Gothic mystery thing going on and her closed-door crimes are very reminiscent of Agatha Christie.

The Turn of the Key has similar elements to some of her other books, but I actually found it quite different. Ware takes a different approach to this book, telling us upfront what the central crime is, just not who is involved or how it happens. Rowan Caine is our main character and has been working as a nanny for the past few years when she takes a position in a private home in remote Scotland looking after the Elincourt family. Sandra and Bill are both wealthy architects and have converted their home from an old estate into a modern architectural marvel, integrating all kinds of fancy technology into the design to make it a “smart home”.

It’s a lucrative position for Rowan, but when Sandra and Bill take off immediately after arriving, leaving her alone in the huge house with their 4 children, she starts to wonder if there may be more secrets about this post than she was made aware. Previous nannies quit the position because of fears of the house being haunted, of which Rowan is skeptical, but as strange things start happening, she can’t help but wonder if the weird things happening are a result of the faulty smart home technology, or something more sinister.

Ware takes an interesting approach by opening the story with Rowan in prison for the death of one of her charges. We don’t know which child has died, or how, but Rowan maintains that she is innocent and recounts her story in a letter to a lawyer requesting he help her. This book is creepy. I could see how some readers might not like it as much as some of her others because it is more of a slow burn mystery, but I really liked it. Ware spends a lot of time developing the atmosphere of the story and drawing us further and further in to this creepy house in Scotland. It does take a while for the action to get going, but I loved how remote the story was and how it made me question every single interaction for potential answers. I also loved her use of smart home technology in the story. Technology has gotten so creepy and this really drew attention to the ways it has invaded our lives and in some cases made things more complicated.

One of the main complaints I’ve had with Ware’s books in the past is that I think she has really weird pacing. She tends to hit the climax at around 70% in the book, the mystery always continues, but when you hit the high point that early it’s hard to stay engaged for the last 30%. That was not the case with this book. She keeps you on edge, with the creepiness continuing to amp up until the very end.

The only thing I will say is that things finish up so quickly at the end and are so easily explained that it was a bit of a let down. I mostly correctly predicted the ending, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. The atmosphere was what won this book for me and I really liked the creepiness factor. My only complaint now is that I have to wait 4 months for everyone else to read this and another year or more for her next book!

Special thanks to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss+ for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.

A Bend in the Stars

Rating:
Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.

I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.

A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.

The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.

Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.

At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.

But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.

I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.

So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.

Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.

The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.

Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.

A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.