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!

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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.

Daisy Jones & The Six

Rating:
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019 on Audible

I did everything I could to get my hands on an early copy of Daisy Jones & The Six, but friends, I’m so glad I was unsuccessful because that would have deprived me of the joy of listening to this as an audiobook! I usually prefer to read fiction that I think I’m going to love as a paperback because it’s almost never quite as good as an audiobook. But this is one case where I would absolutely recommend reading the audiobook! Audible sold me on this book with the 5 minute sample because it’s read with a full cast, meaning a different voice actor is cast for every single character! It adds so much life to the story when every character is read by a different person and I really felt like listening to this book was an experience in itself. It also works particularly well as an audiobook because the story is written as an “oral history”, meaning almost the entire book is dialogue from the characters as they recount the story. So absolutely read the audiobook, you will not regret it!

For a little background; Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which was published in 2017 and took the book world by storm in 2018. I read it with my book club and LOVED it, so I was really excited to finally get my hands on this book. Daisy Jones & The Six is set in present day, but tells the story of the rise to fame of fictional rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six in the 1970’s, leading up to the break up of the band in 1979 at the height of their popularity. No one knows the true story of why the band broke-up, but for the first time, the members of the band have agreed to tell their story. So the whole thing reads like an MTV-type documentary, where an interviewer has compiled everyone’s accounts of the band’s rise to fame and break-up to finally give readers the full story.

What makes it so interesting is that because the story actually happened 40 years in the past, the band members are, of course, fuzzy on some of the details and many of their stories contradict one another. Because we don’t really know the truth or the motivations of each of each of the characters (some might be motivated to lie for example), it’s up to the reader to decide where the truth actually lies, which the interviewer postulates, is likely somewhere in the middle.

I can see how this book wouldn’t be for everyone – I personally don’t care about 1970’s rock and roll, although I can see how this topic would be an incentive to pick up this book for other readers – but I was captivated from start to finish! I thought the way Jenkins Reid crafted the story was brilliant, as was her writing. Any author that can tell a story this well written and crafted is definitely talented. Plus the voice actors should really be commended because they did a wonderful job capturing the angst and emotion of each character. This is one book I would recommend listening to at normal speed because the actors really are quite talented and absolutely bring this story to life.

One of the best parts of this book is just how real the characters feel. Dialogue can be tricky to write and some authors are just not good at it. But I genuinely felt like every single one of these characters was a real person and it’s hard to believe that Daisy Jones & The Six are not actually a real band. It’s hard to believe someone could bring music that doesn’t even exist to life in such a real way in a book. The most upsetting part is that none of the music in the book actually exists, because I wanted so badly to be able and go and listen to the album that Daisy and Billy wrote together. I kept thinking during the book that the band reminded me of Fleetwood Mac, even though I don’t even know very much about Fleetwood Mac, but I have heard that some of the story is loosely based on that band, although I’m not sure how much truth there is to that rumour.

The overall story is not that different from any other rock story. It has many of the same themes that we regularly see in stories about musicians. The book is filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the characters and their relationships are really what bring the story to life. However, while the general themes were pretty standard, I did not find the plot predictable. So many of these kinds of stories involve drug abuse and forbidden relationships that tear our artists apart – this book had those elements, yet it still felt fresh and surprising.

Daisy Jones was a solo artist and The Six was a 6-person rock band led by singer Billy Dunne. Both achieved some level of success on their own, but together they were magic. Daisy and Billy had a tumultuous relationship. They both had very strong personalities and opinions about the music they wanted to create, but when they were able to work together, what they created was magical. Likewise, a distinct personality emerged for each of the individual band members and the producers and family members that surrounded the band. I loved the dynamic between Daisy, Billy, and Camila, as well as the dynamics between other band members such as Karen and Graham, Eddie and Billy, and Teddy and Billy. Plus each character had a really well developed sense of self and struggled as much with their own personal demons as they did with the people around them.

I loved the evolution of each character. Everyone had great personality traits and everyone had flaws. You’d start off loving a character, then find them to be quite unlikable, before finally understanding what they’re going through and liking them again. I’ve heard reviews that some people loved Daisy Jones, while others hated her. I was firmly in the middle. She definitely had a spirit that was to be commended, especially for a woman in the 70’s, but she was also undeniably privileged and entitled and often made bad decisions.

Likewise, I loved and hated Billy. Billy had an obvious conflict with Daisy, but his character was really driven by his personal conflict and fight with addiction. Daisy and Billy definitely brought out each other’s flaws, but they also helped one another to grow in ways they never would have without each other.

I’ve heard some people call this a love story, but it was never really a love story for me. It was more a story about people and relationships. Relationships were central to the story, but it wasn’t always about love. It was also about the power of music as a method of expression and the different ways that we express ourselves and learn and grow from our mistakes. Although I will say, I always look for love triangles where you love everyone in the triangle because I think it brings so much more emotion to a story when you want all 3 characters to be happy, but you know only 2 of them will be together. Daisy Jones & The Six has that kind of love story and it will tear your heart out, but it’s so much more interesting to read about.

There’s more men than women in the story – we’re limited pretty much to Daisy, Karen, and Camila as our female characters – but I loved every single one of them. Daisy had a lot of faults, but I loved how unapologetic she was. She refused to be anyone but who she was and even though she was portrayed by the media as a sex icon, she was an icon on her own terms. She dressed for herself and made decisions for herself, she was always focused on her own gaze rather than those around her. But I loved that Jenkins Reid also drew attention to her privilege. She never really had to work for anything and I loved how her character was challenged throughout the book, both as a musician and as a person.

Karen was probably my favourite female character though and I loved how Judy Greer portrayed her in the audiobook. Karen was another character who knew what she wanted and what she didn’t want and she was never going to apologize for it. Her character was in contrast to what most people would expect from a woman in this era and I loved the way the author contrasted Karen and Camila. Karen wanted to be a successful musician, she was interested in love and sex, but never at the expense of her career, she was comfortable being alone, and she never wanted kids. In contrast, Camila was happy to sit back and support Billy as a musician. She wanted nothing more than to be a mother, and though it was hard, she was content in her life and trusted her husband.

They were both completely different people, who had very different thoughts on what they wanted to achieve in life, but they were best friends and neither was threatened by the other’s ambitions and how they differed. I think a lot of mothers are threatened by women who don’t want kids. I don’t really know why, it’s a personal decision and both are right. But Camila was never threatened by Karen’s differing values and never tried to convince her to feel otherwise. They both accepted and respected the others desires.

I don’t want to spoil what happened to break up the band, but I really liked that it was never really about one specific thing. It was a culmination of all the different relationships in the band. There were different catalysts for different people and I loved how this was a study of all of the band members rather than just Billy and Daisy.

I want to get into some spoilers now, so I’ll just say I absolutely loved this book from start to finish and would highly recommend the audiobook! If you haven’t read it yet, tap out now to avoid spoilers, if you have, let’s keep going!

SPOILERS BELOW

So first of all, because I was just talking about Karen and Camila, I want to say that I loved the abortion scene in this book. It was lovely to see a woman put in a tough situation, but confident enough in herself and her dreams to make the right decision for herself and to not regret it. Karen understood that she wouldn’t have the same luxury to continue her career as Billy and Graham would have if they all were parents. Graham clearly didn’t understand and as much as I liked the two of them as a couple, they weren’t meant to be. I also loved that Jenkins Reid took the typical gender dynamic and flipped it in Karen and Graham’s relationship. So often it’s the girl chasing after the guy, but I loved that Karen was one of the few women portrayed as actually being comfortable alone. I loved how she was contrasted to Camila in terms of their personal goals, and how she was also contrasted to Daisy, who hated being alone.

Finally, I want to talk about that killer spoiler at the end where we discover that the person interviewing the band is actually Julia, Billy’s daughter, and that Camila has passed on since being interviewed. The interviewer tells us at the beginning that some of the individuals have sadly passed on, so at first you’re kind of expecting the typical tragic “musician dies from drug abuse and overdoes” story, but because everyone is being interviewed, you understand that means they’re all still alive. It’s not until later that you realize Teddy was never interviewed because he passed away in the late 70’s. Then we’re thrown for a total loop when we discover Camila passed away mid-interview and that the interviewer is actually hers and Billy’s daughter.

To be honest, I didn’t think that much of it, I was just like, okay, that’s kind of weird, but whatever, doesn’t change that much, just makes it seem weird that everyone was talking about her and her parents in the third person. But I watched Hannah’s (A Clockwork Reader) review on Youtube and she brought up a great point about how that shines a different light on absolutely everything that precluded it. Keeping in mind that everyone is telling their story to Billy’s daughter would absolutely change how they would tell their story and should make us question even further what the actual truth is.

It explains why no one every really says anything bad about Camlia, because people don’t really talk bad of the dead and it makes you wonder what Daisy and Billy’s relationship actually was like since it was probably really difficult for them to discuss the topic with Billy’s daughter. Throughout the whole book, I thought that Billy and Daisy had great chemistry, but I was somewhat surprised with their love story. Billy seemed to genuinely love Camila and Billy and Daisy both hated each other on so many different occasions, that it made you wonder if the music was really enough for them to overcome that. But knowing they’re telling their story to Julia paints everything in a different light and kind of makes me want to go back and listen to the whole thing again.

It speaks volumes about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s talent. She really did bring these characters to life in the most impressive way, it’s genuinely a bit jarring to me that none of these people are real. There were no throw-away characters, even annoying characters like Eddie were still incredibly relatable. A lot of the characters made bad decisions, but they were so well developed, it was easy to understand why they made the decisions they did.

Phew, well that was the quite the review and I think it’s actually made me appreciate the book even more than I did when I finished. I love when writing a review helps you confirm how you actually felt about a book and this review definitely helped me. I also love when a book makes you feel so much you can write a review this long. So definitely check out this book and audiobook. I know some people haven’t been loving this book as much as they hoped, but I definitely did!