Finlay Donovan is Killing It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Country

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Patricia Engel
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I decided to read Infinite Country because I’ve been seeing a lot of good reviews and the narrator in the audiobook sample sounded excellent! I’m so glad I picked it up because I ended up really liking it. I found it mildly confusing to keep track of the characters at the beginning, but this was a really moving story about how it feels to be divorced from your homeland and the struggles mixed-status families face in staying connected to one another.

Infinite Country is split between Colombia and America and tells the story of a family who move to America and overstay their visas. Elena and Mauro never intended to stay in America, but the uncertainty of returning to Colombia and the fact that some of their children are now American-born, they decide to stay. Eventually they become separated – with half the family returning to Colombia and the other half living undocumented in the States. 

Like the book, I’m going to keep my review short. The story had some interesting plot points – especially with the part of the family living in Colombia – but at the end of the day it’s a simple story about the trauma many families experience in trying to immigrate to America. Nothing in this story really surprised me (except for the bad thing Talia does), it’s a story I feel like I’ve heard many times before. Families that seek a better life and are forced to live in poverty and taken advantage of because of their fear of deportation. But I loved this book because it is deeply humanizing. We get to spend time with each family member and experience each of their longings and struggles. I really connected with each of the characters, especially Mauro, and I was moved by their tenacity.

Immigration forces everyone to make tough choices and I really appreciated this in-depth look at its impact on one family. At less than 200 pages, I read this in two sittings and definitely recommend it for everyone! 

Honey Girl

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Morgan Rogers
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb 2021 (read Mar. 2021)

Oh Honey Girl. I wanted to love this book so much! There’s so much to love in here – a new adult queer romance filled with a diverse cast of characters that are just trying to figure out their lives while taking care of their mental health. This is absolutely the kind of book that we need more of. I thought the last third of this book was absolutely a four star read, but I found it just so damn slow in the first two thirds.

28 year old Grace Porter has just obtained her PhD in Astronomy after over a decade of studies. But after she blows the interview at her dream job, she goes to Vegas to celebrate her doctorate and gets drunk married to a girl she meets from New York. Grace and Yuki return to their lives in Portland and New York, but both women are extremely lonely and begin to seek comfort in one another.

Grace is half black, half white and has fought against racial bias her entire life. She felt intense pressure from her military father to study medicine, but seeks her own path in astronomy instead. Her whole life has built up to earning her PhD, but after being unfairly discriminated against in her defense and being told she’s the “wrong fit” for her dream job, she begins to question what all her hard work was for. Grace decides she needs a break and joins Yuki in New York to get to know her wife better.

Like I said, I think the premise for this book is so great. It had so much rep and I love that it dealt with so many underrated topics. There’s so few quality new adult books out there – I’m always on the hunt for something great. I know a lot of people have really been loving this, so I’ve been trying to identify where it failed for me. I think it was just that the set-up for the story took too long. It took a long time for Grace to finally fall apart, but I felt like it didn’t take that long for her to put herself back together. I loved the last part of the book that takes place in Florida, where Grace really starts working on herself, but I thought the plot meandered so much before that.

I felt like too much time was spent in Portland – I was anticipating her going to New York, but when she does finally go there, I didn’t really feel the chemistry. I felt like there were all the right plot points, but I just didn’t quite connect with the characters. Yuki’s radio show was a little too whimsical for me and to be honest, I was just kind of bored with the relationship. I wanted to see more sparks fly, either in a good or bad way. I felt like maybe the author just had too many ideas and she struggled to execute them in such a short novel.

There’s a lot going on with the side characters, but I didn’t feel like I spent enough time with any of them. Grace loves Agnes and Ximena, but I didn’t get enough backstory to really understand their friendship. She considers Meera and Raj to be her sister and brother, but I have no idea how those bonds we’re formed. When Raj comes to NY and starts freaking out at her I found it extremely jarring – I loved it in that I was like, yes, here is someone dealing with their angst, this is a great scene – but I didn’t have any context about their relationship in which to process the argument. Raj just came off looking like a total asshole for screaming at Grace about his problems.

Even with Yuki, I thought it was a bad choice to open the novel the morning after they met – why not open with their love story? If I’d seen them meet and heard their banter I feel like I would have been a lot more invested in their relationship, but I felt like I met them at chapter 2 and I just didn’t buy into their chemistry since I was missing their meet cute. Plus I felt like Yuki was really nuanced and had other stuff going on under the surface that was never really addressed. In short, I just felt like every single character and relationship had this whole backstory that I would have loved to hear more about, but instead of getting deep meaningful characterization about any character, I got a surface level characterization of everyone. I wanted more depth and sadly I think this story had too much going on to really get the depth I craved. Grace’s character growth towards the end of the book is really well done, but I wanted more from everyone else.

So all in all, I think this was a good book, but not a great one. It really showed to me that this was a debut novel, but I won’t hold it against the author because everyone has to start somewhere. I think she has all the right ideas, she just needs more time to hone in on her skill. I wouldn’t be dissuaded from reading more from her in the future because I still think this was an important story, despite its shortcomings.

If I Tell You The Truth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jasmin Kaur
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Jan 2021 (read May 2017)

This was an impulse buy at my local bookstore because I saw the author lives in Vancouver and the synopsis sounded so good! I’m so glad I did pick it up because it was excellent! It’s half written in prose, which made for some very dynamic storytelling.

If I Tell You the Truth is about a 19 year old Punjabi girl named Kiran. She grew up in Punjab and is accepted to study at Simon Fraser University. Her parents goal is for her to get an education and then return to marry the son of the neighbour. However, before Kiran flies to Canada, she is raped by her betrothed’s brother and becomes pregnant. She travels to Canada and tries to keep her pregnancy secret as long as possible, but when she decides she doesn’t want to have an abortion, she is forced to tell her family and unfortunately is rejected by them.

She does her best to continue her education as a young mother, but it is difficult and eventually her visa expires, forcing her to take whatever work she can to survive without papers. The narrative eventually transfers from Kiran to her daughter, Sahaara, and we learn more about the struggles their family faces. There are few avenues to citizenship, so they live a small life to avoid attention.

This book is about so many things – rape, teen pregnacy, immigration, #metoo, family, diaspora, healing – just to name a few. The writing is excellent and switches from traditional text to prose throughout the book. I think the first quarter of the book is the most powerful. I was immediately drawn into the story – the trauma Kiran had experienced and her struggles to come to terms with what happened to her and her subsequent choices. It is hard to read about her fear and grief, but I think the author really touches a nerve here and the reality of Kiran’s feelings leap off the page and into your heart. I admired and empathized with her so much throughout the first part of the novel.

After Sahaara is born the narrative switches primarily to Sahaara and follows her as she grows up. I enjoyed this part of the novel as well, even though it takes us in a different direction than the first part of the book. I loved that the story is set in Surrey – it just made it so much more impactful to me as someone who also lives in the lower mainland. Since I’ve lived in Vancouver, it has become a Sanctuary City (since 2018) and I’ve always thought of it as a pretty progressive place. I’ve come to learn since the pandemic started that it is definitely not that diverse safe haven that I thought it was and I think it’s really important to have books about what it’s like to live undocumented in Canada (so many books on this topic are set in America).

So with that in mind, this is definitely a book that I would recommend to anyone and everyone, especially Canadians. That said, I did think the pacing was a little bit off. I felt like the book reached its climax around the 75% mark, and I was curious about what else would happen with so much book remaining. The author goes in a totally new direction for the final quarter. It wasn’t unrelated to the rest of the book – the main plights for the characters are resolved in the first 3 quarters – leaving the rest of the book for them to really heal and take action for others.

This part of the book is also powerful, but I didn’t love it as much as what came before. I think it’s so important to have people that are willing to speak out against injustice, but the plot took such a diversion that I found it a little distracting and almost like I was reading a different book. Don’t get me wrong, I still thought the content was really important, it just felt like the author was maybe trying to address too many things in one book, like it was almost a little too cathartic. Plus I felt it delved away from the ‘show don’t tell’ theme, which was strong for most of the novel.

Overall though, it is a minor criticism. I just thought the first part of the book was a 5 star read, but landed more around 4 stars by the end of the book. It’s still superbly written and I think something like this should be required reading for high school students. Books like this are so much more relevant and important to young people than reading books like Dracula and Catcher in the Rye (a few of my least favs from my high school education). Honestly, as much as I loved some of the classics I read in High School, I become more and more convinced over time that we need to stop forcing them on high school students. I don’t think a lot of students have the maturity at 16 to appreciate them and I fear it does more harm in fostering bad feelings about literature. A total tangent, but I do really wish our education system spent more time on contemporaries like If I Tell You the Truth, The Hate U Give, Punching the Air, Far From the Tree, and The Nowhere Girls. READ IT!

The Kindest Lie

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Nancy Johnson
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb 2021 (read Mar. 2021)

The Kindest Lie has been getting a lot of buzz and I was really intrigued when I read the synopsis. Black female engineer, hometown racism, class war – all sounded super interesting – but this book sadly just didn’t deliver. I really wanted to like it, but it was so boring. I felt like the author had a few basic themes that she wanted to cover, but they were so poorly executed and quite frankly, I just didn’t think she was a great writer. I read somewhere she’s a journalist, which I could definitely see, but as a novelist, I think the plot was really lost and the themes just not nuanced enough.

So what’s the book about? 29 year old Ruth Tuttle is witnessing the entrance to a new era when Obama is elected President. Ruth is a successful engineer married to a marketing executive and they’ve just bought their first house together. The natural next step is children, but Ruth harbours a dark secret from her husband that upends their relationship and sends her back to her childhood home with her grandmother in search of answers.

Ruth’s secret is that she was pregnant her senior year. She hid it from her classmates and her grandmother arranged for an adoption. But Ruth’s not sure that she made the right choice and now 11 years later, she’s decided it’s time for answers. But when she returns home, she discovers that the manufacturing plant has shut down and that racial tensions in the town are at a high.

I hate having to give a bad review to a book like this. These are exactly the kind of stories we need more of and the themes that I love to see explored in literature, but nothing about this book worked for me. I really wanted to like Ruth, but nothing about her story made sense to me and I really found myself disliking her. She made herself out to be a victim that was wronged by her grandmother and the choices she made for her. In a way she was right, but she seemed totally content to reap the benefit of those choices for 11 years after. Her grandmother enabled her to go to Yale, get a good education, job, and husband. It was only when her husband starting floating the idea of children and she found herself wanting to be a mom, that she started second guessing the choices she made as a teenager.

I know the whole point of this book is that it’s a commentary on motherhood, but it just enraged me that all of sudden Ruth decided she should be the mother to her child and started trying to find out where her kid ended up and how to upend the adoption. She worries her child didn’t go to a good home and that he wasn’t loved as a mother should love a son. This was too much for me. It’s so freaking selfish to just enter your kid’s like after over a decade without their consent. I know Ruth eventually realizes this too, but I felt like I was supposed to like her character and I only ever felt resentment for her. She tried to blame everything on her grandmother rather than take ownership over the fact that she had actively decided not to be a mother for 11 years. The blame really lay within in my opinion.

While the central theme is about motherhood, there is a sub theme about black identity that I also wish had been better developed. Johnson raises all the right issues, but it was just so basic I didn’t think it added a lot to the story. Like we’re finally at a point in time when society is recognizing how it has mistreated black people for centuries and the violence and injustice that has been enacted against black bodies. I really wanted the author to take it to the next level and really make me think about what that’s like, but I felt she just beat home the same basic points over and over. It’s an age old complaint – but she told me about racial injustice rather than really showing me how that feels to a person of colour. I thought it was an interesting choice to tell part of her story through an 11 year old white boy, and I liked the dimension he added to the narrative, but I really just wanted more depth from all of the characters.

Anyways, this is one of those books that I always have to end with a disclaimer and acknowledge that while I didn’t like it, this book may mean a lot to people of colour. If this book makes you feel seen and understood, then I’m so glad it exists. I really wanted more from it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value and I hope that the audience Johnson intended for this book enjoys it.