Nine Perfect Strangers

Rating: ⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub date: Nov. 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Nine Perfect Strangers was totally different than what I was expecting. For some reason I thought this was going to be a murder mystery (spoiler, it’s not), not really sure why, so the plot ended up taking me totally by surprise, but in a good way.

Nine Perfect Strangers centers around Tranquillum House, a spa/resort where people come for all sorts of reasons, but primarily to make some kind of change, whether it’s with their body, personal habits, or even to save their relationship. The resort was founded by russian immigrant, Masha, who had a near death experience when she suffered a heart attack from overwork and neglecting her health, and found a new outlook on life that centered around personal health and wellbeing. Nine people have assembled at Tranquillum for a 10 day retreat.

Tranquillum House is known for having slightly revolutionary practices; no electronics are permitted at the spa and there are mandatory fasts, juice cleanses, and periods of silence throughout the 10 day retreat. However, many people swear that Tranquillum House gave them a whole new outlook on life, so most of the guests are willing to give it a try for 10 days. This group of guests includes a washed up romance novelist and footballer, a tired mom, a divorce lawyer, a couple trying to save their marriage, and a family trying to heal after the death of their son/brother. They are mostly optimistic about the retreat; however, what these strangers don’t know is that Tranquillum House has decided to try a new protocol for this retreat and that they will be physically and emotionally tested over the course of their ten day visit.

I’ve read two other books by Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, and I must say, she is really good at tackling tough subjects with humour. Her characters are all pretty humourous in this book in how ridiculous they are. They all grapple with some pretty serious issues, yet still provide a lot of comic relief. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the plot. It was a really different concept and it was actually quite shocking where Moriarty took the plot in the seond half of the book.

What I liked most about the book though was the theme, which centered around the idea of change. All of the guests decide to attend the retreat because they are seeking some kind of change in their lives, and the resort itself was founded because of the change that Masha underwent after her near death experience. Masha experienced a huge change in her life and really wants to help others to change their lives for the better. However, what she begins to realize is that it’s easy to help people change over a 10 day period, but that it is immensely difficult for her guests to make permanent changes once they return to their old lives. It raises the question of whether people really can change.

It really is a roller coaster ride because some of Tranquillum House’s practices seem really out there and it’s easy to dismiss them as “hippy-dippy nonsense”. But the further you read, you start to question yourself because it’s hard to deny that the practices actually do seem to work. However, when the plot takes a drastic turn around the half way point, you see the characters starting to revert back to their original tendencies, which again begs the question of whether change is truly possible. I liked the book because even though the resort seems to be a bit of a farce and I think a lot of the people would only be temporarily changed by the experience, it’s hard to deny by the end of the novel that the guests have been changed by their time at Tranquillum, just in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to ruin the plot and I think it is actually best to go into this book blind if possible. It is quite different from the other work I’ve read by Moriarty, but it did make me think and reflect and I think it is an interesting commentary on the human ability to change, so I did quite like it. It also does a great job at developing each of the nine characters and I was really impressed with how each them grew throughout the novel and I enjoyed getting each of their back stories. I read this for my January book club, so I’m really interested to hear what the rest of my book club thought because I can see how some people might not like this book.

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Keeping Lucy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildcard

Rating: .5
Author: Marie Lu
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Warcross #2

I read this book on my way home for the holidays and I fear I may have waited too long to review it. I’m already starting to forget parts of this, but I will do my best to review.

Warcross really surprised me last year and ended up being one of my favourite books of the year. Sci-fi is not my favourite genre and I did not like Marie Lu’s Young Elites trilogy, so I didn’t expect to like Warcross, but ended up falling in love with this vibrant and futuristic version of Japan. Sadly I hadn’t heard great things about Wildcard, but I tried to go into it with an open mind.

I thought Wildcard had a pretty strong start. It jumps right back into the action and I was really excited to be re-introduced to the Phoenix Riders and Emika’s world. There is a strong mystery element in Wildcard and you really don’t know who you can trust, so I was definitely intrigued.

Sadly though, Wildcard was not able to live up to the world Marie Lu created in Warcross and I felt it started to buckle under the weight of the plot and the lack of character development. I love a good fast paced plot – and despite everything else, this plot remained fast paced throughout the entirety of the book – but I felt that Lu abandoned a lot of the characters and character development from the first book in favour of new characters and it caused this one to just fall flat.

In Warcross, Emika struggles in trusting her teammates. She is used to working as a lone wolf and takes a lot of pressure and responsibility upon herself. Her teammates want to help and she eventually learns to trust them and realizes that being part of a team is better than operating alone. While the Phoenix Riders are still present in this book, I felt they weren’t integral to the plot and much of the book focuses on Emika and Zero. I liked that Emika made a new girlfriend in this book (I’m sorry you guys, I literally can’t remember her name!! Zero’s second, can anyone help me out here?!), but I really wanted to see more development of the characters we were introduced to in the first book and the Warcross world, but this was really Hideo and Zero’s party and I thought Emika struggle to carry the story.

Where Wildcard lost me was in the plot. I think Marie Lu made this too technical and tried to throw in way too many plot twists. I’ll admit, she got me on a lot of them, but I felt the plot got way too convoluted towards the end that I just kind of tapped out on the book. Warcross introduced this really interesting VR world that I could totally see happening within my lifetime. Lu introduced a lot of thought-provoking moral issues like is it justified to remove people’s freewill in order to completely eliminate crime? I thought there were a lot of interesting ethical questions to explore in this book, but I think Lu sacrificed this development in the interest of writing more action, which really did a disservice to the world she created. It’s a resounding YES that Hideo’s technology to eliminate crime was a bad idea, but we never really explored the benefits and consequences of his algorithm and jumped right to the need to destroy it.

There was so much action in this book, and yet, I was kind of bored. The entire last 30% of the book is just one extended action scene with very limited character development. I stopped caring about the Phoenix Riders and I thought Emika added very little to the development of the story. This really became more about Zero and Hideo and even though there was a lot of action, things started to feel a bit repetitive. I like a good plot, but for me, stories are always first and foremost about the characters. A book needs a good plot to move the characters forward, but I would never sacrifice development for action. I wanted to think about the ethics of a VR world and how to integrate morality with technology, but I guess Lu just wanted to deliver a fast-paced action novel. She delivered on the action, but I’m not sure why I should care about it.

The Wicked King

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Holly Black
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Jan. 8, 2019 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: The Folk of the Air #2

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

Unpopular opinion: I liked The Cruel Prince (3 stars), but I definitely didn’t love it and it was so hyped up it kind of left me wondering if maybe there was something I was missing not loving it as much as everyone else. The Wicked King started off much the same, with me wondering what the big deal was. I still kind of don’t understand the insane level of fandom that some readers have over this series, but I think I did like this book more than the first one.

So I was not really feeling this in the beginning, but then once I got about a third of the way through I thought it picked up a lot and I pretty much speed read through the rest of the book in 2 days. I think my biggest issue that I don’t particularly love Holly Black’s style of writing, but I may be the odd one out here. I said this about The Cruel Prince, and I had the same thought with this book, that I felt like I was reading a middle grade novel. The plot is so obviously NOT middle grade (it’s brutal), but something about the writing strikes me as a little immature. I’m not really looking for flowery writing in my fantasy books, but something about Black’s style is just a little to simplistic for me. That said, I have a feeling the writing may be one of the reasons other readers like this so much – it is definitely a different style of writing from most other fantasy books and the characters and plot read a lot different.

The middle grade feel ends there though because the plot is anything but middle grade. My favourite part of the first book was how unpredictable the plot was and Black definitely continued that theme in this book. I didn’t see any of the plot twists coming and I was continually surprised by where she took the story. It reminds me a little of Game of Thrones in that you really don’t trust that any of the characters are safe and that really anything could happen to them.

It’s definitely a political book and it does get a little confusing at times. I may have benefited from a re-read of The Cruel Prince before jumping into this book because I forgot some of the details about Faerieland and who was good and who was bad (although do we ever really even know? Everyone flipflops so much). I thought it got really interesting in part 2 of the book when we learned more about the sea kingdom and Cardan finally stopped being a little puppet king. I like that you never know which characters you can trust, even though it makes you want to pull your hair out sometimes. Plus I thought Jude was really clever when she was in the sea kingdom. You can tell she’s really struggling in the first half of the book to maintain any kind of power and it was kind of fun to see it all stripped away from her and see her still use her wits to succeed.

I liked that Jude and Cardan both grew a lot in this book. I’m still not entirely sure what the source of attraction is between them, but I was feeling it in the second half of the book. I think I liked Cardan’s development the most. He really came into his own in the second half of the book as well and I wanted to love him, but at the same time you can’t help but be weary of trusting anyone in this book. I still don’t really know what to think about him, even after that brutal ending. WHAT IS REAL?! It’s the perfect kind of ending though in that it’s not really a cliffhanger, but it makes you desperate for the next book. It reminded me a little of the ending of ACOMAF, which also has that perfect hook to draw you back to the next book without really being a cliffhanger.

On a side note, I don’t really get Taryn and Locke. They’re a mystery to me and I really don’t know what the hell Taryn is playing at (and Locke is like the world’s biggest ass). I think I may have to read the novella because I think that gives us some more insight into Taryn’s character.

I really wanted this book back in the summer when everyone was getting arcs, but I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get it until now because otherwise it would be a SUPER long wait to the next book. Plus Hatchette Canada was so kind as to send me a finished copy, which I really appreciate. It’s still not one of my favourite fantasy series, but it is fun and I will definitely be anxiously awaiting the final book.

The Wicked King will be available in stores on Jan. 8th, 2019

Our Homesick Songs

Rating: ⭐
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

I loved everything about this book.

I saw it floating around on Netgalley and Goodreads over the past year and I thought it had the most gorgeous cover, which reminded me of my home in Newfoundland, but I guess I never read the synopsis because when one of the book bloggers I follow posted a review about this book, I couldn’t believe it was actually about Newfoundland. (not that there’s any shortage of books about Newfoundland, I just wasn’t expecting to find one in the mainstream book world).

Our Homesick Songs is by Albertan author, Emma Hooper, and is about the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery in 1992 and the struggle many Newfoundlanders went through in making a living after their traditional livelihood was decimated. The story focuses on the Connor family, who lives in a small town called Big Running, on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. It tells the story of Aidan Connor and Martha Murphy – how they fell in love and were later forced to travel to the Alberta camps to find work – and their two children, Finn and Cora. It’s a family drama at heart, but setting and culture play a huge role in the story.

I grew up in Newfoundland, moving to BC after I finished university. My parents and grandparents are from rural Newfoundland communities and my maternal grandfather was a fisherman. Stories about Newfoundland always hold a special place in my heart because, I think more than anywhere else in Canada, Newfoundland has a very distinct sense of culture and belonging. I was too young to understand the cod moratorium in the early 1990’s, but I’ve witnessed the impact in had on rural Newfoundland, and how the return of the food fishery in 2007 was like a right of passage and a homecoming for many people. Everyone has friends and relatives who were forced to move out west in search of employment – it’s why I have so much family located in Alberta – but there is usually a keen desire to return home.

I was a bit nervous to read this book, seeing as it’s not actually written by a Newfoundlander. I mean, I know people write books all the time about places they’re not from, but you can’t help but feel a little bit nervous about having your beloved home recounted from the point of view of someone else. But Emma Hooper did a wonderful job with this book. Her writing is lyrical and beautiful and it really does evoke a strong sense of homesickness as you read her writing. I think she did a wonderful job capturing the love people feel for Newfoundland, and communicating how heartbreaking it is for people when they are forced to leave. I’m sure I related to it a little bit more as a Newfoundlander, but I really think that anyone can love and enjoy this book.

There’s two main stories being told throughout this book. There’s a current day story set in 1992. The fish have disappeared, and as such, so have the people. Big Running gets smaller every day as families take off for the mainland in search of work. There’s an abundance of jobs in the work camps up in Northern Alberta, so this is primarily where people flock. In an attempt to stay, Martha and Aidan share a camp job on rotation, with each of them doing a month on and a month off. Their children, Finn and Cora, struggle with the loss of one of their parents each month and the disappearance of their community. Cora escapes from her broken family by studying travel guides from the library and re-creating each country in one of the abandoned homes. Finn laments the loss of their way of life and comes up with a plan to try and draw the fish back to their shores. Both children are lonely, as are their parents, who are forced to live apart indefinitely.

The second story is recounted by Finn’s accordion teacher, Mrs Callaghan. She tells Finn the story of his parents and how they met and came to fall in love back in the 1970’s. The stories contrast each other in that one tells the story of how love began, whereas the other tells the story of how it starts to fall apart. And woven through both stories is the music that calls us all together and the importance it plays in Newfoundland culture.

I actually really loved the way Hooper wove music in through the story. Music is an incredibly important part of Newfoundland culture and I thought she really showcased that and linked it in really well with her themes of homesickness and loneliness. Finn plays the accordion, Cora plays the violin, and everybody sings or plays one musical instrument or another. Aidan and Martha sang to each other over the water for years without even being aware of the other. Music plays an important role in bringing people together and reminding them where they come from and I thought Hooper showcased this multiple times throughout the book. I loved when everyone showed up to Finn’s community meeting with their instruments. They knew they might be forced out of their homes, but saw the meeting as a good opportunity for one last community kitchen party.

This book also touches on the issue of government resettlement. It’s a heavy issue in itself and has been the focus of more than one book in the past, but I thought it worked well in this story and wasn’t overdone. It’s another important historical part of Newfoundland that is ongoing to this day, and I think it’s great to inform more people about it. Rural communities are very much disappearing in Newfoundland and it is heartbreaking. It’s difficult for the government to continue maintaining services to small backwater communities and it does happen where residents are encouraged by the government to relocate. For Finn, the deadline to decide on re-settlement was a catalyst to do something. He doesn’t want to leave his home or have his family be separated any longer, so he hatches a plan to try and bring back the fish.

This is a classic kind of slow-burn family drama, but no part of this story read slowly to me. Hooper does a great job on characterization and character development and even though it’s not a plot driven book, I could not put it down. I picked this one up with the intent of reading it simultaneously with a mystery novel, but once I started this one, I literally couldn’t bear to put it down and didn’t touch my other book once until finishing this one. I can see how this kind of writing isn’t for everyone, but I personally loved it.

In conclusion, I can already tell that this is a story that will stick with me and that I’ll be recommending to my family. Everything about this book worked for me and I loved how evocative and introspective the story was. The name Our Homesick Songs is the perfect name for this book because the writing, the setting, and the characters all evoke a very keen sense of longing. 5 stars, no question.