I picked up Consent at my local indie bookstore because it’s written by a Vancouver author. I was slightly deterred from purchasing because it has quite low ratings on goodreads, but the plot featured two sets of sisters and sounded really interesting to me, so I decided to go for it. Now that I’ve read it, I would say that Consent is one of those uniquely weird Canada lit books that really works for some people and doesn’t work at all for others. I admit I do like a good weird book and fortunately, this one worked for me!
It’s been a while now since I read it, so bear with me if some of the details are a little foggy. The book features two sets of sisters that briefly connect with each other within the story, but aren’t really related to one another. The first set of sisters, Sara and Mattie grow up in Vancouver in their large family home. Mattie has a cognitive disability and lives full time with their mother, while Sara goes off in search of a different life in Toronto. With the death of their mother, Sara begrudgingly returns to Vancouver to take care of Mattie.
The second set of sisters, Saskia and Jenny are about a decade younger and are twins. Despite their closeness, they lead very different lives and when Jenny is in an accident, Saskia begins to question everything about herself, her sister, and their relationship. It’s a character driven story that focuses primarily on Sara and Saskia and examines familial bonds and the effects of both grief and guilt. Both sets of sisters experience tragedy and discover they have a common link between them in the character of Robert, who was connected to each set of sisters.
I can see how this book wouldn’t work for a lot of people, for the most part, the characters are pretty unlikeable and have very questionable motivations, but I found it to be a really interesting character study and liked how different each sister was. Despite the strained relationships, each woman’s choices are guided by a sense of affection and I liked that the author delves into the complicated relationships that exist within many families. Skip this one if you need likeable characters, but check it out if you like character driven family sagas that examine some of the grey aspects of our psyche.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Charlotte McConaghy Genres: Fiction Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)
It’s fitting that Once There Were Wolves is my last post of 2021 because (unless I happen to read a really good book in late December) it was my favourite book of the whole year! I read Migrations last year and really liked it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Once There Were Wolves. I wasn’t sure if maybe McConaghy was a one-trick pony, but this book has firmly cemented her as an auto-buy author in my books!
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I read it and I have a feeling it’s going to be my favourite read of 2021. I can definitely see how this book might not be for everyone, and I could see Migrations being the more universally accepted book of the two, but I loved everything about this book and actually preferred it.
Once There Were Wolves is set predominantly in Scotland and is about the expedition 30-year old Inti Flynn is leading to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish Highlands. Wolf territory has been shrinking over time and a (real) project to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 was hugely successful. The prey had been taking over the park and without predators to keep them in check, were over-eating the flora and causing erosion at streams and water sources. The wolves completely changed the landscape of the park, breathing new life into the wilderness and bringing a balance to the ecosystem.
Inti’s childhood was split between Australia and the wilds of British Columbia and she travels to Scotland with her twin sister, with whom she is very close. Unfortunately, she is not welcomed by the farmers in Scotland and receives a cold reception and opposition to her work. Nevertheless, she finds some allies and is determined that her project be a success. But when a villager turns up dead and the townspeople suspect the wolves, Inti makes some questionable choices.
So the plot is pretty straightforward, but like most of my favourite books, this is not a plot driven novel. The key word when talking about this book is atmosphere. Charlotte McConaghy is a talented wordsmith, but part of what makes her novels so compelling is her ability to create a very strong sense of setting and atmosphere. The loneliness and wild of the highlands seeps from every scene and creates this overarching feeling of great loss and sadness. It maybe sounds a bit depressing, but it’s also enthralling. It’s not a fast paced story and yet I was totally invested in Inti’s project and her past.
McConaghy’s characters are broken and damaged people and as she slowly reveals their histories to you, you become more and more invested in their characters. This is not a happy story and it deals with difficult and complex themes like abuse, violence, trauma, and how our childhood and formative years can impact us into adulthood. I feel like McConaghy packs so much punch in so small a novel. There are so many parts I haven’t even touched on yet – Inti’s relationship with the town sheriff, her relationships with her family members, and the fact that Inti has a rare condition called mirror touch, which causes her to literally feel what she sees those around her experiencing.
It’s ambitious for a novel that’s under 300 pages, and yet it all works. McConaghy doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter and she trusts her reader to draw their own conclusions from the story rather than spelling everything out for us. I feel like there were no ideas out of place. To write such beautiful prose, while also delivering on a character driven mystery novel is an impressive feat!
Definitely a trigger warning for rape and domestic violence. But I do feel that McConaghy handles these topics well. I’ve read several rape/harassment scenes this year that really bothered me because I felt that they were included for shock value, whereas I think in this book they are handled with sensitivity and purpose. It is not included to shock us, but rather to invite the audience to reflect on the devastating impact to the victim and how those events influence and shape a person. It is a dark book, but also a hopeful one. Inti is a broken person, but like the wolves, she is willing to try again, to try and heal herself and keep moving forward. The wolves can heal landscapes, but maybe they can also heal people and communities.
5 stars – I can’t wait to read this again soon.
Side note: I can’t help but mention that I find it fascinating that prior to her two literary novels, McConaghy wrote YA fantasy. I have no idea how they compare in terms of writing, plot, or quality, but I do find it a bit annoying that she seems to be trying to distance herself from them and pretend they don’t even exist. Her author blurb on the back of the book literally calls Migrations her “debut novel”. Like I get trying to re-invent yourself, but that’s a straight up lie. What’s wrong with making your debut in the YA fantasy scene? Be proud of all your books and where you started, it just shows your versatility and growth as an author.
Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Alix Ohlin Genres: Literary Fiction, Canadian Lit Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Feb. 2020 on Audible)
Dual Citizens is one of the those weird creations of Canadian literature that I ended up really loving, yet wouldn’t necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bit of an artsy story with a meandering plot, but it’s ultimately about family and sisterhood and that really resonated with me.
Lark and Robin are sisters that grew up in Montreal and received little attention or praise from their young mother. So they instead look to one another for support and long for the day when they can branch out on their own. Lark is shy but very studious and does well in school, earning herself a scholarship for a college in the States. Robin learns to play the piano and has a natural talent for it. She is dismayed when Lark leaves her behind to go to school and within the year she runs away to live with Lark.
Eventually Lark discovers a love for film and Robin is accepted to study piano at Julliard. But the pressure of music school gets to her and as Lark dives further into her film degree, the sisters begin to grow apart. The separation between the two sisters was jarring and upsetting for me. They were all each other had and I felt as set adrift by the separation as Lark did. The sisters are very different and Lark struggles to understand why her sister suddenly distances herself and they begin to grow apart, each caught up in their own struggles and insecurities.
Lark spends a lot of time working in the film industry and is quite successful, but she reads like a character who just moves through life without actually engaging in it. She is passive in every scenario and I really felt like part of her was missing during her estrangement from Robin. I’m not really an artsy person and I don’t care for film, but I really loved the storytelling in this book. I just felt this ache throughout for the relationship that Lark and Robin once had and the strain and impact that the loss of communication had on Lark. The feeling of incompleteness while the two were separated and the tenseness that continued between them even once they were reunited. It’s scary to watch two people that were so close become disconnected to the point that they don’t really know who the other person is anymore.
It really reminded me of the feelings of nostalgia and sadness that you get when you return home and realize that the people you loved and spent so much time with have all changed. The feeling of moving on, but thinking fondly of the experiences you once shared, but the sadness of realizing that some experience meant more to one person than the other.
It’s hard to describe, but Lark’s longing for both motherhood and a renewed relationship with her sister were so authentic. It’s a slow moving story with little driving the plot, but I related so keenly to Lark. I think Ohlin captured a very flawed, but real relationship, and I felt really invested in Lark’s life. I don’t think it’s a story for everyone though and I’m not sure I’d want to read it again because of the emotional toll, but I’m glad to have picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. A great story with a lot of depth!
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Jean Kwok Genres: Fiction, Mystery Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Aug. 2019)
I really like Jean Kwok’s writing style. I read Girl in Translation last year and loved it and have been dying to read Searching for Sylvie Lee since I first read the synopsis. Both books are quite different, but left me with similar feelings. I feel like both were probably 4 star books, but something about the writing and the characters just makes me feel very strongly about them and in the end, I rated both books 5 stars. Searching for Sylvie Lee does get a little dramatic and unbelievable towards the end, but because the book was really about character development for me, I can let it slide.
Searching for Sylvie Lee is told from multiple perspectives, with the most dominant (for me anyways), being told from the point of view of Amy. Amy is younger sister to Sylvie and both are daughters of Chinese-American immigrants. Their parents moved to America and struggled to survive, deciding to send their first daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother until they could afford to give her a better life. She returns at the age of 9 (I think, can’t quite remember), after the birth of the second daughter, Amy. The story is narrated by Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, so we get many perspectives from this small family.
To Amy, Sylvie is the epitome of accomplishment and she greatly looks up to her, considering herself the lesser sister. To Sylvie, Amy is the image of innocence. She works very hard to be successful because she feels her parents will never love her as much as Amy since she was raised away from them for the first part of her life.
When their grandmother becomes ill, Sylvie returns to the Netherlands to say goodbye, but disappears before returning home. No one knows what happened to her and Amy’s dutch relatives don’t seem too concerned about Sylvie. But Amy knows Sylvie would never just disappear like that, so she jumps on a plane for the first time in her life and travels to the Netherlands to search for the truth.
This is the prefect family drama about all the feelings of love and resentment that exist within the family dynamic. Everyone has their own secrets and the unspoken past has had longstanding and far-reaching consequences on the entire family. Sylvie has a life in Holland that none of her family in America could really understand and the impact of growing up under the thumb of her Aunt impacted her in ways the sisters don’t understand until much later. Sylvie struggles to be the daughter she thinks she should be, while Amy is afraid to live her life the way she would like to.
Everyone has secrets and they have been tearing the family apart for decades without them even realizing it. This is very much a book about the immigrant experience, but also a book about living courageously. I thought that each character was well realized and developed. Everyone had flaws, but it only made them more relatable and served to make me empathize more with each character.
Like I said, it’s a character driven book, but it does have a strong plot to support it. We’re propelled by the mystery element of what happened to Sylvie, but discover so many secrets and deceptions along the way. That said, don’t come to this book looking for a mystery/thriller. It’s not the driving force of the story, but rather a tool to connect with the deeper pain and anguish of each of the characters. The ways they’ve been wronged, the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways in which they’ve been misunderstood.
Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Courtney Summers Genres: Young Adult, Fiction Pub date: Sep. 4th, 2018 (read July 2018)
I have a copy of one of Courtney Summers other books, All the Rage, that’s been sitting on my shelf waiting for me for awhile, but I’ve been hearing a lot of hype about this book and St. Martin’s Press was so kind as to send me an advance electronic copy in exchange for an honest review, so I decided to read this one first.
As usual, I barely read the synopsis for this one and picked it up mostly based on the hype, so I went into this blind. Sadie is the story of 19 year old Sadie Hunter and her younger sister Mattie. The book starts with Sadie’s disappearance after Mattie is found murdered. The girls mother was a drug abuser and did little parenting of her two daughters. They grew up with their surrogate grandmother, May Beth, but Sadie ultimately took on the responsibility of raising Mattie. She loved her sister with every fibre of her being, even though Mattie sometimes drove her crazy, so her death tears Sadie apart.
Sadie believes she knows who murdered Mattie and runs away from their home in Cold Creek to find him. The story is told from two different perspectives and played a big role in why I liked this book. Half of the story is told from Sadie’s perspective, but the other half is the transcript of an 8-part podcast called the girls, narrated by journalist and radio personality, West McCray. I thought the podcast transcript was brilliant and totally set the scene for this book. I literally never listen to podcasts, but my partner does and this read just like Serial, which I’ve heard him listening to on occasion, and reminded me of the old town crime mystery documentaries that I used to watch on TLC growing up.
So we get two very different perspectives from this novel. Sadie’s perspective is deeply personal and emotional. She is very much a girl who’s entire world has been torn apart and she starts to damn the consequences in her desperation to find her sister’s killer. Then there’s the other perspective from West McCray, who is more clinical about Sadie’s disappearance and is always two steps behind Sadie as he tries to track her down (side note: I know West is a man, but for some reason I pictured him as a woman throughout almost my entire reading. Anyone else get that vibe?). I thought that both narratives were incredibly strong and together made this a strong novel. Most of the double narrative books I read are split timeline historical fiction novels and I almost always find the modern day timeline boring compared to the historical one, but with this book, I found both narratives extremely compelling. Sadie’s story had depth and McCray’s was intriguing. I just felt so transported during every “podcast episode” that I couldn’t help but love it. Plus it was different from anything else I’ve read.
That said, parts of this book are tough to read. “Girls disappear all the time”. It’s a sad statement, but a true one. There is child abuse in this novel and Summers tackles some disturbing topics. I appreciated though that while Summers didn’t hold back the punches, she’s not graphic. “I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered.. will not be a part of this show,.. it’s violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment.” Many books and shows are needlessly gratuitous when it comes to describing violence, so I’m glad she left it out. What she’s not afraid to tackle though are Sadie’s brutal thoughts. She shocked me several times, but she was determined that no one else suffer what she and her sister suffered, even if she had to destroy herself in the process.
The ending killed me. I won’t give any spoilers. It’s brutal, but it’s also exactly how it should be. I flew through this book in a single long weekend camping trip and I would definitely recommend it. I’m feeling a bit more of an itch now to finally pick up my copy of All the Rage.
Sadie’s publish date is Sept. 4th, 2018 if you want to pick up a copy!