5 Books I Read and Loved But Never Got Around to Reviewing

These books I enjoyed but never reviewed because I either thought they were excellent all around and couldn’t figure out how to do justice to them in a review, or because they were excellent in a very personal way, or because they were just pretty good and I couldn’t think of much to say about them. I don’t want to let these books fall through the cracks, though, because they’re all books I would recommend! So here are a few thoughts I’ve managed to muster up.

The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break coverWhen Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

  • This book is #ownvoices in that Vermette is a Métis Winnipegger.
  • I read this book in one sitting, which I wasn’t expecting to do. The writing is sharp and the story is one that could easily pull you in.
  • Parts of this book were extremely difficult to read. As a Winnipegger settler myself, this book took me into lives of people I know exist, people who I’ve probably passed on the street, whose lived experiences seem like a world away from mine. But they’re not actually, and that’s the painful part. I’m not the best person to advocate for this book, which is more than a few steps away from middle grade fantasy – the reviews at The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire do a better job at capturing why this is an important read.
  • I was definitely miffed when The Break didn’t win Canada Reads (and a book that most Canadians were already familiar with, a book with no female characters, did win…). Here is a an excellent clip of Candy Palmater defending the book during Canada Reads.

Drift and Dagger by Kendall Kulper

Drift and Dagger coverMal used to have a home, a best friend, and a secret. But he lost all three on the day Essie Roe exposed him as a blank. Blanks cannot be cursed or saved or killed by magic. And everyone is afraid of them—even Mal himself.

Now Mal travels the world in search of dangerous and illegal magical relics, never stopping in any one place too long. When his partner in crime, Boone, hears of a legendary dagger that can steal magic, Mal knows he finally may have found a way to even the score with Essie. Crossing oceans and continents, Mal and Boone travel from Boston to Paris to Constantinople in search of the dagger. Finding it would mean riches, fame, and revenge—but only if Mal can control the monster inside him.

  • I was delighted to win a copy of this book annotated by hand by the author. Drift and Dagger, a companion book to Salt and Stormtakes place some years before the events of Salt and StormSalt and Storm held a lot of promise for me; I loved the premise but it turned out to be more of a romance. I preferred Drift and Dagger because there’s more of an emphasis on magic and travel and adventure, and no emphasis on romance. The historical setting makes it that more fun.

Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a DoorwayChildren have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Down Among the Sticks and bones coverTwin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

  • I rated both of these books four stars on Goodreads, and I can think of aspects of the stories that I would have liked to see done differently, but when it comes to how these stories tugged at my heart, they’re both five star reads for me.
  • Every Heart a Doorway especially will be one of my best reads of 2017 for personal reasons, while I think Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the better written of the two.
  • Things I loved particularly about Down Among the Sticks and Bones: Parents, Jack and Jill figuring out their own identities, the creepiness of their bleak world.
  • My main critiques are: 1) the murder mystery of Every Heart a Doorway was a bit blah  and 2) I would have liked to read more from Jill’s perspective in Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
  • I hope to squeeze in a reread of these books before the end of the year!

Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea

The Hounds of the Morrigan book coverA wonderfully written fantasy set in the west of Ireland, which tells of the coming of the Great Queen who is bent on bringing destruction to the world. Only Pidge and Brigit can stop her, and their task seems impossible as they’re constantly trailed by the queen’s hounds. But they’re aided in their quest by a host of willing helpers – a glorious array of unforgettable characters.

  • I read this book over the summer at the lake. I consider it a children’s classic, which had been on my TBR for a few years.
  • Definitely a fantasy story, very episodic, entertaining, though it did seem to drag on at times. There are frightening parts (I particularly remember a terrifying horse, haha) and classically epic parts. And according to my notes, there is a cute baby spider part. I might have gotten more out of it if I was better familiar with Irish folklore!

What were some books you enjoyed this past year but didn’t get around to reviewing?
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Family Reads: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Hazel Gaynors’s The Cottingley Secret

Mom with The Cottingley Secret

Mom and I ended up selecting this book via a ‘saw it on GoodReads’ chain. I saw someone add it to their TBR, so then I added it to my TBR; Mom saw I added it to my TBR, so then she added it to hers.  I added it because I had seen a film about the Cottingley fairies when I was younger and found the story fascinating. Mom hadn’t heard anything about them.

1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?

Our Thoughts

Mom gave this book ★★★★ and I gave it ★★½. While this was the sort of story Mom enjoys, I found myself wishing throughout for more real fairies.

The Cottingley Secret occupies a very particular genre. You’ve got two timelines – a ‘historical fiction’ timeline that somehow connects to a ‘contemporary fiction’ timeline in which a woman learns something about herself through the story told in the historical timeline. This sort of narrative generally doesn’t appeal to me, but I have read one or two books that follow this structure (I think Kristin Hannah’s books are mostly like this?). Mom likes this style, as she found the back and forth kept her interested in the two stories.

I was willing to tolerate this style because of the promise of fairies, and the Irish and British settings. Mom and I have both visited and fallen in love with Ireland (on separate occasions). We agreed that reading a book about a place you’ve actually been gives the story more of a magical feeling. In addition to the setting, we liked Olivia’s bookshop. I have visited many quaint and precious bookshops, but I would still love to visit hers! The descriptions of Olivia’s window display and the plants growing on their own especially appealed to us.

We found the furor of belief surrounding the photographs pretty incredible. I had always wondered how educated adults let themselves be taken in by the photos of two young girls. The Cottingley Secret does a good job at explaining how the atmosphere of war may have fueled those beliefs. Mom also appreciated the exploration of remembering and not remembering through the character of Olivia’s grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s.

The Cottingley Secret is essentially historical fiction. But I like my fairies to be real! So, I can’t help but grumble a bit (though it’s my own fault for wishing the story to be something it’s not). The thing is, Frances does actually see fairies. However, I found the description of her sightings to be lacking. I never felt the belief that Frances supposedly felt. The few moments where she really does glimpse fairies felt, to me, largely incidental to the story. Mom didn’t have the same feeling. She was able to use more of her own imagination to bring those scenes to life.

Final Thoughts

Mom enjoyed this book, and I suppose it’s alright for what it is 😉  Have you heard of the Cottingley Fairies or read any books about them?

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Review: The Child Finder = Another Excellent Sophomore Novel

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button

The Child Finder focuses on the mystery of a missing child. If you stripped away the insightful prose, made the characters full of heart and heartbreak into something more generic, and ignored the histories that drive them, you’d be left with a pretty a pretty standard tale that could be the plot for an episode of Criminal Minds. But there’s so much more to this book that makes it soar beyond the usual thriller standards. This is a book worth your time and your tears.

I knew, from having read The Enchanted (review here), that The Child Finder would be a difficult read. I started reading with a small hope that there might be a more positive lean to the story – because no one hopes to read about the physical and sexual abuse of a young abducted child – but that hope was dashed less than 30 pages in. Denfeld writes with care and compassion for the victims in her story. She is neither explicit nor gratuitous. Her writing, though, even when in metaphor, hit me hard in the chest and made breathing a little more difficult. By page 60, I noted “need a lot of breaks from this one”. The Child Finder is not an easy read – Denfeld writes both eloquently and realistically, meaning The Child Finder may be too painful of read for some people. This is not a thriller you can quickly breeze through.

Madison’s story is not the only one shared in The Child Finder. The novel is peppered with small sad stories (descriptions about Naomi’s past cases) that burn for how real they read. Juan’s story is shared as the lesson that taught Naomi to “view every act, with suspicion, every witness as questionable, and every piece of possible evidence along the way as a trap” (60). Naomi suspected a man of abducting Juan, but the man caught onto her, disposed of Juan’s body, and disappeared.

Juan Aguilar was one of her early cases. His mom was an undocumented farm worker, who, weighing the risk of going to the poilce about her missing son agains the risk of deportation, chose the police – and was deported. She had told Naomi from her jail cell, where she was shackled and waiting for the deportation bus, that she had named her son Juan because the name meant “God’s gracious gift” (59).

Not least of all, Naomi’s own story is threaded throughout. At the start of the book, Naomi has no memory as to her life before she was eight years old. She ends up in the care of Mrs. Cottle, a lovely woman who raises Naomi alongside another foster child, Jerome. Mrs. Cottle fulfills a similar role as the warden in The Enchanted  – she’s a reminder that there are good people trying to good work within difficult systems. Naomi’s memories don’t stay entirely buried, setting the stage for the next book in what GoodReads calls an ‘untitled series’.

Despite all the darkness contained within this story, it is more hopeful than the last bleak book I read (The Good People, review here). Madison, through her trauma, retains at least part of herself,and Naomi begins to learn how she might heal from her own trauma.

The Bottom Line

I can’t sum up this book better than Erin Morgenstern, whose blurb reads: “Rene Denfeld has a gift for shining bright light in dark places. […] Raw and real yet wrapped in a fairy tale, as lovely and as chilling as the snow.”

Further Reading

  • Author website
  • Read an excerpt
  • Interview @ Psychology Today (this is a great interview that offers some insight into Denfeld’s experiences and how she is able to write in such a vivid and moving way)
  • Review @ Oregon Live
  • Review @ Publisher’s Weekly

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October and November 2017 Month in Review

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This post is linked up at the Wrap Up Round Up hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

End of term is upon me! Yesterday was my last lecture. I have two final projects due next week, but I’m not crunched for time. I can’t believe how fast autumn went by. I now face a whole month largely free of academic obligations. How exciting! Is that enough time to catch up on my Goodreads goal, which I’m behind on by 25 books? Well. We’ll see. I am looking forward to reading a pile of books this month, even if I can’t make my goal. I’m also looking forward to posting regularly again. I didn’t reach my mini goal of four posts per month in October and November – not sure why I thought I would have more time to blog once the term got going, haha. I’m going to try to make up for that, at least, by posting 10 times this month. Aside from reading and blogging, I’m also looking forward to going home from December 16 to January 3. I’ve heard the snow has melted, which is pretty devastating, so I hope it returns before I do!

Books Finished

  • Poppy by Avi (reread)
  • Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager
  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  • I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin
  • The Tolkien Family Album by John Tolkien and Priscilla Tolkien
  • The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (reread, original review here)
  • The Good People by Hannah Kent
  • Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
  • The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
  • The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Books Reviewed

Features

Happening in October

  • 5 Dec – Publication of The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (young adult fantasy, sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale)
  • That’s all I’ve got for December! What book releases or bookish events are you looking forward to this month?

What plans are you looking forward to in this upcoming holiday season?

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Review: Hannah Kent’s The Good People is a Devastating Read

The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★½
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I waited impatiently over a year for this book to be released in Canada. I first expected it in September 2016 (but that was only the Australian release date), then in December 2016 (but then it got pushed all the way back to September 2017). The book was worth the wait! I devoured it in three days. The Good People tells the story of three women – Nóra, a widow whose daughter has also recently died, leaving her young son Mícheál in Nóra’s care; Nance, the village’s healer woman; and Mary, a young woman Nóra hires to help care for Mícheál.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johann about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. it was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest. (140)

Nóra unsettled me. At first, she’s quite the sympathetic character, grieving for her husband and daughter. She misses the happy, healthy Mícheál she once met.  She seeks the priest’s help but he dismisses her, saying that Mícheál  has turned ‘idiot’ and that Nóra shouldn’t speak of fairies. After her visit with the priest, she whips Mícheál  with nettles, claiming she hoped to cure him, as Nance once used the method to cure Nóra’s husband of a minor injury. But as the story progresses, Nóra starts believing the whispers of the townspeople. The boy is not really Mícheál – he’s a changeling, and perhaps Nance, familiar with the Good People, can bring the real Mícheál back. I grew uncomfortable with Nóra’s behaviour as she takes increasingly drastic actions to be rid of the ‘changeling’. Thankfully, Mary brings an outsider’s perspective to Nóra’s actions. She emphasizes the idea that Nóra’s beliefs and actions aren’t right, despite what folk belief says.

The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark. (28)

The villagers play a significant role in the story. They gossip and fuel rumours about a changeling in Nóra’s household, then they disdain her further when she believes those rumours. The new priest, who wants the village to disavow Nance, only increases the tension. The villagers continue to seek help from Nance, as they have always done, but they scorn her afterwards and spread lies about her intentions. Even redheaded Mary frightens some of the villagers, Mary who does her best to protect Mícheál. Kent excels at capturing the nuances and hardships of rural life two centuries ago, at exploring how relationships and behaviours can be transformed by belief.  When I think about this setting, I often reduce it to a simple kind of life. Kent crafts a story from a rich history and time period and gives us a striking look into a different way of life, where people’s lives are just as full of story and emotion as our own today.

‘Oh, Nóra,’ Peg murmured. ”Tis no easy thing. As Nance was telling ye, sometimes ’tis better to care for the changeling in your grandson’s place if you can’t be getting rid of it.’ (253)

I recently reread The Witches of New York. That book features real witches performing real magic; I would call it historical magical realism. Here in The Good People, which is pure historical fiction, I found myself wishing the magic was real so that Nóra could be set at ease and everything could turn out alright, as she imagined it would.  Although I knew true events inspired this book, I didn’t know what those events were. In Burial Ritesit was well-publicized that the book was about the last woman executed in Iceland, so I knew that Agnus would die at the end. The conclusion of The Good People was a surprise to me.  What happened at the climax was particularly intense – I found myself holding my breath and having to look away from the page.

The Bottom Line

A bleak yet atmospheric read, The Good People tells the tragic story of what can happen when a woman finds no support in her community and has to cling to folk beliefs in the name of love.

Further Reading

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