“The Sun is also a Star” by Nicola Yoon

This book, with its bright and colourful cover, caught my attention on Instagram a few years ago. I put it on my Good Reads to-read shelf and forgot all about it. Then one day I watched a movie trailer that looked interesting and found out it was based off of a book. This book! So I bumped it up my TBR list.

The story is told through multiple perspectives (always a favourite for me!) and follows two teens that meet and fall in love in one day.

David is on his way to a meeting with a Yale recruit. He is the son of Korean immigrants, destined to become a doctor or a lawyer. His parents own a beauty salon for black women, and he has a Harvard flunk-out brother, meaning the family legacy depends on him, and the pressure is high. But he is a believer in fate and destiny, and would rather write poetry than be a doctor.

Natasha is having a difficult day. If she cannot convince someone at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to help her family, they will be deported tonight. Her family immigrated to the United States illegally 8 years prior, and are currently living crammed in a one bedroom apartment, with the living room divided into two sections for her and her brother, separated only by a blue curtain. Natasha is smart, believes in science and facts, and loves listening to Nirvana and Chris Cornell through her pink headphones.

After reading the book, I found out that the author also wrote “Everything, Everything”, which for me was meh. This though, was much better, and is definitely my favourite of the two. I really enjoyed this! I liked the meet-cute moment and the quick falling in love. The ending was not quite what I had hoped for, but I can understand why it went in the direction that it did. The characters were well thought out and distinct, and so enjoyable to read. I love the relationships between each main character and their families, and the possibilities that seemed to hang in the air.

My favourite thing about the novel was the small chapters throughout the story that were not from David or Natasha’s perspective. Some chapters were about a particular topic, such as the multiverse, women’s hair, fate, or the meaning of “irie”. Other chapters were told from another character’s voice, such as Natasha’s father, David’s father, or Irene, the security guard from the Immigration Services office. For me they really added depth to the story. I also enjoyed Natasha’s “observable facts” in her perspectives!

The book touched on some interesting and poignant topics, the most prominent being immigration. It really is such a complex and difficult topic, and Yoon covered it so well. It was interesting to read the different points of view, such as why David’s family feels so strong about their sons going to the best schools, or the Korean waitress who feels the country takes everything about their cultural identity away from them. Some things were sad to read, like the struggles Natasha’s mom went through to get her a social security card so that Natasha could get financial aid, and open up doors for her to have the better life that her parents want for her.

I think another important aspect of the book was the message of simple gestures. Natasha told someone to say “thank you” to Irene, the largely overlooked security guard at the Immigration Services office, and that “thank you” had a large impact for her. Sometimes the simplest things like saying “hello” or “thank you” to someone can have a very big impact. Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Always be kind. Always.

I really enjoyed this book, and am really looking forward to watching the movie. I felt so meh about “Everything, Everything”, and didn’t really enjoy that movie either, and honestly had I known it was the same author prior to reading, I might not have picked this up. But I am really glad I did. Yoon masterfully told a beautiful story that touched on difficult and complex topics, but it was still such a fun story, and I smiled my way through it. I am really interested to see what she writes in the future!

”Then She Was Gone” by Lisa Jewell

I found this book at Costco way back last spring, and it has collected dust on my bookshelf ever since. I meant to get to it …eventually. I recently joined a book group on Facebook that rings all of my nerd bells, and this book was the group read for the month of January, so I dusted it off and bumped it up my TBR list.

Ellie was 15 when she disappeared on her way to the library. She is repeatedly labelled as the “Golden Child”, clearly her mother’s favourite. 10 years after her disappearance, the family is torn apart. The relationships between Laurel (Ellie’s Mom) and her other children is strained, and Laurel has not moved on. She always held out hope of her daughters return.

One day, Laurel is at a coffee shop where she meets Floyd, and gets swept up in a whirlwind romance. Everything is going so well, until she meets his 9 year old daughter Poppy, who is just the spitting image of her Ellie. Something seems off about Floyd and Poppy’s relationship. He watches everything she does, and home schools her, which seems to have stunted Poppy’s social skills. Laurel begins to become obsessed with Poppy, her life, and the question of why she looks so much like Ellie.

This was just an OK read for me. On the positive side, it was a fast paced, easy read, it had good character development, and it was hard to put down. The downside was that it was somewhat predictable. I will admit, I did not guess the ending of Poppy’s storyline just right, but I knew each character’s role in the plot as soon as they were introduced, which took some of the tension out of the story. There were a few WTF moments, and I felt there were some pretty big holes in the story that were attempted to be filled by rather unrealistic means. The story had good bones and the potential to be great, but I just felt it fell short for me.

”An Unwanted Guest” by Shari Lapena

This book first hit my radar via Instagram, mainly because I recognized the author’s name. I had read The Couple Next Door a few years ago, and remembered I wasn’t entirely impressed. When I looked up the author on Goodreads, it turns out I have also read Lapena’s A Stranger In The House, which I forgot about entirely. While I thought the synopsis of this new book sounded intriguing, because of my indifference with the author’s previous work, I didn’t really give this book much thought. Then one day a co-worker was talking about a good book that she had just finished, and sure enough it was this book. She offered to lend it to me, so I figured I would give it a try.

This novel takes place in the Catskills Mountains at Mitchell’s Inn, where a group of guests are stuck indoors thanks to a large snow storm, creating icy roads and whiteout conditions. The storm has knocked out the power, meaning no phones, no cell phone reception, and no Wi-Fi. There is also no access to snow machines, and even if there was, the weather is just too treacherous. They are completely cut off from the outside world. There are only 10 guests and 2 staff members at the Inn, and they settle in with candles and blankets to ride out the storm. In the morning after their first night there, the body of one of the guests is found dead at the bottom of the stairs. Did she fall? Or was she murdered? If murdered, which one of the remaining guests or staff could have killed her, and why?

This is by far my favourite book by Lapena to date! It was very Agatha Christie-esque, very suspenseful and fast paced, yet mostly character driven. The characters are interesting, each with a secret, each at the Inn to escape something, and their development really drives the story between the short bursts of action. It was a nice, simple, quick read, and I burned through it in an evening. I figured out the mystery before the big reveal, but it wasn’t my first guess… or even my second! I like that it surprised me. Overall, it was clever, a good whodunit that kept me guessing! I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for the next novel by this Canadian author.

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris

I first noticed this book on my Instagram feed, and it is a World War II novel so naturally it piqued my interest. I filed it in my “want to read” shelf on Good Reads, and didn’t give it much thought after that. I would get to it eventually. But then I started to notice it more frequently on Instagram, and then daily on my Facebook feed. When people started raving about it in one of the Facebook groups I am in, I bumped it up my reading list and bought the book.

The story opens in April of 1942, where Ludwig Eisenberg, or Lale, has been traveling in a cattle car full of young men for days. He doesn’t know where he is going, or what will happen when he gets there, but he knows that going to work for the Germans will keep his family safe. That’s what the posters that were hung all over his small town said: if Jews handed over their young men over the age of 18 to work for the German government, the rest of the family would be safe. And since Jews could no longer work and their businesses were confiscated, they really had little choice.

Lale is finally able to get out of the cattle car only to walk out and face angry SS soldiers, holding guns, demanding orders and viscous dogs barking and biting at passengers. Lale has found himself at Auschwitz, with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” over the iron gates. “Work Sets You Free”.

Lale starts working on roofs of the new buildings being constantly built, but quickly befriends a soldier, and he starts to gain favour. He then meets Pepan, the Tätowierer, or the tattooist. Pepan takes him under his wing, gets him a job helping him tattoo the incoming Jews, a job that comes with a bed all to himself and extra food rations. It is here that he meets her, as he tattoos the green number into her arm. #34902. Through a simple courtship, mostly Lale sneaking her food and letters with the help of an SS soldier, he quickly falls in love with this woman, and eventually finds out that her name is Gita.

Lale sets up a rather simple but dangerous system. He befriends some of the girls working in the collection rooms, where they steal some of the gold, gems and money that belonged to the Jews coming into the concentration camp. He then trades the goods with workers who live outside of the compound for food and chocolate. Lale then brings the food to his friends and allies, buying some freedom to visit with Gita, and undoubtedly saved a few lives.

The conditions are deplorable. If prisoners didn’t die from a bullet or end up in one of the gas chambers, they died of malnutrition, typhus, contact with an electrified fence, or exposure to the harsh winter environment. Lale learns not to judge fellow prisoners who work for the Nazi’s too harshly. They are doing precisely what he was doing…whatever they had to do to survive.

There are just not enough words to describe how much I enjoyed this book. It was so well written, and so thought provoking! I am not going to lie, I cried a few times. To read a story and know these atrocities happened in real life is heartbreaking. It was just so lovely to read of a romance that can blossom in such an unforgiving environment, where the worst of humanity was witnessed.

When I completed the book, there was a very informative section regarding the characters and the authors at the back. What I did not know prior to reading the story was that it was based on a true story! The author met with Lale after Gita had passed away. Lale was 87 at the time, and he wanted his story to be told to the world. He waited years to tell this story, and wanted the perfect author to write it. I think he chose well. The author took a few creative avenues to put Lale and Gita into situations that had not actually happened for the purpose of the love story, but by and large the severe realities of war were real. The author did a lot of research along with her discussions with Lale, and found out after Lale had passed away that his parents were brought to Auschwitz and died there prior to his arrival. He never knew.

This book is going to stick with me for quite a while. Knowing it’s based on a true story just makes it so much more important to read. It was by far my best read of 2018, and definitely top 5 of the last decade. I can’t recommend it enough, and hope you will pick it up and that it touches your heart as much as it did mine!

Reading Stats!

Happy New Year lovelies!

I listen to a weekly bookish podcast that strives to read diverse books, and it got me thinking about my reading habits, so I decided to track my reading for the year to see how I do, and where I can improve. I got lucky in that I was able to download a pre-made spreadsheet for free off of the podcast’s website that was a tremendous help in tracking. I made no efforts to change my reading habits for the purpose for this, I just read whatever sounded interesting to me, and picked books that were either recommended to me by friends, books I remember selling at the bookstore, or books that were all over my Instagram feed.

I had set a goal to read 50 books in 2018, but fell slightly short at only 48. Of the 48 books, the majority of the authors I read were women (37 books totalling 77%). I was actually surprised by this! I figured at best, maybe I read about 50/50, since I knew there were a few male authors I consistently read.

I figured my preferred reading format would be a trade paperback judging by my bookcase, since trades are the majority on my shelves. Yet I was wrong here too. In 2018, I started listening to audiobooks while doing various daily tasks, so audiobooks topped my reading formats this year with 22 books (46%). Next was hard cover, with 21 books, leaving trade paperbacks far behind (5 books). This was also very surprising to me since I don’t usually like hard covers. I find them too hard and heavy to hold. I clearly did not reach my goal of reading my bookshelf!

I was right about my preference to fiction versus nonfiction books, with 33 books (69%) and 15 books (31%). I eased my way into audiobooks by listening to nonfiction, most of which was biography. I found it easier to listen to since it was someone telling their life story, and if I missed something, it wasn’t going to be something that was part of the major plot.

Also not surprising was 83% (40 books) out of the 48 books were by US or Canadian authors. I was disappointed in myself that I only read 4 books by Canadian authors. This is something I definitely want to work on in the future, since I think, as a Canadian, that it is important to support Canadians authors.

I am also disappointed in my selection of books by diverse authors or books with diverse characters. In total I only read 2 books with people of colour as main characters, 2 books with people of colour side characters, and 9 books with LGBTQ main characters. This is another area that I definitely want to work on the future!

I had set myself up with a New Year’s resolution to read my bookshelf. With approximately 500 books in my collection, I thought it would be good to start reading it down. Sadly, I failed. I only read 10 books out of my collection, and 2 books were borrowed from friends. The majority of my books came from the library (35 books or 73%). This, while disappointing in that it failed my resolution, was not surprising since my audiobooks are borrowed from Overdrive with my library card. On a positive note, if I failed my resolution by supporting my library, I don’t really consider that a fail!

Another thing I thought would be interesting to know was where I got my recommendations from. I had hoped most would come from friends or be something that I remembered selling in my bookstore days, but I was wrong. Over half (56% or 27 books) of my reads came from social media, specifically Instagram. Not going to lie, this hurt my pride a little. I had hoped I was a little more conscientious than to fall into this trap, but hey, social media is powerful! “Influencers” on Instagram get paid by companies to promote their products. I knew this well thanks to someone I follow in Instagram in the paleo eating world, and this is something they have talked about repeatedly. I should have known better, and I read some less than stellar books this year because of this. Live and learn!

I think this was a positive and tremendously enlightening experiment! It was eye opening to see how little I read by or about diverse authors. I didn’t read as much by Canadian authors as I had hoped, or much from around the world. These are big areas for improvement in the future, since I think it is important to read different points of view from different backgrounds. I am thrilled though to see how much I use my library, and how much I have enjoyed reading audiobooks.

I highly encourage you to track your reading and see what habits you have, and see if there is anything you might want to work on. I am definitely going to track again this year, and hopefully this time next year, I can report back that I have read more diversely and read reached this year’s resolution or reading my bookcase!

“Twisted Prey” by John Sandford

This is the 28th installment in John Sandford’s Prey series, and this time our hero, Lucas Davenport, faces an old foe. Taryn Grant was first seen in Silken Prey, and she is back trying to kill her way to the White House. She is rich, she is a psychopath, and thanks to her job with the Senate Intelligence Committee, she has a military contact with ex Special Forces friends. Taryn targets Senator Porter Smalls, where she attempts to have him killed in a car accident. Smalls survives, though his lover does not. The accident looks just like, well, an accident. There is no evidence that anything else could have happened, the driver simply just lost control. Smalls calls Lucas in to investigate, and prove his life is on the line.

This particular installment is standard Sandford. You have to give the man props. I am sure it is not easy to keep the story fresh and fun after 28 books! Yet Sandford is able to continuously come up with new material and new ideas, all while bringing into the story previous characters, even if for small roles. I particularly like how our main character develops as the series grows, with Lucas now getting older, and struggling to realize he cannot do everything anymore, even calling for help rather than risk fighting for his life. I struggle sometimes with the various levels of government in the story, since I am Canadian and do not fully understand the US system, but Sandford’s stories are still accessible enough for us non US folks as well.

Sandford is one of my favourite summer reads. I love how we the readers get to see both angles of the story, Davenport’s and our bad guy’s perspectives, and watch as they dance their way to an action packed ending. I love Sandford’s writing, his humour, his continual character development, and his way of bringing the reader along for the ride. You know exactly what you are getting; a good, fast paced, easy read that leaves you wanting more!

”Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman

This book made a big splash all over my Instagram feed once Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club’s June pick. It is a mystery novel, and people raved about it, so I borrowed it from the library to see what the fuss was all about.

Erin is a documentary filmmaker, interested in a special project regarding life after prison for three inmates. She has a comfortable life with her fiancé Mark, who is an investment banker. Everything is perfect until Mark loses his job. While Mark is on the hunt for a new job, and Erin is in the middle of gathering footage for her documentary, they get married in a very modest ceremony, and take off on a honeymoon to Bora Bora.

In Bora Bora they have the time of their lives. They spend their time swimming, diving, and in bed. On a day trip diving with sharks and sunken ships, they find …dun dun duuuunnnn …something in the water. This something could change their lives. So what should they do? Do they call the police and report it? Or should they keep it? They make their decision, which has very big consequences. Once they get home, everything changes. Erin and Mark start keeping secrets from each other, and start making dangerous choices.

I liked the side story about the prisoners Erin was interviewing. Her particular project was discussing how they felt about their crimes, and what their dreams were for when they got out. She interviewed the three prisoners while they were in jail, and planned to talk to them once they have been released to see if they made their dreams a reality.

I did not find the characters very likeable or relatable. They made dangerous choices, choices I certainly would not have made, and I have a hard time thinking anyone with an ounce of logic would make. These choices led to bigger problems and more lies. Mark seemed like a total ass to me right from the get go, which bugged me. His behaviour I found very troublesome and uncomfortable.

The writing was not terrible. I found it suspenseful and read it in 2 evenings, so it was a quick read. The characters were decently written, even if unlikeable, and seemed to balance each other. Where Mark was calculating and thinking ahead, Erin was quick to act and impulsive. And the mystery wasn’t entirely guessable, though not exactly believable either. There were some other little things I found bothersome. Like if you are strapped for money why go to Bora Bora? I am sure that isn’t cheap?! Overall, this was another meh book for me.

I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga

Instead of writing individual reviews for the three books in this series, I thought it would be easier to do one review for all of them. I remember seeing I Hunt Killers, the first novel in the series, while working at the book store. Although I thought it sounded interesting and I shelved it in my “to read” shelf on Good Reads, it look me five years to get around to actually reading it, and by then it turned into a full blown series.

The series follows Jasper Dent, a 17 year old boy who happens to be the son of the country’s most famous serial killer. Jasper’s father raised him to be the perfect killer, teaching him how to think both as a killer and how to think like the police. He taught him tactics to avoid getting caught, but he himself was captured, and Jasper is desperate to avoid following in his father’s footsteps.

Someone is killing in Lobo’s Nod, Jasper’s hometown, and the killings mimic his father’s work. Jasper is sure it is the work of a serial killer, but no one believes him. He does everything he can to prove he is right and to stop the killer before the body count has a chance to pile up.

In the meantime, Jasper has other issues.  His mother has been missing for years, and he believes his father killed her. He lives with his grandmother who has dementia on top of mental health issues. His best friend Howie is a hemophiliac, who struggles with some mild social awkwardness and an obsession with tattoos he can never have. Jasper’s girlfriend Connie is a beautiful black girl who he fears he only loves because his father never killed a black woman. All of these characters play important roles in each of the novels, both to help drive the story, and as windows into Jasper’s thoughts and fears.

I don’t want to say too much about Game (book 2) or Blood of my Blood (book 3), mainly because anything I say will ruin the books for you. I will just say I enjoyed the series. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount of action, seems more peppered in here and there, but I still found it a good easy read. I did not guess the killer in the first book, l which I always like. That being said I didn’t guess the big twist at the end of the third either. I really liked the interesting perspective of someone raised by a serial killer. It is a unique concept to think of how hard police work to get into the mind of a serial killer, and here is this 17 year old kid who can get into the killers mind just as easily as the police’s. The series is definitely worth a read. You can tell the author put a lot of research into his work, which I always appreciate.

”Missing” by Kelley Armstrong

This is another teen stand-alone book by Kelley Armstrong. I did not even know it existed until I found it at a used book store in town for super cheap. And we all know how much I love me some Kelley Armstrong!

Winter Crane lives in a small community named Reeves End in Kentucky, a dead end town where people flee the second they graduate high school. The town is surrounded by old abandoned mines and bush, the population is small and very poor, and the bush has a pack of dangerous feral dogs. Winter lives in a trailer with her abusive, alcoholic father, and frequently sleeps in an abandoned cabin in the woods. Her sister, Cadence, left town right out of high school and no one has heard from her since.

One day Winter is trying to avoid the feral dogs when she stumbles across a young man in a tree, hurt and unconscious. She helps him, brings him to her cabin, and cleans and mends his wounds. Lennon Bishop is not a bush boy at all, but a cute, charming, charismatic guy with mediocre hunting skills and no idea how he got into that tree or why he looks like he just got his ass kicked.

Lennon tells her he is in town to find Edie; a friend of Winter’s who left town for bigger and better things, only no one has heard from her in a while either. Could she be missing? As Lennon tries to figure out what happened to him, someone attacks the cabin. Lennon knows he has brought this person into Winter’s life, just not exactly how or why. Lennon himself disappears after telling Winter he is going to fix everything.

While Winter searches for answers, Lennon’s brother Jude shows up looking for him. Jude is not so charismatic, but he sheds a little more light into Lennon, his lifestyle, and muddies the water as to why Lennon might have disappeared.

Winter starts to look into the other kids who have left Reeve’s End, seeing if anyone has heard from them or if they appear to be missing as well. While investigating she finds the body of a local boy who was supposed to have left town. Does his body relate to her sister’s disappearance, or Edie’s, or even Lennon’s?

I really enjoy Armstrong’s books. They are always an easy, fast pace read with a lot of mystery and action. She tackles division of classes, and the privileges that come with money. She is great at writing meet cute stories, and this is one of the few books of hers where I did not guess who the big baddy was.

I like that Armstrong seems to have embraced the mystery writing without the supernatural element. Werewolves and vampires seem to be over, it was fun while it lasted, but I for one am glad to see more interesting stories coming out. The only downside is if the big bad are not supernatural, it has to be something else. In this case, the scary element in the woods is a feral pack of dogs. There is some animal violence, which was a little hard for me to read, and I could have done without in the story. For some reason it is always easier to read about people getting stabbed than animals. Still, the story was good, the pace fast, just enough action and danger, and a neat and tidy ending. What more could you ask for!?

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

I remember selling this book at Coles. It was a really thin book though, and it had never really captured my attention. When the movie came out, we rented it from Family Video (god I miss that place!), and we really enjoyed!  So when I found it available on Overdrive, I decided I would give it a try.

Jonas is about to turn 12 where he will be given his life assignment. In his community, the concept of choice is non-existent. Your career, your spouse, your children are all chosen for you. It is all about sameness; no colour, no hills, no changing climate, every day is the exact same.

Jonas is given the prestigious job of Receiver. The Receiver is the town historian, burdened with the memories of the past, so the rest of society does not have to hold on to them. The Receiver is consulted only when society is faced with a decision, as someone to provide insight based on history.

Jonas begins his training with the Giver, the man who he will replace. The Giver is getting older and the burden of the memories is becoming too much. His training begins with sledding in the winter, down a hill, and continues with the sensation of sunshine, of burning, of pain, of starving, and of violence. An interesting concept for this society is that people can be “released”.  Jonas begins to understand just how heavy the burden of the Giver really is.

An interesting concept for this society is that people can be “released”. It is mainly for the elderly, but is also used for a twin, someone who does not follow the rules, and for babies that do not thrive. They are essentially released out of the society into the beyond. Jonas eventually finds out what is entailed in the process of being released, and he is horrified, and he wants everyone to have those memories, to fully understand what is happening in their society.

The book raises some interesting questions on what would you be willing to give up to live in a “perfect” or “fair” world? To have no worry about choice or differences? And at what cost? Can we find a way to give up all of the bad things in life without losing some of the good?

Overall, this was another meh book for me. The movie was much better I felt. Maybe it was just one of those stories that needs to be visually presented. But it really didn’t work for me as audiobook. I found I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, was not surprised by the “releasing” concept, and thought the idea of a world that’s the same rather boring. To me it is our differences that make the world better.