BOOK REVIEW | Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

5/5 stars

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this advanced copy. Miracle Creek is available now.

Miracle Creek is being touted as a courtroom drama, but to label it as such is doing this book a huge disservice. This story is layered, deep, and incredibly smart. Angie Kim blew this book out of the water; it’s hard to believe it’s her debut novel. The promise of a gripping court story is appealing, but the nuanced, complex characters will keep readers engaged.

The story revolves the “Miracle Submarine”, a Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) tank run by Pak in the town of Miracle Creek. HBOT is said to help improve symptoms in children with autism, and the allure of this unique treatment proves hope for many parents. Elizabeth and her son Henry are among those who come for regular treatments, or “dives”.

During a routine dive, a fire breaks out resulting in an explosion. The outcome is tragic, sparking an investigation into how the fire started. It becomes quickly apparent that this was arson, but who would set a fire to an oxygenated structure knowing that kids are inside? Would the exhausted, overworked parent of an autistic child commit such an atrocious crime? Or perhaps Pak, the owner of the Miracle Submarine, in an insurance fraud scandal?

Interposed between snapshots of the trial, are beautifully fleshed out stories. We learn about Pak, his wife Young, and daughter Mary, and the challenges they face after immigrating from Seoul, Korea. Mary struggles the most with this significant change, as any teenager would. We gain insight into Elizabeth’s life and struggles as a mother to an autistic child, and the lengths she goes to to help him with his symptoms. From meticulously planned out meals, to a variety of therapies, Elizabeth’s world revolves around Henry and his care. She’s exhausted, but any parent can relate to her story – to want to give your child every possibly opportunity to thrive.

Kim delivers family drama, intrigue, and poignant insights with Miracle Creek. This was a fantastic read for me, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a moving story to get lost in.

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BOOK REVIEW | Starlight by Richard Wagamese

4/5 stars

It’s not in our imagined wholeness that we become art, it’s in the celebration of our cracks.
-Richard Wagamese

Starlight may be the first incomplete, posthumous, story that I’ve read. Richard Wagamese passed away before completing his first draft of Starlight, but with his estate’s blessing, this story came to be published. It’s a follow up to Medicine Walk, a story that is on my bookshelf but I have yet to read.

Franklin Starlight is grieving the loss of the man who raised him, living a quiet life on his farm with his friend and farmhand, Roth. Starlight also happens to be a talented photographer, his respectful approach to wildlife giving him the unique ability to capture animals in intimate moments.

Meanwhile, a story of survival and escape is taking place: Emmy, a woman in an abusive relationship, manages to escape with her daughter and the pair set out on the run. With no money and no plan, the only goal is to create distance between themselves and Emmy’s abuser. When Emmy finds herself in trouble, a unique suggestion from a social worker brings Starlight and Emmy together. As Emmy enters life on the farm, a tender relationship with Starlight develops. Wile the threat of Emmy’s abuser tracking them down looms, the connection between Emmy and Starlight is a powerful force and one can only root for their happiness and safety.

This story reads like a first draft, but that’s exactly what it is: some grammatical cleanup was done, and some very light editing. I enjoyed reading something is such pure form, and can envision what Wagamese’s final vision may have been. I commend the way that the ending of this story was handled – it cuts off abruptly, ending where Wagamese had. I appreciate that no attempt to finish the story was made but found significant value in the insights regarding how the story may have ended, provided by those close to Wagamese. This is ultimately a story of recovery from trauma and the power of human connection.

BOOK REVIEW | The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

3/5 stars

My first time picking up Ruth Ware was exciting – I’d wanted to read her for ages! I started with The Woman in Cabin 10 as it sounded a bit less formulaic than some of her other plot lines, and I am always intrigued by a locked room mystery.

Lo Blacklock is an ambitious travel journalist with an amazing opportunity in front of her – she will set sail on a new luxury cruise liner, the Aurora, mingling with the other elite guests; this is sure to be a big break in her career. Prior to her departure, Lo experiences a traumatic event leaving her tired and anxious, but ready to relax for a week of decadence.  Her week on board takes a turn for the macabre when Lo witnesses a woman being thrown overboard, and continues to spiral when her account is not taken seriously. All passengers are accounted for, so who was the woman she saw?

This was an average read for me: I wasn’t kept on the edge of my seat, but I was curious to see where Ware would take the story. Lo is continuously set up as unreliable, and as readers we question her account of what she saw, but not so much as to truly discredit her. Lo experienced trauma, she is sleep deprived, she drinks too much, and is on medication for anxiety – yet, none of these things made me question her sincerity. So, the unreliable narrator thread sort of missed the mark for me. I will say that I didn’t guess what the big reveal would be, which was refreshing.

This is a fairly standard, solid thriller. I don’t think it will blow fans of the genre away, but was still an enjoyable read regardless. I would recommend this book to readers who are not well versed in thrillers, looking for a light way to discover the genre – there’s enough tension to keep the readers engaged, but not too much violence to turn off less desensitized readers.

 

BOOK REVIEW | The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

4/5 stars

Craig Davidson continues to prove himself as an incredibly diverse and talented writer. I adored his non-fiction story, Precious Cargo, and I’ve enjoyed his horror while writing under pseudonym Nick Cutter. The Saturday Night Ghost Club felt like a nice bridge between those two worlds.

This book is an account of neurosurgeon Jake Breaker’s childhood, specifically a summer spent with his eclectic uncle Calvin. Calvin owns a shop of oddities, which soon sparks the formation of their ghost hunting club. Along with a couple friends, Jake and Calvin seek out parts of town suspected to be haunted.

The book flips back and forth in time, using Jake’s skills as a brain surgeon to serve as commentary on the significance, and fragility, of memory, and the power of the brain. After another Saturday night exploration, Jake’s parents disclose some heartbreaking things to Jake about Calvin’s past. While Jake’s family is far from perfect, they have protected Calvin from his own memories in the only way they knew how.

Craig Davidson has been a surprising and inventive author, and I’m really looking forward to see where he brings his readers next.

BOOK REVIEW | The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh| Man Booker Prize 2018

3/5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect going into The Water Cure, but comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are no joke, so I guess I was expecting a lot. This is an eerie book, telling the story of three sisters living on a secluded island with their parents (“mother” and, aptly, “King”). Women’s bodies are under siege, and on the island they are safe from the outside world and its “pollutants”.

Grace, Lia, and Sky share a sisterly bond that is beautiful and touching at moments, dysfunctional and violent at others. The sisters must navigate treacherous waters, both metaphorically and physically, as they seek survival with their tyrannical parents, and then later on as men arrive on the island. The arrival of the men marks a turn for the sisters, and they must learn to handle the complex emotions and circumstances that inevitably arise. At the heart of this story, I believe, is the enduring power of their relationships with each other.

There’s depth missing in this story, a greater significance that could have put this book on another level  –  something felt distant and cold, and the plot never fully connected for me. I wasn’t able to connect with the characters and was unsure of this book’s message, but Mackintosh writes with dreamy, lush prose that I raced through in the first third of the book. Something slowed in the pacing in the middle section of the book for me, but things did pick up again at the end. This was a really unique and atmospheric read, though I’m not sure it’s one that will stay with me in the long term.

BOOK REVIEW | The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | Man Booker Prize 2018

3/5 stars

All of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer.

In this powerful novel about women in prison, Rachel Kushner touches on both issues within the correctional system, and the cycle of poverty and addiction that often leads women there. More than once, correctional officers allude to the women’s poor choices in life that led them to an existence under lock and key, with no regard for the circumstances which may have contributed to their crimes. An added layer of depth would have been beneficial here, as I feel in many ways this book only scratched the surface on this complex topic.

The story is focused on Romy Hall and the inmates she encounters while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. We get a picture of Romy’s life before prison through recounts of her youth in San Fransisco, her drug use, and her experiences working as an erotic dancer at The Mars Room. I liked this book, and found many scenes to be especially powerful; Romy’s relationship with, and separation from, her son was the most affecting for me. Romy is not forgiven of her crime by Kushner, she murdered the man who was stalking her. Rather, we examine how Romy’s socioeconomic status may have led her to such a place.

There are many timelines and perspectives at play, which occasionally made for a disjointed read. I can only describe my relationship to Romy and the other characters as distant – there was a lack of emotional connection at work. I think focusing a little less on certain secondary characters, and honing in more on Romy’s emotional journey would have kicked this book up a notch for me. Romy seeps ennui about her life and crime, and it’s only when she realizes her son may be alone on the outside that we feel the retching pain that she must endure. An interesting addition to the Man Booker list, and a valuable read for those who have an interest in the mentioned topics.

BOOK REVIEW | White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3/5 stars

I’ve delayed writing this review because I’m struggling a little with placing it appropriately. Zadie Smith is an immaculate writer and this book is witty and insightful, with razor sharp prose. Smith writes dialect beautifully, crafting characters that feel real. Something is lacking in the plot for me though, and while this is a character driven story, something is missing from each character’s arc that would push this into 5 star territory. This is a multi-generational saga that follows 2 two very different families as they overcome immigration, racial tension, war, and the pressures to raise their children in modern society without losing connection to their heritage. Throw in some genetic engineering and The Godfather, and that about sums it up.

There is a weighty plot here with a lot going on, but it essentially boils down to the story of Archie and Samad, two friends who meet at war, and their families. Archie, an Englishman, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bengali immigrants and they have twin boys, Magid and Millat. I absolutely loved Clara but she disappears before long, becoming a secondary character. There was an interesting friendship between Clara and Alsana which could have been fleshed out into something significant as well.

I felt the deepest connection with Irie and I wanted so much more from her story; I would have loved to follow Magid and Millat further, to find out how they reconciled after a lengthy separation. Too many narratives felt incomplete and I wanted to go deeper. We are introduced to a third family, the Chaulfens, resulting in a completely unexpected turn in the plot. I found many scenes with the Chaulfens to be worthwhile, but ultimately felt like I was reading two different books – it felt disjointed.

Smith’s style is reminiscent of my favorite writer, John Irving: confident, bold, a little over the top, but never lacking in the right amount of sentimentality. Even though this wasn’t a home run for me, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work.