BOOK REVIEW | From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

5/5 stars.

Jesse Thistle shares his powerful story in his memoir, From the Ashes. From a child struggling to get by with his brothers, to a young man on the streets, it’s amazing that Thistle is here today to tell us about his life. They say you have to hit rock bottom to break free from addiction, and Thislte most certainly did.

Thistle and his brothers are left behind first by their mother, and eventually their father. When a child grows up without parents there’s a piece of their identity, a sense of home, missing. This lack of self becomes the catalyst for many of the decisions Thislte will make in his young life.

Thistle and his brothers are taken in by his paternal grandparents but, as is often the case, he starts to fall into bad habits. Before long, his life has spiraled out of control. Following in his father’s footsteps, Thistle finds himself homeless and trapped in the throes of addiction. It’s heartbreaking to follow Thistle down this road, to see him sink deeper and deeper into his illness, becoming increasingly isolated. Sick and badly injured, it’s unbelievable that he was able to find his way out of his circumstances. It wasn’t luck: he worked incredibly hard to grow further away from his addictions.

There’s much to glean from Thistle’s life, but what was especially profound for me was his journey to self identity. He shares that he grew up ashamed of his Métis heritage, even though he didn’t know much about it. The absence of his parents in his life left a void that took many years and many mistakes to begin to fill. I imagine this is a lifelong process. Much of Thistle’s recovery was supported by his wife, Lucie, who he discusses with so much love. It’s clear that she’s a remarkable woman – not afraid to push him to fulfill his potential.

Thistle’s writing is lush, even when deeply painful, and evocative; reading this was very visual, I could see each moment like a movie. I don’t gravitate towards memoirs, but Thistle’s story was both worth the time, and incredibly inspirational. I’d highly recommend this to readers interested in intergenerational trauma or addiction, or to those who are struggling in life and feel there’s no way out.

BOOK REVIEW | Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey

3/5 stars

*I received a digital review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Unspeakable Things is available now.

Unspeakable Things follows Cassie, coming of age in the 1980’s, and her older sister Sephie as they navigate both a troubled home life as well as rumors of children being taken in the town of Lilydale, a small community in Minnesota.

This is a slow burn mystery, with multiple red herrings at play – tension is building up to something sinister, and it seems that almost any of the adults in town could be implicated. Most of the action, and the best parts of the story, take place in the final chapters of the book. Unfortunately, the final reveal does not come as a surprise.

I really enjoyed parts of this book, and found others to be wholly unnecessary. Without giving too much away, there are elements at play which do nothing to move the story forward, but I suppose are rather to establish a dysfunctional home life for the sisters. But, we already know that some of the people closest to them are unreliable, so there are things I could do without.

Strangely, the incredibly important epilogue was left out of the book. To read this final section, readers must head to Jess Lourey’s website to see where the central characters end up. To me, the epilogue was critical to my full understanding and resolution of the story, so it seems an odd choice to leave it out.

Note that this book does have descriptions of abuse towards children, as well as implied assault by a parent. It’s not extensive, but this could certainly be a troubling read for some. Overall, it was ok. I liked Cassie and rooted for her, and found myself moving very quickly through the book at the end.

BOOK REVIEW | Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

3/5 stars

*I received a digital advanced review copy of this book from Simon and Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Release date: March 17, 2020.

If you know the horrifying true story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee, then you know the basic premise of Darling Rose Gold. This one swerves from the original story a little and gives us a twist towards the end, but it felt like Wrobel heard the Gypsy Rose story and just fictionalized it. She does give a nod to some of her sources in her Acknowledgements, but I think this book would be a better read for those who aren’t familiar with its origins.

Rose Gold suffered at the hands of her mother, Patty, for most of her childhood. Patty, who herself was physically abused as a child, made Rose Gold sick by poisoning her for years as a result of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP). She shaved Rose Gold’s head for sympathy, and spent countless hours at medical appointments under the guise of helping her ailing daughter. The community rallied around this sick child, showering Patty in sympathy. Years later, Patty has been released from prison and is reunited with Rose Gold.

This book was ok. It’s a page-turner, a quick and easy read, and yes, it’s entertaining. The writing is mediocre – I’m starting to find it hard to overlook similes that make no sense (can someone tell me what on earth a “pop tart bed” is???), and the use of overly colloquial language such as “f’ed up”. I didn’t expect this to be literary by any means, so maybe I’m just too pretentious a reader to enjoy a book simply for entertainment’s sake.

With all that said, this book is easy to read and hard to put down. I wish Wrobel went deeper into the psychology and trauma of MSBP. This is a fightingly disturbing cycle of abuse that leaves children severely traumatized. While I felt compelled to finish the book, I found it just ok. I’m in the minority here, as most reviews for this book are excellent. So, if you’re looking for a twisted, fast-paced thriller that isn’t a typical domestic drama, this could be worth picking up.

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.

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 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.