Review | Sparrow, Mary Cecilia Jackson

SparrowSparrow is a fairly intense book about surviving abuse and having to live with the fallout afterwards. The titular character, Sparrow, is a talented teenage ballet dancer who has grown up trained to hold in her secrets. Sparrow’s major secret — and the one that colours all the decisions she makes throughout this novel — involves a truth about her mother, who died years ago.

The focus of this novel is Sparrow’s relationship with her boyfriend Tristan, a handsome and popular boy who turns out to be controlling, abusive, and overall a horrible person. Because of Sparrow’s history with her mother, she does her best to keep Tristan’s behaviour under wraps. Even as her friends and family express concern about how scared she seems of Tristan, Sparrow insists that everything’s fine. The novel switches POV from Sparrow and her friend and dance partner Lucas, taking us through the months of Sparrow and Tristan’s relationship, from the very first meet-cute to Tristan’s increasingly violent outbursts, and finally to a confrontation that proves almost fatal.

Coming into this novel, I knew that it would tackle the subject of abuse. Not sure how I got the impression, but for some reason, I thought it would involve a single incident of rape near the beginning, followed by a long yet ultimately hopeful process of healing. It’s an intense topic, and one I wasn’t sure I could handle yet I was curious enough about the book overall to give it a try.

Yet it turns out my presumption was wrong. Rather than showing us the fallout from a single incidence of abuse, the author takes us through the long-term reality of dealing with abuse on a daily basis. I don’t think there was any actual sex in the book; rather, a lot of Tristan’s abuse was emotional and physical. He was often jealous of Sparrow’s friendship with Lucas, and there were scenes when Lucas would discover Sparrow on the ground after an argument with Tristan. All that to say: this was a different type of difficult read than what I was expecting, and I wish I’d had a clearer idea of what to prepare myself for when I started.

Much of the power of Jackson’s storytelling is that she intentionally withholds specifics from us. In a way, that should make the story easier to bear, but instead, it’s an almost smothering reminder of the weight that silence can have. We learn the specifics of what Sparrow’s mother did near the end, and in a way, the knowledge brings with it a form of relief, of catharsis. It’s not easy to read, but it’s far preferable to the obscure allusions Sparrow makes — and immediately pulls away from — throughout the book.

Even with Sparrow’s relationship with Tristan, so much of the worst parts are deliberately kept between the lines. The story is told in fragments, jumping back and forth in time to reveal little vignettes as we go. We see Sparrow terrified about not answering Tristan’s texts immediately — and Jackson’s writing makes us feel her terror on a visceral level without actually labelling it such — but we don’t see all the conversations and arguments that led her to becoming that jumpy. We see glimpses of Tristan accusing her of being attracted to Lucas, of Tristan being pouty because she forgot to wear a piece of jewelry, of Tristan giving one of Sparrow’s friends the finger for no good reason… and somehow, because these glimpses are so brief and disjointed, they’re even more disturbing. We know there’s a lot more than what we’re seeing, and like Sparrow’s family and friends, we feel frustrated at our inability to stop the inevitable crisis.

It’s an intense, sad story. The ending is far from happy, but it does have a tinge of hope and catharsis. (CW: child abuse, domestic violence)


Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Review | Photos of You, Tammy Robinson

PhotosOfYouCoverOn her 28th birthday, Ava Green learns that the cancer she thought she’d beaten is back, and that this time it’s terminal. With less than a year to live, she decides to fulfill a long-cherished childhood dream: to get married. She may not have a groom, but she can still wear a white dress, invite her family and friends, and celebrate herself. Then a national magazine decides to do a series of articles about the wedding, and the handsome photographer assigned to the story turns out to be someone she could very easily fall in love with.

Photos of You is a moving, emotional novel that does exactly what it promises it will. There’s no last-minute miracle cure, no surprising reveal about a medical error. Ava Green will die, but she will fulfill her dream of having a wedding before she does. The love story reminds me a bit of Nicholas Sparks, especially A Walk to Remember, except it’s told from the perspective of the character with a terminal illness, which means, thankfully, that cancer is never reduced to a plot twist designed to shock and evoke tears. Rather, like Ava, we need to carry that knowledge with us for the entire book, infusing even the happiest of scenes with an incredibly complex mix of emotions.

I absolutely love that Ava decides to have a wedding even without a groom. It’s such a badass response to cancer, and a glorious celebration of life. I love how Ava’s dream of having a wedding can still come true even if she’s single, how she can still choose to enjoy dressing up in a beautiful white gown, and having a massive celebration with her loved ones. Ava’s decision to have a wedding is a determination to make her happily ever after come true, and I absolutely love that about this story.

Having said that, I also absolutely love that Ava does find love in the photographer, Lucas. Their relationship does feel a bit insta-love, but Robinson sets their story up in such a way that you want to suspend your disbelief.  You want to fully buy into their love story. Just as much as the wedding itself is a badass act of happily ever after, Ava’s relationship with Lucas is a promise that, no matter how bleak circumstances can feel, fate can still come through and surprise you with a taste of the happily ever after you no longer thought possible. It’s a romance that’s doomed to tragedy from the start, and you can’t help but root for Ava and Lucas to take every little bit of happiness together that they can.

Photos of You is a beautiful story. Odd as it may be to say about a story where the main character will die, Photos of You is also a hopeful, feel-good story. Yes, we know that Ava will die, and we know that she and Lucas will have a few months together at most. But we also know that love happens, and we also know that a lifelong dream will come true. And that’s beautiful.


Thank you to Forever for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Majesties, Tiffany Tsao

The_Majesties_CoverWow. It’s been a few weeks since I finished reading this book, and I think I’m still grappling with exactly how I feel about it. It’s the kind of book that I feel will reveal more layers if I re-read it… and even more layers if I re-read it again.

The Majesties begins with a pretty devastating scene: the main character Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the only one who survived her sister Estella’s poisoning of their entire family (300 people!) at a family celebration. As Gwendolyn tries to figure out why her sister would do such a thing, we learn about the lives of both sisters, how they were super close as children, but then a bad decision takes their lives on separate paths, such that Gwendolyn enjoyed tremendous success while Estella was trapped in a dead-end career and toxic marriage.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and while the poisoning may have been the most dramatic event, it feels almost secondary to the story of how the sisters’ lives unfolded. Tsao touches slightly on the social strata in Indonesian society, and how the Chinese part of the sisters’ heritage isolated them somewhat within a very stratified segment of the super-rich. It’s the kind of subtle cultural nuance I love to see in fiction, and that I think helps bring this story to life.

The ‘majesties’ in the title refers to the jewellery that makes Gwendolyn an international fashion star and independently wealthy from her family. In a reveal that honestly turned my stomach, we learn that majesties are live insects that are put into some kind of soporific state by genetically modified fungus. The idea that people would be okay with butterflies essentially being zombiefied into accessories is disgusting. Unfortunately, I can also imagine people being okay with it, especially since the way Tsao describes these majesties shows how utterly beautiful they are. To assuage any lingering bits of conscience, Gwendolyn assures customers that her majesties have longer and more comfortable lives than insects in the wild. It’s horrific, yet all too believable, and these majesties are an incredibly potent metaphor for the gilded prison Gwendolyn and Estella grew up in.

The tragedy of Estella’s life, and perhaps a clue into her motives behind killing her entire family, is that while Gwendolyn managed to escape their family, Estella remained trapped. She fell in love with the wrong man, Leonard, who turned out to be abusive. And she took a job in the family business, one that provided her with a steady source of income but did nothing to stimulate her intellectually. The scenes where she listens to Gwendolyn’s stories about the majesties are almost heartbreaking — you can feel Estella’s desire to escape like her sister did, just as much as you sense her inability to actually do so.

Given the magnitude of Estella’s act at the beginning of the novel, I wish Tsao had shown us more about how horrible their family actually was. About halfway through the novel, I had a very strong sense of why Leonard was horrible (and a very strong suspicion that Estella may have been responsible for his fate), but still didn’t quite understand why she would have been driven to kill her entire family. Tsao holds out Estella’s motives till near the end of the book, and while she did succeed in making the reveal dramatic, I wish we’d seen more details about her family’s behaviour throughout.

The Majesties turned out to be much sadder than I expected. I think I came into it expecting a psychological thriller, or some kind of social satire. But instead, it’s a story about a young woman’s life gone horribly wrong, and her sister’s ultimate inability to save her. It’s a realistic, heartfelt story amidst all the glitz and glamour of its characters’ worlds, and Tsao does a great job in tucking Gwedolyn and Estella right into your heart.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.