Review: Daughter of Family G

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I should preface this post by saying that I never read books about disease or terminal illness. I hate when it catches me off guard in fiction and I can’t do it in nonfiction. It’s part of my completely irrational belief that reading about those things somehow invites them into my life.

I know.

But when I read the description of Ami McKay’s memoir, Daughter of Family G: A Memoir of Cancer Genes, Love and Fate, I honestly didn’t clock that I’d be reading about the Big C. I’m smart about a lot of things but sometimes I’m a complete idiot.

family G

McKay, author of The Birth House, The Virgin Cure and The Witches of New York, is also a descendant of Family G, the first family to be medically recognized as having a genetic predisposition to certain kinds of fast-moving cancers. Starting in 1895, her great-great aunt Pauline had worked with pathologist Dr Aldred Warthin to map her family tree and the instances of cancers that had killed them one by one. She herself was fearful of dying young because of the same and sadly, she ended up being right.

Eventually a Dr Lynch is able to determine that there is a gene responsible for the higher instances of cancer and creates a test that can find out whether a person has inherited the gene. The idea is that once a person becomes aware of their predisposition, they can begin to schedule annual tests and screenings to catch any issues before they are terminal.

McKay, like her great-great aunt before her, has become the custodian of her family’s history. And when, as a young mother, she discovers that she too has inherited the gene, she has to figure out how to come to terms with her medical reality: maintaining her status as a previvor, staying on top of the tests and screenings she needs, educating some doctors about her status as someone with Lynch Syndrome, and how she feels about the potential that she has passed the gene onto her sons.

Daughter of Family G is an intensely intimate memoir. McKay is literally sharing her medical records and that of her entire family with readers. It is a love letter to the incredible women in her family; her mom Sally, her grandmother Alice, great-grandmother Tillie, and of course, great-great aunt Pauline. In tracing the history of her family’s cancers, of the work of Drs Warthin and Lynch, McKay also tells her own story of finding love, figuring out her destiny, moving to Nova Scotia, becoming a mother.

Not only did I learn so much about hereditary cancers and the power of knowledge when it comes to medicine, but I fell in love with McKay’s family. It’s so easy to see how she is drawn to telling stories about groups of women who make a difference in their community – that’s the kind of family she comes from, it’s what she knows. I’ve loved reading McKay’s fiction for years and now I feel like I have a deeper understanding of her work and where it comes from.

It should maybe also go without saying that this book is beautifully written. McKay weaves a spell with her gorgeous prose which feels like a feat when you stop and think about the fact that this is a book about cancer.

I loved this memoir and am very glad that I let it in my life. It is very much a story about what cancer can do but it is also a memoir of love and understanding, of the power of knowledge. I’m truly sad to leave the women of Family G – it was an honour to have ‘met’ them.


Getting’ witchy with it

Halloween is not my holiday, really.

I don’t like to be scared. Seriously, I hate it. I don’t watch scary movies or read books in any genres that might give me a fright.

I also don’t particularly like dressing up? I’ve only felt like I’ve nailed my costumes a couple of times: Mary Poppins when I was 11, Alice in Wonderland at 22, and Charlie Chaplin when I was 10 except a few people thought I was Hitler on that last one, which was super unfortunate.

(And begs the question, what 10 year old is dressing up as Hitler?)

All that to say that my contribution to Halloween this year is a review of a witchy book: Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York.

I know – daring, isn’t it?

Back in the day, I read McKay’s The Birth House in one sitting. At the time, I couldn’t remember being quite so captivated by a book. It was also one of the first successful forays into CanLit (can someone figure this out for me? McKay was born in the States but lives in Nova Scotia and has totally been embraced as one of our own – does she “count” as being a Canadian author? How does this work? Emma Donogue is another one that this always confuses me with…)


When The Virgin Cure came out, I didn’t fall in love with it. So I was apprehensive about The Witches of New York. It continues Moth’s story. But this time Moth, now Adelaide Thom has embraced her witchy heritage. She is in business with Eleanor St Clair – they run a tea shop in New York City. Wealthy women come to visit them for a variety of problems that they help solve through spells and potions.

When Adelaide runs an ad looking for a shop girl to help Eleanor, Beatrice Dunn shows up and everything changes. Suddenly the women are in danger from those who are starting to become suspicious about the work that they do. In 1888, the women are quite removed from the Salem Witch Trials but there are still those who would harm them for the work that they do. As Beatrice learns to harness her powers, those who think that their work is evil come ever closer.

I really liked this book. There were some issues that I had in terms of the plot – there are a lot of things happening and I’m not convinced that they all came together. I also think that it doesn’t need to be a 500 page book – there’s a lot of set up that had no pay off and we could have started later and gotten to the same place.


I loved the atmosphere of this book. McKay does an incredible job of evoking this time and place with something extra. Her cast of characters, the history infused into this book give the whole thing an ethereal quality that had me looking around wondering if spirits were near.

Also, McKay is here for women. Beatrice, Adelaide and Eleanor make up a sisterhood who help each other in life and love and have built a business around helping other women out of the problems created, oftentimes, by men. There are very few men in this book and only one of them is really good – he’s the only one that actually listens to what they have to say. The others are intent on the destruction of these women for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that they are evil.

McKay touches on the Salem Witch Trials and the historical persecution of women who didn’t fit the mould. It turns out that one of her own ancestors had been persecuted, accused of being a witch – she was hanged in 1692. So the subject matter feels personal and you can tell as you read.

I think that The Witches of New York has been set up as a series and I am more than OK with it. If you haven’t read The Virgin Cure, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary in order to enjoy this one. But don’t pass up The Witches of New York if you didn’t love its predecessor.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. 


The Virgin Cure

I loved The Birth House and if you read it, then I know you did too. It was one of Heather’s Picks of the decade, shortlisted for the CBC’s Canada Reads competition and was Number One on Canada’s bestseller lists. It was compulsively readable, perfectly Canadian and totally timeless.

I was so anticipating Ami McKay’s next effort, The Virgin Cure.

I have to say, I was disappointed. I was never completely invested in Moth or the time or the story. The idea of the Virgin Cure (that having sex with a virgin would cure a man of syphilis) was touched on but never became what I assumed would be the crux of the story. It was just kind of a description of a brutal time and place for a young girl.

The beginning felt very A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to me (for the record, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favourite books), just in terms of the New York slums and the reality of poverty at the time and how Moth’s mom does whatever she needs to do in order to get the money together for rent. But while Francie’s mom would never actually sell her children, Moth’s mother has no qualms about selling her daughter, into what was basically white slavery, to a woman with a heavy purse.

After Moth gets abused at the hands of her mistress, she escapes and is living on the street when she is saved by a girl in a fancy dress and brought to a house that turns out to be a kind of brothel, specializing in training young girls how to behave around men and then selling their virginity to the highest bidder.

Sometimes you just don’t feel it. I didn’t connect. There was a bit of a circus feel to it and I do not care for the circus. I didn’t like Water for Elephants either and I’m sure that that was down to the circus.

A lot of the book was very sad – the women dying of syphilis, the reminder that aside from marrying well there weren’t a whole lot of options open to women, how Moth’s mother sells her and then just disappears. But I didn’t feel like any of this was particularly new or surprising. I’ve read these things before.

Moth’s mother is supposed to be a Gypsy, a fortune teller and I guess one of the things that is supposed to make her story stand out is that he has all kinds of rituals that she’s picked up from her mom that she uses to get what she thinks she wants. In this new life of hers, Moth has to reconcile the things that her mother always told her (like not to sit in a bathtub) with the way things are in her new life, the necessity of passing herself off as the same as the other girls.

There’s a bit of a plot twist near the end I suppose, but by then I’d long forgotten the origins of it and it didn’t shock or surprise me, it just happened.

I wanted to love this book, I waited a long time for this book. But I’m sad to say that I just didn’t connect.

Sometimes that happens (kind of a lot this year it seems eh?).


No Thanks Required

There are so many good things about fall. When I was still in school it meant brand new notebooks and pens and clothes. It still means crisp autumn sunshine and cozy fall sweaters. Its an excuse to break out those boots that have been languishing in your closet all summer.

And it means new fall titles.

You’ve seen the bookstores clearing out their titles, to make room for all the new, life changing books that will be filling the shelves in the coming weeks. You may have found some good deals. I know I have. I found a $150 Atlas for $20. A $75 book on life under the Third Reich for $12 and the complete works of Shakespeare in 3 hardcover volumes (conveniently divided into his comedies, tragedies and sonnets) for just $25! My biggest problem has become how to better organize all my lovelies to show them off the best advantage.

But I digress. Earlier today I had some time to kill and wandered over to Chapters.ca to mine for new reads to add to the ever growing list (currently stands at 3 pages). I should probably come up with a more original way of finding new reads but have you ever taken a look at Heather’s Picks? That woman, aside from having the best job in the world, has flawless taste. I know it’s part of the marketing strategy but honestly, she will never steer you wrong.

I was scrolling through the upcoming releases and I got really excited. I find that, because literary genius takes a while to ferment, it’s impossible to come up with any kind of timeline for when your favourite authors might come out with a new title. These aren’t movies with fancy trailers after all. So I found that I was pleasantly surprised, delighted even, to find that the following titles would be coming out soon. Keep in mind that I haven’t read any of them. But keep reading to find out why I’m excited.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay. Did you read The Birth House? If you have, you know why I’m excited about this – I read that in one sitting. I could not put it down. I don’t even know how long The Birth House has been out, but I feel like I didn’t even know that I was waiting for Ami McKay to release a second book! Serendipitously it was released today. I should probably wait until I have made a little more headway through the books that I still have to read but I might not be able to help myself!

Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Series by Gregory Maguire. Maguire was able to take a well-loved story and turn it on it’s head. Maybe the Wicked Witch was just perceived to be terrible when she was actually fighting against the oppressive tyranny of the Wizard! Intriguing no? Maguire hasn’t only done this with Dorothy and the Wicked Witch either – he made Cinderella’s stepsisters seem human and painted Snow White in a rather unflattering light. I’m excited at the chance to return to Oz and see how this all turns out. It’s out November 1st.

A more recent obsession of mine comes from the fantastic genius of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. The 4th in the series (six are promised), I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, is set to be released shortly (November 1st to be exact). Flavia de Luce has been described as Harriet the Spy meets Lemony Snicket and I can’t think of a better way to put it myself. Murder, chemistry, a run-down English manor, a distant father, horrible sisters- what’s not to love? I haven’t read the 3rd title yet (A Red Herring Without Mustard) but I may just have to double up like I did with the first two and do a back-to-back mini marathon.

When you’re cuddled up on the couch with one of these and a blanket you can send me a thank you. Enjoy!