A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Rating: .5
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 2018 (read Apr. 2019)

I have no idea how to review this book. I started working on my review days ago only to start all over again because I really wasn’t satisfied with it. Everyone else loved this book. It has a rating of 4.3 on goodreads with hundreds of rave reviews, yet I undeniably did not enjoy it. I disliked the romance and I thought Shirin’s voice was a bit juvenile. But it also addresses a lot of really great issues and deals with topics that undoubtedly are relatable to a lot of people. I don’t want to bash it because #ownvoices stories like this are really important. They’re important for representation, so that people who are minorities can feel seen and heard. And they’re important for educating all those people who can’t relate so that hopefully in the future, they can better understand and empathize with people unlike themselves. I wonder which of these two categories the majorities of readers fall into.

I’m a 28 year old, white, Canadian, woman, so I’m obviously not the intended audience for this book and I’m not going to relate to it in the same way as say, a 16 year old muslim girl. But I’ve read a lot of other similarly themed books where I related to the MC a lot more than I did in this book (With the Fire on High, TATBILB, The Nowhere Girls, I am not your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Aristotle and Dante, The Hate U Give, etc, etc, etc). Overall, I think I have similar thoughts as from my experience reading Internment earlier this year. I thought this book did a lot of great things, but I just really didn’t like the writing style and I found the romance downright cringey.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is about a young muslim girl, Shirin, whose parents have moved her all over the country, making it difficult to make friends as she is constantly switching schools. It doesn’t help that this story is set right after 9/11 and Shirin wears a hijab, which intimidates a lot of her classmates and further isolates her from her peers. In this post 9/11 world, her classmates are actively hostile against her, causing Shirin to disconnect from everyone else and live in her own little world.

Let’s start with what I liked. I thought Shirin was actually a pretty cool character in that she was very confident in her choice to wear hijab. It was not forced on her by her parents or culture, it was a decision she actively made for herself and she wasn’t embarrassed by it. People were very cruel to her, but she had a remarkably strong character in the face of such adversity, so I didn’t blame her from becoming closed off against the world. But she is also very critical of others. She often judges people and makes a lot of assumptions about them. She assumed that everyone judged her and it was just easier not to give anyone a chance. Again, I don’t blame her because after so many microaggressions, I’m sure it would be difficult to assume the best in people. I liked how Mafi explored this conflict and had Shirin reflect on how she ultimately might be closing people out of her life by refusing to ever give them a chance.

I also really like the inclusion of so many microaggressions in the book and found them to be the most impactful part of the story. Although I struggle to classify much of what happened to Shirin as “micro” aggressions, because in my opinion most people were full on aggressive against her. The inclusion of microaggressions is so important though because it’s really the cumulative impact of microaggressions that drive people to the brink. In isolation, it’s easy to brush off one insult or let it roll of your shoulder, but the cumulative impact of being put down day after day is exhausting and what continues to oppress minorities.

But this brings me to an issue that is making me wonder if maybe I have a blind spot in my world view because I had a similar experience with Internment. Both books had some really evil villains in them. I love the inclusion of microaggressions because I assume they are highly relatable to other muslims, but often go unnoticed by everyone else (ie. white people). The inclusion of them serves that dual purpose of both representation and education. White people don’t often recognize the ways in which they are privileged and books like this are a great way to highlight them.

But some of the characters were so cruel I struggled to believe them. The camp director in Internment read like a caricature to me, which I found less impactful because anyone who is so obviously evil and easy to hate has less impact in a story because no one is every going to relate to them. White people will say, “oh, well I’m not as bad as that person” and pat themselves on the back and move on, whereas they should be taking a good long look in the mirror and thinking about the ways in which they may be perpetrators of microaggressions or harmful thinking in other areas of their lives. Ocean’s coach in this book was just a horrible, selfish human being and his mom was so manipulative and two-faced. There were people literally throwing food at Shirin, I was like, OMG, are people actually this bad?

And this is why I wonder if I do have a blind spot. Are people really this bad? Tahereh Mafi has stated that this is her most semi-autobiographical novel, so who am I to question those experiences? Even though this book is set in 2002, right after 9/11, when people were particularly hostile against muslims, it’s not really any different from where America is today. I would actually argue that it’s worse. People are openly hateful towards muslim people – there was a literal muslim ban for heaven’s sake! So I don’t know that it’s fair to question any of the behaviours in this book. I think I may have a tendency towards the more subtle forms of oppression because they make me think a lot more than the obviously evil forms of oppression. Although this review is undoubtedly making me think.

Like I said earlier though, I did like that Mafi spent some time exploring both sides of the story. And by that I mean that she wasn’t afraid to have Shirin take a good hard look at herself. It is inspiring that after being the recipient of so much hate, she was able to recognize that her experiences were making her jaded. She preferred to assume the worst about people and even though she was a pretty confident individual, the constant put-downs had chipped away a lot at her self esteem. She struggled to understand what Ocean would possibly see in her and kept waiting for him to cut and run.

Even though I didn’t personally like Shirin that much, I think the fact that she is the romantic heroine of the story is super important. We never see muslim girls at the center of romances, so I think that it is great to see more representation in our main characters. I just really didn’t like her relationship with Ocean. The dialogue was not good and it really made me cringe. Shirin constantly says one liners like “wow” and “okay” and I’m like, “wow, okay, I am so not blown away by this banter”. A lot of people talk about how they really love Mafi’s writing, but it didn’t inspire me to want to pick up any of her other books. I mean, I do appreciate a good awkward teenage exchange, because teenagers are pretty awkward and cringe-worthy in real life, so it’s definitely accurate. But so painful to read. This is where I probably need to start parting ways with YA, because I just can’t relate to these awkward, fumbling, exchanges anymore.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this book includes break-dancing. It’s probably the most random part of the story, that Shirin and her brother and his friends form this break-dancing troupe, but it was a cool way to remind readers that Shirin is still a normal teenage girl, interested in music and popular culture. It was also a useful tool in the story to get other people in Shirin’s school to see her as human. Shirin was afraid to let people in or take risks because she assumed they wouldn’t accept her. But by cutting them out they struggled to see her as an individual. She was just a representation of islam, of something they were afraid of. Once they saw her break dancing, it was a lot easier for people to accept her. It’s a sad commentary on our society, that its’s so easy to erase people, but pretty accurate.

Overall, this review did help me to appreciate this book a little bit more. You definitely won’t catch me picking it up again, but now that I’m removed from the awkward dialogue and cringe-worthy teenage angst, it’s a little easier to appreciate some of the good things about the story. I would not recommend the audiobook though. I really didn’t like the narrator and that could also have had an influence on my dislike of the story. 2.5 stars overall

Advertisements

The Next Great Paulie Fink

Rating:
Author: Ali Benjamin
Genres: Middle Grade
Pub. date: Apr. 16, 2019 (read, Apr. 2019)

Happy pub day to The Next Great Paulie Fink! Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada who provided me with a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

I loved Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, and she hasn’t published anything new in several years, so I was thrilled when I saw she was publishing a second novel! Both of Benjamin’s books are middle grade and I’ll admit, when I read the plot synopsis for Paulie Fink, it didn’t appeal to me quite as much as her first book because it sounded more juvenille. But don’t let that deter you from reading this one because I ended up really liking it!

The Next Great Paulie Fink is about 7th grader, Caitlyn Breen, who is a new student at Mitchell School. Caitlyn’s mom got a new job and moved them both to rural Vermont from New York, a decision that was not very popular with Caitlyn. Her new school seems totally backwards from her old school and doesn’t seem to follow any of the social “rules” she learned in New York. The kids in her new class all seem eccentric to Caitlyn and they are caught up in the disappearance of one of their former classmates, Paulie Fink.

Paulie was the class clown and beloved by his classmates. But he doesn’t return for 7th grade and no one knows what happened to him. He leaves a void behind that the kids want to fill with a new Paulie, so they decide to have a reality show competition to find the Next Great Paulie Fink. Caitlyn’s struggles to get on board with the competition since she never knew Paulie, but her classmates convince her to judge the competition and suddenly she’s thrust into a totally new world that scares her, but challenges her.

Granted, it’s been a few years since I read The Thing about Jellyfish, but this book had quite a different tone from that book. It’s a lot funnier and it has a large cast of characters to carry the story. It’s overwhelming at first trying to keep track of Caitlyn’s classmates, but eventually they all start to develop personalities of their own, and while Caitlyn is always our central character, I really loved some of her classmates as well.

Like I said, I initially wondered if I would glean much from this book as an adult reader, or if it really was tailored for kids. But I ended up really liking it and even though the themes were younger, I still thought the author did a great job at making this a well rounded story that could be enjoyed at any age. I particularly liked how she approached bullying in this book. Moving to a new school and finding it absent of the social structure that was in her last school, Caitlyn starts reflecting on some of the interactions she had with her former classmates and how some of her actions may have been hurtful. Because her class is so small (a dozen students), and because they are so rural, her classmates are all very supportive of one another and Caitlyn initially struggles with that. She protected herself in her old school by growing a hard shell and disconnecting her emotions from those around her, and in her new school, she struggles to let herself be vulnerable and that hard shell actually creates a barrier with her new classmates.

I also really liked the author’s exploration of legends and kleos (glory). Paulie was a legend at Mitchell and in their search for the next Paulie, the students learn about kleos and what makes someone memorable or a legend. The catch is, kleos can make us forget things too. When we glorify someone, it’s easy to forget the things that made them human or the things that annoyed you about them. We later discover that Paulie was really just as human as the rest of the students, but because of the reputation he developed at Mitchell, the students started over-hyping who he was and to an extent, lost sight of the real Paulie and failed to notice the unique things that they have to offer in their quest to be more like Paulie.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters, but (no surprise I’m sure) Fiona was definitely my favourite. Fiona wears a power suit to school every single day because she wants to one day be a powerful woman. She’s not great at school and struggles to pay attention in class. But she is buoyed by her belief that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. All of the students at Mitchell had so much spunk and I loved watching a group of kids be so great at supporting one another. Was it realistic? I’m not really sure. But I think that was kind of the point. Mitchell school was doing something right – it didn’t seem like a place should exist like this, but somehow it did. When you find something special like that, it’s worth protecting, even if it challenges your worldview.

Mostly though, this book was just a lot of fun. There’s lots to make you laugh and lots to make you think. I think Caitlyn’s classmates are right in that sweet spot where they’re still children, but are about to become teenagers. Caitlyn was pushed to mature a little earlier growing up in New York, which is why she has hardened herself against the world. But these students are still idealistic and not yet jaded about the world. Overall, I loved the balance of humour and life lessons about growing up.

Queenie

Rating:
Author: Candice Carty-Williams
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Shvorne Marks

I completely sped through this audiobook! Queenie wasn’t really on my radar at all and then suddenly, it was everywhere! It’s been compared to Bridget Jones and it featured a Jamaican-British, 25 year old, so I was definitely intrigued. Plus the audiobook narrator sounded great in the sample and had me laughing out loud in her 5 minute clip.

The reviews are a bit mixed on the book though and after reading it, I can definitely understand why. Queenie works for a newspaper and has just split up with her boyfriend of 3 years, Tom. They’ve been struggling as a couple, so they decide to go on a break for 3 months. but Queenie really struggles with the separation and turns to casual sex to fill the void in her life. She’s lonely and her break with Tom is really the start of a pretty brutal downward spiral and a ongoing fight with anxiety and depression.

The reason I say I can understand why some people would dislike this book is because Queenie is often a frustrating and sometimes unlikable character. She has very little self esteem or self respect and she struggles to stay motivated at work, making a lot of bad choices, both in her personal and professional life. She’s also black and struggles with institutionalized racism at work, casual racism in her relationship with Tom, and fetishism in her romantic life.

The book is hard to read at times because Queenie is so rough on herself and you just want her to come to terms with reality and start to make her life better. But I loved it because she felt like such a real character. Despite her bad choices, I really empathized with her and her friends. She knows she’s not okay and she just keeps pushing ahead toward the end of her “break” with Tom with the idea that if she can just return to her relationship, everything else will sort itself out. But she eventually has to come to terms with the fact that she is the only person who can sort out her problems and that getting back with Tom won’t fix the other things she’s struggling with.

This is ultimately a book about mental health and the additional struggles that black people and immigrants face in achieving success and finding support. Queenie is up against additional hurdles because she is black and even though her family loves her very much, there’s a real cultural disconnect in the way that they think about mental illness. Her family has suffered so much physical and emotional trauma in immigrating, that they are very dismissive of mental health and the value of therapy. I loved when Queenie was finally able to recognize that counselling might actually be able to help her and that she pursued it despite what her family thought. She is adverse to medicating for her panic attacks though, which I thought was a too bad because it probably would have helped her a lot.

Because of the depth of Queenie’s struggles, I’ve read a lot of reviews that the comparison to Bridget Jones isn’t accurate. I knew that going into the book and I was fine with it because I always prefer a little more depth to my characters, but I would actually agree with the assessment that this is like Bridget Jones. It’s definitely darker and not a fun rom-com like Bridget Jones, but I did notice a lot of parallels, which I thought made the book even more enjoyable.

Queenie has a similar sense of humour to Bridget, which I equate with British humour. She’s self deprecating and unflinchingly honest – to the point of oversharing. Like Bridget, she’s someone who is ready to settle down with a man, but continually finds herself making poor decisions. She works in publishing, makes the mistake of acting on an ill-informed work romance, and has a small group of friends that she turns to for support. Her group of friends consists of Darcy, Cassandra, and Cheska (sorry, I listened to audio so I genuinely have NO idea how to spell her name, so I’m going with the phonetic spelling). I loved that she called her friends “the corgis” and I loved all the interactions she had with them. I thought each of these women were fully realized as secondary characters and I found them all extremely relatable. Everyone has women like this in their lives, even snooty, annoying friends like Cassandra. Cheska was my favourite because her and Queenie understood each other better, both being black, but I also really liked Darcy, who supported Queenie in her own way as well.

Even though I couldn’t personally relate with most of Queenie’s problems, overall I still thought she was so relatable! Her character was so honest and I thought the author did a wonderful job in taking us on Queenie’s journey to self discovery. The book explores how everyone has baggage and that everyone deals with those issues in different ways. You don’t need to apologize for falling apart, and you don’t have to put yourself back together alone. I thought this book also did a great job at shining a light on all of the little microaggressions that black people have to put up with day after day and how people repeatedly dismiss their existence and see them as less than human in some circumstances. Men fetishized Queenie’s black skin and curves and they treated her with less respect than I think they would a white woman. In most cases, Queenie deserved the criticisms she received, but there were definitely other cases where she was discriminated against and treated unfairly as a black woman.

I also liked that this was ultimately a story about self-discovery and self-love and that Queenie never solved her problems by finding romantic love. Stories like this often follow the troupe where the woman has no luck with love but then eventually finds it in the least likely place and everything ends happily ever after. Queenie tries to fill the void in her life with sex, but ultimately realizes that her happiness in not contingent on a man and that her familial and friend relationships are ultimately the most important relationships in her life.

I also liked that when Queenie started looking after her mental health, she found more clarity in where she was at fault in her relationships and where other people were at fault. It’s clear from the beginning that Tom and Queenie had relationship issues. She initially blames Tom for all their issues, and while he is definitely still at fault for a lot of their problems (namely not sticking up for her against his family’s casual racism), Queenie realizes that she is also at fault for some of their problems. She is better able to recognize her own harmful habits and identify the habits others have that are harmful to her, but that she has let slide in the past.

There are some relationships where it is worth forgiving the person who has hurt you. It’s evident from the beginning that Queenie has a bad relationship with her mom, although it’s a while before we learn the extent of why. Her mother undeniably hurt her and some of the decisions she made were terrible, but sometimes it is worth acknowledging a person’s shortcomings, but still deciding to forgive them in the interest of safeguarding that relationship. Then there are other relationships where you really don’t owe the person who has hurt you anything. Just because they want your forgiveness, it doesn’t mean you have to grant it, and there are times when it is better to cut that harmful person out of your life, regardless of how they say they’ve been transformed.

Overall, a great read. Maybe not for everyone, especially if you struggle with frustrating or unlikable characters. Personally, I never disliked Queenie, I just lamented her bad choices. My favourite parts were the frank discussions around mental health and the examples of microaggressions that Black people face on a daily basis. I will miss reading about this character!

With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.

What the Wind Knows

Rating:
Author: Amy Harmon
Genres: Historical Fiction, Time Travel
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Amy Harmon is such a great writer. She’s written a ton of books, most of which I haven’t read, but I’m pretty sure she started off writing romance. Then she wrote a 2-book fantasy series (The Bird and the Sword), which I really enjoyed, and lately she’s been writing historical novels. So overall I’m pretty impressed with her scope of work and that she’s not afraid to dabble in other genres. I personally love her writing style – it definitely lends itself well to romance because it is a wistful kind of writing – but it really worked well in this book.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a genre-bending book. I’ve been calling it “Irish Outlander”, because that’s pretty much the closest descriptor I can think of, but it definitely has a very different style than Outlander and that’s really where the comparison ends. This story is initially set in 2001 and focuses on 30 year old author, Anne Gallagher. Anne was raised in America by her grandfather, Eoin, and despite their Irish heritage and the fact the her grandfather grew up in Ireland, she has never been there. When her grandfather passes away, he requests that she finally travel to Ireland to spread his ashes on the loch next to where he grew up.

Eoin was Anne’s only real family and she is heartbroken at losing him. When she rows out into the lake, she finds herself transported to another time, 1921. Her grandfather is just 6 years old and laments the loss of his parents in the Irish uprising. Anne is mistaken for his mother and becomes part of the family. Her reunion with her grandfather provides little incentive to return to future without him, but life in Ireland in 1921 is undeniably difficult as Ireland fights to be free of Great Britain and become her own Republic.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a slow burn novel, but I loved it. The characters are well realized and the setting and time are enthralling. Books like this are the reason I keep returning to historical fiction. I really wish more authors would branch out from the WWI and WWII fiction, because there is so much other great history to be told in other regions and eras. I should absolutely know more about Ireland’s history than I do. I grew up in Newfoundland and Ireland has had a huge influence on my own history, so I should really know more about it. I knew very little about the uprising and Ireland’s fight for independence and this was a really great introduction. I feel like there’s so much more to be learned, but it does a good job at introducing you to the hardships that existed in Ireland at this time and how Ireland descended into it’s own civil war in the 1920’s.

While this story is fiction (I mean, it has time travel, so no duh), it does feature some pretty well-known Irish historical figures, the most predominant of which is Michael Collins, who signed a treaty with England to give Ireland independent status, while still being a part of the British dominion. Previously the Irish had been united against the English, but the treaty marked a split between the Irish people – those who supported the progress made by Collins in the fight for independence, and those who demanded a full Republic and split from the Brits.

This history provides the backdrop for the story, but at its core this is still a love story. After the death of his parents, little Eoin was looked after by their good friend, doctor Thomas Smith. It is in Smith’s home that Eoin grows up and Anne and Thomas develop a close relationship. Anne had done a fair bit of research about Ireland for a new book she was planning to write, so she is distraught by the history that she knows will come to pass in Ireland and whether it is in her capacity to change it. She is also acutely aware that she doesn’t not truly understand or fit in in this time and sometimes feels a pull from the loch to return to her time.

I think Harmon did a great job at capturing the history and the two sides of this conflict, but she also writes a damn good love story. I love Outlander, but it’s really more of a trashy Scottish romp than Romance with a capital R. This book is much more soft spoken and I really grew to love all the characters. There’s nothing too surprising in the book, yet I still never knew where the plot was going to go. The writing is dreamy, but there’s still a real tension between the characters that makes you both excited and nervous for them. Time travel is cyclical in nature and because Anne exists in both present day and the past, the reader doesn’t know which came first and whether one will negate the other. If this love story didn’t exist in Eoin’s history, then can it possibly exist in his future? You fall so in love with the characters, but fear for them because you don’t know whether their love is destined to survive.

Overall, I loved the book and the ending. Beautiful writing, beautiful setting, beautiful characters!