What’s Mine and Yours

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Naima Coster
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy because I liked the audiobook narrator. I always have such a hard time finding audiobooks because I own so many hard copies of the books on my TBR and I don’t want to pay for them twice. I’ve seen a bit of buzz about What’s Mine and Yours, but I wish I was seeing more because this book was excellent! Honestly, I don’t know why this is only rated 3.67 on goodreads, I feel like it must be misunderstood because so many of the characters are unlikeable, but definitely a 4.5 star read for me.

Unfortunately the synopsis of the book is a bit misleading. The book is pitched as being about the lives of two students from North Carolina whose school is being forced to integrate. This is a small part of the story, but really this is a multi-generational saga about the families of those two students – the impact of their childhoods and their parents’ influence on who they become and how their lives continue to intersect throughout the years. It reminded me a little bit of Ask Again, Maybe because of the ripple effect that single circumstances can have on a person and on a family. In this case there’s not necessarily one catalyst so much as a series of events, but it still makes for a really interesting character study.

This novel touches on so many themes: grief, growing up, race, class, abuse, family, love. Gee grows up with his headstrong mother Jade, who wants the best for her son, but struggles to be there for him in the way he needs after a tragic incident. Noelle grows up under the shadow of her mother, a white woman who has been dealt her own difficult hand in life, but fails to recognize how her white privilege blinds her and creates a wedge between her and her half-Latina daughters.

With so much going on in the book, I did find it a little hard to follow by audiobook in the beginning. The author doesn’t use a linear timeline to tell the story, for a good reason understanding the surprising ending, but it did make it hard to follow at times. I think the strongest themes of the book are those of race and class, but Costa accomplishes a lot in under 350 pages. I didn’t love the ending, but I loved how this book is a character examination of these two families. The narrative isn’t proportionally split between all the characters, but by looking at each of the family members, we get to recognize the larger scope of the story. 

Lacey May was the most interesting character for me. I struggled with her character because she really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. She’s blind to how her children perceive her and she’s not ashamed of her blatant racism. Despite her strong character, she fails to be able to stand on her own two feet, always relying on the men around her, and even as an old woman, she still uses the same old antics to manipulate her daughters. But she makes for an interesting character study because you know there are tons more women out there just like her. 

Unfortunately the plot is already getting hazy in my memory, but definitely recommend this if you’re looking for a nuanced and engaging story!

Infinite Country

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Patricia Engel
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I decided to read Infinite Country because I’ve been seeing a lot of good reviews and the narrator in the audiobook sample sounded excellent! I’m so glad I picked it up because I ended up really liking it. I found it mildly confusing to keep track of the characters at the beginning, but this was a really moving story about how it feels to be divorced from your homeland and the struggles mixed-status families face in staying connected to one another.

Infinite Country is split between Colombia and America and tells the story of a family who move to America and overstay their visas. Elena and Mauro never intended to stay in America, but the uncertainty of returning to Colombia and the fact that some of their children are now American-born, they decide to stay. Eventually they become separated – with half the family returning to Colombia and the other half living undocumented in the States. 

Like the book, I’m going to keep my review short. The story had some interesting plot points – especially with the part of the family living in Colombia – but at the end of the day it’s a simple story about the trauma many families experience in trying to immigrate to America. Nothing in this story really surprised me (except for the bad thing Talia does), it’s a story I feel like I’ve heard many times before. Families that seek a better life and are forced to live in poverty and taken advantage of because of their fear of deportation. But I loved this book because it is deeply humanizing. We get to spend time with each family member and experience each of their longings and struggles. I really connected with each of the characters, especially Mauro, and I was moved by their tenacity.

Immigration forces everyone to make tough choices and I really appreciated this in-depth look at its impact on one family. At less than 200 pages, I read this in two sittings and definitely recommend it for everyone! 

Honey Girl

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Morgan Rogers
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb 2021 (read Mar. 2021)

Oh Honey Girl. I wanted to love this book so much! There’s so much to love in here – a new adult queer romance filled with a diverse cast of characters that are just trying to figure out their lives while taking care of their mental health. This is absolutely the kind of book that we need more of. I thought the last third of this book was absolutely a four star read, but I found it just so damn slow in the first two thirds.

28 year old Grace Porter has just obtained her PhD in Astronomy after over a decade of studies. But after she blows the interview at her dream job, she goes to Vegas to celebrate her doctorate and gets drunk married to a girl she meets from New York. Grace and Yuki return to their lives in Portland and New York, but both women are extremely lonely and begin to seek comfort in one another.

Grace is half black, half white and has fought against racial bias her entire life. She felt intense pressure from her military father to study medicine, but seeks her own path in astronomy instead. Her whole life has built up to earning her PhD, but after being unfairly discriminated against in her defense and being told she’s the “wrong fit” for her dream job, she begins to question what all her hard work was for. Grace decides she needs a break and joins Yuki in New York to get to know her wife better.

Like I said, I think the premise for this book is so great. It had so much rep and I love that it dealt with so many underrated topics. There’s so few quality new adult books out there – I’m always on the hunt for something great. I know a lot of people have really been loving this, so I’ve been trying to identify where it failed for me. I think it was just that the set-up for the story took too long. It took a long time for Grace to finally fall apart, but I felt like it didn’t take that long for her to put herself back together. I loved the last part of the book that takes place in Florida, where Grace really starts working on herself, but I thought the plot meandered so much before that.

I felt like too much time was spent in Portland – I was anticipating her going to New York, but when she does finally go there, I didn’t really feel the chemistry. I felt like there were all the right plot points, but I just didn’t quite connect with the characters. Yuki’s radio show was a little too whimsical for me and to be honest, I was just kind of bored with the relationship. I wanted to see more sparks fly, either in a good or bad way. I felt like maybe the author just had too many ideas and she struggled to execute them in such a short novel.

There’s a lot going on with the side characters, but I didn’t feel like I spent enough time with any of them. Grace loves Agnes and Ximena, but I didn’t get enough backstory to really understand their friendship. She considers Meera and Raj to be her sister and brother, but I have no idea how those bonds we’re formed. When Raj comes to NY and starts freaking out at her I found it extremely jarring – I loved it in that I was like, yes, here is someone dealing with their angst, this is a great scene – but I didn’t have any context about their relationship in which to process the argument. Raj just came off looking like a total asshole for screaming at Grace about his problems.

Even with Yuki, I thought it was a bad choice to open the novel the morning after they met – why not open with their love story? If I’d seen them meet and heard their banter I feel like I would have been a lot more invested in their relationship, but I felt like I met them at chapter 2 and I just didn’t buy into their chemistry since I was missing their meet cute. Plus I felt like Yuki was really nuanced and had other stuff going on under the surface that was never really addressed. In short, I just felt like every single character and relationship had this whole backstory that I would have loved to hear more about, but instead of getting deep meaningful characterization about any character, I got a surface level characterization of everyone. I wanted more depth and sadly I think this story had too much going on to really get the depth I craved. Grace’s character growth towards the end of the book is really well done, but I wanted more from everyone else.

So all in all, I think this was a good book, but not a great one. It really showed to me that this was a debut novel, but I won’t hold it against the author because everyone has to start somewhere. I think she has all the right ideas, she just needs more time to hone in on her skill. I wouldn’t be dissuaded from reading more from her in the future because I still think this was an important story, despite its shortcomings.

If I Tell You The Truth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jasmin Kaur
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Jan 2021 (read May 2017)

This was an impulse buy at my local bookstore because I saw the author lives in Vancouver and the synopsis sounded so good! I’m so glad I did pick it up because it was excellent! It’s half written in prose, which made for some very dynamic storytelling.

If I Tell You the Truth is about a 19 year old Punjabi girl named Kiran. She grew up in Punjab and is accepted to study at Simon Fraser University. Her parents goal is for her to get an education and then return to marry the son of the neighbour. However, before Kiran flies to Canada, she is raped by her betrothed’s brother and becomes pregnant. She travels to Canada and tries to keep her pregnancy secret as long as possible, but when she decides she doesn’t want to have an abortion, she is forced to tell her family and unfortunately is rejected by them.

She does her best to continue her education as a young mother, but it is difficult and eventually her visa expires, forcing her to take whatever work she can to survive without papers. The narrative eventually transfers from Kiran to her daughter, Sahaara, and we learn more about the struggles their family faces. There are few avenues to citizenship, so they live a small life to avoid attention.

This book is about so many things – rape, teen pregnacy, immigration, #metoo, family, diaspora, healing – just to name a few. The writing is excellent and switches from traditional text to prose throughout the book. I think the first quarter of the book is the most powerful. I was immediately drawn into the story – the trauma Kiran had experienced and her struggles to come to terms with what happened to her and her subsequent choices. It is hard to read about her fear and grief, but I think the author really touches a nerve here and the reality of Kiran’s feelings leap off the page and into your heart. I admired and empathized with her so much throughout the first part of the novel.

After Sahaara is born the narrative switches primarily to Sahaara and follows her as she grows up. I enjoyed this part of the novel as well, even though it takes us in a different direction than the first part of the book. I loved that the story is set in Surrey – it just made it so much more impactful to me as someone who also lives in the lower mainland. Since I’ve lived in Vancouver, it has become a Sanctuary City (since 2018) and I’ve always thought of it as a pretty progressive place. I’ve come to learn since the pandemic started that it is definitely not that diverse safe haven that I thought it was and I think it’s really important to have books about what it’s like to live undocumented in Canada (so many books on this topic are set in America).

So with that in mind, this is definitely a book that I would recommend to anyone and everyone, especially Canadians. That said, I did think the pacing was a little bit off. I felt like the book reached its climax around the 75% mark, and I was curious about what else would happen with so much book remaining. The author goes in a totally new direction for the final quarter. It wasn’t unrelated to the rest of the book – the main plights for the characters are resolved in the first 3 quarters – leaving the rest of the book for them to really heal and take action for others.

This part of the book is also powerful, but I didn’t love it as much as what came before. I think it’s so important to have people that are willing to speak out against injustice, but the plot took such a diversion that I found it a little distracting and almost like I was reading a different book. Don’t get me wrong, I still thought the content was really important, it just felt like the author was maybe trying to address too many things in one book, like it was almost a little too cathartic. Plus I felt it delved away from the ‘show don’t tell’ theme, which was strong for most of the novel.

Overall though, it is a minor criticism. I just thought the first part of the book was a 5 star read, but landed more around 4 stars by the end of the book. It’s still superbly written and I think something like this should be required reading for high school students. Books like this are so much more relevant and important to young people than reading books like Dracula and Catcher in the Rye (a few of my least favs from my high school education). Honestly, as much as I loved some of the classics I read in High School, I become more and more convinced over time that we need to stop forcing them on high school students. I don’t think a lot of students have the maturity at 16 to appreciate them and I fear it does more harm in fostering bad feelings about literature. A total tangent, but I do really wish our education system spent more time on contemporaries like If I Tell You the Truth, The Hate U Give, Punching the Air, Far From the Tree, and The Nowhere Girls. READ IT!

Jane Eyre

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1847 (read Mar. 2021)

This was a re-read for me. I first read Jane Eyre about 10 years ago and I didn’t love it – I think I gave it 3 stars – but I remember expecting to really like it because it’s a lot of people’s favourite classic, and then just not being into it at all.

I’ve had a lot of success with classics lately. I finished reading all of Jane Austen’s books over Christmas and was a huge fan, and I read Wuthering Heights a few years ago and absolutely LOVED it! So I thought it might be time to re-visit Jane Eyre and see if I would finally jump on the bandwagon.

I can’t talk about the book without revealing spoilers, so if you still haven’t read this one – SPOILER ALERT AHEAD.

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Reader, I definitely liked this better the second time around. I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book about Jane’s childhood and the definite highlight of the book for me was when Jane makes the decision to leave Mr. Rochester and basically destitute herself on principal (like come on, she could have still left him and taken a bit of money with her, there’s morality and then there’s just insanity). I had forgotten a lot of the plot points of the book, so after re-reading it… I get it. I understand why this is beloved by so many people. Jane really is a true heroine and so far ahead of her time. Despite a very difficult childhood, she grows into a very well adjusted young woman who is both loving and kind. She is quiet and timid, but she is not meek. She has developed a very acute sense of self and ideals of morality. In short, she is very high in character.

Like the many readers that have come before me, I did admire her for her grit. She has finally found what she most desires in the world, love and a home, and she walks away from all of that so as not to diminish herself or live in a way that she feels is not right. She faces more hardships only to again rise from the ashes of her former life to build a new one for herself. It’s really hard to believe this book is from the 1840’s because it really is filled with so many modern ideals and I admire Charlotte Bronte for penning this in her time!

So why I am not as enamoured with this book as everyone else seems to be? It’s definitely a dense book – I listened to it on audio and there are multiple HOUR LONG monologues by some of the characters. I do think it was a good choice to rely heavily on dialogue for these and even though they were long, they did still hold my attention, but like, good riddance on all the philosophical conversations.

Honestly, what I think it comes down to for me is a bit of the ick factor. Like, I know there are women out there in love with Mr. Rochester and I find it so creepy. He’s so large and old and menacing – I just couldn’t move beyond a 40 year old man preying on a 19 year old girl. I know Jane Austen’s books are filled with age gaps too and I love those, so I shouldn’t judge because it was 1847, but the whole power dynamic and Mr. Rochester’s temper were just too much. Then the fact that he tries to wed Jane while already secretly married and the whole F-ed up idea of shutting someone up in the attic for literal years and THEN JUSTIFYING IT. And the reader is actually expected to empathize with Mr. Rochester’s plight when poor Bertha’s been suffering away up there?! So I think it’s a bit ahead of its time in some ways and other ways definitely right in its time period.

Personally I got more of a kick out of the whole ordeal with St. John. I found this escapade a bit more light hearted and loved Jane using sarcasm against his faith near the end of the novel. I did think the book had a good blend of religion and morality. Sometime classics can be a bit heavy on the religion, which to an extent this was, but I liked that even though Jane did believe in God, I felt that she had developed a strong sense of personal morals outside of religion. St. John started to manipulate his religion at the end to get Jane to marry him because he felt it was ordained by God, but Jane very firmly held her own ground and recognized that thinking something might be good for your ministry doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for you.

So how to rate this? I’m on the fence because Jane really is a first rate heroine, but I felt so uncomfortable reading about the romance. It’s funny to me that I adore Wuthering Heights, which honestly has zero likeable characters, yet I struggle with Jane Eyre, which has a truly lovable protagonist. I’m probably at a 3.5 stars, but I will round up to 4 stars because the second read through did allow me to recognize the value in this book and I understand now why it has survived the test of time. I’d just take Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy over Jane and Mr. Rochester every day of the week folks! So in conclusion, a worthy classic, but not my favourite.

Side note, why do so many people hate Wuthering Heights? I think it’s like the pinnacle of classic literature and I love everything about it, but so many people really dislike it. Give those unlikable characters a chance readers and see what you can learn from them! Also, the audiobook I read was narrated by Thandie Newton, who did a GREAT job! But she pronounces St. John like SinJin and it was really confusing for me at first.