Internment

Rating: ⭐
Author: Samira Ahmed
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian
Pub date: Mar. 19, 2019 (Read Feb. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I was really excited about this book, I thought the premise sounded super interesting and appropriate for the current political climate. I read Samira Ahmed’s debut novel, Love, Hate, & Other Filters, last year and didn’t really like it, but I was super optimistic about this book and even included it on my most anticipated books of 2019 list. I’m still really glad a book like this exists, but sadly I was very disappointed with it. I may just not be the intended audience for this anymore as someone in my late twenties, but it really didn’t work for me.

Like I said, the premise of the book is great. It’s about Muslim teenager, Layla Amin. Since the inauguration of the new president, America has seen a lot of changes. Muslims were asked to identify themselves in the latest census and with the creation of the new Muslim registry, Layla has been forced out of school and her parents have been forced out of their jobs. Then one day, the police show up at her home and escort her entire family to America’s first internment camp in the middle of the California desert.

The camp is called Mobius. At Mobius, Muslims are divided into blocks by ethnicity and forced to live in small trailers. Her parents do their best to adapt to this new life and keep their heads down, but Layla misses her old life and boyfriend on the outside and starts to rebel against the camp’s Director and his racist policies. But what will be the cost for her rebellion and as a teenager, does she really have the power to change anything?

I’m really glad a book like this exists and I hope it gets into the hands of the right people. But what I struggled to understand was who the intended audience is? Is it meant for the already liberal-minded? Is it hoping to expand the opinions of those who are unsure where they sit in the current political climate? Is it targeted at the MAGA faction that is scared and hateful towards those who are different from themselves? Or is it just meant to give voice to the rage and pain of American Muslims? As an already liberal minded person, this didn’t really challenge my thinking or offer me any new insights, but I think it could be a great book for younger teens who are confused by politics or whose views may differ from those of their parents and they don’t know where to turn for information. So I’m really glad this book exists and I hope it can help inform teenagers or just support Muslim American teenagers in feeling heard.

The reason I didn’t like it is because it’s so heavy handed. Nothing about this book is subtle and I felt like the author was just trying to beat me over the head with her politics. It’s the prime example of why “show, don’t tell” is so much more effective and enjoyable. I don’t think Ahmed trusts her readers at all. She spells out every single point and action of her characters and doesn’t trust her readers to come to their own conclusions. She is constantly telling us how Layla is feeling rather that letting her circumstances and actions speak for themselves. Layla also didn’t feel like a teenager to me. She felt a bit like a 17 year old espousing an adult’s viewpoints. I like to think teenagers are this woke, but she knew a lot of random historical facts about Japanese internment camps and other politically motivated rebellions around the world. Overall it added to the book, but felt a little forced coming from a teenager who mostly just seems overly into her boyfriend.

I went back to look at my review of Ahmed’s first book and I have similar complaints with this book. I felt like her characters were so 1-dimensional and that the emotional connection to them was just really lacking. Her characters feel more like caricatures and it made it hard to relate to any of them. I was frustrated by how obsessed Layla was with David when she had so many more pressing concerns. All of her relationships felt extremely surface level and I never felt that any of her relationships had any great depth. She talks about how she’s worried about the impact her actions might have on her parents, but I never really felt any tension because I didn’t feel any connection between the characters to begin with.

I thought the Director was the greatest caricature of the novel. He was too classically evil for me to ever take him seriously. I thought the Director represented a great opportunity to influence your readers and hopefully alter their mindsets. But the Director is too much of a villain that he doesn’t incite that feeling of righteous anger or conflict. If your goal is to alter someone’s mindset or opinions, you need a more nuanced villain. Someone who you can almost relate to, but highlights the flaws of conservative America. No one will relate to the Director, so it’s easy to dismiss him as just a hateful asshole. He doesn’t make you question your thoughts or views and that was the main way that this novel failed for me.

I think liberals will read this book and be reminded of why they are frustrated with the current administration, while conservatives will read the book and think it’s ridiculous and Muslims just trying to paint white people as the bad guys. Just to clarify, I do not think that’s what this book is doing at all. I think this is actually a story to give voice to the feelings that Ahmed has about the direction America is going. And if this story gives voice to that rage and pain for Ahmed and for readers like her, then I think this book has achieved something great. I am not American and I am not Muslim, so who am I to say that this book doesn’t have value? I do believe it has value, I just wanted it to be more nuanced because I want white Americans to pick up this book and read a viewpoint that they hadn’t really thought about. I want them to see Muslims as people and that their viewpoints might be changed by reading about this horrifying near-future scenario. I guess I just don’t have very much faith in people’s ability to change and I thought this book was just too surface level to change the viewpoints of people that don’t already agree with this book.

However, it is unfair of me to put that responsibility on the author. She is not responsible to change people’s minds. It’s why I question who her audience is? As an Own Voices book, I can really see this working for some people and I really hope that it does. If you are an American Muslim feeling outcast in your school, or your community, or your country, then I hope this is the book that you needed to pick up to feel seen and understood. This book wasn’t what I was hoping it would be, but I am probably not the intended audience. I fully support the themes Ahmed tackles in this book, her writing style and methods just aren’t for me. I hate to be critical of books like this because I do think they are extremely important and authors need to be supported to write them. But I also don’t want to give good reviews to a book just because I’m glad it exists – I still want it to be a thoughtful and well-written book. I thought this book had so much potential and honestly, I just wanted more from it. But hopefully it will make its way into the hands of the right readers!

One last criticism I have of this book is that I’m uncomfortable with the number of famous quotes and ideas that Ahmed includes without referencing the source material. I think she is paying homage to some great people, but it rubs me the wrong way when those individuals are not referenced. The tagline on the back is “rebellions are built on hope”, which is obvious to me that it’s from the Star Wars Rogue One movie. The characters repeatedly joke about their love of star wars, but this quote is used without every directly attributing it to Star Wars. Two others that I picked up on were that she has one of her characters reference how “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”, which has been attributed to Hamilton and Malcolm X among others, and Layla repeatedly says “the people united will never be defeated”. Please reference these individuals because otherwise it seems like you are trying to pass these ideas off as your own.

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Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Rating: 
Author: Liane Oelke
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Jan. 2019)

Wow! This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to read it on a whim and ended up reading the whole 400 page book in a single sitting! I read pretty fast, but it’s been a while since I’ve marathoned a single book that fast! It’s an extremely fun read and the style and content really lends itself well to a quick read.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is about senior year high school student Jane Sinner. She’s been expelled from school in her final semester and we’re not sure why, but in order to finish her diploma, she enrolls in a community college for the Spring and Summer semesters. She feels it’s important to move out of her parents house for a while, but she doesn’t really have much money, so when she sees an advert for really cheap rent in a house near campus, she jumps on it. The only catch is that she’ll be one of six people living in the house and will have to participate in a big brother style reality show called House of Orange. Jane is looking to re-invent herself, so she decides to apply.

I really liked this book. I thought Jane was hilarious and the book never takes itself too seriously, even though it does still have some pretty serious underlying themes. It’s by a Canadian author from Calgary who now lives in Vancouver, so I could definitely relate with the content and setting and thought it was a breath of fresh air from all the American YA books set in the south (I also laughed a lot at all her disparaging comments about Edmonton). I am always looking for new adult books about college/university students, and while I will still definitely categorize this as YA, I liked the college setting and that it focused on the transition to college, which can be a challenge.

This book has a lot of different themes; the pressures of high school and college, the challenges of overcoming our past, and dealing with mental health and suicide. However, one of the main themes in this book, which I really liked, was about religious tolerance and finding and leaving Christianity. Christian lit is really not very good, so I’m always intrigued when there’s a good side story about a character’s relationship with Christianity. In Jane’s case, she’s grown up going to church her whole life and her parents and many of her friends are devout Christians. Jane eventually comes to the realization that she doesn’t believe in God and then finds it very difficult to cope when her entire belief system suddenly crumbles around her.

I liked that Jane was able to come to terms with her beliefs, without the book being hugely critical of Christianity. She still has Christian friends, one of which is a bisexual teenager who has been able to successfully reconcile both her faith and sexuality with one another. I thought the book was very respectful of both Christians and atheists, which I really appreciated. It’s not a theme I was expecting to find in this book and it was a pleasant surprise.

Primarily though, this book is just a lot of fun. The dialogue is written like a movie script, which I think helped move the story along quickly and I was enthralled from start to finish. The reality tv show idea is brilliant and I thought the author executed it perfectly! You can tell she works in the film industry because it was just so easy to visualize this book as a tv show. When Jane would talk about each episode and the way the footage was cut, with the little humourous bits added in, I could see it in my mind and I just really wished it actually existed so that I could watch it and laugh along.

The reality tv show bit is hilarious and I loved Jane’s voice. She is super sarcastic and initially you think she’s overly introverted and I wondered if she might be agoraphobic. That was not the case at all and Jane ended up being extremely smart and witty. I loved all the characters in House of Orange, but Jane was definitely my favourite. I thought all of the other contestants and characters were very authentic and I had no trouble believing that any of these people might exist. My only minor criticism might be that I thought not a lot of the other characters had much character growth, but Jane had an immense amount of character growth, so I can deal.

Overall, I really wish this was a more talked about book because it is actually really good and I think it deserves a lot more praise. What a great debut novel! I really hope Liane Oelke writes more books because I will definitely read them!

Always and Forever, Lara Jean

Rating: 
Author: Jenny Han
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: May 2017
Series: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3

Netflix just announced that they will be making a sequel to All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, so I decided to finish off the year with the final book in this trilogy. I loved the first book, and while I enjoyed the second book as well, I thought it was a bit unnecessary, so I wasn’t sure if I would read the third book or not, but I’m glad I did decide to finish off this series.

I had similar thoughts on this book as I had to the second book in that I still think the first book works as a standalone and is the strongest of the series, but I do think each book added something of value even though they weren’t really necessary. I actually kind of loved John Ambrose Mclaren in the second book (Yes, I still love Peter K) and I liked that Han explored Lara Jean’s relationships with both boys. Initially, I found the final book really frustrating because I thought Lara Jean kind of disappeared into her relationship with Peter, but it ended up kind of being the whole point of the book and I liked that it explored the struggles of heading off to college and balancing relationships with your own personal development.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is about Lara Jean’s final year of high school and making plans to go to college. Her and Peter are still in love, but in the wake of so many new decisions and the reality that life rarely goes the way we expect, they are forced to make some difficult decisions about their relationship and learn about the way they communicate with each other.

I don’t really know how to talk about the rest of the book without spoilers, but there are a few things I want to discuss, so I’d advise to stop reading here if you haven’t yet finished the series.

Like I said, initially I was really frustrated with Lara Jean in this book. She gets so caught up in her Dad’s wedding and in her and Peter having the perfect future that she makes some really poor decisions. I think this is totally realistic to how teenagers act, especially when they’re in love and being forced to make difficult decisions about their futures, but Lara Jean has always been so focused on her personal growth and achievements that I was disappointed to see her checking out on college. She doesn’t get into her dream college, so instead of embracing the change and her new school, she emotionally checks out on all things college related, despite her sister Margot advising her to make the most of her first year of college.

Lara Jean and Peter are in an impossible position because in all likelihood, they probably will eventually break up, but I liked the journey they went on together. When Lara Jean gets into a better college, she starts embracing the idea of change and the reality that her and Peter just won’t be able to see each other that much and that maybe transferring schools isn’t the right decision for her. Teenagers can be rash in their decisions, but I liked that she finally was able to prioritize her happiness as well as Peters. It’s easy to disappear in a relationship and as teenagers, they are really too young for either to be thinking about sacrificing college for the other. I also liked the dichotomy Han created between Margot’s decision to break up with Josh and Lara Jean’s decision to stay with Peter. Both women are right in their decision as there is no correct answer and each did what they thought best for them and their relationship. It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending, but I thought it was realistic.

While I only rated one of these books 4 stars, I still think this is a great series for teenagers. Lara Jean is quite unlike a lot of teen protagonists I’ve read and while I know some readers think she’s too immature, I think she is just right. As someone who was a bit of a goody-goody in high school and has a great relationship with her sister, I could really relate to Lara Jean and I loved how supportive her family was. Her sisters added so much to what could have been a vapid novel about teen love and I really liked how they always prioritized family and personal growth.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fantasy, LBGTQIA+
Pub date: Oct. 2nd. 2018 (read Oct. 2018)
Series: Montague Siblings #2

I’m a little bit on the fence for how to rate The Lady’s Guide. On one hand, it was wonderful, but I just didn’t love it quite as much as The Gentleman’s Guide. There were parts of this that I loved, but I also thought the plot progression was a little awkward and slow moving at times.

Felicity was my favourite character from The Gentleman’s Guide and I thought this book had a really strong start with her getting proposed to, but deciding to pursue medicine instead, despite being routinely ignored by medical schools since it’s the 1700’s and she’s a woman. Mackenzi Lee is great at writing historical fiction that induces that perfect level of righteous rage and indication at the injustices the characters face because while their dilemma’s are historical, the issues they face are not. Felicity is discriminated against because of her sex and dreams of more than just a life as a wife, something I’m sure many women can still relate to. But Felicity is unwilling to give up on her dreams and pursues a medical career through whatever means necessary.

I loved Johanna in this book. I love that she had a great love of the natural world as well as a love for make-up, dresses, and all things fancy. Felicity boxed herself in, thinking that her ambition made her different from all other women, looking down on Johanna for still embracing femininity. But Johanna and Sim both proved that what you look like doesn’t define you and that having ambition outside of your traditional gender roles doesn’t make you better than any other woman. They both helped Felicity to grow and understand that just because your progression doesn’t look the way you want it to (going to medical school), doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt your ambition and your path. Sometimes we just won’t get what our heart desires, but it doesn’t mean we have to be cut out entirely from those dreams, we just need to adapt them.

Sadly I just didn’t find this book quite as funny as The Gentleman’s Guide though. I loved that the plot of this book also featured a lot of travel around Europe, but something about it just didn’t flow as well. Some parts were really fun and interesting, while other parts dragged. The ending is very ambiguous, with two parties debating the best course of action. Both positions had merits, but I felt that Johanna and Felicity’s motivation wasn’t really clear and that the story lacked resolution. With the exception of the petticoats, I just felt the story wasn’t really that clever. It was interesting, but I wasn’t really impressed with how the story played out and I wanted more. Like I said, I liked all the awesome female characters in this book, particularly Johanna, but I felt Sim was a little underdeveloped.

So overall, I think I will rate this 3.5 stars. The author definitely did some fun and interesting stuff with the plot and characters. I love that diversity is a priority for her and I liked that Felicity was asexual, something not often represented in literature. But I didn’t find this book as funny and it was one of the key things I wanted from this book.

P.S. I Still Love You

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jenny Han
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: May 2015 (read Aug. 2018)

Okay, I’m definitely not as enamoured with this as I was for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I really don’t think the first book needed a sequel, much less a trilogy, but I’ll admit I do still find these characters charming.

I don’t have too much to say about PS. I Still Love You. What made the first book so great is that it was only really partly about boys and mostly about sisters. This book is mostly about boys and it just wasn’t as engaging for me. There are a million and one books out there already about love triangles and the minefield that is managing your emotions as a teenager. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before offered something new to the genre, and I don’t think this did.

That said, I do still think Lara Jean is a relatable character to a lot of young girls. Again, there are lots of books about teenage rebellion, partying, and poor decision making. But I like that Lara Jean is relatable to those girls that play it safe in high school and are intimidated by some of the experiences of their peers (in this case sexual experiences). Lara Jean knows Peter has had sex before and she also knows she’s not ready, which leads to a lot of insecurity about what Peter thinks and feels about their relationship.

However, I did really like that Lara Jean realizes that some of her hang ups actually have to do less with Peter and more with Genevieve. She constantly compares herself to her ex-best friend and how she might measure up alongside her. I liked that Lara Jean and Peter were both comfortable talking to one another about sex and I also liked the way Han wrote about Peter’s feelings on sex. It would have been so easy to write a character that was hung up on the fact that he and Lara Jean weren’t having sex, but Peter understood that Lara Jean wasn’t ready and just didn’t bring it up. Their relationship was about more than just sex for Peter.

I can’t decide if I’m going to read the last one or not. The first book ends on a cliffhanger that was annoying resolved within about 2 chapters of this book, but this one doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. The final book seems unnecessary to me, but I kind of want to see the series through. Plus they don’t take very long to read and I’m not sure I’m ready to part with Kitty Song Covey yet. What a smart and funny character – definitely my favourite!