Lands of Lost Borders

Rating:
Author: Kate Harris
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Travel, Canadian
Pub. date: Jan. 2018 (read Aug. 2019)

This was a really excellent book! It wasn’t really at all what I was expecting, but Kate Harris is a wonderful writer and I ended up really liking it.

Lands of Lost Borders primarily tells the story of Kate’s almost year long bike ride across Central Asia on the “Silk Road” an ancient trade route used by Marco Polo. But Kate also shares a little of her childhood and formative university years with us as well, which surprisingly ended up being some of my favourite chapters of the whole book.

I’m not sure what I was expecting Kate’s character to be like, but so many of these travel-type memoirs are from hippie types, teens on a gap year, or people wealthy enough to be able to go on extended vacations. I don’t want to say Kate’s not a hippie, but I didn’t really think she fell into any of those categories.

Kate is a Rhodes scholar and MIT graduate whose livelong obsession with Mars drove her to become a modern day explorer. She’s incredibly smart and accomplished, but she isn’t driven by fame, money, or accolades. She’s driven by a desire to get out into the unknown and explore. She’s a wonderful writer and she had a good blend of interesting facts, philosophical thoughts, and funny anecdotes. Although I did think the story started out stronger and declined a little bit when she starts writing about the silk road. She does get a bit bogged down sometimes in the historical and scientific facts, when I would have loved a few more stories and anecdotes from her time on the silk road and what it was like day-to-day.

After finishing the book I went to Kate’s website to learn a bit more about her and discovered that she has a ton of albums from the trip on the website. I would say that photos are the one thing missing from this memoir and I wish I’d discovered them earlier because it would have been lovely to look at each country album as I progressed through the book. So if you decide to read this one, I’d recommend following along with the photos on her website.

Overall though, this was a really strong debut novel and I would definitely be interested in reading more about Kate’s adventures. This was definitely a part of the world I haven’t read very much about and I think most travellers tend to pass over the “stans” in favour of other countries like India, Thailand, and Vietnam.

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Rating:
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Aug. 2019 on Audible)

Woo, this was a fun little novella! It was a mistake to buy this on Audible because I listened to it way too fast! Seriously, I flew through it in like 3 days. Great narrator though!

I’ve seen this book popping up in a few places, but I wasn’t sure if the premise was exactly as the name suggestions… it is. My Sister, the Serial Killer is set in Nigeria and is told from the point of view of Korede, a young nurse whose sister has a suspicious tendency to be forced to kill her boyfriends. Ayoola always has a reason, either he attacked her, or tried to rape her, or he just happened to be poisoned while they were out to dinner together. But she consistently looks to her straight laced sister to help her clean up the mess.

Korede is torn between her obligations and loyalty to her family, and her fear for the men of Lagos. Either way, she decides to keep quiet. But when Ayoola starts getting close with one of the doctor’s at her hospital, she can’t deny she is torn about what to do.

Despite the gruesome nature of the plotline, this was a fun little book. Honestly, I found Korede’s dilemma highly entertaining. The author infuses a lot of humour into the story and the juxtaposition of the humour against the dark storyline really compliment each other wonderfully. This is the kind of extremism that really highlights human nature. On one hand, Ayoola is clearly crazy and should be locked up, but on the other hand, you can’t help admire her guts. Korede totally enables her, but what other choice does she have unless she decides to turn her sister in. After the first time, she’s an accessory in the murders, so to turn on her sister would also be the end of her life too.

it’s a short book, but I liked it that way. It was tightly plotted and you have to admire an author who says what they need to say and then moves on. No superfluous writing in this one!

The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.

Next Year in Havana

Rating: ⭐
Author: Chanel Cleeton
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Apr. 2019)

Well that was the most disappointing book I’ve read in a while. I was really expecting to like this. I’ve been really into romances lately and I love historical fiction. I haven’t read any books about Cuba, so I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new. This is my book club’s selection for April, but it immediately got off to a bad start because my co-chair finished the book before I even started it and gave it 1 star! We usually have the same taste in books, but I was still determined to like Next Year in Havana because it has such great reviews and I was so optimistic about it.

But alas, it was not meant to be. I really tried, I kept telling myself I was liking it, but eventually I had to admit to myself that I really just didn’t like it. It took me over two weeks to read and if it hadn’t been for my looming book club deadline, it probably would have taken a lot longer. It was just really boring and I never wanted to pick it up. The topic should have been super engaging, but the author’s writing and dialogue left a lot to be desired and I didn’t believe in any of her characters.

Next Year in Havana follows the classic historical fiction narrative where one storyline is set in the past and one set in the present. Overall, I’m a bit tired of this narrative. I think it’s overdone and the modern day timeline is almost always less engaging than the historical one. However, this was one book where I thought the decision to tell two timelines actually made sense. The modern day timeline is set in 2017, right after Castro’s death, when US-Cuban relations are finally starting to thaw and change. The historical storyline is set in 1958/9 around when Castro was coming to power. Eliza grew up as part of the wealthy Perez family and the change in government results in the exile of her family to America. In 2017, her granddaughter, Marisol, decides to travel to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes under the guise of writing a tourism article (she is a journalist).

I thought the split timeline worked well because both settings are historically important and mark the changes in Cuba’s politics. It was interesting to see the two factions of Cubans: those who stayed and those who left, and how those decisions played a role in how they viewed Cuba into the future. So the setting definitely had lots of potential and demonstrated the differences between the wealthy and the poor and the locals and the exiles.

But I had a lot of problems with the book. The first was with the romance(s). The story starts with Eliza meeting and falling in love with a revolutionary, Pablo, and Marisol being infatuated with her tour guide, Luis. It’s a lot to carry two romances in a book like this and I thought the author did justice to neither. They were both classic insta-love romances and I have very little interest in those types of love stories. I didn’t understand what was attracting any of the characters to each other and there was very little development of them falling in love. Definitely not a slow burn romance type book. I had a little more sympathy for Eliza because of the era she was living in, but Marisol needs to get a grip.

My second problem with the book was the way in which the author conveyed historical information. This whole book was just a huge history info dump and it was extremely un-engaging to read about. Having one of your characters be a journalist is such an uninspired way to communicate history. It’s easy to have a tour guide that explains everything, but it’s boring. At times I felt like I was reading a history book. I’d much rather be shown the history through Eliza’s eyes or through stories she shared with Marisol. I don’t want to listen to a history professor drone on and on about the author’s obviously biased opinions on Cuba.

‘Show don’t tell’ was probably one of the main problems with this book. Cleeton tells us her characters are in love, she tells us about Cuba’s history, she tells us about the conflict Marisol feels between the exiles and those who stayed, but she doesn’t show us any of it. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between her two protagonists because they constantly just cycled through the same thoughts. “he’s a revolutionary, we can’t be together”, “I’m American, we can’t be together”, “it sucks to lose your home and fear for you life”, “it sucks not to have freedom of speech”, “Castro is bad, Castro is bad, Castro is bad.” Honestly, it got so repetitive.

My understanding is that Cleeton’s family basically lived Eliza’s exile, so she’s definitely coming at this story from the perspective of the exiles. I liked that she included a revolutionary, because I really wanted to see and understand both sides of Cuba’s history. Castro represented a lot of bad things to the Americans, but he represented a lot of good things to a lot of Cubans. I feel like the author tried to cover both sides of the story, but her storytelling was still extremely biased and it was not what I was looking for from this story.

This is where my biggest problem with the novel was. I feel like the author took Cuba’s history and its pain and used it to write a drama for the purpose of entertainment. Frankly, I was insulted by Marisol’s character. When she refers to the injustices that have been perpetrated against Cubans, she repeatedly includes herself in that narrative. She refers to Cubans using the collective ‘we’, as if she really understands how Cuban’s have suffered since 1959. I agree that the Cuban-Americans absolutely know their own kind of pain, but she does not understand Luis or what he has been through. She doesn’t get to come back 60 years later and insert herself into Cuba’s story. I know immigrants face their own kind of pain and hardship with the loss of their culture and the diaspora of living in another country. But portraying Marisol as someone who understood what Cubans went through totally erases them from their own story.

It was just so irritating how oblivious Marisol was to much of Cuba’s history and suffering (as evidenced in every single conversation where Luis is explaining some part of Cuba’s history to her). Yet she was so indignant and self-righteous about it. It was the typical “American-comes-to-save-the-oppressed” type of story. Luis was a revolutionary in his own right. He was incredibly intelligent and politically-savvy, so I struggled to believe that he would give an entitled journalist like Marisol the time of day. I hated the ending. I thought it belittled everything Luis had worked for. Cuba’s history is Cuba’s history. You can’t write it into some perfect little historical romance. I felt like this did no justice to Cuba or to Cubans. Am I super knowledgeable about Cuba? Hell no, but I get the feeling its history is a lot more nuanced than this book is able to portray. Sometimes you can’t have nice little endings. Privileged people feel like they can fix everything. But they can’t and sometimes it’s not their responsibility to. Cuba will ultimately be transformed by its own people.

So yeah, I did not enjoy this book. I still learned something from it, but I would much prefer to read about Cuba from a different perspective. I felt like this was very much the Westernized view of Cuba, and I would have preferred to read about it from the point of view of someone who has lived Cuban history first-hand. Mostly I was just insulted that the author took Cuba’s history and used it to write a dramatic, historical romance. It was belittling.

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