American Dirt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2020 (read Apr. 2020)

So I know this book has had its fair share of good and bad reviews. We threw this one on our book club list right after it came out because the synopsis sounded so compelling and it wasn’t until later that I heard about some of the criticisms surrounding the book. Between then and now I forgot completely everything I’d read about the book and ended up going into it completely blind. For some reason I thought this was a book about adjusting to life in America after immigration – that is clearly not the case.

American Dirt tells the story of mother and son, Lydia and Luca, as they are forced to flee across their home country of Mexico to escape the violence of the big drug cartel in Acapulco, Los Jardinos. They end up joining the many migrants who make the epic journey across Central America in the hopes of finding sanctuary on the other side of the American border.

I can see why the book is popular – it’s been compared to a modern day Grapes of Wrath and deals with a topic close to the heart of all Americans – not just those in the United States who’ve taken ownership over the term. The catch is that the book is written by a white American woman with no first hand experience of what it means to be a migrant.

Honestly, I think that even 5 years ago few people would have raised a flag about the author. Unfortunately most mass consumed literature is written by white people, but I think there has been a real shift in recent years to highlight other authors and other stories – that representation matters and that’s there’s so much value to be gained from Own Voices writers. Obviously there’s a whole genre of historical fiction where this is largely impossible and I don’t think that we shouldn’t write about that which interests and inspires us. But it’s definitely a sensitive topic and I understand why the book has been criticized for this fact.

I’d like to try and explore both sides of this issue in my review. I cannot deny that I loved this book. I am the exact intended audience. A white woman that cares about social justice but is woefully ill-informed about the migration crises south of the American border. Whether the author correctly captured the migrant experience or not, I found this book incredibly eye-opening and though it describes something I knew was happening, it really drove home the plight of migrants. I think it will likely draw attention to this injustice and hopefully inspire people to become better informed and take action on it.

That said, as a reader, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge where this account may have its shortcomings. For this I look largely to the internet, from people who have had first hand experience of migrating to America. American Dirt has a very dark plot and I found the characters had almost no positive experiences. I’m sure this is largely the case for a lot of migrants, but I also wonder if in an effort to shock and engage – Cummins took every traumatic experience she’d ever heard of and combined it all in to one book. I did worry that she was stealing from the migrant experience to create an edge of your seat social justice thriller. While this trauma is likely all based in reality, its not meant for entertainment. I thought Cummins did maintain a good hold on this balance for most of the novel, but veered a bit to the extreme towards the end. Lydia’s interaction with Javier at the end of the book and what happened to Beto really pushed it over the edge for me into the use of someone else’s trauma for the sake of a dramatic climax.

The other area where I questioned Cummins authenticity on the subject was in her portrayal of America. I read in other reviews that her rudimentary use of Spanish in the novel is belittling and that she was ignorant to large parts of Mexican culture. I’ve seen it criticized that Lydia seemed way too shocked about the things that happened in her own country, things that any other Mexican would not find shocking but be well aware of. What I did note was the consistent portrayal of America as the ultimate salvation. It took on a bit of a mythos among the characters, though I think we all know America is still hugely flawed. Cummins did capture this somewhat better towards the end with the introduction of Marisol and other deportees. but I think there needs to be some sense of reality that even people fleeing to America recognize its shortcomings.

So the book is not without flaws. To further educate myself, I did some research on other existing literature about the experiences presented in this book that are actually based on first hand knowledge. I decided to add the following books to my TBR to hopefully get a broader and more accurate perspective of the issue: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, which was actually already on my TBR.

Moving on to what I liked about the book. I can’t deny I liked the writing. I connected with these characters. Not because I pitied them, but because they had such rich and emotive back stories. I liked the depth that Cummins brought to Lydia’s character and her relationship with Javier, Rebeca’s depiction of her mystical village in the cloud forest, Soledad’s quiet and reverent love for her sister and father, and the relationship that developed between Lydia and Luca, born of the grief they shared. I liked the exploration of how the immediate need to survive can overpower trauma and the fear that arises out of having no one you can trust – when anyone could be a potential informant. How violence can make you doubt even the authenticity of a 10 year old boy and how even in periods of extreme stress, people are still willing to sacrifice anything to help someone else in need.

Once I started this book, I struggled to put it down. I was on edge the entire time I was reading it and even though this will never make the reader understand how it feels to be in the characters situation first hand, I really felt the sense of urgency, the fear, and the unknown plaguing these characters throughout the course of the book. I don’t regret reading it, in fact I am definitely glad that I did. I lament that Latinx writers are not getting the same exposure as Cummins did, but I am glad to have been exposed to this story. I will try and do my best to pick up some other books on the subject with authors more closely connected to their subject matter. Looking forward to discussing this one at book club!

The Giver of Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Jojo Moyes
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)

Gah, the disappointment! I am definitely the minority, but only 2.5 stars from me.

My book club voted for The Giver of Stars as our February pick and it came highly recommended. I was a bit weary of it because I didn’t love Moyes most popular book, Me Before You, but the content of this book couldn’t be more different, so I was optimistic that as a lover of historical fiction, I would enjoy it.

I didn’t not enjoy the book. It’s a fine piece of work that creates an interesting enough fictional narrative about a real piece of history (the pack horse library). I’ve since learned that this is the second fictional book about the subject though, so please note that there is another book called, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, which is also about the pack horse library. I liked the story well enough, but it was just so damn slow and I can’t deny I find Moyes writing a bit amateur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Giver of Stars is about two women, Alice Van Cleve, a newly married Englishwoman who moves to rural Kentucky with her new husband Bennett, and Margery O’Hare, a free spirit who refuses to be defined by her father’s poor reputation or be forced into the narrow confines of what it means to be a woman in 1930’s Kentucky.

The women are recruited to be part of the Pack Horse Library, to deliver books to rural families in hopes of increasing education and literacy among the population. Despite initial suspicion of the library, the people are won over, finally getting access to information on everything from recipes, to their rights, and even clandestine info on the joys of “married love”. As you can imagine, the more conservative of the townspeople feel threatened by the women and tensions rise.

What I liked about the book was learning about the Pack Horse Library. It’s an initiative that was started by then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was incredibly successful. The writing of the early days of the library itself was somewhat dull, but It was interesting to learn about the conditions the women worked in, the amount of hostility they received, and how books eventually won the hearts of their readers. I found Margery’s character a bit more interesting than Alice’s, but they both had their own strengths.

But I do have to admit there was a lot I didn’t like about the book too. My biggest complaint is that I thought the author fell victim to the age old trap of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. I really wanted to see the relationships between characters grow on their own, but I felt that almost every relationship in the book was dictated to me. Moyes tells me that Bennett was a caring and attentive suitor in England and I feel like it’s supposed to be a shock when he does a 180 when they arrive back in America, but as Alice provides no recollections of how the two fell in love, I wasn’t very torn up about the Van Cleve’s turning out to be assholes and thought they were just another sexist Southern family like many others during that era.

Likewise, there’s very little interaction between any of the women in the Pack Horse library to actually cement their friendships. I thought it was obvious the women would eventually become friends because women are generally pretty sociable and supportive of one another and have been finding great value in female friendships LITERALLY FOREVER. It’s sad that suddenly having female friends seemed to be a great revelation to almost every character except maybe Margery, but I didn’t believe it. No way none of these women wouldn’t have built any other meaningful relationships before this point. Although regardless, we weren’t given a lot of anecdotes about how these friendships developed, except for Kathleen, whose story arc I really liked. I guess they eventually all bond with Alice over their dislike of Bennett, but like, friendships are generally born out of mutual interest and respect rather than pity.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead, there’s really too much I want to discuss to keep it all spoiler free.
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The same went for the romantic relationship. Supposedly Fred loves Alice from the moment he sees her, but can anyone give me some interactions that led to their mutual interest in one another? I thought they had no chemistry and even though it was obvious Moyes was going to put them together, it was only because she told me they were constantly aware of the other and sneaking peeks at each other rather than any meaningful interactions that would cause two people to be attracted to one another. Maybe I’m a grump, but I wasn’t feeling it and thought the whole thing stank of Instalove.

On a similar note, I wasn’t impressed with how the author handled Bennett’s character. We never find out what his deal is. Is he gay? asexual? repressed from the era’s opinions on sex and therefore just uncomfortable with it? I’m fine with any of these reasons and think any of them are understandable. Personally, I would have loved to see a thoughtful look at how the church’s views on purity and abstinence impact both men and women and create unhealthy perceptions about sex, but I really don’t think that’s what Moyes was going for in this book. Mostly it seemed he just didn’t have any actual information on what sex is? When he marries Peggy at the end I thought “Oh, I guess he was just in love with someone else”. But when Peggy comes looking for the Married Love book I just felt bad for everyone involved and mad at the author and her characters for finding the whole thing funny, which I did not. Like goodness, you think they’d feel some compassion for unsuspecting Peggy who was essentially in the same position Alice had been months prior. It’s not like Peggy stole Alice’s husband – they had no reason to mock or resent her.

So I didn’t love it. It’s a good book in that it raises a lot of questions and I think it’ll be fun to debate at book club, but overall disappointing. I thought my biggest complaint was just going to be that I found it boring, but evidently I had a bit more beef with some of the characters. I was planning to give it 3 stars, but I might have to bump it down to 2.5 (I really don’t think it’s a 2 star book though). I felt it just didn’t measure up to its potential.

There were a lot of side narratives happening that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The birth of the travelling library was interesting, but it did beg the question, what is the story leading up to? We start to get a glimpse into the poor conditions in the mine and how the mining company was essentially tricking people out of their land. When this happened, I was like, “okay cool, I see where this is going now, the librarians are disseminating information on land rights that will start some kind class war between wealthy mine owner (Van Cleve) and the poor”, but that’s never really where the story went. It all seemed to just be ammunition for why we shouldn’t like Van Cleve (as if we needed any more) and to serve his feud against Margery.

Then there was the side story with the flood and the slurry dam. I was like, “OMG the mining company destroyed all this land with a toxic tailings pond that of course disproportionately impacts black people, this is going to start another class war that gets us thinking about how wealthy people get away with murder because the injustice is always perpetrated against poor people and minorities.” But then that storyline went absolutely no where too, so I can only assume it was just another anecdote to make us dislike Van Cleve even more and provide an opportunity for the women to shine by saving everyone from the flood. But honestly, the whole flood scene ended up seeming like it was just drama for drama’s sake, which I have very little interest in.

Overall there were just too many loose ends and undelivered plot lines. I couldn’t believe that with all these other great themes, Moyes decided to focus the climax of her book on a single random incident with a character (McCullough) who doesn’t feature in any other part of the novel! It felt so unrelated to the rest of what was happening. I would have much rather read about the women using their influence as librarians to lead a charge against Van Cleve and his poor mining practices. I know that never actually happened historically, but from what I understand Margery’s whole trial was fabricated anyways, so what’s the point in any of it.

That said, one thing Moyes got right was the righteous anger at how women are treated. Van Cleve was a bit too classically evil for my tastes, but he did serve the purpose of highlighting how rich white men can get away with whatever they want. Margery being thrown in jail and then FORCED TO GIVE BIRTH THERE was enraging and definitely upped the ante, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure what the point was? What theme was the author really trying to make? The only impact that the outcome of the trial has is that Margery gets to return to her family. There’s no ultimate consequence for Van Cleve. Nobody in the town really changes, they just eventually go back to business-as-usual with no lessons learned. Am I supposed to be impressed that Bennett is pushing for a concrete wall on the next slurry dam? Because I’m sure that idea will be steamrolled by his father in 2 seconds because neither of them ever sees any consequence to their actions.

The only message I’m left with is that women are resilient? Not really groundbreaking stuff. I felt like the whole narrative was just manipulative and trying to force an emotional response that I just didn’t feel. I felt like Moyes was constantly trying to tell me how to feel when her characters and writing should just speak for themselves.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.

Magic for Liars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Gailey
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019)

I’ve been on a fantasy hiatus for the last 6 months, so well done Sarah Gailey on writing a book that finally inspired me to break the fast! I’ve been really dis-enchanted with YA fantasy lately, but this adult fantasy finally piqued my interest!

Everything about Magic for Liars seemed interesting and unique. On the surface, it sounds like the same tired Magic School trope, but it has a lot else going for it. Yes, it is set in a magic school, but the premise of the story is about private investigator Ivy Gamble being asked to investigate a gruesome murder that took place at the magic school.

Ivy herself is not magic and lives firmly in the non-magic world. However, her twin sister, Tabitha, is magic and has been working as a teacher at the school for several years. Most non-magic folk are unaware of the existence of magic, but Ivy has been in the know since Tabitha was first invited to attend magic school and she was not. Since then, there has been a bit of resentment between the sisters and they have grown apart.

The magic system in this book was quite different than other fantasy books I read, which I really liked. People with magic are still very much ensconced in the real world, with the study of magic being very deeply ingrained in other fields, such as medicine, math, and science. Some branches of magic are little understood and the magic itself seems to be in some ways much more unstated then similar books, but in other ways much more intense.

What I liked about Magic for Liars is that Gailey takes many fantastical tropes and integrates them into their story, while at the same time, poking fun of them. The most obvious is the “chosen one” trope, but we also have the childhood misunderstanding, the competitive sisters, the psychopathic cool girls, the PI who has to solve their own childhood crime, and a misleading romance, just to name a few. I also liked the diversity that Gailey tried to include in the story. Gailey is non-binary and I thought they did a good job at including diverse relationships, without throwing them in your face.

Despite all the great things Gailey tried with this novel though, sadly I still didn’t love it. Something about the writing just didn’t flow that well and I felt pretty disconnected to the characters throughout much of the novel. I wanted to empathize with Ivy, but I did think she was unnecessarily harsh with Tabitha when they were younger and the misunderstanding between them seemed too obvious to have been the misunderstanding that it was.

So overall, this was a 3 star read for me. I definitely liked it, but I didn’t love it. I am impressed with it as a debut novel though and I’m excited to see what Gailey writes in the future!

Home Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2017 (read July 2019)

While Home Fire was already on my TBR, it was a bit of an impulse purchase on Audible for me because I liked the narrator (so important!). I’m not sure what I was expecting from it, but I ended up being really impressed by this book.

Home Fire tells the story of an immigrant family that struggles to overcome the heartbreak of the past and be accepted as immigrants in the current political climate in the UK. After the death of her parents, Isma is forced to put her dreams on hold to take care of her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. But now that the twins are grown, she decides to pursue greater education in America, where she meets Eamonn, son of Britain’s home secretary.

The narrative follows Isma, Eamonn, and each of the other family members in turn. Isma is detained at the airport on her way to America, thanks to the tight security standards of the home secretary and her status as the daughter of a known jihadi. She befriends Eamonn and is confused by her feelings for him knowing the impact of his father’s policies on her and her family. But when Eamonn returns to the UK and is introduced to the rest of Isma’s family, the lives of these two very different immigrant families becomes further entwined.

Home Fire was a lot more political than I was expecting and super relevant with what is happening under Donald Trump’s policies in America and in the UK, post Brexit. But it also had a lot of heart and despite it being a relatively short book, Shamsie writes some deep and nuanced characters. I liked that this examined both sides of immigration policies, looking at a really controversial topic like jihad and the far-reaching impacts. I definitely didn’t go into this expecting to feel empathy for someone who leaves the UK to join ISIS.

What made this such a strong read for me was the characters (I live for character driven stories, so no surprise there). Initially I was frustrated when the perspectives kept switching, because I wasn’t expecting it and wanted to return to earlier characters, but looking at this one family and their story from so many perspectives is what gave the book such depth. They had a richly imagined history and each character already felt like a fully formed individual by the time I first met them. They are all extremely flawed, but it’s really what made them so believable as individuals.

To add another level to the story, Home Fire is parroted as a “modern day Antigone”. Now I read Antigone in high school, but I’m pretty foggy on the details so I had to do a bit of googling to remind myself. It is pretty loosely related, but does raise some relevant points from this ancient play. To what level will our xenophobia and othering go so that we can’t even see those who are different as human anymore? Can we not grant someone their humanity even in death, having no empathy for the people the dead leave behind?

A thoughtful and cleverly written book. I sped through it as an audiobook.