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.

Girls Burn Brighter

Rating: 
Author: Shobha Rao
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 2018 (read June 2018 as audiobook)

This was a super heavy read. At one point I’m sure I read the synopsis for this and thought, a book about disenfranchised women who find power within themselves, how empowering, sign me up. But between reading the synopsis and downloading this book as an audiobook, I totally forgot the plot and was super disturbed at how dark this was!

Girls Burn Brighter is set in India (amongst other places) and focuses on the friendship between two young women, Poornima and Savitha. They are only friends for a short period of time, but they develop a strong relationship during that time and come to realize that the other is the only person to ever truly love and care for them throughout their lives. They are torn apart by the circumstance of being young women of marrying age in India and both suffer some truly atrocious acts of hatred and spite against them.

It’s totally evident if you read the synopsis, but I did not realize this was a book about human trafficking. Human trafficking is one of the great injustices facing our world today and yet there is very little literature devoted to it and it makes for a truly upsetting read. I suffered through this book along with both Poornima and Savitha. It was uncomfortable and hard to read and that’s exactly how a book about human trafficking should be. A few months ago I read a book, A Girl Like That, about the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia and was truly appalled.

For some reason I thought India treated women better (than Saudi at least), but this book shocked me in its malice. The men in this book had so little regard for women and many of the men in the novel truly despised them. Yet I had no problem imagining these men and their cruelty. I did know I was getting myself into a tough read, but this book really made me despair for humanity. It also tells the story of two strong women who, despite all the suffering that has been visited upon them, still yearn and aspire to a better life. They find strength in the love they have for one another and no matter what shit life throws at them, they always continue to pursue something better for themselves, and in Savitha’s case, something better for her family too.

I listened to Girls Burn Brighter as an audiobook, but I’ve since decided to switch back to non-fiction for my audiobooks for a while because this is another book that the audio just didn’t quite do justice to. The writing is quite flowery and I think I would have liked it a lot in written form, but in audio I tended to get a bit distracted by the writing and sometimes would zone out.

The ending is oh so frustrating. I knew I was approaching the end and I was so nervous as to how the author was going to end things and while I don’t fault her for the ending, it was still torture! The plot was a little unbelievable for me, partly because I couldn’t believe so much hardship could be experienced by two people, but also in that the coincidences in this novel were just a little too far past believable for me. But it is a great story about the strength and perseverance of women. Just mentally prepare yourself before you go into this book because it was honestly one of the most emotionally draining books I’ve read it a long time.

The Astonishing Color of After

Rating: .5
Author: Emily XR Pan
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Pub Date: Mar. 2018 (read May 2018)

I’m not a big lover of magical realism, so when I first read the synopsis for this book, I was not at all into it (despite the absolutely gorgeous cover). But I literally haven’t heard a bad review of this book so I decided to give it a try.

I’m not going to lie, it did take me a while to get into this book. It was definitely a slower read for me and I did even take a break in the first third of the book and read a complete other book before returning to this. There was no part of this book that I didn’t enjoy, it’s just one of those slower paced books that took me a little longer to get through, but not from lack of enjoyment.

The Astonishing Color of After is about American-Taiwanese teenager Leigh and her mother who has just committed suicide. Leigh is devastated by the death of her mother, but when she is repeatedly visited by a red bird she believes to be her mother, she is set on a path to discover the secrets of her family and Taiwanese roots. Leigh has never met her Taiwanese grandparents and the bird sets her on a trip to Taiwan to try and remember those things which her mother never shared with her.

While Leigh gets to know her grandparents and searches for her mother in Taiwan, we get flashbacks of the last 2 years. We learn about the decline of her mother’s mental health, the disappearance of her father within her everyday life, her great love and aptitude for art, and her lifelong friendship with Axel that has started to develop into something more.

First off, the writing in this book is fantastic. I loved Emily Pan’s style of writing and her descriptions of emotions turned to colour are gorgeous! As children, Leigh and Axel constantly describe their feelings and emotions to one another at any particular moment through different colours, such as the emerald green of jealousy, the burnt orange of desire, or the colourless absence of grief. Pan consistently uses colour throughout the novel to convey emotion and it made for the most breath-taking writing and journey.

This reminded me a little bit of Hour of the Bees, which is a middle grade book I read a few years ago and really liked (and one of the few magical realism books I’ve read). I actually didn’t have any problem with the whole ‘reincarnated as a bird’ idea (it played out a lot differently than I was expecting) and I really liked how the author used magical realism to transport us through memories. I also loved that this was mostly set in Taiwan and how the author integrated in several Taiwanese cultural elements to the story, such as Ghost Month.

This is primarily a story about mental health and grief. The author states in the afterward that she didn’t want to set out any one reason why Leigh’s mother may have killed herself and I really appreciated that. She wanted this to be more of a story that shows that depression can affect anyone and have no rhyme or reason. There’s generally not a specific cause to which you can attribute depression or a specific way in which people react or heal. Depression was something Leigh’s mom struggled with for many years and I thought Pan took us on a beautiful emotional journey, showing us both positive and negative memories that Leigh has of both of her parents.

I was in love with the flashbacks though. I loved Leigh and Axel’s relationship and their gradual transition from friends to something more. I thought it captured so well what it’s like being 15 and starting to develop feelings for someone – the embarrassment of being a teenager with changing hormones, the want for something more, the confusion of figuring out each other’s feelings, the fear of rejection – so accurate. I also really liked how she tied art and music into the story and the theme that liberal arts are still viable careers and that you shouldn’t be afraid to pursue things that bring you great joy.

Overall I think this book is super well written and strikes the perfect balance of sadness and sweetness. Like I said, it wasn’t the fastest read for me, but definitely worth it! 4.5 stars!