With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.

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A Bend in the Stars

Rating:
Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

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

Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.

I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.

A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.

The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.

Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.

At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.

But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.

I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.

So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.

Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.

The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.

Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.

A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.

The Everlasting Rose

Rating: ⭐
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: The Belles #2

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

I liked the first book in this series, The Belles, so I was really excited to receive an advance copy of the sequel and had high hopes going into this book. Unfortunately, I did not find the sequel as compelling or captivating as the first book and it took me several weeks to trudge my way through The Everlasting Rose.

The Everlasting Rose starts off right where The Belles left off, with Camellia having fled the palace and Sophia being named as heir to the monarchy. Camellia is desperate to find Charlotte in order to prevent Sophia, with her twisted politics, from ascending the throne. Sophia is definitely an A+ villain, so this should have been super captivating, but I don’t think it was well plotted and I struggled to get through it.

Clayton definitely has a unique writing style. Her writing is quite flowery, which I think works really well in the beauty-obsessed fantasy world that she has created. The plot definitely seemed to move slowly in the first book as well, but there was a large mystery element in the first book that compelled me to keep reading and the last third of the book was super high stakes. The mystery was missing from this book, as was the twisted villain.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I actually wanted more of Sophia in this book. She is incredibly twisted and evil, but she brought a lot of tension to the story. The Everlasting Rose is also a high stakes plot, but it relies on Sophia’s malice from the first book to carry the conflict through this story and I just wanted more. Sophia is a looming threat, but she doesn’t drive the conflict and plot in the same way as the first book and even though Camellia is forced to race against time to find Charlotte, I never really felt any fear for her character. Most of the book is spent travelling around Orleans, but never actually advances the plot of the story. Camellia accomplishes very little until she actually returns to Trianon towards the end of the book. The ending was pretty good, but it just took so long to get there that it actually felt rushed when we finally arrived back at the palace. The first three quarters of the story really just felt like filler to get us to the last quarter.

Some authors can really pull off “travel” stories (I’m thinking of Heather Fawcett’s Even the Darkest Stars series), but it lost me in this book. There are 6 Belles in the Camellia’s generation and we meet and interact with almost all of them, but never long enough to really care about them or get a sense of who they are. Coming into this book I only really cared about Camellia and Amber, and I was intrigued about Edel. But then the author seems to abandon the relationship conflict she was developing between Amber and Camellia, which I thought was a real shame because it was really interesting to examine the competitive relationship between them and how it manifested with their individual ethics.

The romance also threw me for a total loop in this book. It was unexpected and very ‘insta-love’ and I wasn’t into it. The first book ended with so many broken relationships and I just don’t think any of them were resolved well in this book. August was a bit of a mystery to me in the first book and I don’t understand what drove his character. It’s developed a bit further in the sequel, but was overall, unsatisfying.

Mostly I just wanted to see more interactions between Sophia and Camellia. I was really expecting for this to be a trilogy, but based on the ending of this book, it seems it’s a duology? But the whole time I was reading this I was like, “oh, this book is totally suffering from middle book syndrome, it’s just going to be a travel book and the third book is where we’ll get a really intense showdown between Sophia, Camellia, Charlotte, and the Iron Ladies.” But it seems like that is not to be and I didn’t think this worked as a final book.

One thing that bothered me was the assumption that Charlotte would make a good ruler. Everyone wanted her to be queen because she was the rightful heir and Sophia was so vile that literally anyone else would be better. But Charlotte was in a coma for years, so I thought she would probably be devastated when she awoke by all the lost time and would likely be stunted in development as she was essentially a child when she went into the coma. Something clearly went wrong with Sophia to make her the way she was, but why assume that Charlotte would naturally be better? She wouldn’t have even understood the drama and politics of what went on at court over the past years because she was effectively absent, and I feel like it would be hard for her to accept the narrative that she was told about her sister. Why would she trust the Iron Ladies, who essentially abducted her, over the word of her sister? It seemed really problematic to me.

So unfortunately, there wasn’t really much that I liked about this book. Clayton has a really interesting style of writing and I think this world had so much potential, but I was ultimately disappointed.

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.

The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.