The Grace Year

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kim Liggett
Genres: Sci-fi, Dystopian, Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 8, 2019 (read in July 2019)

Special thanks to Netgalley and Wednesday Books for providing me with a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

I was halfway through this when I had to set it aside to read my book club pick for the month, No Exit by Taylor Adams. Both of these books are f***ed and I feel like I’ve been so anxious for the last two weeks because of it.

Both of these books succeeded in racking up my blood pressure, but that’s about where the comparisons end. No Exit was not a good book, this was.

The Grace Year is dystopian fiction about a society that believes women have a powerful magic that they grow into when they get their first period and that they must be sent away for a year to burn off that magic before they can be welcomed back into the community as wives. It’s a total wild ride that had me enthralled from the very beginning. It’s a dark read with a lot of violence, but unlike some other books I’ve read, the violence achieves something. Liggett uses that violence to make powerful social commentary on the roles of women in society, the way we treat one another, and how things could be different.

The Grace Year refers to the year when the girls are sent away to live in the woods and burn off their magic. The society is very much controlled by men who believes women need to be punished for Eve’s original sins. The Grace Year is never spoken about in the community, but is a grim time in every women’s life. Many come back missing body parts or emotionally scarred, and that’s just the girls that return. Many never return and are instead taken by poachers who harvest their body parts because the community believes in the medicinal properties of the dead girls magic.

While all the other girls are concerned with landing a husband before their grace year, Tierney is perfectly content to labour in the fields when she returns, not wanting the be controlled by a man. But once the girls begin their grace year and discover the freedom they have for the first time in their lives, they start to turn on one another and realize the real danger is not the poachers, but the pain they will inflict on one another.

It’s a dark book and I did struggle with it at some points, but like I said, I think the violence serves a purpose in this book, which is why I was able to read through it. Liggett has an interesting writing style and the book itself has a really interesting structure. The girls take out their frustrations on one another because they’ve never been allowed to express emotion before or learned healthy ways to deal with their anger. They have allowed the men to control them for so long that they’ve completely lost any sense of compassion and have never experienced the beauty of female friendship and empathy.

Liggett keeps us guessing throughout the novel and I thought she did a great job with world building. At first things are a little confusing, but the confusion makes it more engaging because you don’t really understand the terrors lurking in the woods or why they exist. The narrative doesn’t follow the traditional storytelling structure, yet the concept of moving through the seasons of the grace year provides enough structure to guide us through the story.

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a standalone or not. I went into it thinking it was a standalone, but now I think it could go either way. It still works as a standalone, but I could also see the author expanding the story. There’s lots of room to continue developing the ideas of this book, but sometimes it’s not needed. The ending is ambiguous and I kind of like it that way.

The Grace Year will be available in stores Oct. 8, 2019.

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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 Marrow Thieves

 

 

 

 

 

Rating:  ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub Date: Apr. 2017 (Read Mar. 2017)

“Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to see it.”

This was a beautiful book! I’m so glad it’s in the Canada Reads shortlist this year because I think it’s unlikely I would have discovered it otherwise and that would have been a shame because the writing is so gorgeous!

The Marrow Thieves is a short novel by Métis author Cherie Dimaline about a dystopian Canada that has been ravaged by climate change and disease and a large portion of the population has been wiped out. In the aftermath, everyone but indigenous peoples have lost the ability to dream. In an attempt to discover why the government starts constructing new schools (that mirror the old residential schools) to study indigenous peoples. It turns out that the ability to dream comes from your bone marrow and the government starts rounding up and experimenting on indigenous peoples to harvest their bone marrow.

Frenchie has slowly lost everyone in his family and finds himself alone in the woods. He follows his family’s plan to head North and eventually runs into other bands of ‘Indians’ who are slowly treking their way North as well and he is adopted into a new family and they travel together. Their group consists of an elder, Minerva; their leader, Miig; and several other young people who have lost their families. Miig tries to preserve the old ways through story-telling and everyone has the opportunity to tell their own ‘coming-to’ story.

I loved the writing in this book and learning everyone’s story – hearing about their struggles and how they came to end up part of this little adoptive family. They all come from different backgrounds and families, but they have retained their ability to dream and their desire to survive in the angry world around them. Miig teaches them how to hunt, cook, fight, and survive in the wild and how to connect back to their original roots.

I really liked this because I thought by telling this horrifying, dystopian story, Dimaline was able to convey some of the horrors that have been committed against indigenous peoples in the past in a way that enabled you to empathize emotionally with them and better understand how they felt. On paper, everyone knows about the residential school systems and the struggles of indigenous peoples to retain their culture, but that part of history feels a degree removed and it’s shameful so I think people generally avoid thinking about it.

It reminded me a little of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, in it’s ability to use exaggeration to convey emotion. The Things They Carried is a book about O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War that is written to read like a memoir, but is actually partially fabricated. O’Brien’s essay about being drafted and his internal debate about whether he would defect to Canada to avoid going to war is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. It reads like non-fiction and is an exaggerated account of O’Brien’s experience, but it is so effective because the exaggeration is what enables to you really feel his despair, frustration, and hopelessness. Dimaline’s horrifying account of the marrow thieves is what enables you to relate and empathize with the persecution of indigenous peoples throughout Canada’s history. I mean, I obviously empathized with them before and thought the residential schools were horrifying, but this book uses science fiction and exaggeration to evoke a much stronger emotional reaction.

Indigenous peoples are obviously incredibly tenacious and this book re-iterated that. It is really a pretty simple story about family, love, and the bonds we build with those around us. Who are we when everything else is stripped away from us? What can we become when faced with adversity, antipathy, and violence? Is family blood or the bonds we build we those we love? I thought this was a thoughtful, well written novel and I would definitely recommend to all Canadians! I read both The Boat People and The Marrow Thieves and while I really liked them both, I think this was my favourite of the two.

The Power

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐.5
Author: Naomi Alderman
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Feminist
Read: Feb. 2018

Execution is the key word for The Power. I’ve been dying to read this book since it first came out, but I’ve been seeing it get some mixed reviews and now I can understand why. This book had such a great premise, but I think it was a bit of a miss on the execution, which is so disappointing.

The Power is a dystopian, science fiction novel in which women have developed the power to basically electrocute people and things using their hands. They can take down electrical grids, burn trees and structures, and kill people using the power. The book is told from the point of view of a male historian recounting the events of when women first gained the power. Girls start developing the power at 15 and can awaken it in other women. Their power comes from a skein in their collarbones that all women have, but has never been awakened until now.

As you can imagine, women suddenly developing this power totally flips gender dynamics and this book focuses on the perspectives of 3 women and 1 man from different parts of the world. There’s Margot, an American mayor; Allie, a teenage runaway; Roxy, daughter of a British drug dealer; and Tunde, a Nigerian boy turned reporter. The book definitely had a strong start and I was super into it at the beginning, but I got a bit frustrated as things progressed because I felt like the author lacked an obvious theme or direction. I feel like she had a lot of different ideas and themes and sadly, I thought they were poorly executed and took away from the story. I think she needed a more focused direction.

My biggest struggle is that I just don’t know what the central theme is. Is it that this reversal in gender dynamics just ends up with a reversal of male/female roles? Or that even if women developed the ability to electrocute men, it would still be a huge struggle for them to gain power and men would be just as destructive towards women as they’ve always been? Is the author’s point that power can turn anyone into a monster? That women are just as vicious and oppressive as men have been and don’t deserve power? Or is she just trying to help men better understand the ways they currently harm and hurt women and how obvious these inequalities become through a simple reversal of gender roles?

Maybe I’m too dense to figure it out, but I feel like Naomi Alderman was trying to make all these points, which is why the book fell flat. There are definitely authors out there who can address this many ideas in a novel, but I feel like you need some kind of central theme and that the writing got overwhelmed by the ideas in this book and they just all lacked development. I don’t think the author needed to connect the multiple viewpoints the way that she did in this book. The characters seem to just randomly come across each other and help out each other’s storylines, but I felt that instead it made each individual storyline more disjointed and less impactful.

Disclaimer, the rest of this review contains spoilers. Usually I try and avoid spoilers, but I feel like I need to include them in order to properly discuss this book, so don’t read any further if you’re planning to read this book.

First off, let’s look at some of the things that I liked. I liked the scenes about the Men’s Rights movements and the internet trolls and bombings. They felt very real to me and I had no trouble believing we’d see this kind of backlash if women gained this power. I kind of expected the development of the power to switch gender roles a lot faster than it did, but I felt Alderman’s portrayal of this slow cling to power by men to be very believable. It’s got to be devastating to go from holding all the power to suddenly losing it and becoming oppressed and I have no doubt men would fight back and fight back violently (especially since women were also using violence).

I also liked the uprisings by women and the seedy underside of how some women choose to use their power. I really liked Margot’s story at the beginning, but then I was disappointed to see her basically left out of the second half of the novel. In contrast, I wasn’t really into Tunde’s story at the start, but ending up thinking he had one of the most meaningful storylines by the end of the book.

On the other side, I did not like Allie’s story at all and I only liked a few select parts of Roxy’s story. Allie’s story just felt like a total tangent with the whole religious revolution. I absolutely believe something like this could happen, but I just didn’t think this storyline fit in with the rest of the novel. It reminded me a little bit of the religious zealots in Station Eleven, which is a post-apocalyptic book in which 90% of the world population is killed by one virus. But I think this whole storyline just watered down the themes of the rest of the book and I hated that Roxy got involved because then I just had to read twice as much about it.

I thought Roxy’s story had such a strong start. It was so dark and I couldn’t wait to see where the author would take it, but I really didn’t dig the whole soldier aspect and based on what happened later, didn’t see that point of including it at all. The only other part of Roxy’s story I really liked was the skein removal scene, which was super horrific for an imaginary medical procedure. I felt so bad for Roxy, but it was such a powerful commentary on the lengths men were willing to go to maintain their power

The scenario that plays out in this book could obviously develop in so many different ways and I did like some of the contrasting events that Alderman explores. I thought it was really cool that it was the developing countries where women rose up first to fight back against their oppressors, whereas in America and Great Britain, men did whatever they could to retain power and women did less to fight back and in Margot’s case, actually hid her power. I also liked the contrast between the scene where Darrell first uses Roxy’s power and the other girls rise up against him to protect Jocelyn, whereas in the Romanian jungle, the women were actively hunting down any man, woman, or child who stood in their way and seemed to have no sense of compassion or bond with other women.

I loved Tunde’s story because of that feeling of total powerlessness at the end of the novel. He’s always had an exit plan and then the total despair of being betrayed by those closest to you and watching your life work stolen from you is just devastating. And to then be trapped in the middle of a female revolution with no way to fight back? That had to be so terrifying and I just wanted men to read that to try and understand the oppression and fear so many women feel at the hands of men.

I can see this book being both powerful and dangerous. Powerful because it makes a statement about the inequalities women face and reversing them to affect men can be powerful in helping men to empathize with women. There were so many small but meaningful nuggets at the beginning, like where mothers were talking about how they wouldn’t let their sons out alone on the streets because of the danger of being attacked by women. My disappointment again was that I felt this theme could have been so much more powerful, but I felt like it kind of got lost throughout the novel. On the other side, I can see these ideas being dangerous in that I could see actual MRA’s taking it and saying, “see, look what could happen if we let women have power.”

I struggled with the format of the supposed historian telling this story. I didn’t buy it and I could have done without the whole thing. Why would a historian tell a story like this? I don’t think they would. I thought the letters at the end of the book between the historian and Naomi were fantastic, but again, just so confusing for the execution of this book!

I thought the main theme was going to be that with power, and given a long enough time, women essentially just become men. But in my opinion the actual novel didn’t really support this theme and I was super frustrated that the whole novel covers 10 years of history and then at the end we discover the story is actually being told 5000 years after the fact! The letters at the end totally support the theme that the power just eventually resulted in a total role reversal, but it felt so disjointed because this is not the theme I felt the rest of the novel was promoting.

I wonder if I’m maybe holding this book to a bit of a higher standard because of its relevance to modern day feminism, but I just feel it had so much more potential. In summary, I would give this 3.5 stars because it definitely makes you think a lot, but with more focus and better execution, I really think this could have been a 5 star read, which is why it felt so disappointing.

Ink and Bone

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Rachel Caine
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fantasy
Read: Dec. 2017

The only other Rachel Caine book I’ve read is Stillhouse Lake, which I understand is quite a departure from her other works, but this was so different and I’m impressed Caine is able to bridge both the mystery/thriller and fantasy genres so well.

I thought this was a pretty good novel. It has a bit of a slow start after a pretty intense prologue, but once the action gets going it’s pretty much non-stop throughout the rest of the book. Ink and Bone is the first in a fantasy/dystopian series called The Great Library. The book is set in 2025 between parts of the UK and Alexandria, Egypt. At some point in the past it seems this story has diverged from our history and in order to preserve knowledge and protect against heresy, the library has become the world’s dominant power. The library safeguards human knowledge and teachings by collecting and producing all books and academic studies and forbidding the ownership of original books.

I thought the set-up for the story was a bit weak and as such I was a bit confused in the first part of the novel about what was going on and whether people actually had access to books or not. It seems everyone has a “codex” which is a kind of e-reader and can access some library books, but the ownership of any original book is forbidden, as is the writing of any original works outside of keeping a personal journal that is turned over to the library upon your death.

The main character of the story is Jess, who is a book smuggler in London, selling valuable original books on the black market to collectors as part of the family business. Jess loves books more than anything and hates the smuggling business. So when his father suggests to send him for training to work for the library, he finds himself happy to travel to Alexandria for the library training course.

This is where I thought things got fun and interesting. The training course starts off with a huge group of students competing for only 6 placements at the library, under a very tough scholar, Christopher Wolfe. Things get really intense and the students start to realize the dark underside of the library and just how far the library will go to maintain power. I liked the introduction of the other students, although I feel I didn’t learn enough about any of them. Dario was an intriguing character, as was Morgan Hault, but I haven’t learned enough about their backstories to really understand their characters. Khalila and Glain were totally forgettable characters; they both had really interesting introductions when Jess meets them on the train, but I feel like they were both lacking in personality and depth. Even Jess’ family is a bit of a mystery. I have no idea what’s up with Brennan, but I feel like he’s going to play some larger role in the next books.

That said, I loved Wolfe, Santi, and Thomas! Thomas is just so precious and idealistic. He’s a genuinely kind person and I loved his thirst for knowledge and his naive belief that things could be better. Plus he was an engineer, so I obviously loved him. Wolfe was my favourite though. He was such an asshole at the beginning of the book and I loved how Caine grew his character and slowly showed us his humanity and the depth of his love over the course of the story. I can’t wait to learn more about him in the rest of the series and I hope we learn a little more about Santi too.

Mostly I’m just disappointed that this book has no memorable female characters, which is a bit surprising for this genre and for a female author. The book is interspersed with messages sent between different library officials and starts off with the library forbidding women from contributing to the collection of knowledge and then receiving a message insisting women and girls be allowed to obtain education as well, so I thought this book was going to go in a bit of a different direction. Caine introduces Glain, Khalila, and Morgan early in the book, but Morgan’s really the only one who matters and we learn very little about her. So I really hope Caine remedies this in the next book. I need more info and female character development!

The series definitely raises some interesting questions about knowledge though. I was confused at first because you couldn’t own books, but it seems you could still access everything on the codex, so I didn’t really see why it mattered that much. But the more worrying concern is that the library basically controls the flow of all information. Yes, you can always access things on your codex, but there’s nothing stopping the library from changing what information they distribute or manipulating your writings (if you happen to work for the library and are allowed to publish ideas). Obviously that’s the biggest problem with the library having all the power. The people don’t have the ability to share new ideas or speak out about that which they don’t understand or agree with. The library dictates everything. So I’m interested to see where Caine goes with this in subsequent books.

To finish, this was a pretty good book and I think it has a lot of potential. I will definitely be picking up the sequel!