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.

Advertisements

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.

September Summary

I was on vacation for 2 weeks in September, so I’m pretty satisfied with what I read this month. My monthly challenge was to start re-reading the Throne of Glass series in anticipation of the series finale coming out at the end of October. My monthly summary is:

Books read: 8
Pages read: 3,312
Main genres: Fantasy
Favourite book: Wuthering Heights
Favourite Re-read: Crown of Midnight

Like I said, I started off the month with the first 3 books in the Throne of Glass series: Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, and Heir of Fire. I’ve been dying to re-read this series for a while now, but I made myself wait until closer to the release of the last book so that it would all be fresh in my mind. Throne of Glass was one of my first major fantasy series, so I was curious if I’d like it as much the second time around, and I absolutely did! I’d forgotten just how epic Crown of Midnight was and I even upped my rating of Heir of Fire from 3 stars to 4 stars the second time around. I enjoyed it a lot more this time.

I read two audiobooks this month as well. I bought a copy of Wuthering Heights on Audible on impulse when they had it on sale for $5. I listened to Emma earlier this year and was keen to try out another classic. What I was not expecting was how much I absolutely adored Wuthering Heights! I know it’s a polarizing book and I know a lot of people who hate it. I kind of anticipated I wouldn’t like it as I don’t love a lot of classics, but I was so very wrong. I won’t go into detail what I loved about it though as I wrote a very detailed review about my thoughts.

The second audiobook was Neverworld Wake, a young adult/sci-fi/mystery thriller novel about a group of teenagers forced to live the same day over and over again. It had an interesting enough plot, but I didn’t love it because I thought it could have been better executed.

I also read two ARC’s this month, although I was a bit late reading the first one as it’s already been published. I read The Lost Queen, which is the first book in a new historical trilogy about 6th century Scotland, and Girls of Paper and Fire, a new YA fantasy book that I’d been hearing lots of good things about. The Lost Queen fell into the trap I’ve been having with a lot of my books lately in that I liked it at the end (appreciated the story), but found it kind of boring to read. In contrast, Girls of Paper and Fire was wonderful and kept me on the edge of my seat with the most wonderful queer relationship at the center of the story.

Finally, I read a short graphic novel/web series that’s set in Vancouver called Always Raining Here. This one was a quick read to boost my numbers, but I keep seeing it at my local bookstore and was intrigued about it. It’s about two gay high school students and the pressures of succeeding in high school and the struggles of being a gay teenager. I had mixed feelings because I liked parts of the story, but found other parts extremely problematic.

Anyways, I read some pretty large books this month, several were over 500 pages, so I’m quite happy with what I read and thrilled to be heading into October and November, which are easily my favourite reading months!

Girls of Paper and Fire

Rating: 
Author: Natasha Ngan
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. date: Nov. 6, 2018 (read Sept. 2018)

Okay! I finally have a minute to review this book! I’ve been on vacation for the last two weeks, so I haven’t had a computer to blog from, but I did read 3 books on my vacation and of the 3, this was definitely my favourite!

Special thanks to Hatchette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a world that has 3 different castes: paper caste, steel caste, and moon caste. Paper caste are essentially humans and moon caste are essentially demons with strong animal characteristics. Steel falls somewhere in the middle. As you can guess, this world is ruled by the moon caste, who are much stronger than paper caste, who are considered fragile. I will admit that I found the concept a little juvenille at the beginning, mostly because pictured the moon caste as like, these comical Zootopia type characters, and that’s just not very scary, but I ended up getting really into it!

Lei is Paper caste and the book starts with her being stolen away from her home to be one of the Demon King’s Paper Girls. Every year the king selects 8 paper girls to live in the palace as his concubines. Some of the girls are there by choice, others offered up by their families in exchange for good favour from the palace, and then there are some girls like Lei, who are stolen from their homes. Most of the other Paper Girls are excited to take up a life of luxury in the palace, but Lei is terrified of the King and wants nothing more than to return home to her father.

At first I didn’t think the world building had that much depth, but the story was really easy to read and I got into it almost immediately. I didn’t know much about the book going in except that it had some mature themes, was heavily influenced by Asian (specifically Malaysian) culture, and that there were scenes of rape and sexual abuse. I was looking for a real voices, feminist fantasy novel and that is definitely what I got. I did not realize that this book had a queer relationship in it and it was such a thrill to read about! I can’t think of any young adult fantasy books that I’ve read featuring a lesbian romance and it was a wonderful surprise to find one in this book!

The author definitely tackles some heavy topics in this book. I struggle to classify this book as a young adult fantasy book because of the mature themes. The girls are forced to be concubines to the king, who is a violent tyrant and often takes out his anger on them. The story is a great example of how rape is not about sex – but power, the affect it has on women, and taking back some of that power for yourself. I did think the plot was a little superficial, I wish it had a bit more depth, but it was still very different from all the other fantasy I’ve read and I really hope it gets a sequel because I feel like this world has a lot of potential and that Ngan has only scratched the surface.

I love that I’ve been seeing a lot more Asian and African inspired fantasies in the last year or so and that we are getting more diverse voices in literature. I love the escapism of fantasy, but still tackling real life issues that are just as relevant to me in my day to day life. I feel like there are so many awesome female authors out there writing about the struggles that women face in real life every day, and the contrast of writing them in a fantasy world draws more attention to the injustice of it all. Representation is so important.

Overall I was impressed with this book and would definitely recommend, but maybe to more mature readers. My biggest struggle was that the world building seemed on the younger side, while the themes were definitely more mature.