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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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michelle McNamara
Genres: Non-fiction, True Crime
Pub date: Feb. 2018 (read Feb 2019 on Audible)

Don’t you love when you stumble upon a book that you never intended to read and you end of loving it? This is one of those books. I saw I’ll be Gone in the Dark in the Goodreads Choice Awards this year (it ended up winning in its category), but it’s so different from what I normally read that I never really considered picking it up.

Fast forward a few months and I stumbled across it on Audible. I’m extremely picky with my audiobooks and won’t listen to anything with a narrator that I don’t love. I’m even adverse to listening to books I think I’m going to love because I always fear they won’t be quite as good as an audiobook and prefer to read them as paperbacks. I stumbled across this book some way or another and I really liked the narrator because she reminded me of the old true crime tv shows I used to watch on TLC in high school. So I decided to give it a go and ended up being totally absorbed into this mystery!

I’ll be Gone in the Dark isn’t really in my wheelhouse, but I do have a weakness for a good true crime documentary as much as the next person. Gillian Flynn makes a good point in her introduction about how there’s a fine line when it comes to writing about true crime because you’re basically taking entertainment from someone else’s tragedy. McNamara does a wonderful job on this look at the Golden State serial killer because she brings press back to a case that was left unsolved without glorifying the killer.

This is both a look at the crimes of the Golden State serial killer and how he evaded capture for so long, as well as a look at the obsession that can be birthed out of unsolved mysteries such as this one. McNamara examines both the crimes of the killer, as well as her own fascination with unsolved mysteries and how this specific criminal wormed his way into her life and the impact it had on her.

I have to credit McNamara’s writing. She is extremely compelling and methodical about the details, without being gratuitous. I thought more of this book was going to be devoted to following up leads on the identity of the serial killer, but it was more of an in depth look at the crimes of the killer than anything else. Michelle does some posturing with Paul Holes on what the killers profession and history might be based on the way he moves around, but there’s not a lot of time devoted to looking at suspects. I have to give credit to McNamara’s writing for this because looking at suspects sounds way more compelling to me than simply looking at his crimes, yet her writing was super engaging anyways. I think this book was more about bringing this story back to the public eye to re-invigorate law enforcement’s investigation than anything else. And we certainly can’t fault her for that as the killer was finally caught just after the release of this book. No one credits the book as revealing new information that finally led to the capture of a man who evaded the authorities for more than 40 years, but I definitely think she deserves to be credited with shining the spotlight back on this case.

It’s an interesting book because Michelle did pass away before the completion of the book and it was completed by her lead researchers post humorously. It creates an interesting dynamic to the story when you know the writer is no longer here to pursue it and even so, Michelle is just so present throughout it. She invites the reader into both her investigation and her life.

The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was the formatting. The story is not told in chronological order, which made things a little confusing by audiobook (I was constantly consulting the table of contents to see what point of the timeline I was reading about). I’m not sure why this choice was made, the story is certainly compelling enough that it didn’t deter me from reading further, but I thought it was an interesting choice to format things this way.

But all in all, a great read! Audiobooks generally take me 2-4 weeks and I flew through this one in just 4 days!

Black Enough

Rating: 
Author: Edited by Ibi Zoboi, many contributing authors
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction, Short stories
Pub date: Jan. 8, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

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

I’ve been working on this book for awhile. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it’s short stories and I always struggle to get into short stories when there’s nothing to pull you back into the book between stories. It was pretty slow going on the first half of the book, but the stories kept getting progressively better (in my humble opinion) and I read through the second half of the book a lot faster.

Overall I think ibi Zoboi did a really good job at collecting a diverse set of stories. They all focus on young people and the many things it means to be Black. I liked that some of the stories were political and some of the stories were just about being a teenager. How some days the odds seemed stacked against you and other days you’re just another confused teenager trying to make sense of the world.

This book features an all star cast of authors, many of whom I’ve read some of their other books, and some new-to-me authors that I’d now like to check out! The great thing about a book like this is that there can’t really be any bad stories because they are all just different author’s interpretations on what it means to be black.

That said, there were a few stories that stood out to me more than others and I just wanted to take the time to highlight some of them. I really liked Brandy Colbert’s story, Oreo, which is about a black girl who, because of the choices her parents made to live in a white neighbourhood and send their kids to a mostly white school, has been accused by her cousins of being white on the inside (Oreo). It’s a story about identity, culture, and longing. She has a tense relationship with her cousin and eventually discovers that they’ve actually both been misunderstanding one another and realizes how easy it is for two people to both want what the other has.

I also liked Liara Tamani’s Girl, Stop Playing story, which I thought was so relatable to all teenage girls. It’s about a girl who has just broken up with her boyfriend and is determined to get him back, but is confused when she meets a new boy that she kind of likes, and is also jealous of the other girls hanging around her ex. I liked that this addresses issues that a lot of teenage girls feel very self conscious about, while also promoting a healthy body image and the importance of female friendship and support.

I loved Jay Coles, Wild Horses, Wild Hearts, which was probably my favourite story in the entire collection, as well as Justina Ireland’s Kissing Sarah Smart. They both focus on LGBT relationships, but contrast one another in that Coles’ characters face huge opposition from their parents and culture, while Ireland’s characters are more or less supported by their family and friends.

I also really liked Dhonielle Clayton’s, The Trouble with Drowning, and was totally impressed that the author was able to work such a plot twist into a short story! Actually this may have been my favourite… it’s a toss up! The Trouble with Drowning is about a young girls struggle to live up to her parents expectations and to excel under the shadow of her twin sister.

These are just some of the stories that stood out to me, but there were many others that I enjoyed as well. Like I said, it took me a while to read this one, but I think it’s a really important book and I’m glad I took the time to work through it!

Murder in Mesopotamia

Rating: 
Author: Agatha Christie
Genres: Mystery
Pub date: 1936 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Hercule Poirot #14 (these books don’t need to be read in order)

Agatha Christie was a new discovery for me last year. I absolutely loved And Then There Were None and proceeded to read a few of her Hercule Poirot books. So far I haven’t been able to find a book that can compare to And Then There Were None, but it’s fun to jump into one of her classic closed room mysteries every now and then.

Murder in Mesopotamia is set on a dig in Iraq and is narrated by Nurse Leatheran, who has joined the archaeological expedition to support the dig leader’s wide, Mrs. Leidner, who has been becoming increasingly antsy. Mrs. Leidner is distraught and seems to fear for her life, but the rest of the expedition chalks it up to anxiety. Some odd things take place in the compound where the entire expedition is staying and when one of the household turns up dead, the local authorities recommend calling in Hercule Poirot (who is just returning from his ride about the Orient Express). What follows is a classic character examination of all of the members of the expedition and a study of means, method, and motivation for committing the crime.

I didn’t love this book as much as some of her others because I thought it was a bit slow to get going and there are a lot of characters, so it’s a bit hard to keep track of everyone. That said, much of what happens in the early parts of the book set the scene for the rest of the book and are important in solving the mystery. I really like Christie’s closed door mysteries because you know the killer is one of the individuals in the room, so you’re never sure who you can trust. I did think this one was somewhat predictable (I had it narrowed down to one of two people), but the question of how they got away with it was clever and I liked that the crime had several layers to it.

I don’t have much to say about the book overall, but I wanted to review it anyways since I didn’t review any of the Christie books I read last year and I’m bound to forget about this one pretty fast if I don’t. I have a few more Poirot books on my shelf that I’d like to get to and I’m also interested to read some of her Ms. Marple series. Does anyone have any specific Poirot or Marple recommendations?

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fantasy, LBGTQIA+
Pub date: Oct. 2nd. 2018 (read Oct. 2018)
Series: Montague Siblings #2

I’m a little bit on the fence for how to rate The Lady’s Guide. On one hand, it was wonderful, but I just didn’t love it quite as much as The Gentleman’s Guide. There were parts of this that I loved, but I also thought the plot progression was a little awkward and slow moving at times.

Felicity was my favourite character from The Gentleman’s Guide and I thought this book had a really strong start with her getting proposed to, but deciding to pursue medicine instead, despite being routinely ignored by medical schools since it’s the 1700’s and she’s a woman. Mackenzi Lee is great at writing historical fiction that induces that perfect level of righteous rage and indication at the injustices the characters face because while their dilemma’s are historical, the issues they face are not. Felicity is discriminated against because of her sex and dreams of more than just a life as a wife, something I’m sure many women can still relate to. But Felicity is unwilling to give up on her dreams and pursues a medical career through whatever means necessary.

I loved Johanna in this book. I love that she had a great love of the natural world as well as a love for make-up, dresses, and all things fancy. Felicity boxed herself in, thinking that her ambition made her different from all other women, looking down on Johanna for still embracing femininity. But Johanna and Sim both proved that what you look like doesn’t define you and that having ambition outside of your traditional gender roles doesn’t make you better than any other woman. They both helped Felicity to grow and understand that just because your progression doesn’t look the way you want it to (going to medical school), doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt your ambition and your path. Sometimes we just won’t get what our heart desires, but it doesn’t mean we have to be cut out entirely from those dreams, we just need to adapt them.

Sadly I just didn’t find this book quite as funny as The Gentleman’s Guide though. I loved that the plot of this book also featured a lot of travel around Europe, but something about it just didn’t flow as well. Some parts were really fun and interesting, while other parts dragged. The ending is very ambiguous, with two parties debating the best course of action. Both positions had merits, but I felt that Johanna and Felicity’s motivation wasn’t really clear and that the story lacked resolution. With the exception of the petticoats, I just felt the story wasn’t really that clever. It was interesting, but I wasn’t really impressed with how the story played out and I wanted more. Like I said, I liked all the awesome female characters in this book, particularly Johanna, but I felt Sim was a little underdeveloped.

So overall, I think I will rate this 3.5 stars. The author definitely did some fun and interesting stuff with the plot and characters. I love that diversity is a priority for her and I liked that Felicity was asexual, something not often represented in literature. But I didn’t find this book as funny and it was one of the key things I wanted from this book.