If I Tell You The Truth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jasmin Kaur
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Jan 2021 (read May 2017)

This was an impulse buy at my local bookstore because I saw the author lives in Vancouver and the synopsis sounded so good! I’m so glad I did pick it up because it was excellent! It’s half written in prose, which made for some very dynamic storytelling.

If I Tell You the Truth is about a 19 year old Punjabi girl named Kiran. She grew up in Punjab and is accepted to study at Simon Fraser University. Her parents goal is for her to get an education and then return to marry the son of the neighbour. However, before Kiran flies to Canada, she is raped by her betrothed’s brother and becomes pregnant. She travels to Canada and tries to keep her pregnancy secret as long as possible, but when she decides she doesn’t want to have an abortion, she is forced to tell her family and unfortunately is rejected by them.

She does her best to continue her education as a young mother, but it is difficult and eventually her visa expires, forcing her to take whatever work she can to survive without papers. The narrative eventually transfers from Kiran to her daughter, Sahaara, and we learn more about the struggles their family faces. There are few avenues to citizenship, so they live a small life to avoid attention.

This book is about so many things – rape, teen pregnacy, immigration, #metoo, family, diaspora, healing – just to name a few. The writing is excellent and switches from traditional text to prose throughout the book. I think the first quarter of the book is the most powerful. I was immediately drawn into the story – the trauma Kiran had experienced and her struggles to come to terms with what happened to her and her subsequent choices. It is hard to read about her fear and grief, but I think the author really touches a nerve here and the reality of Kiran’s feelings leap off the page and into your heart. I admired and empathized with her so much throughout the first part of the novel.

After Sahaara is born the narrative switches primarily to Sahaara and follows her as she grows up. I enjoyed this part of the novel as well, even though it takes us in a different direction than the first part of the book. I loved that the story is set in Surrey – it just made it so much more impactful to me as someone who also lives in the lower mainland. Since I’ve lived in Vancouver, it has become a Sanctuary City (since 2018) and I’ve always thought of it as a pretty progressive place. I’ve come to learn since the pandemic started that it is definitely not that diverse safe haven that I thought it was and I think it’s really important to have books about what it’s like to live undocumented in Canada (so many books on this topic are set in America).

So with that in mind, this is definitely a book that I would recommend to anyone and everyone, especially Canadians. That said, I did think the pacing was a little bit off. I felt like the book reached its climax around the 75% mark, and I was curious about what else would happen with so much book remaining. The author goes in a totally new direction for the final quarter. It wasn’t unrelated to the rest of the book – the main plights for the characters are resolved in the first 3 quarters – leaving the rest of the book for them to really heal and take action for others.

This part of the book is also powerful, but I didn’t love it as much as what came before. I think it’s so important to have people that are willing to speak out against injustice, but the plot took such a diversion that I found it a little distracting and almost like I was reading a different book. Don’t get me wrong, I still thought the content was really important, it just felt like the author was maybe trying to address too many things in one book, like it was almost a little too cathartic. Plus I felt it delved away from the ‘show don’t tell’ theme, which was strong for most of the novel.

Overall though, it is a minor criticism. I just thought the first part of the book was a 5 star read, but landed more around 4 stars by the end of the book. It’s still superbly written and I think something like this should be required reading for high school students. Books like this are so much more relevant and important to young people than reading books like Dracula and Catcher in the Rye (a few of my least favs from my high school education). Honestly, as much as I loved some of the classics I read in High School, I become more and more convinced over time that we need to stop forcing them on high school students. I don’t think a lot of students have the maturity at 16 to appreciate them and I fear it does more harm in fostering bad feelings about literature. A total tangent, but I do really wish our education system spent more time on contemporaries like If I Tell You the Truth, The Hate U Give, Punching the Air, Far From the Tree, and The Nowhere Girls. READ IT!

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lara Margaret Marjerrison
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Woohoo! First person on goodreads to rate and review this book!

I’ve been going through a bit of a poetry phase and stumbled across this anthology in the Poetry section at Chapters. I had no idea it was a brand new release, but I liked the premise of it and decided to buy a copy. It’s only 50 pages long, so I read through it in 2 sittings.

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex is about all of the above, but mostly grief. Lara’s sister passed away by suicide and this is really her response to dealing with that grief. She includes a prologue about the book and her sister that was really moving, before getting into some of the poetry she wrote about how she was impacted and affected by her sister’s death. I really like her style of poetry. It’s not too dense to read and I like the spoken word feel of it. It has a good beat to it and I like that much of it rhymed. I feel like not that much poetry rhymes these days, which is totally fine, but I appreciate clever and well written prose.

In my opinion, most of the anthology focused on grief and loss, but Marjerrison does start exploring themes of love in the last third. Personally I didn’t find this poetry quite as engaging, but since this anthology very much reads like a personal, healing journey, I don’t think it really matters if it didn’t pull me in as much. There’s a strong emotional theme present throughout the entire anthology and I really do hope that the writing of it helped the author to heal. A great debut – very moving.

Wild Embers

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nikita Gill
Genres: Poetry, Feminism
Pub. date: Nov. 2017 (read Nov. 2019)

I read Wild Embers as part of my continued foray into Poetry. Actually, this was the first anthology I picked up when I first got the hankering to read some poetry, but I ended up getting distracted by Andrea Gibson’s, Lord of the Butterflies when the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and ended up putting this one aside for awhile.

I do feel like my review may be a little unfair because I did really enjoy the first half of this book. I was feeling very inspired and enjoyed the feminist angle and unapolegeticness that Gill takes in her poetry. But after I set it aside to read Gibson’s latest anthology, which I think is fantastic, the second half of Wild Embers felt just a little bit lacklustre. Gill’s writing didn’t have quite as much depth for me as Gibson’s, which rings of such emotional authenticity. But I don’t want to be unfair and compare the two too much, because they are totally different and I did still really enjoy Gill’s poetry as well.

Gill is all about female independence and being the heroes of our own stories. She doesn’t want her own children to be handed down the same themes of reliance on men that she learned from fairy tales and Disney princess movies growing up. One section of her book is actually dedicated to rewriting the stories of the Disney princesses and I really enjoyed that part. I just felt some of the themes got a little bit repetitive after awhile, although I really liked how Gill also spent time writing about mental illness and the benefits of therapy.

Lord of the Butterflies

Rating: ⭐
Author: Andrea Gibson
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Nov. 2019)

Poetry can be a bit tricky to review sometimes, so more often than not I don’t write a full review for it. But I was so impressed with Andrea Gibson’s anthology, Lord of the Butterflies, that I have to make an attempt at a review.

Poetry is definitely not for everyone and it’s something I’ve only recently started reading. I’d read the occasional novel written in prose and started easing into poetry a few years ago with Rupi Kaur’s anthologies, which are pretty easy reading if you’re new to poetry (which I am). Then I discovered Robert Service when I read The Great Alone last year and I am totally obsessed with his style of poetry. I’m still working my way through a few of Service’s anthologies, but I haven’t been able to find any other works of similar style or subject, so if anyone knows of any poetry that centres around a love and reverence for the outdoors, please let me know!

Anyways, Gibson’s poetry is a whole different kind of beast than Robert Service of course, but equally as enjoyable (for me) in a whole different way. I dabbled in some other poetry this year, reading Danez Smith’s, Don’t Call us Dead, and Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but to be honest, both were a bit over my head. I really liked Gibson’s poetry because it had an incredible amount of depth, but wasn’t filled with so many metaphors that it was a slog to wade through.

Gibson’s poems focus on our sorts of topics, from gender and sexuality, to mental health and depression, to politics and reform. They’re not afraid to be honest and vulnerable and even though me and Andrea are so different, their poetry was so relatable. Apparently Gibson is a pretty well known poet in the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond and they won the very first World Slam Poetry competition in 2008. They have published 4 anthologies as well as a ton of spoken word albums, all of which I am definitely planning to check out. I went through a brief obsession with slam poetry last year after I heard Zariya Allen’s “Somewhere in America” poem, but I didn’t really know where to look for more slam poetry, so I’m thrilled to have discovered Gibson.

It’s hard to pinpoint specific poems that stood out from this anthology because they are all fantastic, but a few memorable ones for me were Orlando, which is about the club shooting in Florida, Black and White Angel, which is about Gibson’s sister awaiting trial in jail for petty crimes she committed while suffering from substance addiction, and America Reloading, which is about America’s lack of gun control and its impact. But what’s make’s all of these poems so powerful is Gibson’s vulnerability and their courage in holding nothing back. They’re not afraid to go to some very dark places, but are so perceptive of how closely entwined everything is in our society and how the system continues to oppress and work against those who do not fit the status quo.

If you’re looking to dabble in poetry and are at all interested in gender politics, I would definitely recommend this anthology!

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ocean Vuong
Genres: Poetry, LGBTQIA+
Pub date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Ocean Vuong

I was intrigued by this book, but it wasn’t super high up my TBR. However, I loved listening to the author’s voice in the audiobook sample, so I decided to read it. I’m so glad they got the author to narrate this one because I’m not sure anyone else could really have done it justice.

Initially I really liked it. The writing is poetic and it flowed really nicely. The author’s reading is emotional and I enjoyed listening to it, but I must admit, parts of the book were over my head and left me wondering how I should feel about it.

The book is crafted as a letter to the protagonist’s mother. It’s unclear to me whether this book is fiction or non-fiction, so I’d love some insight from other readers if you have it. It certainly read like non-fiction and I internalized it as such, but it could have been fiction.

Initially I liked that it was a letter from son to mother, Little Dog talks about the relationship he had with his mother and how it impacted him emotionally as he grew up. How their Vietnamese past influenced his childhood in America and shaped all of his relationships with his family members.

From there, Vuong moves on to the relationship Little Dog had with his friend Trevor and the struggle of being not only an immigrant, but a confused gay teenager. I found many parts of the story upsetting, but really appreciated their inclusion in the book and thought it brought a great depth to Vuong’s story. However, it did affect my reading of the book as a letter from son to mother. This format worked really well when confronting his childhood demons and the relationship with his family, but I thought the format had less meaning when it got into Little Dog’s exploration of coming to terms with his homosexuality. I don’t have the lived experience to really comment on its effectiveness, but personally I just found the ‘letter to mother’ format lost some of its potency in this part of the book. Just a comment on format, not content.

Mostly I’m left confused on how to rate the book though because parts of it were definitely over my head. I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately (I used to never read it), but I definitely still struggle with the accessibility of poetry. I want to love it, but I think I just haven’t spent enough time reading poetry to really understand the nuance of it. I really enjoyed the writing, it was flowery, but not overwhelmingly so, but sometimes it’s just so overloaded with metaphors that I kind of missed out on the point. I really liked a lot of this book, but there were definitely some sections where I found myself tuning out.

Overall though, a very thoughtful book and debut for this young author, so well done! I would not be deterred from reading his stuff in the future.