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.

Saving Francesca

Rating:
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Mar. 2003 (re-read May 2019)

This was super enjoyable to read for the second time and I actually enjoyed it more on my re-read than I did the first time I read it. I’ve been dying to read her newest book, The Place on Dalhousie, but it’s not available at any bookstores in Canada or on the kindle store, so I finally broke down and ordered a copy from Book Depository. After ordering it, I discovered that it actually includes some of the same characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son.

Saving Francesca was Marchetta’s second book, published in 2003, and The Piper’s Son was published several years after that. I believe all 3 books involve some of the same characters, but could all be read as stand-alones. The Piper’s Son is the only remaining Marchetta book that I haven’t read, so I decided to take the opportunity to re-read Francesca and Piper before I read the newest book.

I liked Saving Francesca on my first re-through, but it didn’t stand out to me. I think this is because I read it right after the first time I read On the Jellicoe Road. Jellicoe Road is one of my favourite books of all time, so after reading it I was enthusiastic to try out some of Marchetta’s other books, but Francesca couldn’t really compete with Jellicoe, so I didn’t rate it as highly. I’ve probably read Jellicoe 4-5 times since the first time I read it, but this was my first time re-reading Francesca and I really liked it a lot more. Now that I’ve had the time to separate it from Jellicoe Road and view it on its own merits (rather than just comparing it to Jellicoe), it’s actually a really good book.

Saving Francesca is about 16 year old Francesca Spinelli and her family. Francesca has always had a really close relationship with her mother and then one day, her mother basically shuts down and fails to get out of bed. She suffers from depression, which is something Francesca has never really been exposed to and struggles to understand. At the same time, Francesca has just started a new school and she misses her old friends and doesn’t feel like she belongs at her new school.

Even though none of her other books have been as great as Jellicoe Road, I have always loved Marchetta’s writing style and characterization. I would absolutely classify her as one of my favourite authors and even though I’ve outgrown a lot of YA, I don’t feel like I’ll ever outgrow Marchetta’s work. I love the way she writes teenagers and friendships. I don’t know how to describe it, but when I read her books, I feel like I’m walking into a world already fully realized. She is great at Show, Don’t Tell, and I never feel like I’m being introduced to a story, so much as just becoming immersed in it.

Her characters are so vibrant and I love the way they relate to one another. Melina is the master of the “from-hate-to-love” relationships and I love how she develops friendships in her books. Saving Francesca is a coming of age story as well as a book about mental illness. I mostly liked her approach to mental illness, with the exception of the aversion to taking medication for it. There shouldn’t be any stigma associated with taking medication for mental illness and wish it would be normalized more in books. Many people suffer from many different mental illnesses and medication really helps them. Francesca’s family was pretty adverse to it in this book, which was too bad because I think drugs could have helped Mia get back on her feet a lot faster.

But I did like her other themes about being there for one another and that having good days doesn’t mean that you’re better, but that having bad days also doesn’t mean that you’re not okay. The characters gave each other space to work through their issues and I liked that Francesca understood that while there maybe wasn’t a lot that she could do for her mother, simply being there might be enough.

One thing that really makes a book a winner for me is when an author writes well developed secondary characters. I loved all the secondary characters in this book, especially the teenagers. Every single one of them was flawed, yet they all had traits that made them special and likable. I loved Tara’s spirit and Siobhan’s unapologetic approach to life and Justine’s goodness and Thomas Mackee’s nonchalance and Jimmy’s soft understanding and support. I even kind of liked Will this time around, who I definitely didn’t on my first read through. He’s a bit of a shitty character, but I was willing to forgive him for his mistakes this time around and appreciated that he was able to grow and make choices outside of the rigid plans he set for himself.

This is a short book and subtle. I liked the honest depiction of mental illness, but as usual with Marchetta’s books, what really made it stand out was the characters. I love a good character driven book and she never lets me down. Can’t wait to read The Piper’s Son and The Place on Dalhousie!

A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Rating: .5
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 2018 (read Apr. 2019)

I have no idea how to review this book. I started working on my review days ago only to start all over again because I really wasn’t satisfied with it. Everyone else loved this book. It has a rating of 4.3 on goodreads with hundreds of rave reviews, yet I undeniably did not enjoy it. I disliked the romance and I thought Shirin’s voice was a bit juvenile. But it also addresses a lot of really great issues and deals with topics that undoubtedly are relatable to a lot of people. I don’t want to bash it because #ownvoices stories like this are really important. They’re important for representation, so that people who are minorities can feel seen and heard. And they’re important for educating all those people who can’t relate so that hopefully in the future, they can better understand and empathize with people unlike themselves. I wonder which of these two categories the majorities of readers fall into.

I’m a 28 year old, white, Canadian, woman, so I’m obviously not the intended audience for this book and I’m not going to relate to it in the same way as say, a 16 year old muslim girl. But I’ve read a lot of other similarly themed books where I related to the MC a lot more than I did in this book (With the Fire on High, TATBILB, The Nowhere Girls, I am not your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Aristotle and Dante, The Hate U Give, etc, etc, etc). Overall, I think I have similar thoughts as from my experience reading Internment earlier this year. I thought this book did a lot of great things, but I just really didn’t like the writing style and I found the romance downright cringey.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is about a young muslim girl, Shirin, whose parents have moved her all over the country, making it difficult to make friends as she is constantly switching schools. It doesn’t help that this story is set right after 9/11 and Shirin wears a hijab, which intimidates a lot of her classmates and further isolates her from her peers. In this post 9/11 world, her classmates are actively hostile against her, causing Shirin to disconnect from everyone else and live in her own little world.

Let’s start with what I liked. I thought Shirin was actually a pretty cool character in that she was very confident in her choice to wear hijab. It was not forced on her by her parents or culture, it was a decision she actively made for herself and she wasn’t embarrassed by it. People were very cruel to her, but she had a remarkably strong character in the face of such adversity, so I didn’t blame her from becoming closed off against the world. But she is also very critical of others. She often judges people and makes a lot of assumptions about them. She assumed that everyone judged her and it was just easier not to give anyone a chance. Again, I don’t blame her because after so many microaggressions, I’m sure it would be difficult to assume the best in people. I liked how Mafi explored this conflict and had Shirin reflect on how she ultimately might be closing people out of her life by refusing to ever give them a chance.

I also really like the inclusion of so many microaggressions in the book and found them to be the most impactful part of the story. Although I struggle to classify much of what happened to Shirin as “micro” aggressions, because in my opinion most people were full on aggressive against her. The inclusion of microaggressions is so important though because it’s really the cumulative impact of microaggressions that drive people to the brink. In isolation, it’s easy to brush off one insult or let it roll of your shoulder, but the cumulative impact of being put down day after day is exhausting and what continues to oppress minorities.

But this brings me to an issue that is making me wonder if maybe I have a blind spot in my world view because I had a similar experience with Internment. Both books had some really evil villains in them. I love the inclusion of microaggressions because I assume they are highly relatable to other muslims, but often go unnoticed by everyone else (ie. white people). The inclusion of them serves that dual purpose of both representation and education. White people don’t often recognize the ways in which they are privileged and books like this are a great way to highlight them.

But some of the characters were so cruel I struggled to believe them. The camp director in Internment read like a caricature to me, which I found less impactful because anyone who is so obviously evil and easy to hate has less impact in a story because no one is every going to relate to them. White people will say, “oh, well I’m not as bad as that person” and pat themselves on the back and move on, whereas they should be taking a good long look in the mirror and thinking about the ways in which they may be perpetrators of microaggressions or harmful thinking in other areas of their lives. Ocean’s coach in this book was just a horrible, selfish human being and his mom was so manipulative and two-faced. There were people literally throwing food at Shirin, I was like, OMG, are people actually this bad?

And this is why I wonder if I do have a blind spot. Are people really this bad? Tahereh Mafi has stated that this is her most semi-autobiographical novel, so who am I to question those experiences? Even though this book is set in 2002, right after 9/11, when people were particularly hostile against muslims, it’s not really any different from where America is today. I would actually argue that it’s worse. People are openly hateful towards muslim people – there was a literal muslim ban for heaven’s sake! So I don’t know that it’s fair to question any of the behaviours in this book. I think I may have a tendency towards the more subtle forms of oppression because they make me think a lot more than the obviously evil forms of oppression. Although this review is undoubtedly making me think.

Like I said earlier though, I did like that Mafi spent some time exploring both sides of the story. And by that I mean that she wasn’t afraid to have Shirin take a good hard look at herself. It is inspiring that after being the recipient of so much hate, she was able to recognize that her experiences were making her jaded. She preferred to assume the worst about people and even though she was a pretty confident individual, the constant put-downs had chipped away a lot at her self esteem. She struggled to understand what Ocean would possibly see in her and kept waiting for him to cut and run.

Even though I didn’t personally like Shirin that much, I think the fact that she is the romantic heroine of the story is super important. We never see muslim girls at the center of romances, so I think that it is great to see more representation in our main characters. I just really didn’t like her relationship with Ocean. The dialogue was not good and it really made me cringe. Shirin constantly says one liners like “wow” and “okay” and I’m like, “wow, okay, I am so not blown away by this banter”. A lot of people talk about how they really love Mafi’s writing, but it didn’t inspire me to want to pick up any of her other books. I mean, I do appreciate a good awkward teenage exchange, because teenagers are pretty awkward and cringe-worthy in real life, so it’s definitely accurate. But so painful to read. This is where I probably need to start parting ways with YA, because I just can’t relate to these awkward, fumbling, exchanges anymore.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this book includes break-dancing. It’s probably the most random part of the story, that Shirin and her brother and his friends form this break-dancing troupe, but it was a cool way to remind readers that Shirin is still a normal teenage girl, interested in music and popular culture. It was also a useful tool in the story to get other people in Shirin’s school to see her as human. Shirin was afraid to let people in or take risks because she assumed they wouldn’t accept her. But by cutting them out they struggled to see her as an individual. She was just a representation of islam, of something they were afraid of. Once they saw her break dancing, it was a lot easier for people to accept her. It’s a sad commentary on our society, that its’s so easy to erase people, but pretty accurate.

Overall, this review did help me to appreciate this book a little bit more. You definitely won’t catch me picking it up again, but now that I’m removed from the awkward dialogue and cringe-worthy teenage angst, it’s a little easier to appreciate some of the good things about the story. I would not recommend the audiobook though. I really didn’t like the narrator and that could also have had an influence on my dislike of the story. 2.5 stars overall

P.S. I Still Love You

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jenny Han
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: May 2015 (read Aug. 2018)

Okay, I’m definitely not as enamoured with this as I was for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I really don’t think the first book needed a sequel, much less a trilogy, but I’ll admit I do still find these characters charming.

I don’t have too much to say about PS. I Still Love You. What made the first book so great is that it was only really partly about boys and mostly about sisters. This book is mostly about boys and it just wasn’t as engaging for me. There are a million and one books out there already about love triangles and the minefield that is managing your emotions as a teenager. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before offered something new to the genre, and I don’t think this did.

That said, I do still think Lara Jean is a relatable character to a lot of young girls. Again, there are lots of books about teenage rebellion, partying, and poor decision making. But I like that Lara Jean is relatable to those girls that play it safe in high school and are intimidated by some of the experiences of their peers (in this case sexual experiences). Lara Jean knows Peter has had sex before and she also knows she’s not ready, which leads to a lot of insecurity about what Peter thinks and feels about their relationship.

However, I did really like that Lara Jean realizes that some of her hang ups actually have to do less with Peter and more with Genevieve. She constantly compares herself to her ex-best friend and how she might measure up alongside her. I liked that Lara Jean and Peter were both comfortable talking to one another about sex and I also liked the way Han wrote about Peter’s feelings on sex. It would have been so easy to write a character that was hung up on the fact that he and Lara Jean weren’t having sex, but Peter understood that Lara Jean wasn’t ready and just didn’t bring it up. Their relationship was about more than just sex for Peter.

I can’t decide if I’m going to read the last one or not. The first book ends on a cliffhanger that was annoying resolved within about 2 chapters of this book, but this one doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. The final book seems unnecessary to me, but I kind of want to see the series through. Plus they don’t take very long to read and I’m not sure I’m ready to part with Kitty Song Covey yet. What a smart and funny character – definitely my favourite!

Ten

Rating: .5
Author: Gretchen McNeil
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery/Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2012 (read Aug. 2018)

I picked this one up based solely on the fact that it was a YA retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which I absolutely loved. Sadly this couldn’t hold a candle to the original. In my opinion, it failed as both a retelling and a YA novel.

First of all, all of the characters in this book suck. It’s not that the characters were unlikable (they were, but I don’t have a problem with unlikable characters), it’s that they were not believable. I felt like a was reading a bad tv drama about teenagers. The tropes and stereotypes in this book were just the absolute worst. These felt like caricatures of teenagers rather than actual teenagers. Real teenagers are smart – they have depth and emotion – I felt like this was written by someone who hasn’t been a teenager in a really long time and just stole from a bunch of stupid, shallow stereotypes about young people.

I know that teenagers exaggerate everything and that stupid, trivial things can seem like a way bigger a deal than they actually are, but all of these characters were unnecessarily dramatized and I had a huge issue with how the author played around with mental illness as a plot tool in this book. Minnie is supposedly bipolar and the author purposely takes her off her meds to dramatize the plot and make everyone think she’s crazy and I just had a huge problem with that. I also really didn’t like Meg’s voice in this book, she sounded like a whiny 12 year old and I found her character totally unbelievable. I’m sorry, I don’t care how into a guy you are, no one is still actively thinking about romance after 5 people have been murdered in front of you.

I don’t think this worked as a re-write either. I read And Then There Were None last year, so the source material is still pretty fresh in my memory. I didn’t successfully guess who the killer was, so that’s good, but the plot structure was really similar and relied on a lot of the same red herrings. I would have preferred to see something a little more clever, although it was interesting how the author tied all the teenagers together in the end. I hated the ending though. That was one area where I would say if you’re going to do a re-telling, at least commit to the ending.

Anyways, needless to say this book wasn’t a win for me. I know it’s just supposed to be a fun, murder mystery/thriller, but I couldn’t excuse how vapid the characters were (there was a character named TJ, like come on!). I rarely give anything less than 2 stars, but I’m honestly at 1.5 stars for this book. I get mad just thinking about it. Avoid this and stick to Agatha Christie, she’s sold more books than any other author for a reason.