The Queen of Nothing

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Holly Black
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Dec. 2019)

If you’ve read my previous reviews, you might know that I liked but didn’t love Holly Black’s two previous books, The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King. They’ve been incredibly hyped up and a lot of people really like that, but for some reason they just didn’t work as well for me.

Mostly I think it comes down to me not really meshing with Holly Black’s writing style. I find her writing a bit juvenile. I feel like I’m reading middle grade even though the storyline is anything but middle grade. It’s a very simple style of writing. She doesn’t waste words and I think that works for a lot of people; I just fail to be overly impressed by it.

Something about the plot of the first book just didn’t really work for me either, I found it a bit disjointed. But I can’t deny that I was a lot more engaged in the second book, though I still didn’t love it. For someone who didn’t love either of the first two books though, I was crazy excited for the final book in the trilogy. The Wicked King does have a killer cliffhanger and despite feeling so-so about a lot of the book, I was definitely hyped up by the ending.

Enter The Queen of Nothing. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one! Hachette was kind enough to send me a finished copy, so I was eagerly awaiting for it to arrive. I ended up being off sick with a cold when it did finally arrive and I’m not embarrassed to say I read the whole thing the day it arrived. I still don’t love the writing style, but something about the final book just really worked for me! I wasn’t really super into the whole Jude/Cardan thing in previous books, but I was trash for it in this one. I couldn’t wait for them to finally be in the same room again so I could read all their witty banter. Plus I liked Cardan a lot more in this one. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve forgotten a lot of the particulars and just how cruel he was in the first two books, but I thought he had a lot of character growth and I liked how he finally dispensed with being an asshole to Jude.

The book builds up a lot in the middle, which really propelled me through it. So much was happening around the halfway mark that I felt like I had to be at the climax of the book, but no, there was still so much more action yet to come. Holly totally caught me off guard with that huge twist near the end, and while I did think the resolution after that was a bit obvious, she still gets major points for shock value. Although, that’s something that’s been present through all 3 books.

Anyways, despite my mixed feelings of the first two books, I’m kind of tempted to read the whole thing again. It’s definitely a juicy series and I wonder if I’d enjoy it more on  a second read through now that I’m able to look beyond the writing style. A great ending to a pretty good trilogy!

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

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.