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

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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.

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.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Rating: 
Author: Liane Oelke
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Jan. 2019)

Wow! This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to read it on a whim and ended up reading the whole 400 page book in a single sitting! I read pretty fast, but it’s been a while since I’ve marathoned a single book that fast! It’s an extremely fun read and the style and content really lends itself well to a quick read.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is about senior year high school student Jane Sinner. She’s been expelled from school in her final semester and we’re not sure why, but in order to finish her diploma, she enrolls in a community college for the Spring and Summer semesters. She feels it’s important to move out of her parents house for a while, but she doesn’t really have much money, so when she sees an advert for really cheap rent in a house near campus, she jumps on it. The only catch is that she’ll be one of six people living in the house and will have to participate in a big brother style reality show called House of Orange. Jane is looking to re-invent herself, so she decides to apply.

I really liked this book. I thought Jane was hilarious and the book never takes itself too seriously, even though it does still have some pretty serious underlying themes. It’s by a Canadian author from Calgary who now lives in Vancouver, so I could definitely relate with the content and setting and thought it was a breath of fresh air from all the American YA books set in the south (I also laughed a lot at all her disparaging comments about Edmonton). I am always looking for new adult books about college/university students, and while I will still definitely categorize this as YA, I liked the college setting and that it focused on the transition to college, which can be a challenge.

This book has a lot of different themes; the pressures of high school and college, the challenges of overcoming our past, and dealing with mental health and suicide. However, one of the main themes in this book, which I really liked, was about religious tolerance and finding and leaving Christianity. Christian lit is really not very good, so I’m always intrigued when there’s a good side story about a character’s relationship with Christianity. In Jane’s case, she’s grown up going to church her whole life and her parents and many of her friends are devout Christians. Jane eventually comes to the realization that she doesn’t believe in God and then finds it very difficult to cope when her entire belief system suddenly crumbles around her.

I liked that Jane was able to come to terms with her beliefs, without the book being hugely critical of Christianity. She still has Christian friends, one of which is a bisexual teenager who has been able to successfully reconcile both her faith and sexuality with one another. I thought the book was very respectful of both Christians and atheists, which I really appreciated. It’s not a theme I was expecting to find in this book and it was a pleasant surprise.

Primarily though, this book is just a lot of fun. The dialogue is written like a movie script, which I think helped move the story along quickly and I was enthralled from start to finish. The reality tv show idea is brilliant and I thought the author executed it perfectly! You can tell she works in the film industry because it was just so easy to visualize this book as a tv show. When Jane would talk about each episode and the way the footage was cut, with the little humourous bits added in, I could see it in my mind and I just really wished it actually existed so that I could watch it and laugh along.

The reality tv show bit is hilarious and I loved Jane’s voice. She is super sarcastic and initially you think she’s overly introverted and I wondered if she might be agoraphobic. That was not the case at all and Jane ended up being extremely smart and witty. I loved all the characters in House of Orange, but Jane was definitely my favourite. I thought all of the other contestants and characters were very authentic and I had no trouble believing that any of these people might exist. My only minor criticism might be that I thought not a lot of the other characters had much character growth, but Jane had an immense amount of character growth, so I can deal.

Overall, I really wish this was a more talked about book because it is actually really good and I think it deserves a lot more praise. What a great debut novel! I really hope Liane Oelke writes more books because I will definitely read them!

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!