book review

Arc Review: 27 Hours by Tristina Wright / Centers colonist guilt & has flawed racial representation

27 HOURS 2

FTC DISCLOSURE

F I N A L   R A T I N G

🌟 🌟


A visual representation of me trying to figure out how to write this review:

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In all seriousness, this might be one of the most difficult books I’ve had to review, simply because I have so many thoughts. So many different aspects to a novel as complicated and nuanced as this one, and so many thoughts about several of these aspects. More than this, perhaps – the reason why reviewing this book is so difficult is because I can fully see the invaluable benefits of it, as well as the potential harm it can cause, and the intersection of both can be difficult for a reviewer (who isn’t, by any means, claiming to be an expert) to encompass and do justice. But, I will try my best here, and if I start to ramble, resulting in a post that resembles word-vomit more than a structured review- well, you’ll have to forgive me here, I guess.

27 Hours is a futuristic (set, I believe, 150-200 years from present day), science-fiction, action-packed tale which counts down from 27 hours to certain war. When the clock hits 0, prompting the sun to come up, our characters’ world is going to be torn apart by the two species fighting on (over?) it. A couple hundred or so years ago, humans arrived at a moon from all over the Earth, giving rise to a civilization, unaware that an indigenous species was asleep underground. When the construction of a lake causes several underground tunnels to flood, the indigenous species (referred to as chimera, or “gargoyle” as a slur) lost many lives. Ever since, war has raged on. The humans consider the chimera blood-thirsty monsters, while the chimera are staunch in their belief that the land is theirs. A third group emerged some time during the war – a forest civilization – that broke away from the humans, formed an alliance with some chimera, and strive for peace.

Perhaps it’s my own background and cultural history, but I couldn’t fully root for any of the main characters, all of whom are human.

I was born and raised in Pakistan, a country that emerged in 1947 from India after a brutal war raged on, killing millions upon millions of people; much of that bloodshed, the consequent splitting, and the after-effects that exist even now were a direct product of the British colonization of the Indian subcontinent. We are still told horror stories, of piles of bodies at the border – riots, massacres, friends and families torn apart for the rest of time, as my ancestors, as my neighbors’ ancestors fought for their rights on a land that belonged to them. It was our land. It was our country, not some colonizers’. They had no right to be there.

It’s not an issue that raged just then – it’s an issue extremely current and relevant even now, whether we’re talking about the war over Kashmir (again, a direct product of British imperialism), or the Israel-Palestine situation that seems to have no end in sight. Maybe it’s my hypersensitivity to issues of indigenous peoples’ having their lands stolen by invaders who have no right to be there, but I found it almost impossible to sympathize with the main characters. When I realized that the theme of the novel was an indigenous species versus colonists, and the main characters all being colonists or descendants of colonists, I was immediately put off.

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Let me get something straight here: Wright does not excuse colonists’ actions, nor does she pass off the war as a binary issue. What does, however, happen is that all the characters who get perspective chapters are humans (in this case, colonists), and three out of four of the perspective chapters are humans who are learning to rid themselves of long-held prejudices against chimera, while the fourth perspective character is a forest-human who doesn’t have these prejudices anymore, who instead strives for peace. The issue here, at least for me, was glaringly obvious: in a war raging between an indigenous species and colonists, why is the colonist’s perspective centered? Why is the storyline so intensely focused on colonist guilt, and realizing that indigenous life that existed on this planet is still, you know, life? And despite them unlearning their prejudices against the species itself, the issue of invasion and settling is almost entirely ignored, while all the weight is put on violent warfare.

To me, it parallels a book where white characters realize that people of color are “humans as well,” and start working towards co-existence, while also refusing to (intentionally or unintentionally) acknowledge or dismantle the root cause of the issue: systematic, institutionalized racism and white supremacy. In this case, the human characters’ narrative is the only one being centered, while the root issue of invasion, trespassing and unethically settling over land that already belongs to beings living on the moon is thrust aside, instead focusing on the byproduct of this main issue: war. There was a moment in this novel where the villain (so often described as the monster who needs to be destroyed for peace to finally be achieved) says:

Humans are a parasite, and you’re destroying this land with your mining and your colonization. You came and took with no regard to the life already existing here and, according to your histories, that’s fairly standard for your species, isn’t it?”

This tells me that Wright is fully aware of the complicated issue at hand, yet the villain – hell-bent on destruction and blood and chaos – is the only one who brings it up. Bro, if I’m twenty pages from the end and I’m siding with the villain here? That’s not a good look.

Some of the thematic choices made regarding character prejudices were also… uncomfortable for me to read and consider.

27 Hours is a book full of underrepresented identities on the page, with beautiful relationships forming – both platonic and romantic. We have a truly diverse cast of characters. Our four perspective chapters are Rumor, Nyx, Braeden and Jude, while a fifth character can still be considered a main character, despite not getting a perspective chapter. Rumor is a bisexual, multiracial Nigerian/Portuguese & Indian who falls for Jude, who is gay. Nyx is Deaf, pansexual, chubby, signs ASL throughout the book, has Cuban ancestry, and is love with her best friend, Dahlia, who is an Afro-Latinx trans girl. Nyx’s abuela is also Deaf. Braeden is asexual, and has two moms. Jude is adopted by a family of two brothers – both are people of color, both are queer. There is an Asian side character who uses they/them pronouns, and there is discussion about using and normalizing pronoun introductions.

Rumor and Jude form a beautiful bond immediately, and their interactions are lovely to see unfold on the page. Dahlia and Nyx’s complicated romantic relationship is slow-burn, and the pay-off is ultimately swoon-worthy, for lack of a better phrase. Braeden discusses his asexuality often, there is sign language throughout the book – so these identities are given proper time and weight. But with three of your five protagonists being people of color, there is no discussion about race, but I’ll get to this later.

In line with the imperialist discussion I was having above, let’s talk a little bit about Rumor. I believe Rumor could be considered the driving force of the novel – his perspective chapter starts the novel off, and his actions and reactions are, for the most part, what drive the story. For me, when it was revealed that he has Nigerian and Indian ancestry, I was immediately intrigued. Why? Because for a story dealing with colonial issues, a main character having ancestry from both Nigeria and India – both countries that have been colonized by the British in the past? That seemed significant to me. But I was… disturbed (if that’s the right phrase) by the fact that Rumor, more than anyone else, holds the most vicious hatred for chimera.

Rumor’s past with the indigenous species is bloody; his mother and his father both died during the war, and the book quite literally begins with his colony being wiped out by an attack. So, his reactions are to be expected, but… I’m a little uncomfortable that a character who has ancestry tracing back to countries that were torn apart due to colonization is so staunchly pro-colonist, is so staunchly vicious in his hatred of chimera. That’s a strange thematic choice for me. And it gets especially strange (this is a euphemism for problematic, by the way) that the two people who, arguably, have the most sway over changing his prejudices are white. The two characters (Jude and Braeden) who basically show the boy, who has ancestry 🗣 tracing 🗣 back 🗣 to 🗣 countries 🗣 that 🗣 have 🗣 been 🗣 colonized 🗣 by white 🗣 people, that his prejudices are unfounded, unfair and discriminatory are white. Bro. White.

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“Aimal, you’re overthinking this. It probably wasn’t that serious, it probably isn’t that deep.” Is that what you’re thinking? I’ve already acknowledged that perhaps it’s because I’m hypersensitive to imperialist issues, I saw flaws in this novel that many others would have overlooked. But come on – even the most non-interested of you couldn’t say that it isn’t a big deal that the most racist (specie-ist) person from our cast of characters is a person of color, and that the people who changed his mind were white people. Like… that’s just… 🏃🏽‍♀️ Moving on.

You could argue that Rumor’s ancestry isn’t as significant as I’m making it out to be, mainly because Wright makes it clear that the humans have one language (referred to as “the human language”), and don’t retain much from their culture back from home. Which: if the book is set 150-200 years in the future (which is 7-8 generations at most), would people who immigrated from all over the world really have forgotten their language, their cultures? Here’s a passage from the book:

“My mom was Indian. Like India. My dad was… He was Portugese and Nigerian. I only know because we had a school project to see what, if anything, we’d kept from our Earth ancestors.”

This seems to imply that the humans don’t know much, if anything at all, about where they came from on Earth. And that’s fair, if the book was set even further into the future. Would entire cultures cease to exist in just a few generations? (More on this later, too). And even if they did, why does the book seem to imply that they gradually, over the course of a century, defaulted to a Westernized way of living? Where romantic, familial and platonic relationships are modeled after Western culture? This is vague, and this is where the holes in world-building start to seep through. Are there no other cultures? And if there aren’t, how did the near-7,000 languages that exist in the world right now get wiped out in just a century or two from now?! How did entire civilizations coming from all over the world forget their own cultures to default to the present “human culture?” How is there no variation past ideological thought (and even then, only as it relates to war versus peace)? And if there are cultures, why not show them? I’m so confused about this – there are so many gaps and holes in world-building here that it’s driving me up the wall just thinking about the lack of information there is to grapple with.

Is racial representation really REPRESENTATION if the characters of color can be replaced by white people without changing anything else at all?

The overwhelming response to this question, when I asked it on Twitter, was “no.” One person writes, “Nope. White culture and ____ POC culture is nowhere near the same, and the culture needs to be included for it to be representation.”

Another person writes, “Not even close. PoC and white people have vastly different experiences, so it’s not really representation if this isn’t shown. And if POC and white people do go through the world in the same way (maybe if race isn’t a barrier) you have to have a WHY and HOW.”

Yet another person writes, “Part of the human experience is that people treat you based on a lot of shallow things, and taking away micro aggressions seems unrealistic.”

And another person writes… “Nope. If they can be replaced, then they’re just in a diverse costume. We have different experiences, and even in the future, that will be so.”

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Basically, every single character of color in this book could be replaced with a white character, and nothing would change. Absolutely nothing, apart from a couple words here and there (and a large chunk of my review *badum tss*). Like I said, there is little to no significant mention of differing cultures, or different languages (the only non-English words in the book are “chai,” “prem,” and “abuela,” which just… make up your mind. Do languages exist, or do they not?) Fine, take away cultures, take away languages, but even people of color who live in diasporas, who have largely assimilated to the society around them and retain little to nothing of their ancestral culture still undergo micro aggressions, if not outright racism. And there is no mention of it. Anywhere. When I say that the characters of color could be replaced by white characters and nothing would change, I mean that quite literally. You’d just have to replace every time the color “brown” is mentioned with white, change the ethnicities, and… that’s it.

Apparently, in this society, people aren’t prejudiced based on race, because it’s of no consequence to anybody, so it doesn’t exist anymore, despite there being a very clear prejudice against the. indigenous. species. So, prejudice does exist – just not intra-human racism. Which, just…

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Racism has existed for centuries. It has been the cause of genocide in various parts of the world, wars, slavery, systematic and institutionalized oppression. Look at the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar right now, the refugee crisis and the fear-mongering against Middle Easterners and Muslims, the legal and violent war underway against black Americans in the U.S., the purging of Native American lands and rights in today’s society, the discriminatory rhetoric against Mexicans that won someone the election. Look at our fucking President. Look at the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazis taking off their robes and parading around in the streets with torches and tell me racism is going anywhere. It has always existed, because as a human race, we’re prejudiced people. You mean to tell me that a colony, that exists and is an amalgamation of human society from cultures all over the world, has no racism?! Especially if this colony isn’t even that far into the future?! I…

The only way this could be even slightly possible would be if a scientific device existed that purged the very idea of prejudice out of your mind. I would buy this if prejudice, in and of itself, didn’t exist in the society. But prejudice does exist! Against the indigenous species! So that takes that out of the equation.

It feels a lot, and I mean A LOT, like erasure of the struggles people of color go through every single day, and have gone through every single day. For a white author to build a world where (1) colonialism thrives, but (2) racism no longer exists? It feels like a cop-out. It feels like Wright wanted people to say that people of color exist in her book, but didn’t want to do the heavy-lifting of representing the lives of people of color. So with the complete lack of representation of non-white culture, and the insinuation that racism no longer exists, while every other identity is given the proper balance and proper weight? Just… *endless sigh* I’m sorry. It’s lazy. It’s lazy writing, to me. It’s lazy world-building, it’s a lack of understanding of racial issues, both historical and contemporary, and it feels like simply checking off checklist items rather than actual representation.

I am not going to deny that this book has so much potential to benefit so many people, but it also participates in erasure, as well as a base misunderstanding of imperialist issues.

Which is exactly why it was so difficult for me to review this book. It is a diverse book and offers on-the-page representation for trans, gender non-conforming, asexual, pansexual, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and Deaf representation. And not even just that – it’s still a decent book with constant action, well-developed characters, an interesting (albeit under-developed or vague) world, and engaging dialogue. But it still falls flat in so many areas. And I hope that me pointing the things out that made me uncomfortable, that left a bad taste in my mouth doesn’t seem to you that I’m negating all the good this book can do in so many young people’s lives. I hope that if this review does anything, it at least sheds some light on the issues in the book, and maybe the issues will be rectified or redeemed in the sequel(s).

And with that ~3,000 word review…

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TRIGGER WARNING

Gore, violence, anti-indigenous rhetoric, colonialism/imperialist thought.

BUY IT

27 Hours releases on October 3rd, 2017.

Goodreads // Amazon

Two Releases You Need on Your Radar // Mini Reviews: Mask of Shadows, Little & Lion

2017 has been an incredible year for releases, especially because I’m starting to see more diverse books being talked about, being published, and being scheduled for future releases. As a fierce advocate of diversity in literature (and specifically children’s literature), I’ve made it a point to read mostly diverse books. Not all, but mostly. I’m extremely happy with how this decision has impacted my reading, because I’ve come across books that I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. Today, I’m here to spotlight two fantastic diverse ARCs I read in June and July that I think have the potential to be the next big thing, if they’re given the exposure and love they deserve.


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FTC DISCLOSURE
Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller // Assassins, tournaments and a protagonist with a vengeance

Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Synopsis: Mask of Shadows follows the story of Sal, a genderfluid thief who’s living and working for a hardened crime lord. When Sal hears about the tournament held by the Queen, where contenders will fight to earn a place in the Queen’s Left Hand, Sal sees a chance for a better life. Sal isn’t professionally trained – they don’t have any experience in archery, poisons and the art of high-elite living, but they’re a thief. Quick. Nimble. Cunning, with experience in the streets, and the quiet comfort of chaos. But more than that, Sal has a vengeance. They will wreak havoc on the people who destroyed Sal’s home all those years previously…

What worked?

🌿 The diverse cast, spear-headed by a genderfluid main character in YA fantasy. Sal goes by “he,” “she,” or “they” depending on how they are dressed. Other than Sal, Miller understands what it means to have a diverse world in the way that there are several prominent characters of color, a bisexual/pansexual (unspecified as of yet) love interest of color, and several characters with disabilities.

🌿 Sal is an incredible main character, all-in-all. They’re complicated in the way that sometimes you doubt whether they have the best intentions at heart, but ultimately, you’re rooting for them. Sal is sarcastic, humorous, deeply compassionate for the people they care about, and has a swagger and air to them that you can’t help but fall in love with. Also, I do love me an underdog.

🌿 It was well-paced, with just the right amount of attention given to the slower-burn moments like the romance, Sal’s relationship with their helper, the introspection, as well as the faster moments like the action. The result was an exciting, tantalizing book that you couldn’t put down, but you also felt fully acquainted with the characters.

🌿 The assassin tournament itself was extremely well-developed, with proper detailing about how it works, who the competitors are, and what’s at stake. There are several “rounds” and classes in play, all of which are given a balanced amount of time. It’s also incredibly difficult for an author to give characters that usually go by numbers a distinct personality, but in Mask of Shadows, I was keenly aware of the different characters, their back-stories, and their personalities. That’s impressive.

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🌿 The friendship between Sal and the helper they are assigned was moving; I often found myself looking forward to their scenes together. There was an immediate chemistry between the two, and they fell into easy banter. You’re always aware that they’re both benefiting from each other’s success, but you never doubt that they both care deeply for each other. I would’ve loved to see more of this dynamic, and I hope we get that in the next book.

🌿 Linsey Miller writes with such graceful ease. From developing tension between Sal and their love interest, the sharp sense of vengeance Sal always feels, the urgency of the action, as well as the descriptives of world-building, politics and history, Miller does it all extremely well. It’s hard to believe this is a debut. Although Mask of Shadows relies on tropes that many of us have definitely seen in other YA books, she brings a unique spin and flavor to them, which makes the book stand out among its peers.

What didn’t work?

🌿 My one major complaint was that there were several instances where I felt information was being dumped onto my head all at once. I like my fantasy books to be thick for this very reason; I don’t mind long paragraphs, and slow-burn development as long as the information is given to me naturally. But there wasn’t much of it in here, just inklings of it.

🌿 Everything comes a little too easily to Sal. They didn’t know much going into the tournament past having base instinctual skills, but they learn everything a bit too quickly. It seemed to be that everybody was on Sal’s side, which lowered the stakes of the story. And although I thought the tournament was imaginative, I found it difficult to believe that it ended as quickly as it did, with our contenders becoming experts in everything they’ve learned within just a few days.

🌿 I would’ve liked more focus on the political aspects of the world-building, but I’m pretty sure we’ll see more of that in the second book.

Mask of Shadows releases on August 29th, 2017.

TRIGGER WARNING

Graphic depictions of violence; purposeful misgendering; some self-harm; PTSD.

BUY IT

Goodreads 🌿 Amazon


Little & Lion: Book Review

FTC DISCLOSURE
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert // Family, Love, and Finding Yourself

Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 1/2

Synopsis: When Suzette moves back to her home in Los Angeles after her boarding school in Massachusetts lets out for the summer, she has a lot going on in her life. For one, she was sent away against her will and now her relationship with her stepbrother, who has bipolar disorder, isn’t like it used to be. Suzette’s also figuring out her sexuality; at her school, she fell in love with Iris, her roommate and she made some mistakes that she hasn’t forgiven herself for quite yet. They left things on a bad note, and in LA, amidst everything, Suzette’s drawn to her childhood friend, Emil, as well as a girl that her brother might be into as well.

Let me begin by saying that Little & Lion was absolutely one of my favorite books of the year so far, and I fell in love with everything about it. It’s so incredibly moving, discussing things like what it means to be a family, discussing sexuality and the stigmas surrounding bisexuality. It discusses what it means to be human – flawed, but willing to accept your mistakes, and how you go about sticky situations without combusting or hurting the people around you. It’s beautifully written with fluid prose, complicated but well-fleshed out characters, and a pair of siblings that feel like your own. I finished this book at 5 AM, in just over a couple of sittings, with tears streaming down my face… just because it was that beautiful.

What worked?

🌿 Again, this is a wonderfully diverse book. Our main character is a black, Jewish, bisexual girl who’s brother has bipolar disorder. Emil, Suzette’s childhood friend, is biracial – black/Korean – who has a hearing aid. Suzette’s best friend is lesbian- in fact, most of the secondary characters in this book are on the LGBQ+ spectrum.

🌿 This is also an #OwnVoices book for black representation, and Brandy Colbert discusses ‘casual’ racist micro-aggressions throughout the book, from Suzette being kept an eye on at an expensive store, her identity as a Jewish woman constantly under appraisal, as well as extremely ignorant remarks made by people that she’s surrounded with. Even people who have other marginalizations, illustrating that just because you are also a minority doesn’t give you a pass for saying ignorant things.

Colbert doesn’t shy away from having outward, frank discussions about stigmas surrounding bisexuality, mental health, and discussions about racism and privilege in this novel. But somehow, she integrates these vital conversations within the plot, giving dimension to the characters while doing so. It’s incredible.

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🌿 The characters make this book soar. Each one of them, but especially Suzette and Lionel (her brother) are given distinct personalities and character arcs. They never feel like props to Suzette’s story- they are alive, in and of themselves, so you feel like you’re watching actual people interact within a story, rather than reading a fictional novel. Suzette stands out in that she’s deeply flawed. You know this, and she knows this too, and so her development from start-to-finish is self-aware, and interesting to see unfold. Lionel was a character easy to love; he’s smart, quiet, reserved, but strong-willed with such intense compassion for those around him.

🌿 Balance! Nothing screams a good contemporary quite like a wholesome one, which means that the author strikes the perfect balance between the multiple facets of our main character’s life. Scenes with family, her sibling, her friends, her love interest(s), as well as timely flashbacks that give you insight into Suzette’s past relationships. Each of these things is done beautifully, resulting in The Full Picture – something I crave so deeply in contemporaries.

🌿 The relationships are beautifully constructed – especially the familial ones – with the perfect amount of tension, the perfect amount of conflict. Yet you never doubt that Suzette loves her family, and they love her back. Suzette’s relationship with her brother, especially, was nothing short of intensely moving. Their fierce love and devotion to each other was permeated by several factors throughout the novel. It wasn’t an easy dynamic, but it was an authentic one. I loved it.

What didn’t work?

🌿 In a similar vein, the only thing I craved more for was Little & Lion’s dynamic. I wanted to see more flashbacks when their relationship was steady, and I wanted to see it deteriorate further. I grew to love them both so much that I couldn’t help but need more of them; if that meant the book was fifty pages longer, so be it. I just wanted more.

Little & Lion releases on August 8th, 2017.

TRIGGER WARNING

Anxiety; bipolar disorder; some self-harm; lesbophobic slurs; racist microaggressions; some biphobia.

BUY IT

Goodreads 🌿 Amazon

Begone, Hype! // Mini Reviews: Caraval, The Star-Touched Queen, Flame in the Mist

Let’s start these mini reviews by a confession: I am approximately 15 reviews behind, and to catch up and get some of my sanity back, I need to divide my time and commitment unevenly, unfortunately. Over the course of the next few days, you can expect to see grouped mini reviews that follow some theme; in these reviews, I will review three books to the best of my ability. There are so many books that I’ve read that I feel need proper time and attention, so those are the ones that will get individual reviews (or groups of two, instead of three). Hopefully this way, I can catch up on my reviews while not completely ignoring them either.

Expectation is the root of all disappointment.

When you expect something from a book because a) you’ve heard people talking about it, b) the author has previously done really great work, and c) (because we’re all a little bit shallow), the cover is just really darn beautiful, so you automatically expect the content is too. And so, you get your hands on this book, and much to your dismay, it doesn’t live up to your expectations. That’s disappointing, and nothing bums me out quite as much as disliking a book that I thought I would like. In this post, I will get to three books that left me with low spirits and a heavy heart (because melodrama is my forté!)

🍓

caraval

Caraval by Stephanie Garber // also known as, “No, seriously, why are you so popular?”

Rating:  🌟

Synopsis: Caraval follows the story of Scarlett and her sister Tella, who’ve always dreamed of playing the legendary, magical game of Caraval. Ever since they were young girls, their grandmother has told them stories about the Caraval master, the whimsy of the game, how the experience is unparalleled. The problem is that the game is incredibly exclusive – you can’t go unless you receive an invite. When Scarlett receives an invite after years of writing to the master of Caraval, she and Tella escape the clutches of their abusive, terrifying father with a companion in tow and flee to make the game.

What worked?

🍓 The first couple of chapters immediately grabbed my attention.

What didn’t work?

🍓 Important, serious issues are used as plot devices – Scarlett and Tella’s abusive by their father is only used as a launching point for them to go to CaravalThe abuse is shoved aside except for when you’re being reminded that the two are at Caraval to escape it. Suicide is used as a plot device in the most bizarre, offensive manner. The severe psychological repercussions on characters are pushed aside and overlooked.

🍓 Scarlett was a terrible heroine. Absolutely horrendous. She’s incredibly passive – she does very little by her own volition, but instead lets everyone guide her movements. She’s easily manipulated, and has no backbone. The result is an unreliable protagonist (and not in a good way), because you constantly doubt what she’s hearing and seeing, simply because you never know when the next person will come along and change her mind.

🍓 The writing style was strange and inconsistent; at times, Garber used metaphors in consecutive rotation, and at other times, it seems like the editor either a) went overboard, or b) didn’t look at the script at all. The book goes from purple prose to absolutely juvenile prose without any feeling constantly. The result is rather jarring.

🍓 Garber would have you believe that the sisterhood aspect of the novel is prominent, yet… it’s really not. Tella isn’t present in the majority of the book, and when Scarlett is thinking about her, it’s usually in the context of, “Oh, how can I possibly choose between my sister’s life, this boy I met two days ago, and making my arranged wedding on time?” If that’s the type of sisterhood that’s considered “close,” you can keep it.

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🍓 I don’t know whether Garber was trying to achieve a constant twist-and-turns type of plot, but she consistently decided to change the motives of the characters, and the way the game is supposed to be played as she saw fit. The result is incredibly jarring. I got whiplash from the constant back-and-forth. It was naaaht a fun reading experience.

TRIGGER WARNING

Suicide; physical, emotional abuse; some self-harm.

BUY IT

Goodreads // Amazon

🍓

star touched queen

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi // also known as, “Damn, you’re pretty but you’re such a mystery.”

Rating:  🌟🌟 1/2

SynopsisMaya has a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction; she’s known she’s cursed ever since she was a child, and so does everyone else in her life. When her father, the Raja, arranges for a political marriage to eradicate rebellions, Maya finds herself leaving home and the Queen of Akaran – a kingdom she’d never heard of before. Akaran is mysterious, but magical, with locked doors, empty halls, and impossible things. But her husband, Amar, is sweet, and kind, and she can almost find love in him, as long as he stops his constant secrets.

What worked?

🍓 The Indian lore incorporated into the narrative was done masterfully; from reincarnation to gods and goddesses, to cultural traditions and the pitfalls of the subcontinent’s history, to food and dress – the story is seeping with Indian culture. It’s delicious to read.

🍓 Roshani Chokshi is a skilled writer. I don’t particularly enjoy floral prose, but I can appreciate when it’s done well. She utilizes figurative language beautifully, and she structures her sentences so that they read more like a song than prose.

🍓 The world-building was vivid, albeit confusing, and that speaks more for Chokshi’s ability to write descriptively than it does anything else. From mysterious Night Bazaars to enchanted gardens and vulgar horses… there’s a lot in this book to devour.

What didn’t work?

🍓 First and foremost: the characters were an incredible let-down. There’s so much for us to absorb in the world-building that I felt Chokshi focused more on the characters’ surroundings than the characters themselves. The result was largely flat, one-dimensional people guiding the story. Maya was yet another passive character for the large part of the novel; she does very little of her own volition and allows herself to be manipulated. But I will say that this got better around the 50% mark.

🍓 The romance – there was little to no chemistry between Amar and Maya. It was hard for me to believe that despite Amar keeping so much from Maya, she still falls in love with him. I would have liked a slower burn build-up.

🍓 The world-building itself fell flat for me – it was descriptive, and I could picture most everything on the page, but the universe, its history and how the magic worked wasn’t given enough attention. Perhaps if the book was longer and more attention was given to the mechanics, I wouldn’t have been so confused.

🍓 I wanted to see more of Maya’s life before she is sent to Akaran.

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Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh // also known as, “Why couldn’t you be more like your older sibling?”

Rating:  🌟 🌟 1/2

Synopsis: Flame in the Mist follows the story of Mariko, the only daughter of a prominent samurai in feudal Japan who is on her way to the imperial palace to be married off in a political move. On the way, her party is ambushed by the Black Clan, and everyone is slaughtered. Mariko is able to get away, but finds herself in a deadly forest. Determined to discover why the Black Clan ambushed her carriage in a way so unlike them, she disguises herself as a boy and sets off to infiltrate their camp.

Note: this book is often marketed as a Mulan retelling, which it is not. For one, it is set in Japan and not China. Secondly, there are no similarities past the cross-dressing component.

What worked?

🍓 Mariko. She’s a wonderfully developed character with a strong sense of herself, her values, and what needs to be done to achieve her goals. She’s determined, and utilizes sharpness and wit to maneuver tricky situations. She’s a woman in a patriarchal society, so she starts off with a ton of internalized misogyny, but develops wonderfully by the end of the story. She’s also super sex-positive!

🍓 Kenshin (Mariko’s twin brother) and the love interest, Okami, were both well-developed characters as well. There are some POV chapters from Okami, though most of the book is told from Mariko and Kenshin’s perspectives, but I enjoyed these perspective-shifts and the flavor they brought to the story. I would’ve liked to see more of Mariko and Kenshin’s dynamic though.

🍓 The romance was very swoon-worthy, as Ahdieh’s romances are. Shazi and Khalid in her previous series are one of my ultimate OTPs, and Mariko and Okami made their way into my list too. They both complement and challenge each other well – their dynamic is hot-and-cold, but incredibly entertaining to see unfold.

🍓 Ahdieh is a wonderful writer; she writes with fluid grace, utilizing descriptives, dialogue and emotion very well. You mostly feel what she wants you to feel, and that’s the hallmark of a good writer.

What didn’t work?

🍓 I cannot speak for the Japanese representation since I am a) not Japanese, and b) not very familiar with the culture in the first place. But after having read a few reviews by Japanese readers, I now know that the representation is very appropriative and inaccurate. Ahdieh utilizes entertainment tropes, stereotypes, and poorly researched elements into the narrative. Here is an #OwnVoices review, and here’s another one.

🍓 While utilizing the “I disguised myself as a boy” trope, and as Okami forms a strong bond with her while he believes she is a boy, the book is very cis-normative, and there is absolutely no discussion of bisexuality. The first review linked above discusses both these issues as well, since the reviewer is Japanese, non-binary and bisexual. Do check out that review, please.

🍓 I simpy do not believe that Mariko formed a stronger bond with the Black Clan than she has with her twin brother, because the relationships (beyond the romance) aren’t developed well. You don’t get to see much interaction between Mariko and the rest of the Black Clan that gives you the sense that yes, she feels like she belongs there. This makes the climax a little… cold.

🍓 The launching point of the novel is basically the same as The Wrath & the DawnA girl seeks out for vengeance, infiltrates her enemy’s household under disguise and falls in love. It’s literally the same thing. The similarities were a little difficult for me to overlook, which ultimately made the book seem uninspired.

TRIGGER WARNING

Attempted assault; violence; misogyny.

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Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

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FTC DISCLOSURE

🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

“Where are you guys? Text me back.”

That was the last text Carver sent to one of his three best friends before they were all killed in an accident. Mars had been driving when he got the text, and while he was checking it, their car collided into a truck, killing Mars, Eli and Blake. In one moment, Carver’s life is upended. His conscience weighs down on him, proclaiming that of course it’s his fault his friends are dead. Mars’s father is a powerful judge who’s looking to press negligent murder charges against Carver. But in all this hubbub, Carver still manages to find other people to find support in and with – Eli’s girlfriend, Blake’s grandmother, and his new therapist. When Blake’s grandmother suggest a Goodbye Day, – a day where Carver and her can do the things Blake loved, and have a proper goodbye – the other families start asking for these days too. Will Carver finally find redemption, some sense of closure, or will this end with him being declared the criminal that he thinks he is?


What worked?

🌊 The in-depth portrayal of Carver’s PTSD and anxiety after the accident, as well as multiple therapy sessions that are executed rather well.

🌊 The concept of goodbye days.

🌊 An emphasis on familial relationships, friendships, and personal recovery.

🌊 The slow-burn nature of it inspired constant empathy, rather than one gratuitous pay-off that often reads like tragiporn.

🌊 Carver’s character development.

What didn’t work?

🌊 Some problematic content – suicide, and self-harm jokes go unchallenged, largely. (You can read more on this further into the review) and some homophobic jokes that – while challenged – aren’t done so in-depth.

🌊 The goodbye days past Blake’s aren’t given as much attention as I would have liked.


There is no word better than “intense” to describe Goodbye Days. From start to finish, it packs a punch- whether that’s in the sad reality of the death of three bright young people, or in the loss our main character is reeling from and dealing with, or in the guilt that’s crushing him, making him do things and think things that you don’t agree with, but can’t really refute either. It’s an emotional book with themes of family, friendship, guilt and grief layered one atop the other – masterfully, poignantly, and unflinchingly executed. It’s a Southern novel, and has the elements found in traditional Southern fiction; close-knit communities, a prominent presence of religious themes, discussions of justice, as well as some references to the realities of “Othering” in the South.

It’s not gratuitously tragic in the way that sad books more often than not are. It doesn’t follow the formula of everything building up until it finally implodes in one tragiporn climax… instead, Goodbye Days slowly burns away at your sense of empathy. There were several moments where I touched my face and realized a tear or two had spilled over at the random-est of moments. Sometimes, when you’ve lost someone or something, the smallest thing can set you off, and it’s so fascinating that this book felt a lot like that. I mourned for Eli, Blake and Mars. I mourned for them constantly, despite never having met them in the prose except through flashbacks. That’s an incredible feat.

Zentner does a fantastic job of pacing his story and balancing the sadder aspects of it with moments of hope; though the flashbacks of Carver’s life with his friends are tragic in and of themselves, they also provide insight into the meaning of friendship, into holding onto happy memories, even if they’re painful. His Goodbye Day with Blake’s grandmother was one of my favorite moments of the novel, because even though they’re mourning the wonderful person that was Blake, they’re still celebrating his life. In this way, it’s also a hopeful novel, while being a sad one, and this quality is what sets it apart from so many other novels characterized as “sad.”

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I mentioned before that Zentner discusses the “Othering” in the South, and I thought this was brilliantly executed as well. Eli’s girlfriend Jesmyn, now one of Carver’s closest friends and support systems, is Filipina – there are several moments where Carver makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jesmyn calls out as ignorant. She challenges him on some of his racist and misogynistic remarks every step of the way, and you really start to see him develop. To the point where he challenges a sexist remark that his therapist makes, and a racist remark that Eli’s grandmother makes. Carver and his friends have a history of joking about serious issues. They make homophobic jokes (this is challenged in-text, though not in a way that I agree with) and suicide/self-harm jokes (this is left unchallenged, largely, which is something I had a problem with), and it begs the question: after Carver’s development and his growing awareness, would he still make these jokes? I would’ve liked to see more in-text, explicit acknowledgement of the problematic nature of these jokes, though I still appreciated the conscious effort in the existing acknowledgment and correction. It speaks a lot for the authenticity of the Southern nature of the novel that ignorance exists. But this ignorance is also challenged (90% of the time), going to show that you can be authentic in showing the problematic aspects of your culture and characters without excusing them.

Goodbye Days was a damn good book, though not a perfect one. For one, like I mentioned above, some of the problematic jokes went unchallenged. Secondly, I would’ve liked a bit more emphasis on Eli and Mars’s Goodbye Days as well, especially because both their families’ have a very different reaction to Carver’s involvement in the accident than Blake’s grandmother did. I would have liked for this to be expanded upon. But other than these issues, Goodbye Days was a wonderful read. Poignant, moving, and incredibly memorable, and I’ll definitely be keeping Jeff Zentner in mind for any of his other books and new releases.

TRIGGER WARNING

Suicide/self-harm jokes, homophobic jokes (challenged), homophobia, racist micro aggressions, grief, anxiety/PTSD.

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Trilogy Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han Review

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S E R I E S  R A T I N G //  🌸 🌸

Lara Jean’s having a bit of a tough time in high school; her sister just moved away to college, and the love letters that she wrote to all the boys she’s had a crush on before are mailed to each recipient. One by one, Lara Jean is forced to confront each of these boys much to her mortification – she’s ill-equipped to handle such sticky situations, and throw in fake-dating, a leaked scandalous video of her with the cheeky but charming Peter Kavinsky in the mix and it all becomes a little too much to handle. That’s how the series starts – with a bunch of letters being mailed out, a lovable protagonist and writing that makes you feel like you’re floating on a cloud of pink.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before started off with a bang. In fact, the first book may be one of my favorite contemporaries of all time. You’re immediately drawn in with the unconventionality of it all – Jenny Han strays far from tropes. There are things in this series that I’ve always wanted more from in YA books, and because of that alone, this series is worth picking up.

For one, there’s a wonderful family structure surrounding Lara Jean.

Her father is protective, supportive and immensely lovable, and his presence in her life isn’t reduced to just reality. He plays an important role in each of these three books, and how often do we get present parental figures who are genuinely good? Moreover, Lara Jean’s relationship with her sisters is given proper time to develop and evolve. Kitty, her younger sister, is feisty and sarcastic, and is a prominent secondary character in the series. Lara Jean’s older sister is also a strong presence, even though she’s away studying in Scotland. The tight-knit familial relationships are a wonderful aspect to this series.

Lara Jean is a lovable protagonist – her childlike innocence and ‘immaturity’ are another unconventional aspect to the series.

This is one thing that makes the series unlikable to some people – they think Lara Jean’s too juvenile, too immature and childlike, but that’s something I greatly appreciated about this series. It’s not that she’s immature at all; it’s just that she has an innocent personality. She enjoys baking and cute things. There is something incredibly endearing about a girl who enjoys fluffy clothes, and calls her father “daddy” even when she’s a teenager. I think sometimes readers are too unforgiving of different personalities and different experiences. I, a South Asian reader, related to Lara Jean a lot, not in her interests and hobbies, but rather because of her relationship with her family, and her resistance to things “rebel” teenagers do. I was never much of a rebel, honestly, and I don’t often relate to books where the teens have no regard for rules or authority. Lara Jean’s personality was a refreshing relief from protagonists that had started to blend together.

The series is so cute. It reads like you’re floating on a cloud, wrapped in fluffy blankets with hot cookies by your side.

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It’s just so cute – it’s written with warmth, the dialogue feels incredibly personable, and the romance between Lara Jean and Kavinsky, especially, is adorable. Their banter while they’re fake-dating in the first book, moving on to their respectful, but also topsy-turvey and flawed relationship dynamic, was wonderful to watch. I’m a massive fan of commitment in books, and that’s another thing you don’t often see. And Jenny Han does such a fantastic job of developing these characters that you can’t help but fall in love with them. All of them. In the end, no matter how you feel about the individual books, you can’t help but feel like you’re returning home to people that you love and know.

So why the 2-star rating? There’s so much here to love!

See, the thing is – if I were judging book one alone, I’d give a rating of four or four and a half stars. Because the series starter could’ve been a great stand-alone. The sequels? They felt so… unnecessary. After turning the last page of the second book, I asked myself, “What was the point?” And similarly after turning the page of the last book, I asked myself yet again, “No really. What is the point?” And when you consistently ask yourself why a series is a series? That’s not really a great series, then, is it?

Because while the first book was fun to read, the sequels dragged. If I were an editor…

I would replace the entire plot of the second book with something different, then condense the events of the third book in ten or so chapters, and add those ten chapters to the newly written second book. And even then, the first book didn’t need any more! The plot of P.S. I Still Love You was so unnecessary, and that’s all I can do to describe it. The ending totally destroyed any build-up to any of the tensions in the second book – Lara Jean finds herself in the same situation at the end of Book II as she does in the start of it. And that’s a problem I had with Always & Forever, Lara Jean too. The book builds up to a pivotal moment in Lara Jean’s life (there’s virtually no plot but there is one major tension) – she has to make a choice, and you’re reading to find out where it’s going. And then at the last second, Jenny Han twists it around with five pages to spare. The conclusions are incredibly rushed. The plot changes and the sheer unencessity of it gave me whiplash.

Of course, that’s almost entirely my personal preference. Some people enjoy slice-of-life books; in a way, this series reads a lot like TV shows. Different problems in different books, some repetitions, some back-and-forth. And if you love the characters enough, you won’t mind it. But from a critical standpoint, the series flickers and stumbles beyond the first book.

But despite my clear issues, I will still recommend the first book to everyone who enjoys light contemporaries.

Because the first book was just that great, to me. Like I said, there’s a lot going for this series, and it’s become one of those books that is my go-to recommendation for people looking for summer reads that are cute, light and fun. However, if you were to ask me, I wouldn’t recommend the sequels much. The first book is a great stand-alone, too.

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Trilogy Review: Penryn & the End of Days by Susan Ee

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S E R I E S  R A T I N G :   🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Penryn & the End of Days is an apocalyptic horror trilogy following the story of Penryn Young, her sister and her mother as they struggle to survive the potential downfall of man. Angels have come to Earth and are wreaking havoc; they’re seemingly invincible, are ruthless warriors who care nothing about the lives of humans. The human race has scattered, gangs have emerged as everyone fights to the death for survival. When Penryn’s younger sister is kidnapped, she sets out to find her, forming an unlikely alliance with an angel named Raffe. But as they spend an increasing amount of time together, they realize that the alliance is turning into something akin to romance, and the fact that they’re two people from two species at war is not only complicated, it’s terrifying.

“He is the one pocket of warmth in a sea of ice. Being in his arms feels like the home I never had.”

Susan Ee has crafted a story that’s… delicious, and that truly is the best way to describe it. Angelfall was largely lackluster in my opinion, for several reasons that I’ll get into later into the post, but I was still willing to give the rest of the books a chance. I picked up the second book a year after I completed the first one, and flew through it. It was everything I adored about a sequel, and it forced me to pick up the third book immediately after I finished it. End of Days was also a book I adored – and I was left in awe at the amount of improvement the series, and the author, went through from start to finish.

BOOK I WAS A LACKLUSTER AND DECEPTIVE START TO A GREAT SERIES

Like I said, Angelfall was far from perfect – for the most part, the first book seriously lacked in action. Susan Ee is a slow writer, and that’s okay. Her strength lies in the balance of slow and fast but it seemed like that perfect balance had not yet been struck in the series starter. Angelfall was dull – the moments interspersed with romance fell flat because Raffe and Penryn’s relationship was, at first, unbelievable to me. What drew them together? Why do they like each other beyond the fact that they have some sort of chemistry? Their relationship, as fun as it was to observe the banter and teasing, didn’t feel like it was developed well, and considering that I had pacing problems before the 80% mark, the first book wasn’t all that I had heard it would be. In the end, I gave it three stars, mostly because the last 20% was phenomenal, and it made me want to read ahead. If you’re looking for more in-depth thoughts, here’s my review.

WORLD AFTER PUT PENRYN AT THE FOREFRONT – RISKY MOVE, BUT WORTH IT

World After, however, was where the fun truly started, which is ironic because it was significantly slower than the first book all-in-all. Ee took a chance by making the sequel exist as solely a Penryn book, where Raffe barely exists past a few scenes near the end and a couple of fleeting moments here and there. It’s a book focused on Penryn’s personal development, her relationship with her family, as she comes to terms more fully with the world she’s now living in, with who she’s become, and has to firmly pick a side in a war that seems to have no end other than the destruction of her species. Having a book centered on her allowed me to appreciate her strength, both as a character and a person – so often when a romance is introduced and a high-stakes surrounding is at work, we forget to be invested in the main character. And with this risky decision, Ee ensured that I was enamored by Paige and her story.

World After is a slow, churning book full of introspection, survival and thought-provoking moments. Getting to be fully emerged in Paige’s head and seeing her work through her thoughts about Raffe made their romance click into place for me; suddenly, they made sense and I was rooting for them like I haven’t rooted for another couple in a long time – a stark contrast considering I felt nothing for them in the first book. The moments where the action existed were exciting. The horror and gore were cranked up a notch, and so was the world-building. The second book in the trilogy was perhaps my favorite from the three; it sucked me in completely.

END OF DAYS WAS AN EXPLOSIVE, THOUGHT-PROVOKING FINALE 

The third and final installment titled End of Days was another incredible sequel to a series that truly proved me wrong. While it often seemed like Ee was throwing action-packed scene after action-packed scene my way, the action struck a brilliant balance between the slow-churn of the second book and the wild thrill of the third. Here is where I’ll suggest that you binge the second and third books; spreading out the reading experience may give you whiplash. Read them both consecutively and you’ll enjoy the sudden shift in pace, I promise you. While action is at the forefront of the finale, we see some thought-provoking discussions take place. What does it mean to be evil in a world where dichotomies don’t seemingly exist? How are you supposed to empathize with someone who, by all logical reasoning, should be your enemy? How far are you willing to go to get your way when your way could be good for so many, and bad for so many too? I thought Susan Ee answered these complicated questions nicely, and though the end wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter wrapped with a red bow on top, you still got enough closure. You still get a book that wraps it up without making this otherwise gritty, terrifying story neat.

BUT… THAT ONE GLARING FLAW I COULDN’T GET PAST…

So, I loved the series clearly. But there was one glaring flaw, past the technicalities in the first book, that stopped me from giving it a higher rating. There was one question that was never addressed properly (if at all): what about the rest of the world?! The three books take place in various parts of San Francisco, and seemingly, all the action is going on in California – considering it’s called World After, you’d think some of the action would take place outside of the West Coast – or at least some other countries would be acknowledged. Susan Ee makes it seem like the entire future of the human race rests on the shoulders of the people of California… but what about everyone else on the globe? You could argue that the angels only came to the United States – but, okay, then the human race isn’t really in trouble… Americans are, and that significantly lowers the stakes of the series. And if you argued that there were more angels elsewhere, and the book just focuses on the events of California – then the war isn’t really over, and there’s a considerable loose end. Either way, it makes no sense. I don’t see the logic behind not addressing what countries outside of the US are going through in this horrifying apocalyptic time, and ultimately, that’s such a lapse in world-building that it was the one major flaw I simply could not wrap my head around or get over.

But past this one flaw, Penryn & the End of Days was a thrilling read, and I dread to think that had I not given the series a second chance after being let-down by the first book, I would never have experienced the terrifying, delicious glory of it. If this isn’t a lesson to give things second chances, I don’t know what is!

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ARC Review // Release by Patrick Ness

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FTC DISCLOSURE

♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ . 5  s t a r s

Adam Thorn hasn’t been having the best day of his life. His ex-boyfriend, who he might still be in love with, is going away tonight and Adam’s going to the going-away party, but the situation is bringing up old memories and pent-up emotions and the heartbreak Enzo left behind when he walked out of Adam’s life. Either way, Adam has a new boyfriend now, who’s nice and cares deeply about him, but does Adam love him like he loved Enzo? But there’s more – his brother drops a revelation that shocks Adam, and he has to come to make some difficult decisions regarding his ultra-religious parents and his sexuality; the fact that he’s fired from work the same day doesn’t help the day get any better. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the ghost of a murdered girl has risen from the lake…

Patrick Ness writes in his author’s note, “How do we ever, ever survive our teenage years? Every young person you meet is a walking, talking miracle.” Going into the book having read this line was an experience in and of itself, because it nudged me towards reading the book a certain way – a way that made me appreciate its weirdness, its sometimes-confusing components. Release cemented Patrick Ness’s signature move in my mind – he combines the ordinary and the extraordinary, and he blurs the lines between the two to the point where you ask yourself, “What?” at least a few times every few pages. The message takes some time to sink in, but when it does, it clicks into place: your life, your teenage years and the heartaches, the pain and the joys, in all their ordinariness, are no less extraordinary than fantasies. The parallels are muddled and confusing, so much so that sometimes I wondered what was the point of including the fantastical elements to the book, but look closely. It’s there – just out of reach, and it gives the novel a completely new layer. I was more interested in Adam’s “ordinary” story than the ghost of a murdered meth addict and dead queens and fauns- and ultimately, that’s the point. There need not be something magical for your story to be extraordinary. Ness’s devotion to the wonderful strength of ordinary teenage life speaks volumes throughout the entire body of his work, and it shines in Release too.

Perhaps one of the reasons I adore Ness’s work so much is because he doesn’t treat his young characters like an age, like many older writers tend to do when they’re writing YA. There is no condescension in Ness’s themes; his characters’ romances are as intense as they are for many of us when it comes to first love. Their pains aren’t dramatized and glamorized, but are given an incredible amount of empathy from the person writing them. Ness writes about young people for young people, and he never, ever sugarcoats it. I don’t say this lightly when I say that I wish I had something like Patrick Ness’s books when I was a teenager, when my feelings – whether they be positive or negative – were being invalidated because “I’m still just a kid.” I wish I had something like his novels to tell me that sure, I am a kid, but that doesn’t mean my feelings are less valid, and being a kid sure as hell isn’t something I should be ashamed of.

This book is #OwnVoices for gay representation – there are two or three main characters in this book, and none of them are straight, though Adam’s best friend is questioning whether she is bisexual. We have Adam, who is a young gay boy from an ultra-religious family, whose father is a preacher, who has been left and beaten down from all sides of his life. Everybody he’s ever been close to has moved away, and the people who were meant to be his family make him feel unwanted. He feels unloved, like he doesn’t deserve anything good, simply because he’s never gotten it. His development, over the course of the day, is glaringly apparent and you can’t help but love everything about him by the first few chapters. Ness does a beautiful job of showing Adam’s vulnerabilities; he’s a beefy boy who isn’t afraid to break down when he needs to, who isn’t afraid to tell the people he loves that he loves them, and that he will love them until the end of the world. We need vulnerable boys in YA literature; we need their vulnerabilities to be normalized and not made a big deal of, and this book is a step in the right direction. I can’t speak for the representation in the book, because I am straight, but this is an #OwnVoices review from someone who adored the book as much as I did.

As if my ravings weren’t already enough, I have more! Release depicts sex among young people without flinching; there are no fade-out scenes, and scenes that feel so overdramatic and flowery that you roll your eyes, and flip the page. The young people who have sex in this novel talk while they’re doing it, and they laugh, and it’s sometimes awkward. There’s talk about virginities, but losing it isn’t made a big deal of like it so often is – it can be painful, and it can be quick, and it mostly never is perfect… but that’s okay. The explicit talk and the sex scenes are a warning to sex-averse readers, so be careful about that, and if you don’t want to read about sex, don’t pick this book up. It’s unflinchingly honest, and it never shies away from the subject. I also really appreciated how it dealt with sexual harassment, unwanted advances and rape culture rather honestly and brutally.

In the end, this is an important book. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read, in more ways than one. And if I had any doubt in my mind that Patrick Ness is a writer for the ages, this book completely erased that inkling of doubt, and he has cemented his place as one of the most eloquent, wonderful writers out there – not only for young people, but rather especially for young people. Read the book. It’s out in the UK already, so order it if you can’t wait. And if you can wait, read it when it releases on September 19th. Just read it and devour it and love it as much as I did.

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TRIGGER WARNING

Sexual harassment, rape culture, homophobia, murder

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Book Review // Want by Cindy Pon

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FTC DISCLOSURE

♡ ♡ ♡ ♡  s t a r s

Zhou lives in a futuristic Taipei that’s divided on class lines and polluted beyond belief. The you are the elites who run businesses and large corporations, and continue to grow richer; while they have suits to protect them from their polluted surroundings, the mei – the lower, poorer classes – have a high mortality rate, and barely live past the age of forty. Zhou and his crew want to make a difference; most of them have lost someone or another due to the conditions they live in. They hatch a plan for Zhou to kidnap a you girl and hold her hostage for a large sum of money that will allow them to infiltrate the elite class, and start a revolution on their own, even if that means sacrificing their lives.

With Want, Cindy Pon launches you immediately into the action. When a book starts off with a kidnapping, a hostage and a ransom, you know it’s going to be exciting – and exciting it is, throughout. Pon does an incredible job of pacing the book – there’s a perfect balance of action with those slower moments permeated with introspection, conversation and character-building. The romance exists, but it’s slow-burn without much rush, but the focus of the story never shifts from the mission at hand to anything else; Pon set out on a mission with this book – to tell a story of a group of misfits, and one misfit in particular, who’s trying to topple the system, and that’s ultimately where the focus remains.

The world-building is incredibly vivid; although no dates exist anywhere in the narrative, you get a sense that it’s sometime in the near-future, maybe seventy or ninety years from present day. It can be difficult to represent futuristic technology without it seeming far-fetched, but Pon describes most everything with immense precision, but her imagination is reigned in and believable. Perhaps one of the reasons I don’t reach for sci-fi much is because despite being fiction, much of it is still aimed to be believable – and it very rarely is that for me. But with Want, I could see it play like a movie in front of my eyes, and that’s everything I could want from a science-fiction novel.

It’s a terrifying prospect – that within a century or so, the human race’s lifespan might fall thirty years, that the sky will no longer be blue because of the grime and the smog and the smoke, that people will no longer have enough money to take care of their sick family members who keep getting sicker because no place is safe, there is no food to eat. And at the same time, there will be people living lavishly – with apartments that, if they were sold, could feed an entire city, who turn the other way and eat finger food while children and the sick die in the streets from disease and hunger. And it’s even more terrifying when you realize that that is the way of the world even now. There is added technology in Want, sure, and increased pollution too, but the class and social dynamics are eerily similar. And it does raise the idea that… is this aggravated version of already existing conditions really what we’re heading towards?

One of my main negatives of the book was how little emphasis there was on the side characters, and I don’t mean that they were badly developed or flat, but that they were so well-deveoped and interesting that I wanted to see more of them. Zhou’s crew was made up of diverse, fascinating people – an Indian genius/scientist who works behind the scenes, a bisexual Chinese girl who’s the brains behind the entire crew, a quiet, lethal fighter who speaks with her weapons, and a tall, charismatic Filipino boy who likes to look dapper, yet aloof, while he orchestrates his role in the mission. I loved each and every one of the side characters, perhaps some even more than I liked Zhou (and I really did love Zhou) that I would have liked to see a bit more of them. Hopefully, there’ll be more emphasis on the crew in the next book.

Another critique I had was regarding the writing style; it doesn’t flow quite as well as I would have liked, and that’s mainly because Pon spends too much time explaining what’s happening. It’s not a case of “she was telling me, not showing me” but rather “she showed it to me and then explained what she already had shown me.” She would also spend time describing the clothes of secondary characters, who sometimes never showed up again. Both of these technique issues often broke the narrative flow, and it takes effort on the reader’s part to get back into the swing of things.

But apart from these minor issues, Want was an incredible start to what seems will be an incredible duology (trilogy?) and if the second book’s anything like the first one, I know I will enjoy it tremendously. If you enjoy sci-fi at all, or books with heists and crews, and slow-burn romances, definitely give Want a go – there’s a lot this book has to offer, and you won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review // Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ . 5  s t a r s

When Saeed shyly asks Nadia, a woman in a niqab for a cup of coffee after class, she refuses, hops atop a bike and drives away, leaving him stunned. But that was just the beginning of their story. Soon, Nadia and Saeed form a tight bond, spending their days smoking weed, talking about nothings and falling in love. But the city that they live in  is soon overtaken by religious militants. Their lives are plagued with war, death and fear, and Nadia and Saeed decide to escape, even though they don’t really want to leave their home behind. Doors are popping up all over the world – doors that transport you from country to country, and soon, Nadia and Saeed find a door that lets them escape. But as now-refugees, they have other crises to face.

Told in a subtle amalgamation of contemporary and fabulism, Exit West reads eerily similar to daily news, our social media feeds and the issues we hear about almost constantly. Its scope regarding the topics it covers is vast without ever feeling like it’s doing too much all at once. From religious militants overthrowing governments, war-ravaged cities that once used to be like yours or mine, human beings in their diverse humanity fleeing from death and loss, the refugee crises, the concept of borders in an increasingly globalized world, xenophobia and fear of migrants in Western countries (specifically the United Kingdom), as well as tackling issues of politics, internalized prejudices, differences in practicing the same religion,  how people may be driven to terrorism and the complexities of the lives of displaced peoples. And believe it or not, it tackles each and every issue brilliantly, expertly while also focusing them in a sharp context. This is a book about all of these issues, sure, but ultimately, it’s a book about a man and a woman. Saeed and Nadia. Their love, their bond, how it changes, how it perseveres, and how it threatens to falter.

Saeed and Nadia’s origin city is unnamed, though Mohsin Hamid has said that he based it largely on the city of Lahore, Pakistan. As someone who’s also spent most of her life living in Lahore, I saw parts of my home city reflected throughout the pages, and the dystopian premise that in the future, it would be at war, my friends and family scattered, the buildings I used to frequent destroyed, life as I knew it stilled? That’s a terrifying concept, and Exit West does a brilliant job of terrifying you both on a macro and micro level. Because upon further inspection, the unnamed city could be any city, which means that the events could happen to several cities at the same time, regardless of where they are. The problems are no longer isolated incidents, but global catastrophes… and the burden of recognizing that it could be the reader’s own city – whether that’s Hyderabad, Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai, Lahore – is what makes the novel so powerful. It’s specific enough for you to think about these critical issues, but also vague enough that it forces you not to dissociate, to imagine yourself in the lives of these people.

“It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

The sign of a good novel like this is that it covers hard-hitting topics without taking a side; thus, it becomes a book that forces everyone, from each side of the debate, to think critically, and to consider a perspective you may not have considered before. It becomes a nuanced, complex discussion within itself, rather than a prejudiced agenda that’s preaching you to feel a certain way, though the general message does ultimately shine through. I don’t want to give anything away, so let me stick to just one example. There’s a discussion about how rich countries take in a small number of refugees, despite having the resources to support them while data shows that ten countries host 50% of the world’s refugee population, and these countries are far worse-off than the vast majority of countries in the West.

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The question of why this is plagues many people in the developing world, including me; places like Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan don’t have a lot to give, but they house the most refugees. Why doesn’t the developed world, the more privileged world, share the load? It’s a valid, important question – a question that you, unless you have lived in a developing country, might never have even considered, while for many of us, it’s a pervasive thought in our heads. And it’s a question that’s touched upon in the book brilliantly. Note:

“… the doors to richer destinations, were heavily guarded, but the doors in, the doors from poorer places, were mostly left unsecured, perhaps in the hope that people would go back to where they came from – although almost no one ever did – or perhaps because there were simply too many doors from too many poorer places to guard them all.”

Here, Hamid touches on the hegemony of wealth in this so-called global society; much like in countries themselves, the global stage is set apart by classes. And as any class system works, the poorest ultimately do the heaviest lifting, and while the rich get richer, the poor continue to grow poorer. But, at the same time, Hamid offers the opposing perspective – perhaps this is the case because poor countries don’t have much to lose, and so the fear of losing something isn’t as stark as it is in places that have plenty to lose. That was a perspective that I hadn’t considered before, and although I disagree with the sentiment itself, I understand it a little better.

I went off on a tangent there, but perhaps the fact that I did will tell you how much there is in this book to unpack and analyze. It’s not a long book at all – it’s just over 200 pages, and the text isn’t too small, and chances are that you’ll fly through it in one or two sittings (and I believe that’s the best way to read a book like this), but you won’t realize what hit you until you’re near the end. You won’t realize the extent of your investment in these characters’ lives, that you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, tears probably dripping from the end of your nose to a page filled with paragraphs written with single sentences, and only after the magic fully digs into your skin do you realize how moved you are by the quiet intensity of it. The silent power of Hamid’s writing, how he says so many things by saying one, how he makes you feel so many things with one glance, one movement from a character. This book’s sheer humanity will leave you dumbfounded – because ultimately, that’s what this book is about. Humanity. And the potential loss of it, if the dim lights we see occasionally are also extinguished.

TRIGGER WARNING

Public groping, war (some, but not much, graphic violence), some drug use

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Review | Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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FTC DISCLOSURE

♡   S T A R

Libby Strout is fat – she was once called “America’s Fattest Teen” after an unfortunate incident in her past. Libby’s just trying to live her life after her mother passed away, but kids in high school are cruel, and nobody wants to look past Libby’s weight and really get to know her for who she is. And then there’s Jack Masselin – he’s popular, he’s attractive, but he has the reputation of the school douche because people think he’s too egotistical and arrogant to remember who they are. In fact, Jack has prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. He can’t recognize and recall people’s faces – not his family’s, not his friends’, not anybody’s. When Libby and Jack’s paths collide, they form an unlikely bond.

As a fat person, media can be alienating. When I turn on the TV or go to the movies, everyone on screen looks a certain way, the way that my parents want me to look, the way that society wants me to look, and I’m constantly reminded that no matter what I do, what successes I have in life, my fatness will remain the focal point for many people. The stark lack of representation fat people have in the media- past crass stereotypes and being the butt of cheap jokes- is a slap in the face. And I’ve learned to turn the cheek, for the most part, but when a book like Holding Up the Universe comes along, promising representation, promising a narrative that I can see myself in, I foolishly lean forward.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with this book. Libby Strout is written to be some sort of strong force in the world that constantly puts her down; as a result, she is a caricature. A battle warrior facing off against the cruel world, with no flaws of her own, with a larger-than-life personality, giving off the message that unless you’re fighting and winning some sort of war every second of your life, are you really doing fatness right? Now, I understand that not all people’s experiences mirror mine, and that’s okay. But when the main character in a book is a fighter archetype, battling against society’s perspectives on fatness, that character has to live up to it.

But Libby is nothing but fat, and that defeats the purpose, no? Niven was trying to give  off the message that fat people are more than just fat (no shit), but she fails astoundingly because Libby’s life revolves around her fatness. Her love life revolves around finding someone who will look past her fatness, someone who’ll have sex with her regardless of her being fat – another thing which blows my mind, because the book starts off with her wanting to lose weight by having sex! Her relationship with her father revolves around how it’s not his fault that she’s fat. Her past is described by how she used to be fatter than she is now, and her future is also about how people will eventually look past her fatness, hopefully, maybe. Fat people are more than their fatness, and for a book about a fat character to contradict the very message it’s trying to pass along is laughably offensive.

Because what are Libby’s goals? I didn’t see any! She was a reader, but that doesn’t really go past anything except her relating her fatness to the character in her favorite book. Is Libby good in school? What are her career goals? What are her hobbies? She likes to dance, alright, but even that one aspect of her not directly related to her fatness is still saturated by it. We are people with lives – every single moment of our lives does not involve our weight.

Something similar happens with Jack’s character, though I can’t speak extensively about it since I don’t have a disability. It seems to give off the stench of “Jack is broken and must be fixed to have a good life.” These narratives written by authors who do not share their characters’ disabilities make me very uncomfortable; I am a firm believer that you can write whatever you’d like to, but there are some narratives that are better left alone if you can’t navigate them in a sensitive way. That coupled with the fact that Jack’s afro was described as a “lion’s mane,” and his hair was the only thing that seemed to indicate that he was black screamed tokenism to me. Where Libby’s outward appearance extended to everything she ever did, Jack’s race was strictly superficial, and as any person of color living as a minority in the US knows, it is never that simple.

So there it is – this book had very many thematic issues that ran deeper than technicalities like characterization and writing style, both of which were actually pretty good. If Niven was writing in her lane, as I say it, I’m sure I’d adore her work – she does have the ability to pull you in and keep you reading, but there was so much thematically wrong with this book that I can’t seem to give credit where it may be due. If you’re looking for good fat rep, just skip this, and maybe read a book by a fat author – like Dumplin’.

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