Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Previously to reading Thrity Umrigar’s Honor I’d read another novel with the same title and subject matter. Both books make for harrowing reads, however, whereas I found Elif Shafak’s more thoughtful tone to be more appropriate to the subject fitting, here, well, Umrigar’s undermines her social commentary by throwing into the mix a rushed romantic subplot, a series of blatant plot points and coincidences, an abundance of mawkish metaphors, and one too many cartoonish side characters.

At first, I found Umrigar’s Honor to be a rather gripping read as it promised to be an unflinching story tackling honor killings, Islamophobia, discrimination, and misogyny. The novel switches between two perspectives: Smita, an Indian American journalist who left India at a young age after a traumatic experience, and Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. Meena has survived an attack that her husband did not. Her brothers, alongside other men from their community, tried to burn her alive. Now Meena and her newborn live with her mother-in-law who is resentful of her, blaming her for her son’s horrific death. Smita is given this story after her colleague is hospitalized. Initially, Smita isn’t too keen on this as she’s very uneasy about returning to India. A friend of her colleague becomes her travel companion. While she’s initially reluctant about his presence she quickly discovers that travelling alone is inadvisable.
Smita interviews Meena and learns the details of her vicious attack. She later on also interviews her brothers and a powerful man in their Hindu community. While they deny their involvement it is clear that they were not only responsible but have no remorse about having murdered their sister’s husband and disfigured her. Smita’s feelings towards India are repeatedly challenged by her companion who forces her not to dismiss a whole country on the basis of the actions of some. As Smita witnesses how Meena is treated by her mother-in-law and learns of how she was treated by her brothers, she becomes aware of her the privilege she carries being Indian American. Still, as a woman, she’s also exposed to the misogyny that is rampant in Meena’s community. Umrigar doesn’t paint Smita as a hero and I appreciated that sometimes, even when she’s trying to help someone, her actions do not have the desired consequences. In this way, I was reminded of The Far Field, another novel that is very much about privilege and guilt.
I did find Meena’s chapters to be a bit…condescending of her? Her vocabulary also struck me as inconsistent. Her chapters are in English for our eyes only, in reality, she’s speaking a dialect of Marathi, right? So why do her chapters occasionally seem to play up that she’s not well-spoken? Only for then to use complex sentences or allegories that really stood out in comparison to the rest of her narration? I don’t know…it seemed to me that the author was going to great lengths to portray Meena as this ‘simple’ village girl and it kind of annoyed me.
Smita also had her fair share of incongruities. For one, she claims to be good at her job yet she behaves really unprofessional. She tells off her companion, Mohan, for getting ‘emotional’ during one interview but she repeatedly does the same thing. She makes some really poor decisions and her line of questioning struck me ineffective.
For the majority of the narrative, the author does demonstrate her knowledge and insight into her story’s various subject matters (honor killings, religious conflicts, cultural and class divides). However, I did find her execution soap-operasish. At times her language, as well as her imagery, struck me as hackneyed, for example, “Smita could see the awful, irregular geometry of Meena’s face as past and present, normalcy and deformity, beauty and monstrosity, collided.” I also found it a bit predictable that Smita’s ‘past’, which has made her feel so conflicted about India, echoes in some ways Meena’s situation.
The pacing is fairly slow and I did not entirely understand why Meena’s chapters were even included given that, if anything, they made her relationship with her husband seem very rushed and random. The guy basically sees her once or twice while they are working and declares his undying love for her. His naivete about the fact that she’s Hindu and he is Muslim also struck me as a bit…unconvincing. I mean, he isn’t a child nor a hermit who is wholly unaware of his country’s political or social climate.
While the hearing’s result did strike me as sadly believable, I did find that section of the narrative somewhat rushed and illogical. Smita’s decision not to do something seemed a clear choice on the author’s part to force her character to feel guilty and haunted, indebted to stay in India. Smita’s relationship with Mohan also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a bit insensitive to have it so soon after yet another horrific plot point. The whole finale was corny, extremely so, and I hated how illogical it all was. Even if you have the character point out how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ they are by believing that they have just been given a ‘sign’ from above, it still doesn’t make it believable to have that character uphold their lives because of that random sign. The secondary characters were very one-note, the majority of them are horrible, ignorant, or a combination of the two things. Most of the Indian female characters, with the exception of Meena, are really nasty to Smita for no good reason. I didn’t understand the point of her American colleague, Shannon, either. Her translator, Nandini, also served no purpose other than having scenes where Smita thinks her devotion to Shannon is’ weird’, and in a very childish manner wonders whether she’s in love with her. Grow up Smita, ffs.
Sadly, while I appreciate that the author has tackled such important issues, I found her storytelling to be too…shall I say, ‘book-clubby’ for my taste. I did like that at the end she makes a point of stating how absurd it is that ‘honor’ killings are referred to as such when there is truly nothing honorable about them.

my rating: ★★½

In the Clear Moonlit Dusk by Mika Yamamori

This mangaka’s style was chef’s kiss. Alas, the story reads like a very generic high-school shoujo. うるわしの宵の月, translated as In the Clear Moonlit Dusk follows Yoi Takiguchi, a high school girl whose princely appearance has earned her the nickname of ‘Prince’. Often mistaken as a boy, Yoi is not used to being seen as a ‘girl’. This premise did ring a bell as I remember reading a manga years ago in which the heroine had a masculine appearance and the hero a feminine one. There it kind of worked as the two leads (as far as i can remember) were comfortable quite comfortable with the way the looked. Here, sadly, Yoi isn’t keen on being seen as a ‘prince’ as seems to be indifferent to her female classmates’ attention (they routinely confess their feelings to her or simply stare at her in awe). Then she meets Ichimura, who is also nicknamed ‘Prince’ (i guess they couldn’t come up with something more creative?), and he seems to see her as a girl. Shocking. The guy calls her cute and Yoi becomes all flustered in a “who me?” way.

I found the both leads quite bland. I wish Yoi hadn’t been so easily taken by Ichimura. That the other girls become jealous of Yoi does not bode well as it promises a classic girl-on-girl hate side-plot that we could well do without. The main male lead is boring and so far his personality revolves around his beautiful appearance and his ‘ability’ to see Yoi as a girl.
The art is lovely, the story & characters mediocre. Maybe those who haven’t read many shoujo manga will be able to enjoy this more.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

I lived for that Mack cameo! Sadly, Olivia & Toni didn’t steal my heart away like Liz & Mack did…

“Loving someone is being big enough to admit when you mess up, and then doing everything in your power not to do it again.”

Rise to the Sun is a summery sapphic romance that reads a lot like a love letter to music. Once again Leah Johnson has written a YA novel that succeeds in combining escapism with relevant and important issues (grief, trauma, non-consensual image sharing). Rise to the Sun spans the arc of three days—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and takes place at Farmland Music and Arts Festival.
Our two narrators and main characters are Olivia and Toni. Toni, still reeling from her father’s death, is seventeen and about to go to college, not so much because she wants to but she feels pressured by her mother. Her passion is music, something she shared with her roadie father. Olivia is about to enter her final year of high school and, quite understandably given her situation, she’s not keen to return. The fate of her ex, a jock with a promising future ahead of him, rests in her hand. But will telling the truth solve anything? Her mother and sister disapprove of her, and many of her romances have ended on a ‘you’re too much for me’ note. Both girls are going to the festival to take their minds off their worries and anxieties. Tagging along with them are their respective BFFs.
The two girls meet by chance and decide to compete together in a music competition….and sparks inevitably fly.

Having genuinely loved Johnson’s debut novel, I was prepared to have my heart stolen away once again…but things didn’t quite pan out that way. While I liked Johnson’s light yet engaging prose and the themes that she touches upon during the course of the novel, there were a few things that didn’t work for me. Olivia and Toni’s voices are too similar and I kept mixing up their chapters. Their personalities are supposedly meant to be quite different, with Oliva as this extroverted and zingy kind of person, and Toni being more of an ‘Ice Queen/conceal don’t feel’ type of gal…so why did they sound like the same person?
The story’s 3 days setting made it so that their romance seemed of the insta variety.
And, the thing that ultimately made me not enjoy this novel all that much, Olivia is a terrible friend. She promises her BFF that this weekend is all about them and that she won’t pull off her usual ‘ditching you friend for the person I currently have the hots for’ move but she does! She doesn’t even try to keep her promise and be there for her friend. She simply convinces herself that Toni’s BFF and her BFF make a great match so pushes them together so that she can then spend time with Toni. She keeps justifying herself by saying that this time is different and that what she feels for this girl she’s known for a second is REAL and no one should stand in the way of TRUE LOVE. She then pulls an incredibly crappy stunt towards the end after the typical 70% romcom misunderstanding and convinces herself that it’s okay, and when she’s called out she whines that her BFF is being ‘harsh’ (of course she’s going to snap at you! what were you expecting after making a move that makes it clear you don’t give a shit about her?).
And I also didn’t care for Toni going on and on about ‘my Truth’, it made her sounds like someone who is into Goop or whatever.

Anyway, just because I wasn’t particularly enamoured by this does not mean you should skip on it and if you are in a mood for a queer YA romance, well, you should consider giving this a shot.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

DISCLAIMER: If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers (such as Brandann Hill-Mann’s review). I didn’t hate this book it but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t really, really, really frustrate me (because it did).

I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been for Daunis being the definition of Not Like Other Girls.

Nancy Drew meets Winter Counts in this YA debut. The cover (look at that BEAUTY), the premise, the overwhelmingly positive reception, all lead me to believe that I too would love this. Fifteen-year-old me probably would have (loved it that is) but I am now at a point in my life where I am tired of reading books that elevate girls who are Not Like Other Girls and shame Other Girls.

Firekeeper’s Daughter follows eighteen-year-old Daunis, the daughter to a white mother, who happens to belong to one of the most ‘powerful’ families in her town, and an Ojibwe father. Understandably Daunis has always felt like an outsider as she is not an enrolled tribal member. Daunis feels deeply invested in her Native heritage and throughout the novel, we see her observing many Ojibwe customs and beliefs. Time and again she has to reconcile herself with the knowledge that white people such as her maternal grandparents see her Ojibwe side as “a flaw or burden to overcome”. There are also those within the Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe who view her as white, not truly part of their community.
After witnessing a murder Daunis becomes entangled in an FBI investigation. Daunis agrees to help their investigation hoping to put an end to prevent drug-related deaths. A coming-of-age tale meets a slow-burn mystery-thriller that touches upon many serious and relevant issues while also including a not so unnecessary romance subplot and Riverdale-levels of drama.

Before I move on to what I didn’t like in this novel I will mention a few of the things that did in my opinion work. Angeline Boulley does a stellar job in bringing to life both Sault Sainte Marie and Sugar Island to life. Throughout the course of the story, Boulley celebrates Native, specifically Ojibwe, practices, beliefs, and history. Daunis is clearly proud of her Ojibwe heritage and this is wonderfully reflected in her narration. There are a lot of terms and expressions in Ojibwemowin, and that made Daunis’ world all the more vivid. I also appreciated that the story doesn’t shy away from showing the ramifications of colonialism, the everyday injustices faced by indigenous individuals and communities, the consequences of substance abuse (without wholly demonising drug abusers), how harmful stereotypes about indigenous cultures and peoples are, and how disrespectful cultural appropriation is. Through the mystery-thriller storyline, the narrative also explores drug trafficking and violence against indigenous women. Additionally, the story had a nice body-positive message which is always a nice surprise. And Granny June. She was cool, probably the only character I liked.

I will take a leaf from Daunis (who is list-obsessed, because like all sciencey people she likes facts & logic) and list my various criticisms ( SPOILERS BELOW ):

1. Daunis being Not Like Other Girls. She excels at science, loves sports (BIG BOY sports like hockey, none of that girly bullshit), hates lipstick and makeup, doesn’t wear skirts (puh-lease, she isn’t one of Those Girls). Daunis is also FLAWLESS. You read that right. And please don’t @ me saying that she makes some mistakes in her investigation. She is not a bloody detective. She’s 18. No one expects her to be Hercule-bloody-Poirot. If she makes any injudicious choices these are nullified by the fact that she is ‘always’ acting from a good place. She cares TOO much (about her community, her loved ones) and wants to protect those around her. How is that a flaw? So she doesn’t trust the two undercover FBI agents and begins running her own investigation. I mean, how is not trusting the law enforcement a flaw? She’s a bit quirky but that makes her all the more special (here we have the love interest saying to her: “I love how you see the world” bleargh). Curiously enough while the story tries to show how harmful misogynistic and sexist attitudes/mentalities are we have our female lead either slut-shaming Other Girls or making incredibly judgmental comments about them. She calls Other Girls, for example, the girlfriends of hockey players ‘parasitic‘: “I won’t be a wannabe anglerfish, trying to latch on to a guy who is already taken.”. Other Girls are vain, they care about their looks, they go after guys who already have girlfriends, they have fake friendships with each other (not like Daunis and Lily), they are catty, superficial, stupid, girly, you name they are it. And at first, I genuinely thought that this would be Daunis’ ‘flaw’. The storyline would have her realise along the way that she is acting just like those men she dislikes so much…but no. Ah. As if. Daunis was right all along, time and again Other Girls are shown indeed to be horrible (we have the basic white girl with her inappropriate dreamcatcher tattoo or cruel Macy who does Daunis dirty). And why does Daunis always blame Other Girls instead of the guys who actually do the cheating? Because her dad cheated on her mum? Give me a break. The same happened to me but I am certainly not out there whining about ‘anglerfishes’. Grow up Daunis. The only person who points this out is a Bad Guy so his comment is moot. How convenient. Worst of all, for all her specialness (Daunis is sciencey and sporty and look now she is involved in an undercover case and falling in love with a handsome and mysterious stranger) she was just such a dull character.

2. The jarring dissonance between the tone of Daunis’ narration (which makes her come across as being 14 rather than 18) and the story’s content (which include murder, drug abuse and trafficking, sexual assault, kidnapping, and many other clearly YA and up things). On the one hand, we have Daunis’ referring to anything related to her role in the FBI’s investigation as Secret Squirrel (the first Secret Squirrel lesson #1 was actually funny, “I am not paranoid, but the men listening to me are”). Secret Squirrel appears 36 times in the book. One too many if you ask me. Anyway, we have this silly squirrel nonsense that seems more suited to a Middle-Grade novel and then we have a rape scene. And don’t even get me started with the Guy Lies. Bah! Sometimes juxtaposing a cutesy protagonist with a story that has mature/serious content can work (I’m thinking of Harley Quinn) but here…it just did not work for me. Daunis’ childish language brought me out of the story.

3. The thriller storyline. It is Riverdale-levels of overblown. And yet also incredibly predictable. Who would have thunk it, the golden boy is not so golden! I am shook. This is the third book I can think of that does a similar not so shocking reveal. The baddies are so cartoonish it was just plain ridiculous. They had their villainous monologues in which they gloat as they explain their scheming to our heroes. Come on. Most of the ‘twists’ were either entirely predictable (Levi) or just OTT (the coach is also involved!).

4. The romance is low-key questionable. Yeah, she’s 18 but the guy, Jamie or whatever his name is, is 22. And an FBI agent. Working on this drug trafficking case. His main quality is that he is hot. He’s got abs, which our Daunis checks him out all of the time (a tad creepy if you ask me), he has a handsome face but no wait, he has a facial scar. Wow. Doesn’t that lend him an air of mystery?! He also pinches the bridge of his nose, all of the time. Their chemistry…wasn’t there. It seemed way too quick, insta-love sort of speed. Daunis acts like she doesn’t like him or trust him but she never shuts up about him or the feelings he makes her feel (butterflies and all that). To be fair, I liked the note the author ended their romance on (Daunis calling out Jamie for ‘needing’ her when the guy clearly needs some alone time). Jamie was boring, a generic YA male love interest (✓ mysterious past ✓ hot ✓ Not Like Other Boys).

6. Daunis’ parents are very…undefined. The mother is sad and sometimes talks to herself (revealing SECRETS). And yeah, the father is dead by the start of the story but it would have been nice to know his character, really know him.

6. The dynamics between secondary characters were vague. Don’t Daunis and Levi share an auntie? Yet Levi and this auntie two never seem to mention each other or have scenes together (and if they do they certainly don’t give us an impression of their relationship).

7. The time period…why was this story set in 2004? I still don’t get it. A way out of having characters use the internet? Search me.

8. Chapters ending in cheesy cliffhangers.

9. The lists.

10. The only gay character is dead. O-k-a-y.


If you liked this novel, I’m honestly kind of jealous. I so wanted to like it. But much about it just did not work for me.

my rating: ★★½

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The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

 

 

 

The cover for this book is goals…its contents not so much. I found this novel to be an odd melange of confusing and simple. The characters came across as flat (little more than names on a page), the world-building, although at first promising, ultimately struck me as patchy, and the storyline and twists were just not up my street. Still, I know that quite a lot of people are looking forward to this novel so I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive reviews, as this may as well be one of those ‘it’s not it’s me’ cases.

The novel follows two sisters, the older one, Cee, has been stranded on an island for the past three years, while the younger one, Kasey, lives in one of the few existing eco-cities and is trying to make sense of Cee’s disappearance. Climate and environmental disasters have made eco-cities refuges for humanity. Of course, not everyone is allowed entrance in eco-cities, and in spite of their utopian promises, eco-cities’ such as Kasey’s are incredibly classists (people are ‘ranked, the cities themselves have stratified structure and those who live in the lower stratums lead less privileged lifestyles than those on ‘top’). Although much of Kasey and Cee’s world remains largely unexplored we do get some details about life in their eco-city. For example, we learn that ‘holoing’ is a green alternative which allows the citizens of the eco-city to conduct ‘nonessential activities’ in the holographic mode. There is also Intraface which allows its users to capture their memories as well as apps which can ‘adjust’ a person’s serotonin levels. Kasey, who is a very logical person and who makes sense of the world around her through a scientific lens, finds herself, somewhat uncharacteristically one could say, trying to find what happened to her sister, even if she’s convinced that Cee is dead.
Meanwhile, Cee has been trying to leave the island she woke up on. She desperately wants to be reunited with Kasey, and is prepared to risk her life in her attempt to build a raft/boat that will allow her to set forth into the ocean. Cee recollects very little about her former life and seems to have entirely forgotten about the existence of the eco-city or the rest of the world. All she knows is that she has to find her sister.

Here are the problems that I had with this novel (minor-spoilers below):

→the writing itself. Cee’s sections are narrated in the 1st person, Kasey’s in the 3rd. Something switching between perspectives can enhance a story (as with Red at the Bone, Everything Here is Beautiful, The Travelers, or anything by N. K. Jemisin), but, more often than not, is unnecessary. Kasey remains remote, which is perhaps intentional, after all, the author goes above and beyond in order to emphasise how ‘cold’ and ‘detached’ and ‘Not Like Other People’ she is (it seemed weird that the possibility of her being neurodivergent was never raised or discussed considering how technologically advanced these eco-cities are—for example, if someone feels upset they can locate the source of that feeling, be it a memory or whatnot). Yet, on the other hand, being in Cee’s head didn’t do all that much for her character either. She doesn’t know a lot, her inner monologue consists mostly of what she observes (the island, the ocean, the rocks, the sand, her shack, her robot helper). When the boy arrives her mind is mostly occupied with thoughts of him. Cee’s sections also included some really purply phrases (her thoughts ‘jellify’, she feels the ‘muchness’ and ‘littleness’). Although the writing was for the most part okay, there were a few too many clichéd phrases (“Sometimes [she] felt like a stranger in her own skin”, “[she] did not belong–here or anywhere”) and even the dialogues were full of platitudes and done to death lines such as “What could we achieve, if we worked together?”
→the world-building left too much unexplored. There was so much that did not make sense or did not convince me and yet, I was supposed to just buy into it? The few half-delivered explanations we get did little in terms of answering my questions or making sense.
→the characters….Cee and Kasey are the classic YA sisters. One is attractive, charming, everyone loves her. The other is quiet, logical, not driven by her feelings but by FACTS, and she just does not ‘fit in’. I felt nothing for them, which sounds harsh, but it is the truth. They were painfully one-dimensional, and, the longer I read, the less I believed in them. Not only is this kind of dynamic old but I just did not feel that Kasey and Cee’s relationship was particularly nuanced. They also seemed to have no thoughts about their childhood, their parents (the dad is meant to be this powerful big guy but because he is 99% of the time off-page…well, he was pretty superfluous).
→insta-love, of the worst kind. The whole love storyline did not work for me. There are some dodgy scenes that would have definitely not been included if we were to reverse the characters’ genders (and I was not a fan of those scenes).
→plot…it has its twists, I will give it that. But I just could not bring myself to believe in Kasey’s arc (that they would just let her do what she wanted).
→the themes had potential but He sacrifices potentially interesting conversations/scenes that touch upon ethics & morality in favour of drama.

Sadly, the novel had very little to offer me. By the end of the novel (around the 80% mark) I was so bored and irritated by what I was reading that I ended up skim-reading the rest. There were too many lacunae (in both the world-building and storyline) and I never felt engaged by the characters or the author’s style. I was hoping for something more compelling, and yes, the comparison to Ghibli definitely feels misleading.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Who’s Loving You by Sareeta Domingo

 

Who’s Loving You? is a wonderfully inclusive collection that sadly falls into the common pitfalls of short story collections: some stories are good, others not so much. Each story in Who’s Loving You? was written and focuses on women of colour (most of them British). You could definitely tell that many of the authors included in this collection are relatively new to the writing scene, and, while that is not necessarily a negative thing, their stories definitely bore the signs of their inexperience (I do not feel ‘nice’ writing this but I prefer honesty to fake praise). The writing was stilted, the dialogues choppy, and the characters came across as relatively one-dimensional. I just have very little patience for clichéd phrases such as someone ‘letting out a breath they didn’t they were holding’. Dio mio! When will this phrase cease to exist?
And, while we do get two wlw love stories and one between a cis man and a transwoman, every other story is uber heteronormative in the most insta-love/boy meets girl way possible. It seems every character in this novel fell in love at first sight and we get some questionable comments about men being so handsome that no one woman in her right mind would decline to have sex with him (urgh).
Some of the love stories had questionable premises, such as the ones for ‘The Waves Will Carry Us Back’ (to be fair, a short story by Edwidge Danticat follows a similar scenario but under her pen, I ‘bought’ into it) and for ‘Motherland’ (which I ended up kind of liking to be fair but still…).
There were stories I liked, such as ‘The Watchers’ (which had a vague star-crossed lovers/soul mates feel to it), ‘Rain…Doubtful’, and ‘Rani’ (even if the story went to great lengths to make the mc seem ‘awkward’). There was one story I actually loved, and that was ‘Long Distance’ by Varaidzo (which was, surprise surprise, hella sapphic, and bittersweet).

Some of these stories were set in the near future, one of which was post-covid, while others had vague pre-pandemic settings, and I guess that made things more interesting than having all of the stories share the same backdrop. However, the tonal shift between each story was sometimes jarring, especially with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s ‘No One Is Lonely’…that story felt very out of place in this collection.
Prospective readers should not let my less-than-stellar review dissuade them from picking this collection up. It was amazing to read a collection that focused on women of colour falling in and out of love, even if I was not personally taken by its stories. Before making up your mind I reccomend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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As Far as You’ll Take Me by Phil Stamper

“How long does it take to fall in love with someone—hours, days, years?”

This was okay but I was kind of expecting something different. At times As Far as You’ll Take Me follows a bit too closely in the footsteps of other YA coming-of-age books. There also seems to be a rising trend for YA stories featuring American kids who travel/run away to Europe, where they make friends, fall in love, and realize that you cannot run away from your problems. As Far as You’ll Take Me is narrated by Marty who is nearly 18 and gay. Although his parents know they refuse to acknowledge his sexuality as they belong to a deeply conservative Christian sect. He decides that the only way he can be himself is by leaving his small Kentucky town behind and crafts a lie about having been accepted for a music summer program at a prestigious school in order to fly to London. Here he will stay with his cousin, who is also gay, and his aunt (who is largely absent due to work). Marty doesn’t have clear plans, other than wanting to play his oboe. He falls for Pierce, a friend of his cousin, who is also a musician and happens to have a not-so-great reputation when it comes to love. There is a lot of busking, some traveling (to Wales and Italy), and quite a lot of angst. Marty’s social anxiety turns seemingly ordinary exchanges and interactions into unsurmountable hurdles. He also begins to reconsider his relationship with Megan, his American best friend, who has always pushed him around, made fun of his insecurities, and who since his departure from the US has become even crueler towards him.
I appreciated that Stamper portrayed a less than ideal friendship and romance. Those looking for a feel-good YA romance might want to steer clear of this book. In addition to toxic relationships and anxiety, this book also touches on eating disorders. Personally, I think that this subject matter could have been explored with more depth as it came across as being a bit too lightly addressed and resolved. Many of the relationships Marty forms in the UK also struck me as having formed far too quickly. Not only is there the insta-love with Pierce but his friendship with Sophie also felt very rushed. While there was an attempt in making Megan into more than a horrible person, ultimately, she comes off as cartoonishly bad. Similarly to another book featuring a gay teen who runs away to Europe to escape his conservative parents’ disapproval, As Far as You’ll Take Me is not very concerned with addressing Marty’s own relationship to his religion. There are one or two passages that give the impression that he no longer believes due to the fact that his being gay is not compatible with his God but these merely scratched the surface of what could have been a more detailed discussion on self-acceptance and religion.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are some unnecessary snippets from a ‘project diary’ relating Marty’s previous summer in which his parents learned of his sexuality. These sections were totally unnecessary as they are so brief that they do not give us a real glimpse into Marty’s relationship with his parents, who, remain a mystery for the whole of the book. He thinks of them now and again but we never learn much about them or of their life up to that point.
All in all, I can’t say that I particularly liked this book. I appreciate the issues the author touches upon but the narrative felt too rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe die-hard fans of YA novels will be able to relate to this more than I was.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan


We Are All Birds of Uganda is a debut novel that inspired rather conflicting feelings in me. At first, I enjoyed Hafsa Zayyan’s ability to render her protagonist’s environment. I was not surprised to discover that Zayyan is like her protagonist Sameer a lawyer based in London. Zayyan captures the stressful atmosphere of Sameer’s office, the toll played by his long hours, the benefits of his high wage (he can afford a studio apartment in London), the ambition driving him. Things take a downturn when Sameer, who is possibly in his late twenties, begins to work under Chris. In spite of having been recognized as one of the most promising lawyers of his practice and that he will be part of the team to set up a new office in Singapore, Chris treats him like poorly. Chris takes issue with Sameer fasting on Ramadan and seems to go out of his way to bully Sameer. When Sameer’s colleague, and until then friend, also begins to make remarks about ‘tokenism’ (implying that Sameer only got the Singapore gig because he is South Asian) Sameer feels justly alienated. When someone close to him is the victim of a racially motivated attack Sammer feels all the more lost. In spite of his success as a lawyer his own family refuse to cheer him on his career, wanting him instead to work for the family business. A confused Sameer makes a spur of the moment decision and flies to Uganda, the country his own father and grandfather were forced to flee during the 1970s expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Between Sameer’s chapters are excerpts from letters written by his grandfather to his deceased first wife.

I actually enjoyed the first section of this novel, when the story is focused on Sameer and his life in London. I liked the dynamic he has with his two friends and his experiences at the office felt realistic and believable. I wish that his relationship with his immediate family (particularly his father) had been explored more. As the child of immigrants, Sameer feels not only the pressure to make his family proud but he also wants to fit in with his British peers. The clash between personal freedom and familial obligations was interesting. Alas, his story takes a downward turn when he makes the sudden and kind of out of character choice to go to Uganda. Here the story turns into one that would have been better suited to a movie. Clichè after clichè. Sameer falls in love (of course) with a woman his parents will never approve of (of course). Maybe I would have believed in their romance more if he hadn’t been so rushed. He sees her…and that’s that. The beauty of insta-love! She’s not like other women, he actually doesn’t want to jump in her pants, he loves talking with her, she’s smart, empathetic, and kind (which begs the question, why ever would she go for Sameer?). We even have a scene where she is wearing white and gets wet and he sees her nipples andio mio! Really? The thing is, as much as I loved the author’s description of Uganda (from its culture to its landscapes) her storyline lost all of its initial originality and authenticity. Sameer’s behavior towards and thoughts about women made my skin crawl. The guy is a creep. And that the narrative has to compound his feelings about this woman by making him decline the flirtations of another one..? And of course, this other girl is portrayed as promiscuous and a flirt. He thinks about fucking her but his feelings for the woman he loves are so pure that he decides not to. Wow. How noble.

The grandfather’s chapters were a wasted opportunity. They gave us information about Uganda and the 1970s expulsion of Asians but this information could have been imparted differently. Later on, Sameer comes across his grandfather’s letters and learns more about Ugandan history, so why not insert here those facts that appeared in the grandfather’s chapters? He certainly did not necessitate so many chapters! I never believed in his voice, and couldn’t really visualize him or his relationship with the other characters. His letters were there only for us to be able to learn more about Uganda, which I appreciate but as I said I think this information could have been presented to us in a different way. I understand that family sagas have to have two timelines, but here one of the timelines was limited by its format (that of a letter to a dead person). Also, the grandfather seems to recount a few months and at times years in the span of one letter…which didn’t really make sense. Does he write a letter to his dead wife every couple of years? Filling her in with all that happened since his last letter? And why would he give her information she would have already known?

The more I read the more my enthusiasm for this novel died out. I ended up hating Sameer and the predictable storyline. The relationship between parents/son and brother/sister were sadly undeveloped, sidetracked in favor of a clichèd romance.
All in all, I am quite disappointed by this one. The ending too was really grating (it reminded me of The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Secret of the Grain) and made me want to scream: what was the point of it all?!

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor — book review

51vdoCLo6NL.jpgStrange the Dreamer is a wonderfully imaginative novel. Meditations and discussions on storytelling, dreams, and myths are not only embedded in the narrative but shape the very way in which the two main characters view their world and themselves.

“Lazlo owned nothing, not one single thing, but from the first, the stories felt like his own hoard of gold.”

It feels strange to like a book I initially gave up on.Usually<, I don’ give book second chances. I first tried reading Strange the Dreamer two years ago and…it’s safe to say—or write—that I was less than impressed. I tried reading one or two chapters but disliked Laini Taylor’s flowery metaphors. This time round, for some reason or other, I really appreciated Taylor’s prose. Maybe I should start giving more books second chances…

In many ways Strange the Dreamer adheres to many conventions of the fantasy genre…we have our orphan hero, those who are considered ‘different’ (in this case they also happen to have blue skin), a wannabe Draco Malfoy sort of bully, a quest, two star-crossed lovers…yet, much of the lore and imagery within the narrative of Strange the Dreamer struck me as undeniably unique.
The worldbuilding is simply stunning. The lands and cities within Strange the Dreamer are given vivid and in-depth descriptions. Weep plays a central role within this narrative. We learn, alongside our hero, of its environment, history, language, and customs. This information is spread throughout the course of the novel, so that Weep always retains its fascinating and mysterious appeal.
The two main characters are very compelling. Although Lazlo Strange might appear as the ‘usual’ orphaned fantasy protagonist, he possesses many characteristics that set him apart. His kindness and genuine thirst for knowledge will make readers all the more involved in his quest for Weep.
Sarai—whose powers are both a gift and a curse—provides us with a different point of view. The interactions between Lazlo and Sarai were extremely sweet. While their instant ‘connection’ might ring ‘insta-love’ bells, it did not come across as forced. In spite of their different positions and backgrounds they are both lonely.
Taylor has a beautiful way with words. Her prose has a captivating rhythm that calls to mind storytelling. Her vibrant descriptions add a richness to the characters’ background and there are plenty of luscious phrases sprinkled throughout her text.
My only criticisms are towards the secondary characters (who seemed a bit one dimensional) and the occasionally heavy-handed aesthetics (we do not need to be constantly reminded of how our main characters’ look).
Still, I’m glad I gave this book a second chance! The storyline was intriguing, its discussions on and dynamics between divinities and humans were compelling, and the two main characters are extremely likeable.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpgSadly, I ended up disliking most aspects of this novel. It might appeal to those looking for a light summer read that isn’t necessarily funny or moving.

Throughout the novel I had the impression that I was reading an early draft rather than a completed and published version of a book.

➜The story as such seemed incomplete. We have the inciting incident (Dean becomes Evvie’s tenant) and then nothing much beyond that happens. It seems they start experiencing romantic feelings for each other during their very first meeting (insta-love, yay) and I never bought into their relationship. They had stilted conversation and their flirting was painful to read (there was this attempt to make their banter ‘playful’ but it ended up being babyish and completely cringeworthy).

➜The relationship between Evvie and Dean is meant to ‘propel’ the story…but given how flat these characters are, I had little interest in their ‘budding’ romance. The whole “let’s fix each other” trope was handled in a way that made a lot of their actions seem invasive, controlling, and downright bad (eg. stalking, invasion of privacy). Within a few chapters I found that their personalities were non-existent and that their actual ‘character’ completely hinged on a trauma (Dean’s character can’t throw straight anymore while Evvie is keeping a secret about her relationship to her now dead husband).

➜Side characters were rather clichéd. Evvie’s best friend happens to be a man and initially I appreciated their platonic relationship so I was disappointed by the way it was portrayed. Other characters were entirely forgettable and bland. Evvie’s husband is the classic ‘bad/cold guy’ who is nice to most people except his wife. I guess that having a not so nuanced character makes it easier for him to seem just ‘bad’ (making Evvie some sort of sympathetic martyr).

➜It was so boring. The characters and the story had so little to offer. Their conversations were worded in such a way that they offered little clarity (for example Evvie recounts some an event for two pages in a way that made little sense).

An uneventful story + lack of humour + superficial relationships + little emotion…and there you have it: Evvie Drake Starts Over. Maybe readers who can look past the unimaginative writing style will be able to appreciate this more than I did…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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