Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Finally, finally, finally, I got my hands on a copy of this novel. I’ve been keeping an eye out for it ever since it took the book blogging world by storm. Juliet Takes a Breath stars the titular character, Juliet, a queer, latina college student on a journey that involves discovery of herself, and the world. She is leaving Bronx for Portland to begin an internship with a famous feminist author, Harlowe Brisbane. She’s one who instigated Juliet’s feminist awakening, and of course Juliet can’t help idolising her.

1Before leaving on her trip, however, she has summoned up all her courage to come out to her family. They’re not exactly delighted. In fact, Juliet’s mother retreats into silence, and Juliet leaves for the next stage of her journey, in agony over whether her mother will accept her identity.

Portland, when she does get there, is not without problems. She’s thrown into a whole new world of meanings, and ways of being. She finds that her heroines are not who she thought they were, and that searching for a community of like-minded people who will accept her can be an uphill climb.

Juliet is an endearing character. She is warm, and curious and exactly one of those characters you wish was real so you could be friends with them. Her tone is vivid and effusive. It sort of jumps off the page at you, and you can really hear her in your head. She really is like Holden Caulfield for the contemporary, queer youth, except much less whiny and annoying.  I adored the relationships she had with her younger brother, her aunts, and her cousins. Overall, Juliet’s family seems pretty close, but that intimacy reaches out to her extended family as well, and you can see that a lot of love and warmth are at the heart of it.

However, the characters were also lacking in good development. There could have been a lot more exposition. A lot of it is also due to the fact that there was a lot more telling than showing. So much of the conversation between characters was narrated to me, instead of allowing me to “listen in” on the dialogue. This became a little frustrating because it started to feel like I was reading from a journal, with someone recounting a scene to me, as opposed to me being able to view the scene for myself. This really detracted from the book, especially as it seems to be a title targeted for older Young Adult, or New Adult (adults who are college, and post-college age) audiences. There were also several typos throughout the novel, and it could have probably used another edit or two.

Having mentioned the above, I do appreciate the fact that this book has arrived at a time when there are few like it. It deals with a young, latina character exploring her sexuality, her personal identity, as well as her academic identity. It explores issues of inclusiveness, diversity, and intersectionality. These are all extremely rare things in the world of young adult literature, and for that I’m excited for this novel, for where it has gone, and will continue to go.

I will just include a link to a review here that examines a careless comment made by Juliet regarding the Native American community. Overall, Rivera was quite good about untangling Juliet’s mistaken assumptions, but this one was never addressed, which this reviewer discusses.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. If you see it, pick it up, read it, share it. It deals with a lot of important issues, and shines light on many things that need to be discussed openly.

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

I’ve been excited to read this one for awhile now. I stumbled across Shyam Selvadurai a couple of years back, when I began my active search for Sri Lankan authors.

1443203Fourteen year-old Amrith is caught between childhood and adulthood. School has let out, and the holidays stretch out ahead of him in a seemingly infinite number of blank days. Amrith fears boredom, which is only kept at bay by his school’s holiday production of Othello.

Amrith, whose parents have both passed away, has effectively been adopted by Aunty Bundle, his mother’s childhood friend. He lives with her husband, and their two daughters. Lately, however, resentment has been bubbling up inside Amrith, spurred by the idea that he is alone, an orphan who has lost his real family. Which is why when Amrith’s cousin Niresh comes to visit Amrith is especially excited. It finally means a connection to his mother’s family. To Amrith’s surprise, however, he starts developing feelings for his cousin.

This is a coming of age story that tackles many themes: belonging, identity, sexuality, bravery. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Amrith as he tried to navigate his worries of being abandoned, and having no one. His youth makes him a little rash, and he says and does many impulsive things. All the same, he is still a sympathetic character, and I couldn’t help rooting for him.

One of the cons of this novel is that it chooses to “tell” rather than “show”. The setting of Sri Lanka is beautifully described, and is quite emotive at times. However, when it comes to interactions between characters, and their inner emotional development, the narration felt slightly stilted. It took the wind out of my sails a little, considering how excited I’d been about diving into this one. I think this also added, or rather, took away from significant character development. It could certainly have been expanded on more. As it is, I’d expect this book to be intended for the younger half of the young adult spectrum.

The blurb also states that the play Othello is a backdrop that parallels Amrith’s own romantic adventure. While it, and theatre, certainly plays a significant part in Amrith’s life, it is not really dwelled on as much as the blurb would suggest.

However, as a coming of age novel, it certainly holds it own. Things are tidied up perhaps a bit too prettily at the end, but it also means leaving this young boy, that I’d grown quite fond of, in a more optimistic and stable position. As a novel that focuses on queerness and youth, I believe it’s a significant player in the field of Sri Lanakn young adult fiction.

Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti

The books you love the most are often the hardest to review. That’s always been the case. Or the curse. To say I loved this book feels like an incredible understatement. It has stayed, pulsating, in the back of my mind days after I turned the last page. My thoughts constantly wander back to it, and I am left a little winded by the emotion of the story that overwhelms me each time.

rek

Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings has three main narratives running through. First is Mere’s, a young Māori woman living in 1880s New Zealand. She is on the cusp of discovering independence and love, at the cost of great sacrifice on her part. For she is in love with Iraia, the young Moriori man living on her father’s property as farmhand and all around helper. He is treated as someone lesser, an outsider, and must live with the stigma that is forced on people of Moriori descent. To cast her lot with him means giving up everything Mere has known.

In contemporary New Zealand are Lula and Bigs, twins born to their Māori mother and Pākehā (European) father. Lula has inherited her father’s pale skin, while Bigs resembles their darker skinned mother. Despite their fierce closeness from a young age, school yard taunts and real life eventually drive the two of them apart. The death of their mother might be the last saving factor of their relationship, and a chance to find out about a part of their heritage that has been buried for too long.

Linking these two is a nameless voice, a long lost soul flitting in between the lives of Mere and Iraia, and Lula and Bigs. It is heavy with sorrow and despair, but becomes infused with a certain strength as the story progresses.

Tina Makereti’s writing is beautiful. It is lyrical, but not flowery; it is delicate, but strong enough to carry the important stories that she’s weaving with it. I was especially taken with Mere and Iraia’s part of the story. They are both very young, and incredibly brave when they set off on their adventure, and I wanted to protect them from everything and anything that might crop up on their journey.Their story is a part of New Zealand history about which I am not very knowledgeable and I wanted to soak it all in.

Some facts (as gleaned by me, so please correct me if I’m wrong):

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Moriori were the indigenous people of the Chatham,or Rēkohu Islands, a small group of islands off New Zealand’s west coast. They were a people who prized non-violence. When the Taranaki Māori colonized Rēkohu it ended in the genocide of the Moriori. Any survivors were taken back to the main land and made to work as servants and slaves. The erasure of their people brought stigma and discrimination, and Moriori descendants were forced to suffer these prejudices.

Buried history is obviously a pressing issue in this novel. Following the death of their mother, Lula feels compelled to discover more about this part of her family’s legacy. Bigs on the other hand, who has already formed a strong connection to his Māori background, finds these new developments unsettling. Makereti explores these contentions with subtle realism. Identity and family history are complicated and multi-layered, and Lula’s and Bigs’  reactions speak to that. I would have liked to see more discussion and interaction between the siblings about this topic. Lula seemed to wait years to be close to her brother again, when it does happen it is not how she envisions it.

On the other hand, Makereti stresses the importance of finding connections in unexpected places. After all, that is what family history is about. It is when she is in a London museum that Lula feels a tugging for home, and it is with newly discovered family members that she unearths a long forgotten past. Whatever she may have lost, Lula also has much to gain.

The third mysterious voice was also a compelling one for me. I enjoyed piecing the narratives together, and finding out how they all fit.Things become clearer page by page, like an image slowly crystallizing before your eyes.

I have seen reviews that mentioned it was slightly frustrating – the unknown third voice, its pace and its tone. The thing is, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings is one of those “wallowing” books. And by that I mean you, the reader, has to wallow in it. You have to soak it all in. It’s not a race to the last page to see how all the action is tied up. All the minutiae matters.  Soaking in all the details, immersing yourself in the lives of these characters. That is absolutely where the joy of this book lies. And that’s where the heartbreak is as well. I still have to hug this book to my chest every once in awhile. If you have read it, or are going to, I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. For those who are curious about this topic, Makereti suggests Moriori: A People Rediscovered by New Zealand historian Michael King.

Breathing Life into Drawings

Sierra Santiago loves art. She has a knack for creating images, and is currently working on a giant community mural. Strangely though she suddenly notices that the images  around her are starting to move. Images are fading, facial expressions are changing. Strangers and strange creatures alike are suddenly chasing her. Sierra soon discovers that her family heritage is not as straightforward, or as ordinary, as she once thought, and she becomes embroiled in her most difficult project yet.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Isn’t the cover beautiful?

There is a lot to like in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper. Sierra, a young Afro-Latina highschooler is a strong and intelligent heroine, with  insecurities and self-doubts that make her a multi-dimensional character. Her relationships with friends and family are warm and entertaining to read about, though interspersed with the inevitable difficulties. Her newfound ability – being powerful enough to render illustrations and infuse them with a magic that brings them to life – were, to be nerdy about it, totally cool. I think the young child in me was especially gleeful about that because one of my daydreams used to be having the power to do exactly that  – imagine drawing the exact thing you wanted or needed and simply willing it into life. (You’d never want for anything! Of course you’d have to be a pretty good artist for it work…) Shadowshaping, however, can also singing and telling stories. The power itself seems an ode to the act of creation, and it’s an inspired touch.

Older creates a world that is very vivid and imaginative. The paranormal aspect is smoothly woven into the narrative. It’s thrilling to see the fantasy dimension buzzing behind the facade of Sierra’s urban life. The characters within it are numerous and beautifully diverse. High-school me would probably have cried tears of joy at this novel. The novel did, however,  feel like it was lacking in character development when it came to some of the secondary characters. They weren’t as fleshed out as Sierra herself, and also made for some confusion in some of the scenes as I couldn’t immediately place who was who. I hope we get to see more of the other characters in the coming books.

Sierra’s coming into her own is beautiful to watch, especially as she discovers her own family’s deep involvement in this supernatural community. Her bravery when it comes to embracing a part of her family that her own mother shunned was touching.  My favourite scene involves a very important conversation with a female family relative that quite suddenly and unexpectedly moved me to tears. It was perhaps the most inspiring and heartening scene in the book for me. It seemed to encapsulate everything the book was about.

There is a strong theme running throughout it of oneness of community. The shadowshapers’ power stems from the strength of their relationship with their ancestors. Their entire system of power is structured around togetherness and community, and I loved that.It ties in with Sierra’s insecurities regarding her own skin colour, her African heritage, and watching her overcome her doubts, and even the doubts and jibes of those close to her made my heart swell. The novel is quite slim, so these scenes felt like they could have used a little more development as well. It was great to see Sierra take that first step but I wanted a something more surrounding that first step to make it more substantial. In any case Older has kicked off an entertaining series and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.