Almost Everything, Everything Was On Point

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Maddy is sick. Really sick. Like can’t-leave-the-house-or-her-body-will-shut-down kind of sick. As far as she can remember of her eighteen years, she has been confined to her home with her mother and her nurse, Carla, for company. She has been home-schooled, and her only visitor is her architect teacher. Maddy is happy. She is happy reading all the books she can, building mini architecture models, and having game nights with her mom.

But when the new boy next door, Olly, walks into her life everything changes. Suddenly Maddy wants more. She wants to see the world and experience everything it has to offer.

I have to admire the dexterous balance that Nicola Yoon strikes with her simple, easy to gobble up writing style that simultaneously manages to be quite beautiful at the same time. She really does make it seem effortless. Reading the novel feels like slipping into a sundae.

Maddy is a likeable character. She is intelligent, mature, with a sense of humour, and good nature that’s allowed her to face her unique life without wallowing deeply in bitterness.Olly is equally well-characterized. He comes with his own set of problems. His home life is tainted by his dad’s violent outbursts. Maddy and Olly’s easy interaction was enjoyable to read.

Despite these good points, however, this novel did leave me feeling a bit non-plussed. First off, as enjoyable as the banter between Maddy and Olly was, their immediate adoration for each other was not. It was easy to see that they were going to fall in love, and I was all for them falling in love but the journey to the destination was far too short to be believable. Or at least for me to believe that their love had weight. I think the initial stages of their relationship could have been fleshed out a whole lot more.

Secondly, there is a twist at the end of the novel which renders the entire preceding character development that Maddy undergoes completely irrelevant. It was far too easy a solution and it was actually quite disappointing to read. I was eager to see how Yoon might portray the harder choices in life, and the consequences of sticking to them, and while she does to an extent, she doesn’t fully deliver on her message. The relationship between Maddy and her mother could also have been fleshed out, especially near the end. When the novel ends, it does not feel satisfying at all. Yoon tries to tie everything up with a neat little bow, and considering what she was trying to offer the payoff felt very insufficient.

The Diverse Books Tag

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Naz at ReadDiverseBooks has started up a great conversation on the twittersphere with #DiverseBookBloggers. Those who blog, and are marginally represented in the literature that is widely available for consumption have been able to gather and discuss the needs and importance of representation and diversity. It’s not simply throwing around the word “diverse” and being satisfied with that, but examining nuanced, and respectful portrayals of various cultures, and the positive results that such portrayals can bring about.

Following the enthusiastic response at twitter, Naz then came up with this tag to promote the emerging works of diverse authors out there. With this tag, you can choose books that you’ve already read and would recommend, or ones that you wish to read. If there are none on your tbr list that doesn’t fall in the category, then you can check out lists on goodreads, or simply do a quick Google search. There are a lot of newly published authors representing a wide range of cultures and nationalities, so there’s plenty to choose from.

And as Naz says:

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.”

Anyways, without further ado, here are my picks:

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

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I saw this book around tumblr, and have been wanting to read it after reading the blurb. Juliet is just heading off to do an internship after coming out to her family. She’s not sure that her mother will be speaking to her again, and so when she goes off to the internship it’s with hopes that working for her academic idol will help her on her journey in discovering herself. I can’t wait to read this book. I’m always desperately searching for “new adult” books. “New adult” is the term that’s used for stories centering around those who have just left high-school, and there isn’t a whole lot of fiction about that. The fact that this story’s protagonist is also Puerto-Rican, and a lesbian just makes it even more rare, and even better.

Find a book set in Latin America.

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This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year or so, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to include it in this list. I’ve read some of Allende’s short stories awhile ago, and her writing is lyrically atmospheric. This widely loved novel of magical realism is an epic story of three generations of the Trueba family, and I can’t wait to immerse myself in this story. And don’t you just love that cover?

Find a book about a person with a disability.

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Another book that’s been sitting on my shelf, judging me for still not having read it. Naoki Hgashida wrote this book when he was thirteen years old, and it’s his account of what it’s like to live with autism. It has been lauded for its honesty and heart, and answers all questions about autism that family and friends of individuals of autism have been curious about. I’m not very informed about autism, so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this one.

Find a Science-Fiction or Fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

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I’m currently reading this one, and for someone who hasn’t read extensively when it comes to the Science Fiction genre, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Phoenix is an “accelerated woman”, a genetic experiment concocted and raised in Tower 7, a mysterious organization that specializes in such experiments. Phoenix has only been “alive” for two years, but has the body of a grown woman, and a mind which consumes and digests information like no other. Soon, however, events transpire that brings Phoenix to the realization that Tower 7 is nothing but a prison, and in an extraordinary burst of flames, she burns herself and her prison-like home down. That’s only the beginning of Phoenix’s journey however. This book is described as one of magical futurism, a unique label that I haven’t come across before. This is the prequel to Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award. Okorafor is a wonderful storyteller, and this is one I’d definitely recommend.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

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Darling has grown up in Zimbabwe, running between the shanty homes that she and her friends live in, playing games, and stealing guavas from those that are far wealthier than them. They all dream of escaping their country, envying their relatives who’ve run off to the West. Eventually, Darling, too, leaves Zimbabwe to live in the States with her aunt and uncle. Of course that comes with its own challenges, and Darling doesn’t find her life is nearly as fulfilling living away from her home country as she thought it would be. This one is a strange recommendation, because there was something about it that didn’t quite fit well. I remember the novel’s ending felt far too abrupt. At the same time, however, this novel is brazenly honest about Darling’s suffering. Her hollowed realization that her life is not turning out the way she hoped it would left me with a deeply sorrowful feeling once I finished. Bulawayo’s writing is minimal, but powerful, I think, and I’d recommend this one simply for its thought-provoking story line.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

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I’ve seen this book around shops and libraries town but never actually picked it up. Perhaps if I had, I might have known that it’s a story about an Aboriginal girl, Oblivia, living in a future Australia, drastically transformed by climate change. Apparently, this book intertwines  myths and folklore, as well as experimenting with linguistic phrases from English, Aboriginal languages, French and Latin. I have to say the premise intrigues me, so I’ll be getting my hands on this as soon as I can.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.).

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This novel follows the lives of two cousins, Latha and Tsunami Wijesinha, chronicling their stories from girlhood to their maturation. Set during the emergence of the civil unrest in Sri Lanka, there are nuanced issues of caste and racism. The politics, however, are simply a backdrop for the story of the Wijesinha family. Latha’s vacation with her wealthier cousin’s family offers her a variety of experiences, and an escape from her more traditional mother’s views. As time goes on however, and a shocking scandal rocks Tsunami’s family, the girls find that it’s Latha’s family that offers the comfort and solace needed for two young girls trying to make their way in a harsh society. This book is steeped in beautiful writing, and wonderful references to literature. Yasmine Gonneratne is an academic of English Literature and her appreciation for it is obvious. Her own writing is masterful and honestly a joy to read. It’s a story that you’ll want to take slowly, just to be able to luxuriate in the wonderfully weaved sentences, and the fulfilling lives of the two girls.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

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This is a recently published novel set in Seattle, during the anti World Trade Organization protests. The novel’s narrative is constructed around the view points of seven characters, though the central one who opens and closes the story is Victor. Victor is a young, biracial, homeless man who has been wandering the world following the death of his mother, and his realization that he and his father have vastly conflicting ideas of the world. He is homeless by choice, an individual who has become disillusioned with the world he lives in. Unwittingly he becomes swept into the WTO protests. To make things more interesting, Victor’s father is the Chief of Police, stationed to control the protestors. Of course, some very ugly and violent situations ensue. Yapa addresses a world of complex issues in this one: human rights, economic rights, racism, equality. However, the story hones in on the compassion and empathy that humans need to cultivate for each other.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

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Once again, this is an issue that I’m not very informed about, so I decided to opt for a piece of non-fiction. Let me tell you, it was a  little difficult trying to locate a text available in my local libraries that was a piece of non-fiction, actually written about someone who is part of the transgender community. This one especially appealed to me because I’m quite interested in how feminism accommodates – or fails to accommodate – transgender women. Intersectionality is certainly important, and I’m eager to read Serano’s account.

There we are, those are my picks. If you’ve read any of these, do leave a comment and let me know how you found the experience.

I’d like to thank Naz for this wonderful tag. Though I do make it a point to read as widely as possible about people from all walks of life, I realized that I still have a lot of way to go in that regard.

Now to tag some other bloggers:

Sabeena at thepocbookreader

Emma at wellthumbedbooks

Morgan at happilyeverbookish

Stefanie at yourdaughtersbookshelf

Sophie at Portal in the Pages

Naida at The Bookworm

And if there’s anyone else who’s interested in this tag, please let me know and I will change that asap. I’m keen to know how you all get on. Hope everyone’s having a wonderful weekend!

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

I’m not quite sure how to begin this review. This book is not an overly large one, but I feel as if I experienced a lot as I was reading it. It was both a draining and inspiring read.

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Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, a country she describes as “unimaginable” and “indescribable” in interviews. From the moment she’s born, she’s imprisoned under North Korea’s oppressive government rule. Yeonmi’s childhood is basically a study in hunger; she describes how food, or rather the painful lack of it, was a constant theme in her young life. Acute hunger numbs little Yeonmi to the daily horrors that she has been born into: seeing children her own age or younger begging and dying on the streets; seeing friends and neighbours executed for such transgressions as watching a Hollywood film.

Despite these daily nightmares, Yeonmi and her people are told that they live in the best country in the world, led by a benevolent and wise leader who only has their best interests at heart. They see the suffering and pain around them, but have to believe – or least pretend to believe – that they are in the best situation they can be in. As far as the children of Yeonmi’s generation can tell, this is the truth: despite the lack of resources, technology, and inequality in education, North Koreans are being well taken care of. Yeonmi’s parents, and their contemporaries, however, are more aware of their country’s decline in resources, and are slowly coming to realize its manipulative propaganda and dangerous totalitarian rule.

I know it’s trite, but having read 1984, it was chilling to read Yeonmi’s autobiography, and see how many similarities there were between an imagined dystopia, and what is very much a reality for an entire nation of people today. Yeonmi also remarks how much the novel Animal Farm spoke to her own experience.

Even when Yeonmi escapes to China, the horrors don’t subside. She and her mother become entangled in human trafficking, and Yeonmi has to continue to draw on the strength of her spirit to look after the two of them. China’s harsh policy on North Korean refugees means that Yeonmi, and others like her, are unable to reach out to the authorities for help. Instead, they are forced to be exploited, and exchange one life of oppression for another.

Once Yeonmi and her mother are resettled in South Korea, Yeonmi works hard to achieve her dreams of fitting in with a new people. She takes advantage of the education and resources that become available to her. Yeonmi has now become a strong activist voice for the suffering of the North Korean people. Her speeches and interviews have been viewed online numerous times. Her burning desire to live, to do more than just survive, is evident in her story. In one of her interviews, she remarks that if she were to die now she’d be happy, as she had finally tasted freedom. It’s a powerful, and weighty remark. Yeonmi’s story is a heart-breaking and revealing one. Not only does it shed light on North Korea’s harsh regime; it also urges us to take up our duty as free humans. At the One Young World conference, Yeonmi asks the guests to educate themselves and others as much as they can about North Korea. I think anyone who reads this book will benefit from it; besides being an incredible tale about survival and a resilient spirit, it’s also a story that urges us to be more empathetic towards our fellow human beings.

“Sometimes I felt crazy too.”

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Sylvie feels invisible. Her sister, “Calamity” Cate, is suffering from mental illness. It’s wreaking havoc on the family.Cate is lost in her nightmarish world, and her parents are both drained by this situation. Sylvie’s swept up into the eye of the storm, feeling far too much like a negligible speck. School isn’t much better, either, where she feels out of place and visible for all the wrong reasons. So, Sylvie decides to undergo a makeover. The new Sylvie will be bold and throw caution to the wind. More importantly, she’ll be noticeable. This, of course, doesn’t come without its own set of consequences.

I love how Kaeli Baker has created a flawed, but endearing character in Sylvie. She is absolutely in a difficult position; she is going through things that no one at her age should be going through alone. At the same time, she reacts in quite selfish ways, and is often oblivious to the goings-on around her. Her decisions are impulsive and misguided. There were times when I just wanted to reach in, grab her face, and command her to take care of herself. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many youngsters are out there, isolated in their experiences, and unable to vocalize their pain, or trying to externalize it in ineffective ways.

Living with mental illness is difficult, but this novel shows that this can also be true for those living with someone suffering from a mental illness. Cate’s mental illness is not at the center of the novel; it’s the effects of it that Baker focuses on, and it’s a good exploration. Watching Sylvie’s family struggle to keep it together is hard, but from the outsider perspective I had as a reader, at times it seemed almost inevitable. Their suppressed emotions break out in loud and explosive actions, or in quiet, insidious ways that eat away at each of them. It’s an honest exploration, and Baker does not try to cover anything up in pretty paper.

The interactions between the younger characters were a little less real for me, however. There were times when the dialogue felt a little unnatural and jilted. Some of the development also feels slightly rushed. I can appreciate that this is a shorter novel, however, and as such there’s only so much space to work with.

I think a lot of young readers will benefit from reading this. Not only does it highlight the importance of reaching out for help, it also encourages reaching out to help others. There isn’t much discussion about mental illness and adolescents, especially in the New Zealand school setting. This book takes step to change that.

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.

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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.

Thoughts Left Behind in Second-hand Bookshops

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Thoughts like these and many others will persist in clogging up the narrow, book-lined aisles of second-hand bookshops. We barely have room for the books, folks, we can’t have your scatter-brained impulses flooding our book hovel. Unclaimed thoughts will be summarily disposed of. Please do not leave this kind of thing lying around in public:

  • Sweet! Cheap books!
  • My wallet is going to love me!
  • Think of all the books I could take home!
  • Wait. I don’t have have much space left on the shelf.
  • Ok, just one or two. Three, if I find something REALLY good.
  • How is it that every single bookstore has “The Da Vinci Code”?
  • I wonder which of these books belonged to a billionaire?
  • Has a billionaire shopped here?
  • Do billionaires even shop in second-hand bookstores?
  • That just seems unfair.
  • Oh, yet another edition of my favourite title (of which I might already own seven other editions)!

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  • I wonder if this shop is a secret entrance to a magical world.
  • How many wizards have been in here?
  • When am I getting my letter to Hogwarts, anyway?
  • Why is that second-hand bookstores never stock any Shirley Jackson?
  • I feel sorry for the neglected books.
  • I wish I could read every book here.
  • But you can’t be everyone’s champion.
  • Does Dan Brown lose sleep over the fact that he is the bane of every second-hand bookshop owner’s existence?
  • Come to think of it, does E.L. James?
  • What if I find the original Shakespeare folio in here?!
  • I could be a billionaire!
  • I wouldn’t have to shop in second-hand bookshops after that.
  • Aw, I’d still come anyway, who can resist the charm?
  • Crap, I bought way more books than I meant to.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel follows Sunny Nwazue, an albino American born Nigerian girl. With her family having moved back to Nigeria, Sunny is finding it hard to fit in. Her looks and smarts are both fodder for the school bullies. Add to that her outsider status of being “akata”, an African American, life for Sunny is not exactly sunshine and rainbows.

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As if these daily pressures aren’t enough, Sunny also has special powers. The kind that are also a curse, as she is now privy to how the end of the world will unfold.

Thankfully, with the help of newly acquired friends Sunny learns she is actually part of a larger magical community.

Sunny’s is a very engaging character to read about. I think young readers will take to her – she’s an intelligent and resourceful child. She is curious and extraordinarily brave, yet at the same she feels very familiar, as if she could be any child you meet. I think this aspect will really endear her to young readers. She is just like any kid trying their best to fit in, worrying about balancing friends and family, while trying to establish her individuality.

The new world Sunny discovers is riotous with magic. There’s something new at every turn. There is a lot to take in, in that regard, but one of the positive side effects is that the story is never put on pause in order to make way for excessive word building. The reader is swept along into this magical terrain with Sunny. I can see how that could be a bit of a downside, as it’s a lot to take in, but then, you don’t get bogged down in overwhelming details about setting and foliage etc., either.

If there was one thing I wanted more of, it was to see more interaction between Sunny and her parents. Her mother obviously knows a lot more about this new world Sunny’s discovering than she’s letting on. Plus, Sunny’s relationship with her father is very rocky and fragile. I would love to see more positivity in that relationship in future novels but I can appreciate that Okorafor might be trying to convey that some relationship in life just don’t evolve past a certain point in life.

I think young readers have a hero to discover in Sunny. She is a newbie, thrown into deep waters, but she’s a conscientious kid who ultimately tries to do the right thing. I’m eager to see where this series will go.