BOOK REVIEW | The Boat People by Sharon Bala| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #4

3/5 stars

In a time when political views are extremely divided, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People portrays a unique set of views regarding the immigrant experience. The vast number refugees coming into Canada are simply seeking a safe life for their families, but how do we separate those who will become contributing citizens from those with other motives? Bala seeks to answer this question, as well as shed light on a process that feels more criminal than hopeful.

Mahindin and his six year old son, Sillian, flee the civil war in Sri Lanka, setting out on a boat with about 500 other people seeking refuge in Canada. When their boat arrives in British Columbia, the refugee’s hope is quickly destroyed. Rather than starting their new lives, they are detained, questioned, and subject to a legal battle that will determine if they can stay or if they will be deported. Mahindan is separated from Sillian during the process, and fears that his past political associations will come to light, destroying their chances for life in Canada.

Inspired by actual events from 2009, Bala is effective in her portrayal of the immigration process from all sides. The story is told not only from Mahindan’s perspective, but also from Priya, a young lawyer appointed to defend Mahindan, and Grace, an adjudicator who will ultimately determine his fate. As pressure mounts, questions arise about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), why Mahindan was in a Tiger controlled area, and whether he has terrorist affiliations. Bala also touches on the smugglers and crime that goes along with moving people in desperate times.

This is such such an important story to tell, especially in our current political climate. The story surrounding Mahindan, Sillian, and their history was a joy to read. However, I was never able to fully invest myself in Priya’s or Grace’s stories – they were interesting, but didn’t feel necessary. Their stories made the book unnecessarily long, leaving me zoned out at times. This was a solid read, and a valuable addition to the Canada Reads contender list.

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BOOK REVIEW | Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

4/5 stars

In her heartbreaking debut, Mira T. Lee gets to the heart of mental illness. She examines the impact that mental illness has on both those living with it and those around them. Part immigrant story, part family drama, Lee has crafted a work of tender fiction that will resonate with anyone who has been touched by mental illness, and will serve as starting point for those who want to better understand.

The story centers around two sisters, Miranda and Lucia. Their mother immigrated to the United States from China while Miranda was very young, and she was pregnant with Lucia. The girls are inextricably bound, Miranda often taking on the role of protector to Lucia.

Lucia lives many lives – sister, wife, immigrant, writer. She is married twice, first to Yonah, a Russian-Jew living in the USA, and then to Manny, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. Each of these relationships serves a part of Lucia’s soul – in Yonah she finds unyielding love, and in Manny she finds family. She becomes pregnant with a little girl, and her and Manny eventually decide to move their family to Ecuador.

Miranda is dedicated beyond compare, never unflinching in her attempts to protect and care for Lucia. Lucia is living with mental illness – possibly schizophrenia, possibly bipolar disorder; she is never accurately diagnosed, which is certainly intentional. Over the years she is off and on medications, and in and out of hospitalizations. Both Yonah and Manny will discover parts of Lucia that were controlled with medication when they first met her, Miranda always there as a guide and support throughout their struggles.

The only fault for me in this book is one that I see often in stories with multiple narrators – each narrator often re-tells a scene from their perspective, leading to repetition that feels unnecessary. This is a fantastic debut, full of beauty and pain, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more from Lee.

BOOK REVIEW | Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

5/5

There is no one else to tell, Oliver, so I’m afraid it’s going to have to be you . . .

This is the story of Elio, 17 years old, and Oliver, 24 years old, and a summer I won’t soon forget. Oliver is a graduate student who comes to work with Elio’s father and stay at their house in Italy for the summer; he’s intellectual and handsome – the sort of person that everyone is drawn to, including Elio. Elio quickly becomes enamoured with Oliver, and what develops between them is a once in a lifetime love.

I’ve read few books that capture so eloquently the yearning of unrequited love, but, until now, I’ve yet to read anything that so boldly illustrates the intensity that occurs when that love is finally reciprocated. Elio and Oliver couple utterly and completely; there are no secrets, no privacy, nothing too taboo – they become one unified soul. They are electric.

Aciman’s prose lingers before biting, is quiet and loud, soft and aggressive. Narrated from Elio’s perspective many years later, this is both a coming-of-age story and passionate, painful love story. Yes, this book is erotically charged, but with purpose. With Elio, Aciman taps into the ache and agony of desire that often accompanies the teen years. Elio is precocious, over-analyzing each encounter with Oliver, both curious and afraid. This book moved me in a genuinely profound way, more than any book has in a while.

BOOK REVIEW | You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

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4/5 stars

Let me start by saying that this title is everything. I have curly hair, and people ask to touch it ALL.THE.TIME. As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. Phoebe Robinson is hilarious. I want to hang out with her, and I feel like she’s my new literary best friend. This was a total blast, but a smart one filled with perspective and power. I switched between the audiobook and physical book,  and laughed out loud many times throughout. Nothing is better than listening to a comedian narrate their own book. It’s amazing. She’s a comedian and writer, and her talents come together beautifully in this short book of essays. Phoebe is bold and unapologetic in her takes on race, feminism, sexuality, and more.

I loved, LOVED, Phoebe’s sections on music. I may not love U2 the way she does, but I don’t listen to much music that would be expected for a non-white person. She talks about how people assume she knows what’s new in hip hop, when in reality she’s about to listen to Arcade Fire or Phil Collins. Cultural stereotypes, gotta love them.

Phoebe, you’ll never read this, but I need to talk to you! This book is written as though only people of colour (POC for short) will be reading it. I wanted Phoebe to be a little more inclusive with her audience, to assume that enlightened or curious (or any!) white people may want to read this book! I think she may keep her non POC readers a little at bay with this assumption, but hey, I’m a biracial reader, so maybe I just see both sides of the fence?

Speaking of being biracial, I adored Phoebe’s letters to her infant niece Olivia. She offers solutions for getting through life female and biracial. She even offers her a plethora of biracial celebrities to look to for identity: Lisa Bonet, Prince, Bob Marley, and more!

Don’t let all the fun fool you, Phoebe is on a mission with this book. She dives deep into her personal experiences with sexism and racism with a strength that I truly admire. She puts herself out there, exposing times when she felt weak and used, and made to feel less than. She discusses the young black people killed at the hands of police in America, and injustices that are difficult to swallow.

I loved reading about these topics in a practical, everyday sort of manner. Phoebe, at least for me, is so relatable that it made this book feel like a conversation with a good friend. I really enjoyed this, and will be looking out for whatever Phoebe does next.

BOOK REVIEW | The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

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5/5 Stars

From the Publisher:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about more than that though. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first – Emmett.

I don’t read much YA, but knew I had to pick up The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas is bold, throwing literary punches right out of the gate, and by the end of chapter two I was in tears. Told from the perspective of Starr, who witnesses her friend shot and killed by the police, Thomas provides enlightenment and education about #blacklivesmatter.

The story itself is one we know all too well: a young, unarmed, black person is shot and killed by the police. The aftermath is wrought with pain and injustice, families senselessly torn apart. This book stands out though, not because of the tragedy, but because of Thomas’ strength as a storyteller. She has created a robust cast of characters, each fleshed out and diverse.

Starr is sixteen years old and struggling with her identity as many teens do. Her struggles, however, eventually become a source of her strength. She attends a “white” school that her parents send her to, rather than the school in her neighborhood. She is constantly working out which star she can be in any given situation – prep school Starr, or Starr from the ghetto. When a cop pulls her and her friend, Khalil, over one night, she had no idea she would become witness to tragedy and forced to find her voice against great odds.

We follow star as she moves through her grief, initially fearful, but eventually finding her inner power. Thomas consistently returns to the importance of speaking up and speaking out against injustice – your voice is your most powerful weapon.

Among all of this, we have a YA book with elements that lighten the mood. A romance between Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, (I laughed out loud when “swirling” came up!), complex friendships, and a love for sneakers.

This book is important and timely, and I hope it reaches beyond liberal minded thinkers. I’d love to see this book in classrooms, sparking conversation among today’s youth. I already felt everything this book is seeking to teach, so I can only hope it finds its way into the hands of people who may not understand #blacklivesmatter.

BOOK REVIEW | Exit West by Moshin Hamid

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia share a cup of coffee, and their story begins. It will be a love story but also a story about war and a world in crisis, about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow. Before too long, the time will come for Nadia and Saeed to leave their homeland. When the streets are no longer useable and all options are exhausted, this young couple will join the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .

My thoughts:
Exit West by Moshin Hamid couldn’t have come a better time. This is the sort of book that we need right now, and I am so glad that I took time for this short read. It’s a book about civil war and migration, and how life can suddenly change during times of turmoil. The heart of this book, however, is a love story. It’s the story of two people falling in love, and then falling out of it.

Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. 

Nadia and Saeed meet, and before too long the relationship blossoms. They make a quick connection, and are soon spending their evenings together. Hamid is quick to let the reader know that this is not your average couple – Saeed is set on keeping the relationship chaste, while Nadia is not. She also smokes marijuana, takes psychedelic mushrooms, and rides a motorcycle. When asked why she wears the “all-concealing black robes”, she simply replies “so men don’t fuck with me”.

Hamid’s brilliance comes in the anonymity of the country that Nadia and Saeed flee from. A civil war is breaking out, and the reader must experience the violence and death from a completely unbiased perspective. This is a story about people who are in danger and the sacrifices they make to stay safe – it’s as simple as that. Not naming a specific country allows the humanity of the story to take the lead. Imagine a life in which a window becomes an instrument of death – Hamid reminds us of the reasons people emigrate.

One’s relationship with a window now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire…the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily.

I was not expecting a story rooted in magical realism, but that’s much of what this is. Nadia and Saeed move through doors that transport them to new places as they seek refuge after fleeing their homeland. Through their journey they grow closer, and then apart. Hamid describes them as a couple that is uncoupling, a sentiment many will relate to. Hamid’s prose is fluid and unique – I’ve never read anything like this before. Allow yourself to be swept away by this magical book, it’s a timely and rewarding read.

BOOK REVIEW | Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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4/5 stars

Release Date: September 5, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

My thoughts:
Sing, Unburied, Sing presents a way of life that will be unfamiliar to many of its readers. A life in which addiction rules and heartbreak abounds. Jesmyn Ward presents themes and ideas, however, that are as relevant today as they ever have been; racism, injustices in the prison system, police treatment of minorities, and how the past shapes the present. This is the story of a family living in poverty along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

Through multiple perspectives, Ward tells us the story of Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla who are being raised by their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Jojo’s mother, Leoni, is often absent and frequently high. When Leoni gets a call that Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father, is going to be released from prison, she packs the kids up and head’s out onto the road to pick him up on his release day. Jojo, who has just turned 13, is less than excited to be reacquainted with the stranger that is his father.

Leoni is haunted by visions of her deceased brother, and Jojo is haunted by a young boy Pop knew in his youth during his time in prison. Ward carries these figures elegantly throughout the story, and they become central to Leoni and Jojo’s fates. Ward doesn’t hold back in her depiction of prison as slavery, and this storyline comes to a truly heart wrenching and tragic end. This book is wrought with pain and sadness, and I know I will be thinking about Jojo for a while.

This was my first time reading Jesmyn Ward, and I certainly understand her success. She has keen insights and a strong voice, and I am looking forward to reading her backlist.