A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

37789271._SY475_A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.

Review:

Trigger warning for drug abuse.

This is exactly the kind of book I was hoping to read for the Booktube Prize – something that I’m interested in, but probably wouldn’t have picked up anytime soon. A Place for Us is a multi-generational family saga of sorts, which originally made me wary, but I ended up liking it. A bunch.

What makes the entire book for me, on top of great writing and character work, is the structure. The first major section is told from the perspective of the three children. We watch them grow up – moments between them, how they interact with the community, major events that shape their lives, even though they may not look significant to start. We bounce around in time, which made me nervous at first, but once we learn a couple of milestones (the eldest going to college, a particular birthday party or conversation) the timeline becomes easy to keep track of. Based on the kids’ stories we form some ideas why Amar is no longer part of the family.

The second section is from the point of view of their mother, and while some parts overlap she adds more information and another way of looking at things. We learn about conversations the kids had no idea about as well as the thoughts behind her actions, and it both interleaves a layer of story and changes our ideas and who is most wrong.

The father gets his say in the last section in a note written directly to Amir. He explains what he did and why, and realizes he may have gone wrong somewhere but isn’t sure how. The overall affect is a story that is told both straightforwardly as well as intricately.

The way everything is woven together is masterful and a bunch of interesting themes are explored – growing up as a brown person in the US during 9/11, how each person approaches their Muslim faith differently, the roles different children are expected to fill and why. I love that the religious elements are both so important and not explained in a Islam 101 manner. We aren’t spoon fed info about the faith, and I think the book is stronger for it.

All in all it’s hard to believe this is a debut. I actually enjoyed a multi-generational family story of sorts… I don’t think that I’m coming around to the sub-genre, necessarily, but this book is an outstanding example of it.

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There There by Tommy Orange

36692478There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Review:

Trigger warnings for alcoholism, domestic violence, rape, and violence in general.

This is my second read for The BookTube Prize and it did not go as well as the first.

The good:

  • There There is an own voices story about urban Native Americans and the issues they face, from the trigger warnings above to loss of culture and traditions. It’s an important story that I’m so happy to see being told, and to such acclaim.
  • The introduction and interlude, essays about being Native American today, are powerful and affecting.
  • The story is told via many narrators, allowing for windows into many different Native experiences.

The not-so-good:

  • None of the narrators are particularly fleshed out. We learn who they are, what demons they may be fighting, and how they are related to the pow wow. But that’s it. I never felt connected with the characters as people, only as a set of circumstances.
  • …when I could remember them. My edition of the book has a detailed cast list in the front, with a paragraph for each main character. This made me suspicious – the book should make each character memorable enough for this not to be a problem. A list of names and one line description, sure, but paragraphs?
  • I am not a fan of the writing. It’s going for punchy more than lyrical, but I found it choppy and plodding.
  • The voice changes from first person to third and back again, which I found interesting at first. I was particularly intrigued by one chapter in the second person – what is Orange trying to say by making us, the reader, this particular character? But I don’t see any rhyme or reason to which character gets what treatment. The author Q&A at the end confirms my suspicion, as Orange says, “The final POV for each chapter in some cases wasn’t decided until the end of writing the book.” And that second person POV character becomes third again later. I would have liked more intention in the choices.
  • When it comes down to it I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. You can tell that they’re all coming together for the pow wow, and that something big will happen.
  • At the end this big thing happens, but that’s it. No exploration of it while it’s happening, no aftermath.
  • The biggest detractor for me was that I had to fight to get through this book. I seriously considered DNFing at 85%, and definitely would have done so earlier if I weren’t reading it for the BookTube Prize. Not to mention it put me in a reading slump. Gah.

It’s an important story and I’m glad Orange is telling it, but the method of telling wasn’t for me.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

35412372Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Review:

Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, self-harm, self-destructive behavior, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

I went into Freshwater, my first read for the semifinal round of The BookTube Prize, with little information. My friends loved it but were cagey in their reviews.

I’m going to join their ranks.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful in a lyric, understated way.
  • I enjoy watching all these personalities, Ada and the spirits, rub against each other and unsettle each other. Many take turns as narrators, allowing the narrative to slip backwards or forwards in time in a seamless way. I’ve read a bunch of books that do this poorly, but it’s a great device when used well, like here.
  • It took me a while to get into the story, especially as I felt the narrators out. But once I did, wow. I read the last 40% in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down.
  • We see the legacy of abuse and how trauma experienced as a child can shape you.
  • Ada shares traits with the author, and it feels like a deeply personal story.
  • Emezi slowly cracked open my mind so a reality that I never imagined could pour in. They patched me up when they were done, and I’m a better person for it.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing major or of particular note.

I am more than excited to read more of Emezi’s writing. They have a YA fantasy coming out this fall and more books in the pipeline – I can’t wait.

Erstwhile by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #1)

31282859As an adamant opponent of Terran settlement on the planet Jekh, Owen McGarry made his family name synonymous with “traitor” on Earth. Nearly twenty years after Owen’s supposed death, his granddaughter Courtney wants to learn the truth—even if she has to travel to the far-flung colony to do it.

Court soon learns that not only was her grandfather right about the Jekhans, but that conditions on their world are far more hostile than she feared. Terran forces decimated the population of the resident human-alien hybrids, and the people who remain seem to be all out of fight. That is, except for the pair of men Court finds hiding in her basement.

Review:

I needed an off the wall romance to reset a brain beset by sad literary fiction, and this cover promises just that – a triad, in space! I didn’t need much beyond that, but Trent brings a bunch more.

The good:

  • Considered, in-depth world building. Trent has built an entire society complete with history, traditions, and -isms, for a lack of a better term. The beginning of the novel scratches the surface and things get deeper as you go on. At first I wasn’t sure Trent would go that deep, so I was happy to see she thought the world out completely.
  • The romance is okay and the plot works fine, but the characters are what keeps the story going. It’s not about watching the relationship evolve as much as it’s watching them recognize and overcome differences.
  • But above all, the themes discussed made the book for me. There’s a look at how first contact can go oh so wrong. Earth colonized the Jehkhan’s planet in a way that calls back to the treatment of Native Americans, yet isn’t a carbon copy. Intercultural relationships are examined in a way that feels true, and recalls moments (okay, fights) in my own international marriage. Along with the characterization it gave me a lot to chew on.
  • It read quickly and was just what I needed in the moment, always a plus.

The not-so-good:

  • Instalust quickly leads to more, and Court doesn’t examine some (spoilery) big steps as much as I would like.
  • After a bunch of characterization work the plot takes off like a rocket for the last chapters, coming out of nowhere and depositing us in a completely different place, a bit stunned and confused.

Erstwhile ended up being more intellectual than I would have thought from the cover and description but still provided the romantic escape I needed. I’m looking forward to getting into book two and seeing how the world deepens from here.

The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

translated by William Johnson

1030303On Thursday, August 9, 1945, at two minutes past eleven in the morning, Nagasaki was wiped out by a plutonium atomic bomb which exploded at a height of five hundred meters over the city. Among the wounded on that fateful day was the young doctor Takashi Nagai, professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki. Nagai succeeded in gathering a tiny group of survivors — doctors, nurses, and students — and together they worked heroically for the wounded until they themselves collapsed from exhaustion and atomic sickness.

As he lay dying of leukemia, Dr. Nagai wrote The Bells of Nagasaki, vividly recounting what he had seen with his own eyes and heard from his associates.

Review:

Trigger warning for the horror of war with a medical bent.

The Bells of Nagasaki is a first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki, which is often forgotten in the shadow of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nagai is in a unique position to discuss an atomic bomb because he was researching radioactivity in a medical context. He had basically given himself leukemia by being exposed to radiation during his experiments.

Much like Hersey’s Hiroshima, we hear the accounts of many people at the time the bomb went off, many colleagues of Nagai. We see how fate/blind luck determined who lived and died. A professor hollowing out a dugout shelter survived, but two students hauling out the dirt were killed immediately. A medical student was trapped in the rubble of his classroom. Fires soon started, and he listened to his classmates being consumed alive by the flames, and resigned to that fate himself, before working free and escaping.

This plurality of experience at the start soon narrows down to Nagai and his fellow doctors and nurses who took it upon themselves to treat as many people as they could. Like many survivors they made their way to the villages surrounding the city, helping those affected before being bedridden with radiation sickness themselves.

Nagai isn’t afraid to talk about the illness from a medical standpoint. At one point he outlines how you die – if not immediately, days later in this manner. If not then, weeks later from this and that. Some explanations call on high school physics but I didn’t find it overly technical. Then again, I work in hospitals so your mileage may vary.

The introduction is by the translator and does a good job placing the book in context and telling us about the whole of Nagai’s life. At the end he goes on about how big a role religion played in his thinking, which worried me. Thankfully there’s almost no mention of his faith until page 102 of a 115 page work but wow, he gets preachy fast. If religion isn’t your thing know you can safely skip those pages without missing anything.

As a side note – I knocked on Hiroshima for having a strong Catholic element, but Nagasaki is the most Catholic city in all of Japan. It had secret churches and harbored people when the government actively prosecuted Catholics, so if there’s going to be a large Christian influence anywhere in the country, it’s here.

Overall I found the book interesting and a good read, a valuable account of the bombing Americans overlook. It appears to be out of print right now, so check with your local library if you’d like to give it a try.

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker and Thomas J. Harper

34473This is an enchanting essay on aesthetics by one of the greatest Japanese novelists. Tanizaki’s eye ranges over architecture, jade, food, toilets, and combines an acute sense of the use of space in buildings, as well as perfect descriptions of lacquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure. The result is a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age.

Review:

In Praise of Shadows was recommended to me as a grumpy old man talking about Japanese aesthetics, and it’s exactly that in a wonderful way.

The book was first published in 1933 and Tanizaki is fondly looking back at the 1880s or 90s – a time before electricity, when Japanese harnessed darkness and shadow as an aesthetic element. He laments that people no longer know what it’s like to sit in a room lit by candles, with darkness existing all around the edges. How that candlelight made the soup in a dark lacquer bowl a mystery, no visual clues as to its taste.

With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm sense the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation.

As you can tell the writing and translation are beautiful. I highlighted passages not only for the insights but for how elegantly they’re expressed.

In addition to the text there’s supporting text that does just what you want. The forward whets the appetite without giving anything away, and the afterward, written by Harper, places the book in the context of Tanizaki’s life and Japanese literature and illuminates themes I missed the first time around.

If you’re interested in Japanese thought and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is made for you. Even if you’re not, the beautiful writing will still carry you away. I plan to revisit it many times, making it a five star read.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

43496429Perpetually awkward Nima Kumara-Clark is bored with her insular community of Bridgeton, in love with her straight girlfriend, and trying to move past her mother’s unexpected departure. After a bewildering encounter at a local festival, Nima finds herself suddenly immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town.

Macho drag kings, magical queens, new love interests, and surprising allies propel Nima both painfully and hilariously closer to a self she never knew she could be—one that can confidently express and accept love. But she’ll have to learn to accept lost love to get there.

Review:

I love this book for all of the own voices elements and the loving depiction of drag, but it doesn’t escape some first book shakiness.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for lgbtqia+, POC, and drag king rep. Huzzah!
  • Nima’s father is awesome, never a given in YA. He’s absent later in the book so she can do her thing, which is more usual, but yeah. At least he’s awesome.
  • Diedre is a fairy godmother of a drag queen. It toes the line of believability for me, but I know there are good people in the world like this, helping queer kids find their way.
  • The drag scenes jump off the page. I could read Boteju describing drag shows all day, they’re so full of joy and energy.
  • I love love love that Nima is questioning her sexuality throughout the book. Literature often looks at coming out, completely skipping any questioning phase. The only other book I’ve read with decent questioning rep is Dress Codes for Small Towns, but I’m hoping for more. (The recent release Red, White, and Royal Blue has good questioning rep, I’ve been told.)
  • The characters are diverse in race, gender, and sexuality. One disabled character has a one page, non-speaking appearance.

Neither good-nor-bad:

  • The plot doesn’t tie up every thread neatly. It will annoy some, I’m sure, but it feels true to life. A 17-year-old figuring out her sexuality, connecting with family, trying drag for the first time, and falling into a perfect romance, all in the course of one summer? Not happening. I was fine with the loose ends but your mileage may vary.

The not-so-good:

  • It’s a debut and feels like it. The plot, especially, has clunky points in need of polish.
  • A bunch of this is me coming to YA as an adult reader, but I have a hard time when teenagers make obviously stupid decisions and we have to cringe through both the act and the consequences. Here someone decides that getting smashed at a party would be a cool thing to do, and I quickly pushed through that part to get to the other side. I get that young people can get a lot from reading these scenes, and that seeing the results on the page is much better than experiencing them in real life, but that doesn’t make me cringe any less.

All in all Kings, Queens, and In-betweens is a fun read. Normally I would sell a three star read back to the used bookstore, but I’m keeping this one on hand so I can hopefully give it to the right person at the right time.

A Prince on Paper by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #3)

38622940Nya Jerami fled Thesolo for the glitz and glamour of NYC but discovered that her Prince Charming only exists in her virtual dating games. When Nya returns home for a royal wedding, she accidentally finds herself up close and personal—in bed—with the real-life celebrity prince who she loves to hate.

For Johan von Braustein, the red-headed step-prince of Liechtienbourg, acting as paparazzi bait is a ruse that protects his brother—the heir to the throne—and his own heart. When a royal referendum threatens his brother’s future, a fake engagement is the perfect way to keep the cameras on him.

Nya and Johan both have good reasons to avoid love, but as desires are laid bare behind palace doors, they must decide if their fake romance will lead to a happily-ever-after.

Review:

Trigger warning for abuse.

I’ve had very hit and miss experiences with Cole’s other contemporary novels, but this is my favorite Reluctant Royals book by far.

The good, in no particular order:

  • Like most of Cole’s books it’s own voices Black representation.
  • There are several LGBTQIA+ characters. One’s queerness becomes a plot point, but the others are simply themselves and that is awesome.
  • Nya has some trauma in her past and it isn’t info dumped but you get it.
  • All the consent! Nya is not experienced in the sexual department and Johan rushes nothing and asks for permission before everything. Love.
  • Nya and Johan both have a bunch of emotional issues they’re dealing with, but their baggage matches. It’s great to see two people who help each other with their stuff constructively, and don’t set each other off.
  • At one point it looks like we’re headed for a Big Misunderstanding but the characters talk to each other like adults. The way it should be!
  • There’s some great positive modeling, including how to bring up the subject of pronouns with someone who may be questioning their own.
  • As always Cole brings in current events. Johan’s country is largely white and a former colonial power, and the government and people are going through growing pains, figuring out what they want their future to look like. How do you interact with your former colonies? Do you welcome refugees? What is the place of a monarchy in this day and age?

The not-so-good:

  • While I love the romance the plot is disappointing, especially the ending. It has good elements overall but I don’t feel like Cole stuck the landing.

I’m happy I stuck with the series through a DNF and two mediocre reads, and am looking forward to whatever Cole may come out with next.

Close Quarter by Anna Zabo (Close Quarter #1)

35534292On a transatlantic cruise to New York, sculptor Rhys Matherton struggles to piece his life back together after losing his mother, inheriting a fortune, and finding out his father isn’t his father after all. He spills a tray of drinks on a handsome stranger, then he finds himself up against a wall getting the best hand-job he’s ever had. And for the first time in his life, he feels whole.

Rhys enjoys the company of Silas Quint, but for the eerie way no one pays attention to them even while they kiss in a crowded bar. Silas explains he’s a forest fae able to glamor the room around them—and more importantly, that he’s on the cruise to hunt vampires. Rhys thinks Silas is full of it, until he discovers vampires are real, and he’s part of their main course.

Review:

Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series (first book Syncopation) is amazing, but now that it’s over ~sob~ I wanted to dip into their backlist. The first book I came up with was Close Quarter, a paranormal m/m romance set on a cruise ship.

I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sold by the jacket copy. Fae and vampires on a cruise ship? But Zabo does a good job of introducing us to the characters and slowly building out the world. We learn about fae and vampires (called soulless) along with Rhys and while there aren’t many high level ‘why the world is like this’ answers, I don’t expect that in the first book of a series.

I’m a fan of the relationship because, thanks to some paranormal handwaving, it’s based on an intimate knowledge of each other. There’s some great banter, too.

“You’re so damn young. Beautiful. Like a spring morning.”
“What, cold, foggy, and damp?”
Silas shifted on the tub’s edge, turned his hand to capture Rhys’s fingers. “Warm and occasionally dense. But full of promise.”

As hinted in the same jacket copy, the sex starts early and happens often. I love steaminess in my romance, and a bunch of the sex scenes help us understand Rhys and Silas’ relationship and how it evolves. At the same time, I think there’s too many of them. Whenever they finish fighting a baddie it’s back to the cabin for sex. At times it feels like stalling, waiting for night to fall so they can get back to killing soulless.

While the plot is fine it needed a little more. I would expect a 262 page book to have a solid subplot, but beyond Rhys wondering about his family we come up short. Part of that is because there are precious few characters – beside good guys Rhys and Silas we have the Big Bad, his cookie cutter lackies, and a waiter on the cruise ship. That’s it.

I would argue that this book could be edited down into a 150 novella and made amazing. As is it’s still a fun read and I would continue the series, but Close Quarter was written in 2012 and there still isn’t a sequel. Ah, well. I’m looking forward to moving on to Zabo’s contemporaries.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend?

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a graphic novel in English, and a single-volume, full-color graphic novel at that. But I visited my mom’s local library on a trip home and this beauty called out to me from the shelf. It was fun to read while sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to review it, though, because I have so little to compare it to. I like the art, the story is stinkin’ cute, and I blew through it in one setting. The queer factor is a plus, too. The only major drawback is that while the art suggests a historical setting the dialogue does not. The conflicting messages messed with my brain.

For now I can recommend The Prince and the Dressmaker as a quick, fun read, but I’ll need few more graphic novels under my belt before I feel comfortable calling it great.