Backlist Review || Wild by Hannah Moskowitz

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Wild follows high school graduate Zack, who’s training for a 100-mile marathon while caring for his 12-year-old sister and their mom as she deteriorates from her early-onset Alzheimers.

There are almost no white/straight/non-disabled characters in this book.

Zack, our main character, is a bisexual Filipino guy, and his girlfriend Jordan is a bisexual Jewish/Guatemalan Deaf girl. If that didn’t sell you, for some reason, Zack’s friend Chelsea is also Jewish, and Zack’s little sister Gin is a 12-year-old lesbian.

Something I really appreciated was how nobody questions anyone else’s sexuality—not even Gin, who’s super young, but just is gay. Nobody tells her that she can’t possibly know yet when she’s never had sex. Nobody tells Zack or Jordan that, since they’re now in a “straight” relationship, they’re no longer bisexual.

This book presents an honest representation of life after high school.

Zack and his two best friends are out of high school now, but none of them really follows the traditional path. Zack’s taking classes at community college so he can be around for his sick mom and little sister. His best friend Max is taking a gap year to “find himself”—and it’s not really going so well. Max’s girlfriend Chelsea is the only one attending a 4-year university, but she’s had to scrimp and save from her minimum-wage jobs just to afford to go.

All this was in the background, but I really appreciated the portrayal of the realities of being 18 or 19 and trying to figure your life out. Not everyone finishes high school and goes right on to a traditional college—and that’s okay.

Zack’s family situation is heartbreaking: his mom has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and he’s tasked with caring for her as well as his sister Gin. Although he could easily have become an unrealistic Hero Kid character, Zack really struggles with the situation he’s tasked with. He’s angry and bitter about having to care for his mom, who’s barely there at all and slowly digressing further as the book progresses. At one point, Zack goes on a rant at his mom about how unfair it is that he has to deal with her at all. He’s flawed—but it’s realistic. No 19-year-old should have to take care of his mom and sister, and Zack’s reactions are raw and true to life.

I really enjoyed the storyline that follows Zack as he trains for a 100-mile marathon in the wilderness of Tennessee mountains. In the beginning, it kind of seems like a quirky, unrealistic thing for him to do, but as we get to know him, it becomes clear that running is Zack’s way of trying to escape his circumstances. His now-absent father tried and failed to finish the marathon, so Zack’s hiding his running from his mom as well. It’s clearly his only time that he gets to be away from dealing with his home life. When he finally gets to the marathon, he starts to realize his own reasons for doing it, and ultimately he has to accept the ways he’s avoided responsibility in the past.

By far my favorite part of this book is the relationship between Zack and Jordan.

I loved that the book starts with an established romance: they’ve known each other for years and have a solid relationship, albeit one that depends on texting and chatting online. The romance plotline follows Zack as he learns that Jordan is Deaf, and as the two struggle to stay together despite the obstacles of distance (both physical and communication-wise).

There are several things to love about this. For one thing, this is a YA book that follows a relationship beyond the moment of them getting together, something that is so rare for some reason. It’s so enjoyable to see realistic struggles—because that’s how real relationships are.

On top of that, both characters are bisexual—which isn’t defined by the fact that they’re currently in a male-female relationship. Words cannot express how much I needed this story for that aspect alone. I’m bisexual and in a relationship with a guy, and my experiences are rarely accounted at all, much less still considered queer. I know I’m not the only one who needed this book.

The biggest obstacle for Zack and Jordan is one of communication. Zack takes it upon himself to learn ASL and it’s no easy task. Hearing readers get to learn about Deaf culture through Zack, from the way Deaf culture prizes blunt honesty, to the ways words and grammar change between English and ASL. I loved his little commentary about how translating his thoughts into ASL automatically makes the statements more up-front and honest—he can’t hide from Jordan when he’s talking with her.

I can’t speak for the accuracy of the Deaf rep, as I’m not Deaf, but anyone reading this book will notice that Hannah Moskowitz clearly put in the research for this story. Despite the fact that both characters recognize the near-impossibility of a Deaf/hearing relationship, they’re willing to make it work, which is such a positive thing to see. Zack and Jordan are there for each other in difficult times, even when they’re fighting. No matter how hard they have to work at being together, they know it’s worth it.

Wild was an easy 5-star for me because of the nuanced way it tackles multiple complex issues, to the way bisexuality is handled, to the Deaf representation. Despite the hard topics, it was ultimately an uplifting story about two people struggling to make their relationship work, no matter how much it takes. I highly recommend Wild to anyone who wants to see what a real loving relationship looks like beyond the initial stages.

Find this book:
Goodreads | Amazon

Have you read Wild or any other books by Hannah Moskowitz? What’s your favorite book with disability rep? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,


Backlist Review || Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Genre: YA Contemporary
Diverse Rep: Chinese-American + bisexual
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Noteworthy through NetGalley in exchange for a review. This did not in any way affect my joy in reading this book.

Jordan Sun is a junior on scholarship at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts. She’s just been locked out of a role in the school musical for the third year running. Why? Because she’s an Alto 2, while most parts require a higher Soprano range. What’s a girl to do? Cross-dress and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, obviously! (And nail it.) Now, she’s living a double life, pretending to be a boy while watching her girl self fade into the background. But how long can she keep it up? You’ll have to read to find out.

It’s going to be really hard for me to write a review of Noteworthy that isn’t completely gushing because I absolutely loved this book. Jordan’s slightly sarcastic, highly observant, constantly questioning voice sucked me in from the very first chapter. Her internal monologue sounds exactly the way I felt as a teenager. I was really intrigued by the idea of a modernized cross-dressing plot that addresses gender as a social construct.

As she tries on a masculine identity, though, Jordan struggles with feelings of guilt: she wonders if she’s being disrespectful toward the trans community by using their advice to put on what’s essentially a costume for her.* Riley Redgate doesn’t shy away from these conversations, but shows how Jordan’s desperate transformation isn’t that far off from what any of us would do to get what we want. Isn’t high school all about trying on different identities and personalities, performing the part you think will help you fit in?

It’s made even more interesting by the detailed way Redgate constructs the Kensington-Blaine boarding school environment. Jordan is surrounded by rich kids constantly so she finds it hard to relate to them. She hasn’t made a lot of friends, since she spent the last two years isolated in her relationship with her ex—even more reason that she longs to belong with the guys in the Sharpshooters.

Part of why this book is so amazing to me is the grace with which Redgate tells a story that’s all about (say it with me!) intersectionality. Jordan is Chinese-American and from a working-class family; her dad is a paraplegic who recently got totally screwed by the health care and disability benefits system. She’s also figuring out her sexuality: she thinks she’s bisexual, but she’s never had the opportunity to figure it out, as she was involved in a long-term heterosexual relationship through the end of the last school year. Even the side characters are diverse, from her childhood friend Jenna to her new friend Nihal.

There’s a lot going on with this book, but Redgate manages to make all the pieces fit together and feel natural. The various side characters are fleshed-out with their own personalities and quirks. Even Jordan is surprised at how complex each of the Sharpshooters are in real life, and she realizes just how quick she is to judge rich kids by their clothes and status objects rather than who they are inside. This isn’t a political book, though, but a reflection of the complex diversity of humanity—it’s beautiful.

*For a more in-depth discussion of the cross-dressing conversations in this book, I highly recommend you check out Shenwei’s review.

I don’t have anything negative to say about Noteworthy, but I do have a few caveats for any potential readers:

This is not a bisexual “coming out” story. While Jordan does identify as bisexual, this is not the crux of her story. As someone who discovered my own bisexuality at the ripe old age of 22, I really appreciated the nuanced way Redgate handled this. So many stories with bisexual protagonists fall into the trap of “proving it.” As a girl who’s only ever had heterosexual relationships, it’s easy for people to say “well how can you really know if you’ve never been with a girl?” and while Redgate addresses this, she doesn’t spend half the book making a big deal out of Jordan needing to have a relationship with a girl to “prove” her bisexuality. It’s how Jordan identifies, and that’s enough. Even better? None of the other characters make Jordan feel bad about this. This is like some sort of bi paradise, let me tell you.

This is not a really romance-heavy story either. Jordan is dealing with a lot of stuff—namely, pretending to be a dude—so she’s not really wandering around having feelings all over the place. When she does have feelings, she works really hard to push those down. A lot of the early backstory deals with her ex-boyfriend, Michael, and the other romance takes a while to build.

The plot is music-heavy. As a former music nerd (and long-time fan of Glee—there, I said it), Noteworthy really struck a chord with me (teehee). The musical camaraderie is real and tangible and heartwarming, but if that’s not your thing, this might not be the book for you.

Ultimately, Noteworthy is about the age-old quest to find where you belong. Sometimes that place does fit into neat categories of boy-girl or gay-straight. Sometimes in order to find where you belong, you have to take big risks and let yourself transform. In the end, for Jordan, it’s worth it—and so is reading her story.

find this book
Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

Have you read Noteworthy? Do you have a favorite book set at a boarding school? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,

Review || Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Genre: Contemporary Fiction | Diverse Rep: Jamaican-British (#OwnVoices) | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book through my work. While I am grateful for the opportunity to review, this in no way influences my opinion of the book.

CW: racism, misogyny, unsafe sex, anxiety & panic attacks.

When her long-term white boyfriend decides he wants “a break” from their relationship, 25-year-old Queenie Jenkins struggles to keep her life together. She’s lost focus on her work as a journalist and she can’t seem to stop herself from engaging in unsafe, unfulfilling sex with a slew of hateful white guys. Through the support of her loyal group of friends, Queenie must dig deep inside herself to find the answer to who she really is and who she wants to become.

Queenie’s voice and the overall construction of the novel give her story a distinctly realistic and contemporary feel.

From the very first scene, when Queenie undergoes a sexual health exam and discovers that she’s had a miscarriage, I knew I was invested in this story. Not only is Queenie’s voice incredibly relatable, from her experiences with men to her struggles in friendship and work, but she’s also just plain funny at various points. This is one of those laugh-and-cry type books.

I really appreciated the way text message conversations and even emails were included throughout the story.

Rather than detracting from what’s going in the narration, these conversations serve to move the story forward in time and provide relevant details that the author would’ve had to tell the reader otherwise. I’ve read entire books told in this modern epistolary form, but I’ve yet to read a book that includes texts in such a productive way.

You get a real sense of each character’s voice through their messages as well. One of the most laugh-out-loud aspects of the book involved the ongoing text conversation between Queenie and her three best girlfriends, which she dubs “the Corgis.” Through these messages, we see the roles played by Queenie’s friends, from her two white friends, one from work and one from college, to her black childhood best friend. These friendships are complicated and occasionally even problematic, but that just adds to the realism of the story.

We also get glimpses into Queenie’s past in flashbacks related to her relationship with her boyfriend Tom.

Although at first these flashbacks threw me out of the story as I had to figure out where they took place in time, each of these scenes serves to further our understanding of Queenie’s character and her struggles in the present day. In the first half of the story, the flashbacks serve to reveal why Tom really wasn’t that great of a boyfriend to Queenie; in the second half, the flashbacks are clues to the puzzle of Queenie’s mental health.

It should be stated that Queenie can be an extremely frustrating character to read.

At 25, she’s screwing up her life left and right. Her boyfriend Tom wants a break (although it becomes clear early on that it’s more likely a break-up than a break), likely because Queenie pushed him away through the majority of their three-year relationship. As she mourns the loss of this relationship, Queenie loses focus at her job more and more, and her relationship with her friends becomes pretty much solely focused on Queenie’s problems. By far the most problematic aspect of Queenie’s character, though, is her sex life.

For much of the book, Queenie sleeps with all the wrong men—and she knows it.

Maybe I’ve just been reading too much YA lately, but I can’t remember the last time I read a book that talked this openly—from the beginning—about sexual health. Queenie finds guys through dating apps, and even through her workplace, that treat her like absolute trash. She somehow forgets to use protection every time. There are graphic depictions of one man in particular who refuses to be touched by Queenie after sex, treating her like a sex toy rather than a person. All of these (white) men are incredibly racist in their treatment of Queenie. It seems that they want to date white women, but fuck black women.

While I can’t relate to the racial aspect of these relationships, other reviewers have expressed the relatable nature of these experiences. As someone who made some pretty poor dating choices in her early twenties, my heart broke for Queenie because I remember what it felt like to respect myself so little that I let men treat me like dirt. I also remember how easy it was to let a guy convince me not to worry about protection—quite frankly, there’s so little at stake for them in that scenario.

Despite it being so hard to read, and despite her many horrible decisions, I don’t feel that Queenie is nonredeemable.

As the novel progresses, so does Queenie. She acknowledges her mistakes, both in how she’s treated her friends, how she’s lost focus at the best job she’s ever had, and how she’s allowed men to use and abuse her.

Most importantly, Queenie seeks help. She realizes that her anxiety symptoms are interfering with her life, that she can’t put her life back together on her own. She moves back in with her grandparents and she shows up for therapy—despite the fact that her family doesn’t acknowledge mental health as a real issue.

For a 300-page book, Queenie tackles a lot of major issues.

As a Jamaican-British woman, Queenie encounters a lot of racism. I can’t even fathom the reality of life for women of color in our world. Queenie is fetishized by white men, accused of being aggressive by strangers for merely speaking her mind, and constantly glossed over at work when she brings really solid ideas to the table. At one point, a white guy argues with her about the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement. Reading this, I was blown away by how frustrating it is for Queenie to just…exist in her space every single day.

I loved the complex portrayal of her family as well.

Queenie’s aunt is incredibly religious and judgmental, while her cousin is more supportive and understanding of Queenie’s struggles. Her grandparents have really strict expectations for cleanliness and don’t really express their love openly, but it’s apparent that everything they do comes out of love. Despite the fact that her family doesn’t believe in mental health issues, they ultimately come to support Queenie’s process, which was so beautiful to see.

The portrayal of Queenie’s slow slog toward recovery from her repressed trauma and anxiety was by far the most powerful element of this book.

This isn’t a book where things happen. It’s a book where a character grows and becomes stronger than before. I loved watching Queenie at first resist therapy before discovering that yes, coping mechanism for anxiety can help, and yes, she needs to repair the relationship with her mother and acknowledge the trauma she went through. Although my mental health experiences are quite different from Queenie’s, I was brought to tears by her conversations with her therapist.

I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book, and it seems like a lot of people couldn’t get past Queenie’s reckless sexual relationships and other self-sabotaging behavior. For me, these elements were completely realistic, and although they were difficult to read, Queenie’s progress in the last third of the book made everything so worth it.

Overall, do I recommend?

Queenie isn’t just a book for black readers, or readers with anxiety. Queenie is the diverse 20-something journey we’ve all been waiting for. Regardless of your age, racial background, or country of origin, I highly recommend you check out this book.

Have you read Queenie, or do you plan to? Do you have a favorite 2019 debut? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,

Review || A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diverse Rep: Muslim MC (#OV)

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a beautifully-written, heartbreaking story of a closed-off Muslim teen girl, Shirin, who starts a new high school the year after 9/11 and unexpectedly falls for her lab partner, a white boy named Ocean. While the core of the plot revolves around their romance, the book does so much more than follow two teens falling in love. This book introduced me to the world of break dancing and drew me back in time to the days when AIM was the way you talked to people after school. Ultimately, this book is about what it means to decide to open up to people around you, no matter the cost, and how one person can change the course of another’s life, permanently.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is the ultimate quiet YA.

Because it’s told in first person, we’re deep inside Shirin’s perspective, feeling what she’s feeling. Yet, since it’s told in past tense, we get the sense that Shirin is telling this story at a distance of some unknown amount of time. As I read, I imagined an older Shirin, maybe in her twenties, looking back on the first time she fell in love. The subtly of this writing style really added to the depth of the story.

The stakes here are ultimately related to Shirin’s internal struggle: to open herself, or to stay closed off.

As a white person who grew up in the safety of Christianity, I have no idea what it’s like to live as an openly Muslim person, especially in the turbulent years right after 9/11. Through reading this story, though, I can understand more of Shirin’s perspective. She and her family have moved more times than she can count, which means there’s little point in becoming attached to other people. On top of that, she’s accustomed to nearly daily micro-aggressions from people who misunderstand who she is and what she represents.

Sometimes I really wanted to smack some sense into Shirin, especially the more she gets to know Ocean. His character makes such a beautiful contrast with hers: while she pulls away from feelings, from connection with other people, he opens himself up, even when it means getting hurt. Yet it’s clear that Ocean feels safe to do this because he can’t imagine how his world would react to him being with a Muslim girl. As the story progresses, as some of Shirin’s worst fears come true due to her relationship with Ocean, I began to understand even more why she tries to avoid getting caught up in relationships with other people.

That being said, Shirin really grows as a character, and I loved watching that progression.

It’s not that Ocean changes her, but being with Ocean changes her. Because of her relationship with him, she learns that yes, sometimes white people are ignorant. But sometimes, they really want to learn, they just don’t know how. Sometimes people aren’t judging you as harshly as you think they are. Sometimes, she realizes, you’re judging people even more harshly than you believe they’re judging you. This was absolutely a beautiful, yet subtle transition to read.

There truly is so much to appreciate about this story, and I think each reader may take away something slightly different.

As someone who was in middle school when 9/11 happened, I really appreciated that this book takes place in 2002. Mafi does a great job of really setting the scene of the early 2000s, from the musical references (and the iPods!) to the reliance on limited texting and AOL Instant Messenger as a form of communication between teens. I vividly remember how excited I was when my parents finally got dial-up and I could chat with my friends after school. I remember when each text message cost money, so I had to limit my communications in that way. I remember how my iPod became my best friend at a certain point—so I could completely connect with Shirin on this level.

By far the most powerful element of this book is the #OwnVoices Muslim rep.

Shirin is constantly mis-read as a terrorist, simply because she chooses to wear hijab. At multiple points, different characters suggest that maybe it would be easier for her if she just stopped wearing her scarf, which makes her a target for harassment, micro-aggressions, slurs, and more. Yet each time, Shirin continues to be herself. In her character, I was able to see how wearing hijab is itself an act of bravery, particularly in a place like America, with so much Islamophobia.

Overall, do I recommend?

Through Shirin’s character, I realized that the act of being yourself in a world that despises you is in and of itself revolutionary. Although it was incredibly heartbreaking to see Shirin mistreated constantly throughout this book, I came away with a deep emotional connection to her story. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough to all types of readers, regardless of background, religion, race, or creed. But don’t just take my word for it: read this #OwnVoices review by the lovely Chaima and see for yourself.

Have you read A Very Large Expanse of Sea or do you plan to? what’s your favorite quiet ya with diverse rep? let me know in the comments! Until next time,

Review || Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: Anxiety rep
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙

Eliza and Her Monsters is not just another contemporary.

At the age of 18, Eliza is the anonymous creator of a web comic and online phenomenon, Monstrous Sea—but she doesn’t talk to anyone offline. When she meets Wallace, a Monstrous Sea superfan and brilliant fan fiction writer, her way of life completely changes. No longer completely tied to an online world, Eliza struggles to maintain her anonymity, even from Wallace. Meanwhile, she has to figure out how to write an ending to the series she’s worked so hard to create. I read this book on the brilliant recommendation of the lovely Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books, and I’m so glad I picked this up.

Francesca Zappia is clearly a talented artist, and her inclusion of Eliza’s artwork in the story took this one step further than the average contemporary novel.

As I read, I discovered more about Monstrous Sea, which is its own world with its own lore and magic. I found myself desperately wishing there was a whole book of Monstrous Sea, because it’s definitely something I would devour. Zappia does an amazing job of combining elements of online conversations and posts, so that I got a really good feel for Eliza’s online world as well. Eliza’s two best friends are people she’s never met IRL, but they each have a distinctive voice that comes through in their message threads; as a writer, I was blown away.

Eliza Mirk is the kind of character that either makes or breaks a story. In my opinion, she makes this one.

I really related to Eliza as an artist, strangely. Although none of my work has ever come close to being as famous as Monstrous Sea, Eliza’s desire to maintain her artistic integrity while being literally invisible IRL really resonated with me. As a writer, few people I encounter in my daily life have so much as read my blog, much less any of my fiction. Eliza’s emotions at 18 reminded me of my young self and almost made me weirdly nostalgic for that time of my life, in all its grittiness.

That being said, it should be acknowledged that Eliza is an unlikable character.

She’s angsty to the extreme. Despite having parents who love her and give her everything she could ever need, she resents them for not understanding what her art really means. Plenty of people deal with family situations that are much worse than what Eliza does… yet I related to this too.

When I was in high school, I hated my parents. They didn’t understand why I chose to spend all my spare time writing bits and pieces of a novel on scraps of notebook paper. They didn’t take me seriously as an artist (although pretty much no one did). They wanted me to go to a good college and get a real career, and I resented them for how much they wanted me to be a successful adult. While I can see why some people would find Eliza’s treatment of her parents problematic, I related to it so much, and I think this is the first time I encountered this representation of what my life was like as a teen. I do think Eliza grows over the course of the novel, that she learns to communicate better with her parents.

Ultimately, this is a story about what it means to be a teen artist in an online world.

Through Eliza’s eyes, the reader can see just how valuable online relationships can be to a young person. We live in a world that’s full of scare articles about how dangerous the Internet is for kids, but very few people openly talk about how helpful it can be to someone like Wallace, who’s dealing with trauma and doesn’t feel comfortable talking and interacting in person. Sure, one can lose themselves on the internet; but if you’re reading this lengthy review, I’m pretty sure you agree that the internet can also be a place of belonging for so many of us.

Eliza and Her Monsters also has one of the most beautiful, slow-moving romances I’ve read in a long time.

Wallace is such a sweet character. It’s rare to find a male character who’s both tough and soft, and I loved his story so much. He recently lost his father and lived in a blended family, which is another thing that I want to see more of in YA. Beyond that, the relationship between Eliza and Wallace is sweet and flawed and real. Their slow-motion romance completely fits the two characters: Eliza never interacts and makes friends IRL, but learns to do so through Wallace; Wallace learns to use his voice slowly but surely. Both of them still have a ways to go as characters, which is part of what makes it real.

The main thing I felt was missing was a bigger discussion of mental health.

[Note: mild to moderate spoilers ahead.]

Eliza’s anxiety feels very realistic: she puts an incredible amount of pressure on her art, and added to that is the fact that she begins to feel responsible for Wallace’s future as well. It’s a lot for anyone to deal with, and when her anonymity as an artist is shattered, Eliza finally cracks. Again, this felt incredibly real to me. Sometimes, with a mental illness, you can be going along just fine until something whacks you over the head and makes you feel completely broken.

Yet I wanted to see more in terms of Eliza’s recovery from anxiety. There’s exactly one scene of her in therapy, and while it’s a beautiful scene, I wanted more. Additionally, there’s a scene where Eliza contemplates suicide (in the exact same way as Wallace’s father) and is really only deterred when Wallace himself actually shows up. Setting aside the fact that there’s no way Wallace could’ve known where Eliza was, this terrifying scene is set aside in the narrative and not really addressed as being a truly serious moment. Whether or not Eliza really would’ve committed suicide, the moment feels over-dramatic in part because of how it’s shoved aside; it can be read as teen angst, rather than a serious cry for help.

Overall, though, this is a book I highly recommend.

Once I started reading Eliza and Her Monsters, I could hardly put it down. I was easily sucked into Eliza’s world and that of her web comic. I rooted for her relationship with Wallace and cheered on both of them in their mental health recovery. If you’re looking for realistic anxiety rep, or just something that explores internet relationships, this is definitely one you don’t want to miss.

Find This Book:
Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

Have you read this book? Do you have a favorite backlist read that you feel deserves more hype? Let me know in the comments. Until next time,

Review || The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Genre: Historical Fiction | Diverse Rep: all-Korean cast

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙

40538657The Island of Sea Women takes us to the Korean island of Jeju. Starting in the 1930s, the story follows Young-Sook, one of the last of the haenyeo divers, through her childhood and into the years of her motherhood. She struggles to hold her family together as the world around and within Jeju changes.

As someone who didn’t even know Jeju existed before reading this, I really enjoyed learning about the forgotten culture of the Jeju haenyeo.

I was fascinated by the matri-focal culture of the island: women are the breadwinners, and the men take care of the children while the female diverse are at sea all day. I’m shocked that, as a feminist, I’d never heard about the haenyeo before. I especially loved the relationships between women: the divers have a specific hierarchy based on age and skill level, but they all help each other and work together to split their profits.

The work is incredibly dangerous, sometimes even deadly. These women withstand incredibly cold water temperatures and hold their breath for upwards of three minutes at a time. When they’re not diving, the women are also responsible for the dry fields, or their agricultural crops. Despite being a woman-focused society, there’s no degradation of men here beyond light joking. Young-Sook loves her husband deeply, and the women desire having sons since only sons can carry on ancestor worship.

Reading this book, I learned so much about the politics of the Korean War as well.

As an American, I’m ashamed of how little we talk about this era of history and its consequences. Before their defeat in WWII, Jeju was more or less a Japanese colony. After WWII, the Americans took over. Despite claiming they wanted Korean independence, America and Russia split Korea down the middle and essentially rigged the election system. I’m obviously over-simplifying here, but suffice to say that reading this book left me incredibly angry with my own country (which isn’t really a new feeling for me, tbh).

Beyond that, this is a book about friendship between two very different women.

Young-Sook is the daughter of her haenyeo collective’s chief, while her best friend Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and therefore untrustworthy. Because Mi-ja is tainted by her parental background, she ends up being married off to another collaborator, an abusive man who isolates her from her former home. Young-Sook, meanwhile, marries within the neighborhood and has a happy life for a time. In the aftermath of WWII, just as they’re beginning to reconnect, Mi-ja betrays Young-Sook and the friends are driven apart.

I can’t imagine going through what Young-Sook does in this novel, and yet I had a hard time accepting the way she blames Mi-ja for everything that happens. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the latter part of the book immensely and appreciated how Young-Sook rebuilds herself in the face of such loss.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel all that connected to these characters.

Part of that is due to the fact that these women are mothers and even grandmothers, so I couldn’t really relate to them. Mostly, though, I felt disconnected because I didn’t really get to know Young-Sook. Aside from her status as a haenyeo and mother, I didn’t really know much about her personality. While this is perhaps the nature of a historical fiction book that’s mostly about a society at a point in time, it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, do I recommend?

This book tells an important and forgotten story about our world’s past. Regardless of where you’re from, The Island of Sea Women sheds light on a forgotten part of history that we would all do well to learn. Any story that prioritizes women’s lives in the face of crisis is one that’s important, but in revealing a woman-focused culture, Lisa See draws attention to an important group of women and a culture that is now all but lost.

—find this book—

Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

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Review || The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Genre: Fantasy | Diverse Rep: West Asian setting + Muslim (#OwnVoices)

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

34814099The City of Brass is an epic historical fantasy novel that follows Nahri, a 19-year-old con artist from Cairo, as she discovers that she’s the last descendant of a powerful djinn healer family. With the help of a protective former Daeva slave, Dara, Nahri journeys to the magical city of Daevabad and integrates herself into the ruling family. As she gets to know Ali, the second son of the Qahtani king of Daevabad, Nahri must decide where her loyalties lie and what she will do in order to survive.

I haven’t read a fantasy story in a long time, so the depth of world-building saved this book for me.

As a white American, I’m not familiar with the Islamic myths that Chakraborty draws on, but I loved the seamless weaving of myth and fantasy. We learn about the world of djinn through Nahri, a presumably human girl who gets swept up in a war she doesn’t fully understand. Through Nahri’s perspective, we learn about the different magical creatures and the basics of Daevabad’s political factions.

There were lots of surprises in the story, from Nahri’s background, to the action scenes. The combination of 18th-century Egypt with the mythical world of Daevabad was absolutely stunning.

That being said, I cannot review this book without admitting the mis-balanced pacing.

The beginning of the book is description-heavy as the reader is thrust into an unfamiliar world. We’re still getting to know who these people are and learning new terminology, which often threw me out of the story. On top of that, the entire first half of the book is a long and arduous journey from the human world to Daevabad…and I’d almost lost hope of Nahri and Dara ever arriving.

Of course, once we arrived in Daevabad, I was absolutely hooked. While the first half of the book dragged, the second half seemed to fly by as I got sucked into the political intrigue. The one thing that kept me going in the first half of the book were Ali’s chapters. I really connected with his moral struggle: he believes in equality, yet he’s trapped in a family of pureblood maniacs who care more about keeping their power than doing the right thing.

In fact, one of the best things about this story was the fact that most of the characters are morally gray to some extent. Nahri comes from a background of stealing to survive; Dara murdered countless people during his time as a warrior and as a slave; and Ali chooses his family’s political views over his moral feelings time and time again. Pretty quickly, we learn that Dara and Ali are diametrically opposed, yet it’s not clear that either of them is fully right or wrong. Dara and Ali both have different views of history that affect their current worldview, which acts as an interesting parallel to real life.

My main complaint was that I wasn’t invested in Nahri’s relationship with Dara.

I get that they went through this huge journey together, and that Dara admires her because she’s descended from the people his people have always served…but I just didn’t buy the fact that she was so loyal to him, that she defends him in spite of everythingincluding his borderline abusive treatment of her, which she writes off as just how he is. I don’t think Dara is as evil as the Qahtani family makes him out to be, but I definitely think Nahri is smart enough to see through Dara’s facade.

That being said, I loved the friendship between Nahri and Ali. It starts out with them both using each other for their own ends, but the friendship that develops is so genuine and real.

One of the strongest elements, and something I hope is explored more in the next book, is the racism within Daevabad.

The pureblood djinn are divided up into different tribes who tolerate, but also insult each other. Beyond that, most djinn are incredibly racist against shafit, or non-pureblooded djinn. The shafit live in segregated areas with fewer resources, often living in abject poverty. Meanwhile, the Daeva tribe both looks down on everyone else and convinces the Qahtani rulers to provide them with extra security—all based on the fact that, before the Qahtani family won the throne, the Daevas and the Nahid healers were in charge.

Despite being a book about Islamic myths, though, I’m not convinced that this is the best Muslim rep that’s out there. Since this isn’t my lane, I’m linking to two different #OwnVoices reviewers so you can decide for yourself. I highly suggest you read both Fadwa’s review and Chaima’s.

Overall, do I recommend:

I really enjoyed reading this book. I haven’t read a fantasy in a long time, and this one really sucked me into the world and had me rooting for the characters. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

—find this book—

Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

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Have you read The City of Brass? What are your thoughts? What is your favorite fantasy series? Let me know in the comments!

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