Hello Blogosphere! Welcome back to my hodgepodge bookish blog!
Today I’m bringing you another round of bullet reviews for the books I read in February. I hope you enjoy!
read for Multicultural & Diversity Issues in Curriculum
gave me a lot of insight that spurred further research into concepts like deficit model thinking & the ways teachers can use literature to help kids understand their own & others’ experiences
my only complaint is that I feel like it could’ve gone into more depth on specific actions teachers can take in the classroom… it felt like a lot of what she suggested were these big changes that I don’t feel empowered to make on my own without more support
one of those books I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did
focuses on the gritty side of immigration: Kimberly & her mom live in a horrifyingly inadequate apartment & work in a sweatshop for minimal income
unfortunately, focuses mostly on how education is the escape & glorifies the “model immigrant” storyline
I didn’t really feel connected to the characters very much due to the detached writing style
Dani is one of my favorite book bloggers—I love her unique take on reading as a writer. I saw that she’d posted some buddy read posts, so I reached out and asked if she’d be interested in buddy reading with me.
This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, so I was really excited to branch out. Today, I’ll be answering questions Dani asked me about reading Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan.Make sure to check out Dani’s post as well so you can see her answers to my questions!
What were your expectations going into Girls of Paper and Fire? Were those expectations met or surpassed? Was there anything about the story that you want to point out as really well done? Anything you would have liked developed better?
I’d heard a lot of buzz around the blogosphere about Girls of Paper and Fire. Several diverse book bloggers I admire a lot had raved about it when it first came out.
I definitely went into the book expecting, well, a lot. I knew it had amazing Asian rep, and that definitely lived up to my expectations. I enjoyed the f/f romance as well. I got really into the world-building, even though I’m not a huge fantasy reader. There was enough detail to help me paint a mental picture of what was going on, etc. but not so much that I felt like I was being dumped on.
That being said, I do feel that Lei, the main character, could’ve been more developed. She definitely has a Dark Past that haunts her in the present, and she’s very concerned about the fate of her remaining family members. Other than that, I don’t feel like I know a whole lot about her, enough to believe her capable of her actions in the story. Without giving anything further away, I guess I just wish I’d gotten to know Lei a little bit more outside the context of the plot itself. Hopefully I’ll get to know her a bit better in the sequel!
The world building was a major reason I wanted to read Girls of Paper and Fire. There is clearly a caste system in place that weighs the balance of power in the favor of those with demon blood. Hence this becomes a story about the choices we make when in untenable situations. What are your thoughts on how Girls of Paper and Fire explored this theme? How do you imagine readers will absorb Lei and the other Paper Girl’s choices?
I absolutely loved the power dynamic themes in this book! Because Lei is an outsider, rather than having been raised to become a Paper Girl, you can definitely see her struggling to absorb her new role. I found myself wondering what I would do if I were forced into this situation.
While I admired some of Lei’s actions, particularly the way she stands up for herself whenever possible, I think I’d behave more like Aoki—she’s timid and does what she can to fit into her circumstances. I’m definitely not much of a rebel, when in those sorts of situations, but it was neat to watch Lei interact.
As dark and upsetting as the story was at certain points, it’s ultimately an empowering one. I think this is an important book for young girls to read, in particular, so they can see the darker side of sexual politics and how sometimes the powerless are the ones who ultimately must take back power for themselves.
The Paper Girls come from a range of backgrounds and are as diverse as our world. What did you think of how each girl was portrayed? Did their diversity come out in the story? And because I love this question you sent me (yes, readers I stole one of Christine’s very neat questions)… Of the Paper Girls in the book, which girl are you most similar to in terms of personality? Which girl do you most admire?
I was really impressed with how Natasha Ngan brought something different to each girl in the story. On the one hand, you have Blue, the noble paper caste girl who thinks she’s better than everyone else. And on the other hand, there’s someone like Aoki, who’s raised more or less on purpose to be a sex slave to the king.
I loved how each girl was described with different features: Chenna is described as being darker skinned and from the South, whereas the twin girls are described as being paler. What I loved most was how each of the girls come from slightly different cultural backgrounds. I learned a bit about different styles of dress as well as religious practices as well. Yet despite their differences, the girls ultimately come together to support each other. I loved the picture of what’s possible for female solidarity in the bitterest of circumstances.
I definitely admired Wren the most, but like I said, I think I resemble Aoki more in terms of how she interacts with the world. I would try to keep things positive, but ultimately I am just not much of a rebel!
Paper Girls are basically sex slaves to the King. There is a lot of brutality and a predominant focus on sex through the book even though its not graphically described. And there is violence against women in the course of intimacy. What did you think about how this was explored? What connections can be made between this fantasy world and the real world for readers?
I knew that there was an aspect of sexual violence to this book, but I was quite impressed by how carefully it’s handled. Ngan did a really wonderful job of both showing the brutality, but not making the scenes unnecessarily violent.
I really appreciated the frank discussions of sex in the book. It’s rare, in a YA book, to have open talk about sexual arousal. One of my favorite scenes occurs in the Night Houses with Zelle, one of the concubines who’s charged with more or less teaching the Paper Girls how to be sexy. I loved the way Zelle described sex as being really natural, but that it involves an aspect of embracing oneself in order to reach that level of comfort. I definitely think we need more books that subtly show young women embracing their own sexuality.
As far as connecting to the real world, I think Ngan did a great job of expressing how wrong it is to force sex on someone. This story goes a long way to demonstrate just how much rape is an aspect of power, not just sex. Although it’s difficult to read, ultimately the characters do gain an aspect of power over their captors, and I really enjoyed watching that process.
There is a queer romance at the heart of Girls of Paper and Fire. Lei didn’t understand where her sexuality lay at the start of the story. What did you think about how she explored her attraction to girls? Is this something teen readers will be able to relate to as they explore their own sexuality? I really, really loved Wren, the Paper Girl Lei falls in love with. How did feel as you learned about Wren’s feelings for Lei?
I definitely found Lei really relatable. Without getting too personal, I didn’t really understand my own attraction to women for a long time; I always knew I was attracted to men, and that was such a default that I didn’t question it until I was much older.
I thought it was really interesting that, because the book is set in a fantasy world, Lei and Wren don’t really use any sort of labels. I think it’s really powerful to read a story about a girl exploring her queerness without it being a coming-out style story.
I loved watching Lei and Wren fall for each other, mostly because their relationship starts out as being a test of trust. Lei finds out secrets about Wren, and Wren in turn supports Lei in her rebellion. I thought it was really beautifully done, and it’s so important to show teens that good relationships are built on mutual respect and trust, not just lust.
When Lei becomes a Paper Girl she is quite resistant. Then she realizes she’ll have an opportunity to find out what happened to her mother. That mystery is something that gnaws on her through Girls of Paper and Fire. Was this well explored through the plot? Were you satisfied with what and how Lei learns?
It definitely seemed like Lei’s family exists in the plot as a way to keep Lei a bit more docile. She wants to resist the king and her role as a Paper Girl, but she’s afraid of what he’ll do to her family. She only calms down a bit when she gets to research what happened to her mother.
To me, her discovery is ultimately pretty anticlimactic. It felt like that scene was mostly there to allow her and Wren to bond over their mutual loss. I wish the mystery had been a little bit more fleshed out. It would’ve been interesting to see what would happen if Lei’s mom was actually a concubine inside the city.
Lei makes a big deal about the oaths and secrets Wren made to others before they met. She talks about lying and trust even though she and Wren haven’t known each other long. This is a theme played out in many relationships found in books. Did you feel like Lei did, that Wren was lying to her and that it was uncalled for? What bearing do you feel not knowing about her mother plays in Lei’s relationship with Wren? Is there ever a time when keeping secrets is understandable?
As much as I wanted Lei and Wren to get together pretty much from the start, I could completely understand Wren’s motives for keeping secrets. It’s not like they were in a typical high school setting or something; their lives are literally on the line. Especially once we learned why Wren was keeping to herself so much, I could definitely understand where she’s coming from.
I could understand Lei’s frustration, I definitely feel like it was a bit overdone. There’s a difference between lying on purpose and keeping secrets to protect yourself. In some ways, Lei seems more concerned with finding out the truth—about her mother, and about Wren—than she does about surviving her life as a Paper Girl. I don’t think the true danger of her situation really sunk in, on some level, just based on how she acts in certain situations.
You mentioned that you felt let down by how minimally Lei’s character was constructed. This is quite a brutal world Natasha Ngan paints. To me Lei felt like a “special snowflake” who escaped not only experiencing what the others did, but the true consequences of the situation. Yet she goes on to inspire Wren and Zelle with her resistance of the king. Did you feel her punishment was in line with resisting a king? Do you believe he would have allowed her to live and instigate resistant thinking among the other Paper Girls?
YES I definitely feel like Lei was a special snowflake and/or a reader-insert character. Which makes sense: the reader needs a point of entry to the story, and Lei, with her resistance to and ignorance of how things work in the life of a Paper Girl, makes for a great character in that sense. She definitely seems to get away with a lot: for whatever reason, the king decides to save her for last, and then (SPOILER) Lei ends up resisting the king’s advances and escaping her first time with him for quite some time (END SPOILER).
I do think Ngan could’ve been harsher in terms of what happens to Lei. Based on her resistance to the king, and the fact that she was ultimately added onto the Paper Girl roster as an afterthought, I do feel like Lei could’ve been sentenced to die. It seems that paper caste people in general are disposable in this world, so I feel like Lei is kept alive because she’s the main character of the story. That being said, Lei does inspire others around her, and that’s an important aspect of the plot. Maybe this is just one of those things where you have to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Still, I do wish Lei was more complex as far as characterization goes.
With all of the different females in the Women’s Court did you enjoy Girls of Paper and Fire from only one POV? Would you have enjoyed reading one or two of the other Paper Girls’ POVs? Whose and why? Do you think this would have changed your opinion of Girls of Paper and Fire?
Ooooh I love this question, because it’s such a writing question! To be quite honest, I feel like so many YA books are in first person, and I would’ve loved to see from the perspective of other characters. I obviously loved Aoki so much, but I would’ve been really curious to see inside Blue’s head; as it stands, we only learn the truth of why she’s such a jerk when Lei is told about Blue’s backstory.
I can understand why Wren doesn’t have a POV, since it would lose some of the mystery of what she’s up to, but I would’ve loved to see more from other girls. In some respects, Lei comes across as a bit…well, slut-shame-y, when it comes to how she treats the other girls. It would’ve been nice to see how the other Paper Girls dealt with having to be the king’s sex slaves.
I know you loved Zelle, a concubine who trains the girls. Why did you love this character so much? What did you think about her training and actions toward Lei?
To be honest, I found Zelle waaaay hotter than Wren (even though Wren is super dreamy, I won’t lie). In some respects, she’s kind of a classic character: the prostitute who teaches the newbies how to do their jobs. I think what really drew me to her is how she combined sex positivity with an aspect of power. By taking control of her sexuality and her emotions, even though she’s forced to sleep with men she doesn’t want, Zelle takes back a lot of the power these men have over her.
In her own way, too, Zelle encourages Lei to follow her heart. It’s in that first training scene with Zelle that Lei begins to realize her feelings for Wren. I honestly wish I’d had someone to talk openly with about sexual feelings as a young person; I was raised to never talk about it, so I’m now 29 and still figuring out my sexuality. I guess a part of me wishes I had a Zelle in my own life when I was 17. Which I realize sounds super weird, but we’re gonna just go with it.
Okay, I’m sorry but I’m dying to know your answer so I’m going to steal one more questions… If you were a Steel or Moon caste in Ikhara, what do you think your animal form would be?
First of all, there should totally be some kind of Buzzfeed internet quiz for this question.
I’d like to think I’d be some kind of big cat, like a panther or leopard. As a kid, I used to imagine I was something powerful like that. In truth, I’d probably be more like Lill, a little bit fawnish and soft and delicate. Honestly, this question is really hard to answer—but I’m looking forward to seeing what you’d be!
Have you read Girls of Paper and Fire? Have you ever done a buddy read before (and would you be interested in doing one with me in the future)? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,
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.
Genre: Historical Fiction | Diverse Rep: all-Korean cast
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙
The 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.
Genre: Fantasy | Diverse Rep: West Asian setting + Muslim (#OwnVoices)
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The 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 everything—including 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.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction | Diverse Rep: #OwnVoices Palestinian immigrant family
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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.
Content Warnings: misogyny, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, sexual violence, death.
In A Woman Is No Man, three generations of Palestinian-American women struggle to find a sense of self in a culture that treats women like wallpaper. Fareeda holds her family together in the new world of America; Isra submits to her husband and worries about a future for her daughters; and Deya yearns to go to college instead of getting married.
It should be noted from the start that this book is in no way meant to represent all Arabs/Muslims.
In fact, one of the major characters points out that other Arab families allow their women more freedom. In the author’s note to my edition, Etaf Rum remarks that by even writing this book, she’s violating the code of silence in her community; she worries that the world will take this as further reason to discriminate against Arabs. But remaining silent wasn’t an option for her, and I’m so glad she decided to write this book in spite of her fears.
I was so excited to read an #OwnVoices book about Palestinian-American immigrants.
For one thing, it seems that Americans avoid talking about Palestine whenever possible, and this book encouraged me to do more digging. For another thing, I firmly believe these kinds of stories are so important—not only to break the code of silence, but to remind us just how real these issues still are, right in our backyard so to speak.
The use of 3rd person limited to show each woman’s perspective was incredibly effective.
While it’s a character-driven story, the slight distance from the minds of downtrodden characters adds to the story, rather than detracts from it. Reading the perspective of Isra, a mother of four whose husband is physically abusive, would’ve been even harder had we been fully immersed in her mind. I also loved every single reference to reading (the author runs an amazing bookstagram that I highly recommend). Throughout the story, reading is the way that younger women are able to visualize a culture and way of life that’s different from theirs. They’re able to imagine going their own way, whether it’s having adventures or actually falling in love, rather than being forced into an unwanted marriage right out of high school.
I can’t lie: this book was hard to read.
Every time I picked it up, I got sucked back into a world where women can’t go out alone, even just to walk around the block; where reading is dangerous and motherhood is one’s only solace. What was amazing, to me, was how Etaf Rum carefully revealed why the family operates the way it does. Fareeda and Khaled grew up in refugee camps, first in tents and then in concrete shelters. They didn’t have running water and they were barely able to pay bills. They make it to America, where they have a better life, but neither of them truly leaves their old life behind. Fareeda worries that America will spoil her children and grandchildren, so of course she holds onto her culture as tightly as she can.
I loved getting to see inside the minds of three generations of women.
Each of the characters has a reason for her silence and submission to what’s expected of her, yet each of them rebel in their own ways. Isra remains silent, allowing herself to be beaten if it means protecting her children, but she rebels through reading books that her sister-in-law brings home. Deya sneaks off to visit her long lost aunt and comes to understand her own power in shaping her future. Even Fareeda, the grandmother, stands up for herself the only way she knows how, and she’s the one who holds her family together. We see how the culture is toxic for men as well, through Adam’s slow deterioration under the pressure of supporting not only his wife and children but his siblings and parents.
Still, the story ends on a bittersweet yet hopeful note. It’s clear that there is hope for the future, but the women in the story have to learn to make their own destiny—even when it comes at a high price.
I will be shouting about this book for a while. I want my friends to read it, and my family too. I want this story to be read as widely as possible, so that hopefully change will come for women like Fareeda, Isra, and Deya.