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,

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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!

If you liked this review and want to see more of what I’m reading, add me on Goodreads!

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Review || A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

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.

IMG_0595In 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.

-find this book-

Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read A Woman Is No Man? Are you participating in the 2019 Year of the Asian Reading Challenge? What are your favorite books with Arab/Muslim rep? Let me know in the comments!

Review | Little & Lion

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: Black Jewish bisexual MC | My Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

25062038When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself—or worse.

Little & Lion is probably one of my favorite 2017 releases for this reason: It tells a complex story about intersecting identities, discovering sexuality, mental health, and family, and it doesn’t sell any of these elements short.

The story follows Suzette as she returns to her home in L.A. after a year at boarding school on the east coast. While she was away, she fell in love with a girl for the first time and worried about her brother, Lionel, who was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When she and Lionel fall for the same girl, Suzette has to sort out her feelings and decide whether she’ll remain loyal to what her brother wants, or do what needs to be done for his health.

This book has some of the best natural diversity I’ve read.

Suzette is black, Jewish, and queer, and she talks openly about these intersections. At her boarding school, she’s kept her religion hidden, as her mostly white classmates can’t understand how someone can be both Black and Jewish. Most of the side characters are queer, including Suzette’s best friend DeeDee who’s a lesbian. Suzette’s close friend and love interest, Emil, is Black and Korean as well. And, of course, there’s Lionel, Suzette’s brother who’s dealing with bipolar disorder.

The diversity isn’t just there for show, either. Each of these intersections is explored in some way and really gives life to the identities represented. I was really impressed with how Brandy Colbert showed microaggressions, from the way people label Lion as “crazy” and unstable, to the mutual friend who makes a racist comment. Even a non-marginalized reader can see how these actions affect the characters: Lion avoids his former group of friends, while Suzette and Emil have to stick up for themselves and call out their subtly racist peers.

Even Suzette’s family is diverse, in a sense: her mom never technically married her stepdad, but they’ve had joint families for over a decade. I really enjoyed this unique touch and the way the novel explores how family bonds go so much deeper than blood alone.

One of the best things about Little & Lion, for me, was the nuanced discussion of bisexuality.

I’ll be the first to admit how fortunate we are, as readers, to have so many representations of bisexuality today. And yet, this is one of the few books I’ve read where the main character is actively exploring her own sexuality and isn’t completely set on a label at the beginning of the story.

As much as it’s empowering to read bisexual characters who are confident in their identity, 17-year-old me would’ve killed to read this book where Suzette struggles with what her feelings for different genders really mean. She questions if her attraction to girls was actually just limited to the one girl from her boarding school, or if her attraction to Emil is as real as she thinks it is. This is not only realistic, but it shows the very real effects of living in a monosexist society that encourages us, as bisexuals, to “just choose one or the other.” To be quite honest, I still question my own sexuality, and I’m 10 years older than Suzette.

For the most part, other people are supportive of Suzette’s exploration and biphobia is kept to a minimum. Again, as with the race rep, I appreciate the subtleties—for instance, the moment when a friend implies that being bi is about switching back and forth when you get bored of one gender or another. Again, the comment is challenged in the text, but it’s a realistic situation in my experience.

On the surface, this is a book about dealing with a family member’s mental illness, and about falling in love in different ways—but it’s so much more than that.

While I can’t personally speak for the mental health rep (my experiences with depression are only vaguely similar), I enjoyed Suzette’s perspective on Lionel’s bipolar disorder. She wants to do right by him but she also doesn’t want to break his trust or push him away. At the same time, she’s just a kid: she’s struggling with conflicting attractions to two different people while she’s trying to sort out feelings about her ex.

To be honest, my only conflict with this book was the romance itself. I enjoyed the friends-to-lovers situation with Emil, but I felt that Rafaela was too easily labeled as Trouble, both for Suzette and for Lionel. I’m mostly not a fan of love triangles in general, although fortunately this one didn’t dissolve into cheating. Ultimately, I appreciated that the story leaves things relatively open, with just enough closure, but showing how each of the characters has a lot to work on.

overall: highly recommend this favorite of 2017

Little & Lion sucked me in right from the beginning and I never questioned whether Brandy Colbert knew where she was taking the story. For a book that includes so many elements, from family to romance, from race to religion to sexuality to mental health, I loved every minute of this one. Despite its inclusion of a love triangle, I loved watching Suzette figure some things out and I was sad to reach the last page. I hope everyone will give this book the chance it deserves.

—find this book—

Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read Little & Lion or other books by Brandy Colbert? What did you think? Do you have a favorite book that tackles intersectionality? Let me know in the comments!