Review | Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Genre: Poetry/Memoir | Diversity: #OwnVoices sexual assault survivor

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

40519254“Shame turned inside out is rage.”

Shout is one of those books that touches someplace deep inside and makes it nearly impossible to write a coherent review of any sort. Still, I’m going to try.

In this memoir in verse, Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the revolutionary 1999 Young Adult novel, Speak, tells her true story for the first time. Through haunting, poignant poems, Anderson details her childhood, from her mother’s silence to her father’s PTSD. When she was thirteen, Anderson was raped by an older boy she considered a friend, and she spent her high school years dealing with the aftermath in some pretty unhealthy ways.

Although it’s slow-moving to start, I loved the opportunity to learn more about an author I admire.

Through this book, I discovered the ways that Speak came from Anderson’s true experience. She struggled to deal with the aftermath of her rape because she had no examples of positive coping skills. She talks about how her father drank to forget his war trauma, and her mother had no voice whatsoever. Thus, 14-year-old Anderson turned to drinking and smoking pot to dull the pain of being raped. She had no positive influences in her life to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, that she hadn’t been asking for it, that she was more than this one act of violence.

I also really connected with the brief passages about her journey as a writer. A lot of young writers have this perception that great writers are just born that way, that they sit down to write their first book and gold falls out onto the page. Anderson writes about her struggle to find her voice as a writer, from attempting to write picture books for her children, to writing novels and other works that were rejected over and over again. It was so comforting to me to learn that I’m not the only one who’s struggled to find my way as a writer. Anderson never expected Speak to even be published, much less to win awards and make her a household name (at least within kid lit/YA circles).

This isn’t a plot-driven memoir whatsoever. Nor is it fully a memoir.

The second half of the book follows Anderson as she writes and publishes Speak, a story about a 14-year-old high school freshman who’s struggling to survive her own rape. In the second half of the book, Anderson writes about her unexpected fame and the censorship that follows writing openly about sexual assault. This part of the book forms a poignant call-to-action. She writes about how many kids she’s spoken to in the years following Speak’s fame, but also how many times she’s been told to censor herself, how many school libraries have banned her book. She calls attention to these instances to point out how “censorship is the child of fear/the father of ignorance” — not talking about rape doesn’t prevent it from happening.

Anderson also does a beautiful job of connecting her story to that of other sexual assault survivors across the world. She shares a few of their stories, from a man who confessed “I am Melinda” to the young woman whose education was ruined when her rapists were allowed to continue in theirs. These poems go a long way in showing the prevalence of sexual assault and how our culture creates a space for it. She writes that we as a society have a duty to educate our men better than we are currently. She also shows the different types of sexual assault, from the young people who were assaulted but not “technically” raped, to the young men who are molested by priests. I really appreciated how she incorporated men’s stories as well.

While this book was incredibly difficult to read, emotionally, I can only imagine how powerful this book will be.

So many young people desperately need to know that it wasn’t their fault, that they’re not alone, that they can shout their truth to the world. This is the kind of book with the power to change lives for the better, and I’m grateful for the chance to read it.

-Find this book-
Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read Shout or Speak? What are some books you’ve appreciated that discuss sexual assault? Do survivors have an obligation to speak up about their experiences? Let me know what you think!

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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 | On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: #OwnVoices POC rep

 My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

IMG_0485Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families. [blurb from Goodreads]

my thoughts

*Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book through my work. While I am incredibly grateful to the publisher for this opportunity, this in no way shapes my opinion of the book.*

I’ll be honest: when I realized Angie Thomas had a new book coming out, I was a little worried that her sophomore effort wouldn’t live up to the legend that was—still is—The Hate U Give. Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I almost like On the Come Up slightly better. While THUG is a story that’s obviously about racism in America, OTCU is a more subtle exploration of what racism looks like in the lived experience of a young rapper who wants to make it big. This is an incredible story about a young black woman trying to find her place in the world, written in the down-to-earth realism that makes 450 pages fly by.

Angie Thomas is, in my opinion, one of the best writers the YA genre has ever seen. Her dialogue rings true, her characters are complex and relatable, and the relationships between them feel so incredibly real. I loved getting to know Bri and her two best friends, Malik and Sonny (who’s gay!!). I loved learning more about hip-hop and rooting for Bri’s success as a rapper. I found myself in awe of the power of her words—and I wish I could download her songs! Everything about Bri’s story feels like it’s truly happening—which lends further credence to the fact that this is what it’s truly like for young black people in America today.

At its core, OTCU is about what happens to Bri when she lets other people define her—aggressive, ratchet, hoodlum—rather than listening to herself. While the experience of trying to remain true to one’s values is relatable, regardless of race, Thomas reveals how racial stereotypes affect Bri differently than they would a white girl in her exact same situation. Every single time Bri speaks up, she’s labeled because of how people perceive her, regardless of her intentions. Each time, I wanted to restrain her, to help her, but then I realized just how screwed up that is. Reading this story, as a white person, was another way for me to understand my own bias and recognize just how much further we have to go as a society.

In addition to the wonderfully depicted race rep, OTCU is one of the few YA books I’ve ever encountered that actually depicts what it’s like to be poor. Bri’s mom, a recovered drug addict, is struggling to make ends meet when she loses her job. Bri’s older brother Trey gives up his dream of attending grad school to stay and make sure Bri has food to eat. The Jacksons are struggling to survive throughout the book, and it’s heart-breaking to watch. While most YA books gloss over the topic of money—to the extent that I have to wonder what the hell these parents do that they can afford to give their kids everything they want—this book truly immerses the reader in what it’s like to be a kid and not know if you’re going to have electricity or heat at home, or if there’s food in the fridge. This is real life for a lot of people, and I thought the situation was handled really well.

I could probably go on about this book for hours, but suffice to say: please read this book. It’s an important story about how easy it is to let other people define you—and how those definitions have devastating consequences for people of color. But it’s also just a wonderful, heart-warming read about friendship, family, and dreams worth fighting for.

–find this book–
Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read anything by Angie Thomas? What are your favorite books with POC main characters? 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!