Australian, Contemporary, Historical Fiction, OwnVoices, Romance, YA

#LoveOzYA Recent Highlights

*Note for Read Diverse 2017 – Does My Head Look Big in This and Night Swimming are by authors of colour.

There are a couple of Australian YA books I’ve read since the beginning of the year which I really enjoyed, but haven’t yet gushed about and recommended properly. So, today’s post is a round-up of these!

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Frankie by Shivaun Plozza

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

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Frankie Vega is angry. Just ask the guy whose nose she broke. Or the cop investigating the burglary she witnessed, or her cheating ex-boyfriend or her aunt who’s tired of giving second chances…

When a kid shows up claiming to be Frankie’s half brother, it opens the door to a past she doesn’t want to remember. And when that kid goes missing, the only person willing to help is a boy with stupidly blue eyes … and secrets of his own. Frankie’s search for the truth might change her life, or cost her everything.

My highlights from Frankie:

  • Frankie had such an incredible, compelling voice. In the best way, she reminded me of the protag Gilly from The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson – fierce and apparently indifferent to those around her but with depths and vulnerabilities that really twist your heart when they come to the surface.
  • The setting was so detailed and really came alive throughout the story, which I loved! (Especially since it’s in Melbourne, Australia)
  • The mystery about Xavier, and the uncertainties about Frankie’s future, really kept me reading as the story progressed, and the supporting characters (especially Frankie’s aunt) were all fantastic
  • The emotions at the end of the story were so powerfully written, and overall I feel there was a good balance between tying up the storyline and leaving things open-ended

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

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Sixteen-year-old Amal makes the decision to start wearing the hijab full-time and everyone has a reaction. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, people on the street. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it does make her a little different from everyone else.

Can she handle the taunts of “towel head,” the prejudice of her classmates, and still attract the cutest boy in school? Brilliantly funny and poignant, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel will strike a chord in all teenage readers, no matter what their beliefs.

I’m still having trouble summarising what an incredible book this was – and this is something that’s really rare for me! Here are some of my highlights from the book:

  • Amal is seriously one of the most hilarious teen characters I have ever come across – her voice was incredibly real and had me laughing out loud (which, again, is REALLY RARE for me when reading!). It was also inspiring to see her strength in spite of all the prejudice she faced. Also, the audiobook narrator is fantastic – if you like audiobooks and can access it, I definitely recommend it.
  • It’s so refreshing to see how honestly it recognised and made counter-arguments against casual racism/prejudice. Naturally this focused on Islamophobia, but was not limited to it.
  • Leading on from the above two points, there are several more poignantly relevant societal issues that the book addresses, but it shows it through Amal’s family relationships, her strengths, and her hilarious voice – so it always felt naturally included. Internalised racism, assimilation, family expectations, close-mindedness in relation to tradition and the misuse of Islam, modesty, and empathy – all of these were raised and woven brilliantly into the narrative.
  • Amal’s friendships were lovely! Female friendships really come to the forefront in this book and each character is fleshed out. Leila’s storyline was heartbreaking but tackled so well and beautifully moving; I also loved the relationship between Amal and her next-door neighbour. The cultural diversity amongst the range of characters was almost bizarre to read, in the best way possible – I’ve never ever read a book which just feels like Australia the same way as this one does – it’s never tokenistic, but informed the identities of the characters in a beautiful way.
  • The not-really-romance and issues within her relationship with Adam were addressed well. I’d never found him that compelling as a character but was cheering at how well Amal stuck to who she was, and to her beliefs.
  • Seriously just. read. this.

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

9781925498165Steph Bowe is back. Night Swimming is a love story with a twist, and a whole lot of heart.

Imagine being the only two seventeen-year-olds in a small town. That’s life for Kirby Arrow—named after the most dissenting judge in Australia’s history—and her best friend Clancy Lee, would-be musical star.

Clancy wants nothing more than to leave town and head for the big smoke, but Kirby is worried: her family has a history of leaving. She hasn’t heard from her father since he left when she was a baby. Shouldn’t she stay to help her mother with the goat’s-milk soap-making business, look after her grandfather who suffers from dementia, be an apprentice carpenter to old Mr Pool? And how could she leave her pet goat, Stanley, her dog Maude, and her cat Marianne?

But two things happen that change everything for Kirby. She finds an article in the newspaper about her father, and Iris arrives in town. Iris is beautiful, wears crazy clothes, plays the mandolin, and seems perfect, really, thinks Kirby. Clancy has his heart set on winning over Iris. Trouble is Kirby is also falling in love with Iris…

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe releases on April 3rd! Here are some of my highlights from the book:

  • The story centres on a same-sex romance, which was so great to read. The depiction of how Kirby felt towards and admired Iris from the start was so well-written and Iris was such a sweet and lovable character. The scenes they had together as they slowly got to know each other more were enjoyable and moving.
  • There are also multicultural supporting characters (Iris is biracial, Kirby’s best friend Clancy is Chinese-Australian, another character, Nick, is Greek) and excellent mental illness rep.
  • I loved Kirby and Clancy’s friendship, which was both positive and complex. The scene at the end when they finally confront each other and properly open up about their fears and worries was so satisfying to read.
  • The family relationships in this book were really touching. The issues with Kirby’s father were addressed so thoughtfully and holistically, in a way that felt incredibly real. The characterisation of her grandfather Cyril, and the effect of his dementia on her and her mother, was also really strong – and it’s not something we see often in YA contemporary.
  • Finally, the humour and characteristic quirky fun in Steph Bowe’s books were also fantastic here.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

29340956Kate and Harriet are best friends, growing up together on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. As daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community. When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. But one moment in McPhail’s hut will change the course of their lives forever.

Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a stunning debut novel about friendship, love and loss, one that questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.

Skylarking was the first historical fiction book I’d read in a while, despite it being my favourite genre; and it was a great one to get me back into it. It’s more of a crossover book in terms of age group – I haven’t seen it marketed as YA, but it centres on young characters and their experience of growing up.

My highlights from the book:

  • The writing was so incredible – I always admire writers who can describe what seems ordinary in an immersive, intriguing way
  • Kate was a fantastic character – I love how spirited she was, and this was especially clear in her longing for adventure. Additionally, I loved the coming-of-age themes that the story emphasised.
  • The SETTING. The isolated Australian cape of a lighthouse. So breathtaking to read about, and all throughout the book I could see, hear, and feel everything so clearly.
  • The historical period was also used very well – the narrative was accessible but prompted me to reflect on issues specific to the period, and those which remain relevant to us now.
  • At first I was hesitant about the climax (which is based off a real incident), and unsure about how well it worked with the build-up to it. But in the scenes that followed, I loved how strongly the emotions came across, and it prompted me to reflect on the story in a different way. Ultimately, it was very moving and thought-provoking

Have you read, or do you plan on reading, any of these books? What are your thoughts?

And a quick note to everyone: I’ve got a lot of assessments + general busy-ness coming up, so I won’t be on Twitter or blog-hopping much for the next 2-3 weeks. I’ll be sure to respond to any comments here though, and will definitely be back after that.

Contemporary, OwnVoices, Romance, YA

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han – Review

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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a really sweet and light read; I especially loved the focus on family relationships, and the depiction of Lara Jean’s confusion and naivety as she navigated her love interests.

Summary:

LARA JEAN keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her, these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved.

When she writes, she can pour out her heart and soul and say all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only.

Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

My thoughts:

The family relationships

  • I loved how this book emphasised family, especially the relationships between the three sisters — it’s something we don’t see enough of in YA. The book was honest about the challenges and conflicts in their relationships, as well as showing the strength of their bonds
  • Margot: I found it hard to be sympathetic towards her sometimes, but her situation and feelings were understandable and I loved the way she and Lara Jean confronted each other and resolved this at the end
  • Kitty, the youngest sister: she was an absolute delight in her interactions with every one of the characters and whenever she appeared on the page
  • The lingering impact of their mother’s death was interwoven naturally and sensitively into the story
  • I especially loved the specifics of their family traditions: the Christmas Cookie Bonanza and other  Christmas traditions, eating Korean food, etc. The in-depth details were a delight to read about.
  • In general, the family just seemed so real to me.

Lara Jean

  • Fitting in with the light and fluffy tone of the book, Lara Jean was sweet and naïve, dealing with confusion as she navigated her love interests — something I could relate to a lot
  • I loved how self-reflective she was, and the way she put her sisters first
  • Her biracial and Asian (half-Korean) identity was touched on a few times, alluding to family and addressing micro-aggressions — a refreshing piece of representation to find

The romantic storyline

  • I personally found it difficult to connect to either of the love interests. As said above, it was Lara Jean’s own growth and how she navigated them, as something completely new to her, which was better in sustaining me than the ‘who will she end up with’ aspect
  • I appreciate that things were meant to be messy, as is clear from the blurb — but still feel things could have been wrapped up better at the end, and am a little worried the sequel is going to go in circles

The writing

  • The narrative voice was lovely — very immersive and readable
  • Pacing was generally fine throughout the story, though I can imagine if you’re more impatient with the romantic storyline that it could seem to drag
  • The dialogue felt realistic and well-crafted

Overall, this is definitely a book I recommend for the sweet and light tone and storyline, and the focus on family relationships. I’ve very keen to see what happens in the sequel and to be with the Song girls again!

Australian, diversity spotlight thursday, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, OwnVoices, Speculative Fiction

Diversity Spotlight Thursday #4

Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a meme started by Aimal at Bookshelves and Paperbacks; you can read the announcement post here. Each spotlight involves sharing:

  1. A diverse book I have read and enjoyed
  2. A diverse book that has already been released but I have not read
  3. A diverse book that has not yet been released

Read and enjoyed: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Goodreads Link

Summary:

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.

Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I reread this recently and it was an absolute delight. Woodson’s writing was beautiful, immersing me completely as it evoked her family life and world as a child. Telling the memoir in verse was especially effective in evoking emotions, and the sense of times gone past.

As a writer, I enjoyed the details of her coming to realise her intuitive passion for words and storytelling and began to write. I especially loved this moment, when she discovered a picture book with an African-American child and realised “that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of the book/that someone who looked like me/had a story” – it was incredibly moving.

TBR: Ida by Alison Evans

Goodreads Link

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Summary:

How do people decide on a path, and find the drive to pursue what they want?

Ida struggles more than other young people to work this out. She can shift between parallel universes, allowing her to follow alternative paths.

One day Ida sees a shadowy, see-through doppelganger of herself on the train. She starts to wonder if she’s actually in control of her ability, and whether there are effects far beyond what she’s considered.

How can she know, anyway, whether one universe is ultimately better than another? And what if the continual shifting causes her to lose what is most important to her, just as she’s discovering what that is, and she can never find her way back?

Ida is an intelligent, diverse and entertaining novel that explores love, loss and longing, and speaks to the condition of an array of overwhelming, and often illusory, choices.

I’ve been so looking forward to reading Ida, which was released in Australia in January – it’s so rare to see ownvoices stories of genderqueer characters, and I’ve heard a lot about how great the queer rep is + how naturally it’s integrated.

Whilst I’m not generally a sci-fi reader, the premise does sound really interesting – a blend of contemporary and realism with the classic coming-of-age/finding your path YA and New Adult concerns. Should be a thought-provoking read!

Not Yet Released: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Goodreads Link

29917906Summary:

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

You had me at ‘conspiracy of history and magic’. The Cold War’s a fascinating period of history, and I’d love to learn more about it through this story. This is an ownvoices book, featuring a Jewish-American protag.

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts?

Australian, OwnVoices

Literary Magazines/Collections of Culturally Diverse Writing

I’m really excited to share today’s post! Book bloggers naturally focus on published books, but I also pay a lot of attention to literary magazines and anthologies, as an emerging writer. I recently thought it would be a good idea to spotlight a few of these – ones that feature culturally diverse writing. You can often find more diversity amongst emerging writers/smaller publications, and these collections go a long way in giving these writers a voice.

Dialect

dialect-cover-hi-res-980x1470Dialect is particular, personal and dynamic. A way of making words belong, both to your community and yourself. The ideal storyteller.

In these pages, writers from refugee and migrant backgrounds give you a glimpse into their own atlas. Through narrative, articles, poetry and instructions they communicate a multilingual way of life.

For those who don’t know, Express Media is an incredible Australian organisation focused on supporting young and emerging writers. I’ve followed them for a long time, always enjoyed their publication Voiceworks and hugely valued my participation in Toolkits, an online creative writing course and mentoring program (more about it and my participation here), in 2016.

Dialect, as described above, was the result of a year-long program they did with young writers from refugee and migrant backgrounds based in Melbourne. I actually remember being in high school a couple of years ago, seeing the callout for it and being so disappointed that I lived in a different city and couldn’t apply – a feeling I’ve got more and more used to the past few years, haha.

This collection is absolutely stunning, filled with short stories, flash fiction, prose and visual art. A huge variety of topics are touched on and fascinating creative structures are used in certain sections, like the ‘Instructional Manual’, to tell a range of stories. Knowing that all the stories are by young writers makes it even more special. I seriously cannot recommend this enough – it’s well worth owning.

Buy Dialect from Express Media

A video about the Global Express program

Pencilled In

Started by my incredible friend Yen-Rong Wong, Pencilled In is a literary magazine showcasing art by young Asian-Australians. From their About page:

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-4-51-24-pmMany young Asian Australians are discouraged from entering the arts industry by their parents or other family members – and instead, embark on careers in other areas. Even so, we all have that drawing hidden away in a sketchbook, an outline of a story lurking in the back of our heads, or an unfinished poem we never got the chance to revisit. Bits and pieces of art that are eternally pencilled in.

Pencilled In, then, seeks to highlight and showcase art by young Asian Australians. It is a chance for emerging artists to have their work published, and hopes to provide a platform for such artists to forge meaningful relationships. We are looking for fiction (both flash fiction and longer forms), non-fiction, poetry, graphic art, and illustration.

At the time of writing, I’ve just received and am about to start reading Issue 1. I was nonfiction subeditor for this issue so I can confirm that the nonfiction was amazing, and knowing many of the other contributors, I’m so excited to read the rest!

Pencilled In also started the fantastic #ReadAsianOz initiative, and you can find a suggested reading list of Asian-Australian writing here.

Buy Issue 1

The Suburban Review – Vol. 7, Writers of Colour

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It’s about proliferation; of voices, aesthetics, experiences, stories. In fact, we’re actively fighting against the silencing of non-white voices in creative communities
In Vol. 7 you’ll find 85 glorious pages of work by contributors who identify as people of colour.

FICTION: Mahreen Sohail, Jov Almero, Ellen van Neerven, Bikram Sharma, Khalid Warsame, Hannah Donnelly

NON FICTION: Atong Atem, Celine Aenlle-Rocha

POETRY: Alison Whittaker, Sohini Basak, Sean Wai Keung, Stephanie Chan, Fernando Pérez, Gemma E. Mahadeo

COMICS: Lee Lai, Mengo Lee

ARTWORK: Rachel Ang

I’m yet to read this, but love that The Suburban Review created this volume specifically for Writers of Colour. Rachel Ang’s artwork is fantastic as always, and I’m keen to read more of Ellen van Neerven and Khalid Warsame’s work.

Buy Vol. 7 – Writers of Colour

Have you read, or are you interested, in any of these? Do you have any similar recommendations?

Australian, Magical Realism

This is Shyness by Leanne Hall – Review

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*Note for Read Diverse 2017 – POC author

This is Shyness by Leanne Hall was a unique and beautifully written magical realism novel. Thank you to Text Publishing for the review copy!

Told from their alternating first-person perspectives, This is Shyness is about Wildgirl – ‘a girl on a mission to forget’; and Wolfboy – ‘a guy who howls’. Wildgirl is a stranger in the suburb of Shyness, which is literally in unending darkness, and the story begins at a pub at the Diabetic Hotel where she and Wolfboy are drawn towards each other. As they venture out into the night, Wildgirl learns more about the strangeness and magic of Shyness, and details are revealed of her and Wolfboy’s pasts.

First off, this was one of the most unique and imaginative novels I’ve ever read. Leanne Hall evokes a beautifully surreal setting in Shyness, with its mysteries, otherworldly elements, and the sense that anything was possible. This is sustained throughout the whole book, from the slightly-unnerving market and psychic to the sugar-obsessed gang of Kidds of Orphanville. There are a lot more adjectives that could be used to describe the atmosphere in it — dark, bizarre, wondrous… but it’s definitely something you should experience for yourself.

The writing in this novel is also BEAUTIFUL — lyrical and evocative. I could quote basically the whole book but here’s a snippet from early on which is really reflective of the setting, as I praised above: “I imagine crossing Grey Street in the daytime. Would night fall over me gently like a velvety curtain? Or would the day turn dark in the blink of my eye? I don’t really need to see the sunrise to know that Shyness is different. It’s like there’s a thin layer of static over everything that stops me from seeing what’s really going on.” The emotions of the characters were also really beautifully written — subtle and nuanced whilst being powerful.

Leading on from this, the novel is overall very character-focused, centring on the personal journeys of Wildgirl and Wolfboy. We’re most driven to keep reading by the snippets of, and hints regarding, their past experiences and hurts. Wildgirl is really empathetic with her complete drive and desire to escape from everything in her past when she discovers a potential way out, and Wolfboy’s emotions as he dwells on a past family tragedy and the way it affected them are sensitively depicted.

The transitions between their two POVs are also nicely integrated and smooth. As we learn more about each of the characters’ pasts, we really want them to discover more about each other, it gives us a different perspective on the way each reacts to the other, and the way this was wrapped up was really satisfying.

I also liked how the novel was balanced between external conflict and very internal character-driven conflict. Their goal – to retrieve something from the Kidds — is kept simple, to focus on these emotional explorations. There are some pretty intense action sequences, especially near the end, which help break up the character focus, but we care about their personal hurts and internal journeys first and foremost. I love the way both Wildgirl and Wolfboy grow by the end and motivate each other to move forward.

I do wish we could have got more answers to some of the mysteries in the story, because I was feeling confused for quite a lot of the book. However, 1) it fit in with the overall atmosphere of the book, so I suspected some things would be left unanswered, and 2) there is a sequel — Queen of the Night — which I plan to read, so I’ll hold back from commenting on this further for now.

Overall, definitely read this for the unique, imaginative story + beautiful writing + powerfully character-driven aspects.

Recommended for fans of: The Astrologer’s Daughter and Afterlight by Rebecca Lim, Bird by Crystal Chan, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier.

Australian, OwnVoices, YA

#ReadAsianOz and #ReadMuslimOz

So, two new posters of Australian book recommendations, designed by Jesssica Harvie, are now available on the LoveOzYA website!

#ReadAsianOz – I suggested such a poster promoting Asian-Australian stories, after sharing the Indigenous Australian stories poster and seeing how popular it was. I’m so grateful this will make it easier for me to recommend some of my favourite Asian-Australian books – especially Preloved and Little Paradise, which deserve a lot more attention and were the first books with Chinese-Australian protagonists that I’d ever read.

Definitely also check out Pencilled In, an amazing literary mag showcasing art and writing by young Asian-Australians; and their ‘suggested reading’ page here.

Below are links to a few of my reviews/recommendation posts for the books on the #ReadAsianOz poster:

The Family Law by Benjamin Law – mini-review on Goodreads

Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim – review

The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim – recommendation post

Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang – review

Preloved by Shirley Marr – review and personal reflction

#ReadMuslimOz – the poster below was based on an original conception by Danielle Binks.

My review of Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah, one of my new favourites, is here; and having recently finished Does My Head Look Big in This? (which was FANTASTIC) I’ll have a review of that up soon, too!

Thanks so much, Danielle and Jessica!

Australian, Contemporary, OwnVoices, YA

Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah – Review

This was my first read by Randa Abdel-Fattah, but certainly won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

Summary:

Thirteen-year-old Hayaat is on a mission. She believes a handful of soil from her grandmother’s ancestral home in Jerusalem will save her beloved Sitti Zeynab’s life. The only problem is the impenetrable wall that divides the West Bank, as well as the check points, the curfews, the permit system and Hayaat’s best-friend Samy, who is mainly interested in football and the latest elimination on X-Factor, but always manages to attract trouble.

But luck is on their side. Hayaat and Samy have a curfew-free day to travel to Jerusalem. However, while their journey may only be a few kilometres long, it may take a lifetime to complete.

List time! Here’s what I loved about this book:

  • Hayaat’s voice was really powerfully wrought and pulled me into the narrative. She felt completely real, as a thirteen-year-old living in an environment of oppression and conflict. Her backstory is progressively hinted at from the beginning, and had a strong emotional impact on me when it was revealed.
  • Samy, Hayaat’s best friend, was endearing and hilarious. I loved the banter between him and Hayaat, which added a lightness, in an appropriate way, to the tension throughout their journey. It was also fun to see all the quirks and nuances of his interests (e.g. soccer) that added realism to his character.
  • The family dynamics throughout the story were moving and relatable. I especially loved the relationship between Hayaat and Sitti Zeynab.
  • The SETTING. The author was incredible at immersing me in the world, and it’s refreshing to read a story set in the Middle East. Not only that, but the emotions were intrinsic to the setting, making it feel all the more real.
  • Leading on from that, I loved the cultural and language details throughout the story.
  • The dangers and tensions of Hayaat and Samy’s journey made the story gripping, with high stakes maintained throughout, which escalated at each barrier and setback they faced.
  • There was a hero’s-journey feel to the book, as they met different people along the way. It was really enjoyable and heartwarming to see the friendships they formed, and people helping each other.
  • There were some beautiful and moving scenes near the end, which really showed the pain and oppression endured by the people of West Bank, and the role of hope and purpose to staying resilient
  • Apart from the inevitable – due to the situation of unresolved conflict between the states – almost everything was clearly wrapped up at the end of the story, which gave a satisfying sense of closure and the feeling I’d really followed the characters through to the end

In summary: read this incredible book, especially if you’re looking for moving relationships and a journey storyline, and are interested in the Middle-Eastern setting