Contemporary, YA

Art, Family, Heartbreak – Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

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Goodreads Link

Publisher’s Website

Thank you to Text Publishing for the review copy!

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King was a heart-breaking and a cleverly written book. I especially appreciated the unflinchingly powerful ways it looked at the pain within a fragile family, and the thematic role of art and originality throughout the book.

The story is primarily told from the point of view of 16-year-old Sarah, who is going through what she refers to as an ‘existential crisis’. She’s suddenly stopped going to school, is unable to create art, feels dazed and not-quite-right – and she’s started encountering past and future (10- and 23-year-old) versions of herself as she wanders aimlessly around the city.

The answers are deep within the darkest truths of her family, regarding the relationship between her parents and her brother, who left them and whom she hasn’t contacted, since something happened when they went on a family vacation to Mexico six years ago. Through Sarah’s present point of view, the story of what happened six years ago, and her mother’s perspective, the lies and pain are heartbreakingly revealed.

Firstly, A.S. King’s writing was really engaging. The narrative was immersive (I finished it really quickly) and so clearly conveying how dazed Sarah was and, later on, the pain she was going through with powerful, haunting writing. The strong writing extended to the use of tension throughout the book. The revelations here, at least to me, weren’t completely surprising twists, but were heavily built up beforehand, and I saw certain things coming. What this did was increase the sense of foreboding, which was really effective considering the serious subject matter, and made the emotional and visceral impact hit harder when the truths about what happened in Sarah’s family and regarding her art came to the surface.

I think about still lifes…that’s what I had. A still life. The more I pay attention, the more I see I was wrong.

The multiple points of view/story threads throughout were also used really well – the past was woven in really well with the revelations in the present. Sarah’s mother’s point of view, which I really appreciated the insight of, was gut-wrenching, empathetic and relevant

There were magical realism elements in the story through Sarah (and later on, others) encountering her past and future selves. It was a clever way to move the story forward, forcing her to reflect and question on who she was and would become, as well as simply being interesting and amusing through the interactions with her past and future selves (e.g. meeting other people and all coming together at once, at one point later in the book).

When you learn the truth late, you doubt everything that ever happened in your whole life because your whole life was a lie.

I loved how the protagonist was an artist, the way the narrative delved into her difficulties associated with this, and the way it was tied it in to the rest of the plot. The themes regarding  originality in the book were unique and often relatable. We rarely, and I would love to see more of, such stories regarding art-specific concepts like originality (the most prominent here), the ups and downs of creation, comparing yourself to others, aspiration, the power of art and its role in our lives.

“You know what art is?” he asks. “Art is the truth.”

Definitely recommended, and be prepared for the heavier themes and emotional impact.

Highlight for content warning (NOTE – potential spoiler) domestic violence/abuse

Have you read Still Life with Tornado, or any of A.S. King’s books? Australians – are you going to any of her upcoming events here? Are there any other books you’ve read where an artist is the protagonist?

Contemporary, middle grade, OwnVoices

Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai: Visiting your homeland and Asian diasporic experiences

Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai was a unique and compelling read. There were parts of it that particularly resonated with me and I loved the way the setting in Vietnam was evoked. Mai’s character arc and her grandmother’s storyline, although somewhat flawed, were interesting to read about, and this is definitely a book I recommend. Also, I have to say it: look at that beautiful cover!

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Goodreads Link

Summary

Twelve-year-old Mai can’t wait to take a break from being perfect. But all straight A’s have gotten her is an unwanted trip to a foreign country she’s never been to – over eight thousand miles from home.

Mai’s parents are making her spend her vacation in Vietnam so she can learn more about her roots and help her grandmother discover what happened to her grandfather during the Vietnam War. Mai barely knows the language, the culture, or the customs, and she is desperately counting down the days until she can go back home.

In this sharply funny and poignant story, Mai will realise that home is not found on a map, but is instead made up of the people she calls family.

My thoughts:

The explorations of a diasporic experience: visiting your ‘homeland’

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, for me, was how it explored Mai’s experience as a Vietnamese-American visiting Vietnam, the way it depicted the cultural differences between America and Vietnam, and hence her sense of disconnection as a result. It’s a common Asian diasporic experience – I was actually reading this book whilst staying with extended family in China – and one I’m really grateful to see represented.

Whilst I’ve seen a similar journey portrayed in a handful of other books, this was unique in how it emphasised how starkly different the two cultures were, and the impact of that on Mai – having grown up in America, not being able to speak Vietnamese, and being there for the first time.

Vietnam and China are obviously different countries and cultures, but there are similarities that I really loved reading about in this book, because of how much they aligned with my experiences of visiting China. I’ve always felt the initial shock of having 99% of the people around you look like you, even when you’re used to being around other Asians; the lack of privacy and space; the way relatives might focus on how different you are, both physically and through your inadequacies of not knowing the language and culture; certain habits they have around family; the way they continuously try to feed you as much as possible; Mai walking around a bookstore knowing she can’t read most of what’s in there, resolving to learn more Vietnamese, and finding the bilingual section…

Overall, it was great to see this represented as someone with similar experiences, and well worth learning about for people who don’t share it. Diasporic Asians are often subjected to the idea that we are outsiders and inadequate from ‘both sides’ – mainstream white society and the culture of our origin. Listen, Slowly shares the nuances of this experience with detail and empathy.

Mai: her voice and character arc

Mai is a heavily flawed character at the start: she complains constantly about Vietnam, about having to visit and accompany her grandmother (Bà) there, and about her parents for encouraging her to connect to her roots – “they’re [my dad’s] roots, not mine”. Whilst, personally, my attitudes have been/would be quite different in the same circumstances, I appreciated the realism of this (I’ve known many people who’ve acted the same way) and was excited by the potential of seeing her develop throughout the story.

Unfortunately, the main issue was how inconsistent her character arc was – rather than slowly developing an interest in Vietnamese culture or reflecting on herself in a natural way, there were many times she’d change all of a sudden, and then regress, which I found unnerving. I did like the endpoint, though – how it wasn’t an unrealistically radical change but involved her making a small decision.

In terms of her voice, I generally felt it was a very strong twelve-year-old’s voice. Whilst the humour didn’t really work for me, I’m expecting it would be more suited to the middle grade target audience (I’ve seen similar styles of humour in other such books, like Mike Jung’s).

The setting

Thanhhà Lai’s lyrical writing described Vietnam beautifully, and again there were similarities with China I could relate to here – the chaotic way people drive, the differences between more rural areas and the crowded, in-your-face sights and smells in the city, the climate, as well as details specific to Vietnam which were a wonderful insight into the country. I felt completely immersed in the setting for the entirety of the story.

Bà’s Storyline

As described on the blurb, there’s a prominent storyline regarding Mai’s grandmother , who is searching for the truth of what happened to her grandfather (Ông) during the Vietnam War. There were some pacing issues here, but I did like the way it integrated the legacy of the Vietnam War – I definitely learnt a lot from it – and there were moments that I found genuinely moving.

Overall, Listen Slowly is a book I enjoyed and definitely recommend.

Some similar/further recommendations: Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang and Willow Tree and Olive by Irini Savvides, both Australian YA novels, also explore the visiting-your-homeland experience. Parts of Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung (memoir) is another book that portrays this, though note this is more mature and the middle section contains confronting content about the genocidal regime in Cambodia.

Have you read Listen, Slowly, or any other books about the visiting-your-homeland experience? Have you had this experience yourself? How do you feel towards your ‘roots’?

Australian, Contemporary, YA

Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson – Review

Green Valentine is one of my new favourite Australian YA books! This was such a fun read, I loved the characters, and the environmental themes were so great to see, especially in a YA book.

Summary

25808675When Astrid and Hiro meet they give each other superhero names. She’s Lobster Girl and he’s Shopping Trolley Boy. Not an auspicious beginning. But it gets better. Then it gets worse. Much worse. Classic romantic comedy: girl-meets-boy, love blossoms, and is derailed. Incredibly engaging, upbeat, funny and smart.

Astrid Katy Smythe is beautiful, smart and popular. She’s a straight-A student and a committed environmental activist. She’s basically perfect.

Hiro is the opposite of perfect. He’s slouchy, rude and resentful. Despite his brains, he doesn’t see the point of school.

But when Astrid meets Hiro at the shopping centre where he’s wrangling shopping trolleys, he doesn’t recognise her because she’s in disguise – as a lobster. And she doesn’t set him straight.

Astrid wants to change the world, Hiro wants to survive it. But ultimately both believe that the world needs to be saved from itself. Can they find enough in common to right all the wrongs between them?

A romantic comedy about life and love and trying to make the planet a better place, with a little heartbreak, and a whole lot of hilarity.

My thoughts

Astrid

First off, Astrid – the protagonist and narrator – was such a well-rounded character. She’s introduced as a smart and popular girl at school who’s always found the system easy, but I loved how the author both subverted and went beyond this.

Personality-wise, her judgemental nature, her flawed insistence on completely imposing her views and actions on others, her naivety, and her passion and determination were so clear from her voice. Adding to this, her family dynamics and the way she talked about the environment through footnotes in the book (which I really liked!) all had her brimming with personality.

Finally, her reactions and emotions when she faced complications – with Hiro, and her plans for the environment – were all well-written and relatable. It’s a real testament to the author that I connected this strongly to a character so different from me in so many ways (though not all) and it was heartening to see her change and learn by the end of the story.

Hiro

Hiro, the other main character and the love interest, was great. He was also incredibly well-developed — I loved the little rambles he went on about society to Astrid in the beginning, he made me smile and laugh so many times, and his dynamics with Astrid were so fun and unique to read (talking about superheroes! Saving the world!). I liked how the issue set up of Astrid hiding her real self, and Hiro’s reaction to that, were addressed naturally early on rather than dragged out, so the story could move on to more interesting things.

Hiro’s half-Japanese and half-Italian, which I generally feel was done well — I really loved the scene where we met his Nonna, which was integrated into the story, and in a positive way. There could’ve been more depth with this though, potentially through cultural details.

The supporting characters and overall diversity

I liked the supporting characters of Dev and Paige, though they could have been developed more, especially Paige. Dev is Indian and gay, and his relationship developments/history was woven into a subplot regarding Astrid’s relationship with her friends, so that was interwoven nicely in a natural way. To wrap up on the characters and diversity: I am well aware and do agree that it’s far from ideal for POC/queer characters to always be on the side, supporting the cishet white protagonist, as it is in Green Valentine. But for what it represented, I was mostly happy with how the book represented incidental diversity; and it avoided being tokenistic, which I appreciated.

The environmental themes and plot

This was what really attracted me to the book at first, because an environment-focused book is such an important issue and a refreshing thing to see in YA. This was really, really well done — all the environmental facts were delivered naturally and in Astrid’s authentic voice, so it was seamlessly woven into the story and didn’t feel didactic at all. The details of gardening, which I knew little about, were also woven into the story in a really enjoyable way and never felt bogged down.

As the plot progresses, this was a source of connection between Astrid and Hiro as they begin ‘bewildering’, or ‘guerrilla gardening’, in order to improve Valentine, and later face a group of more genuinely extremist hippies regarding the environment — all of which were fascinating, increased the stakes and conflict as the story went on, and made me think about environmental issues in different ways. And though they were slightly predictable, I was also really satisfied by the way things were wrapped up.

Other thoughts:

  • There was a really fun, light-hearted tone throughout the whole book which I really enjoyed
  • Valentine was a really fun and detailed setting
  • Astrid’s family issues were fleshed out and well-depicted, and I liked how empathetic the portrayal of her parents was

Overall: Green Valentine was a fantastic book and I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re looking for light-hearted fun and are interested in the environmental themes. Be ready to fall in love with the characters.

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, 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

Contemporary, OwnVoices, YA

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed – Review

Goodreads Link

Written in the Stars was an absolutely incredible book, and the under-represented story it told is so needed. The amount of tension it sustained throughout the story was really powerful; it was great at evoking an understanding of Naila’s feelings and situation; and powerfully details of setting and culture were conveyed within.

Summary:

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden.

When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want
her to marry him, now!

Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif … if he can find her before it’s too late.

First off, the incredible thing about the reading experience of this book was how much the author made you care. The tension and stakes were high from the start of the story, with the restrictions on Naila’s life and the issues with the disappointment of her family, but especially after Naila discovers the marriage that her parents have arranged for her, and following the consequences of this. The story was well-paced and incredibly gripping as I
feared for what would happen to her, hoped for her escape attempts to succeed, felt the burden of everything she must keep hidden, and was pained by the progression of her situation and its hopelessness. I read this in less than one day and almost one sitting.

Leading on from this, I absolutely felt for Naila all the way through. Her fears and desperation were evoked in ways equally beautiful and heartbreaking throughout, and another one of the ways that it really kept me reading. There were multiple times when I could genuinely imagine myself in a similar situation, because the pain she was undergoing was so real.

Out of the side characters, there were plenty that kept me engaged. Saif isn’t given a huge amout of depth at first, in spite of his obvious importance to the story, but his impact on Naila is clear. I really loved Selma, Naila’s cousin, and the friendship between them, which was a ray of hope throughout the story. Naila’s parents and uncle, with the awful choices they made for her, mainly incited anger in me, but they were consistently characterised with strong (and horrifying) realism. Amin, Naila’s husband, was also realistic and understandable.

Much of the book is about Pakistani culture – through Naila’s life, values and challenges as a Pakistani-American teen, to her initial impressions of Pakistan as she visits there with her family, to the horrifying reality she faces there with her forced marriage and new life. Cultural values were depicted with depth at the beginning with both Naila’s value on family, her hopes and anxieties, and the pressures and restrictions she faces. When they arrive in Pakistan, the details of the setting really immersed me, and was well-sustained throughout the entire story through Naila’s perspective. The nuances of an ownvoices writer’s understanding is really clear throughout.

Overall, Written in the Stars is a book I’d highly recommend. Read it soon! 🙂