April Wrap-Up + May Updates

Books I read during April, blog wrap-up, and some updates on what I’ll be doing in May.

Books read during April:

  • The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – incredible, and I especially loved the depiction of migrant experiences from multiple aspects! We so so need more books like these. Post will eventually be up with a review + reflection in relation to the diversity of migrant experiences.
  • The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil – sadly I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped, the writing just didn’t work well in engaging me. But I still loved the premise of this book, the friendship aspect, the inclusion of POC and the anxiety rep, and if you’re more into contemporary YA romance then you should enjoy it more than I did. Highly recommend checking out Jananee’s review here for an ownvoices perspective on the diversity.
  • Went through a LOT of chapters and volumes from the Blue Exorcist manga — the visuals have been a good break from normal reading because I’m so fatigued from university textbooks. I got into this through initially watching the anime and really loved the premise, the characters (Rin is an amazing hero and I also love Yukio and Izumo), and the fun action plots. Definitely recommend it for anime/manga fans.
  • Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee – thank you to Emily Mead for lending me this! I’ve had SO many friends recommend it and had been desperate to read this for ages. Overall, it was a really fun read and reminded me a lot of the Big Hero 6 film.
  • The Stone Heart (The Nameless City, #2) by Faith Erin Hicks. My feelings towards the worldbuilding (which I’ve seen concerns regarding it being appropriative) and plot (seems hindered by trying to address a very complex topic rather simplistically) are now a lot more mixed than when I initially read the first book in this graphic novel series. I do still love Faith Erin Hicks’ art and Jordie Bellaire’s gorgeous colours, though.
  • Wing Jones by Katherine Webber – loved the writing, loved the characters, lots of feels. Josephine’s review here is a lovely ownvoices perspective on the biracial rep.

Blog wrap-up:

  • I’ve given my Diversity page an update 🙂 It now has a slideshow of photos of + links to some of my favourite diverse books that I recommend.
  • Review of The Pearl Thief (the upcoming prequel to Code Name Verity) by Elizabeth Wein, which was a fun dip into a historical mystery and back into Julie’s character.
  • Made my first ever discussion post – On Languages, Storytelling and Translated Books. Thank you so much to everyone who shared and/or commented – I’ve been overwhelmed by the response and it was incredible hearing about your individual experiences! Will definitely be doing a discussion post again.
  • Review of Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai – I reflected a bit on the visiting-your-homeland Asian diasporic experience in this moving, ownvoices middle grade book.

Review Books:

Thanks to Text Publishing for sending me these!

  • Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King. I hadn’t heard of this before but the premise does sound really compelling – art and family issues. I like the clever title a lot, too.
  • Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield. I read Friday Brown a long time ago by the same author and remember being intrigued by and liking it. The book’s premise sounds compelling!

May (Event) Updates:

  • Noted Festival in Canberra is coming up, where I’m doing this storytelling workshop for primary school kids from multilingual/ESL backgrounds. Nervous but also excited, and I’m so keen to see the lovely Shu-Ling again (incredible writer, amazing friend) ❤ Check out the rest of the program and the artists, all of which are incredible.
  • After a stressful few hours trying to get tickets through the website and on the phone, I’m really excited for Sydney Writers’ Festival.
  • There’s one more announcement that’s coming tomorrow! It’s an initiative I’m co-hosting which I’m really excited to share, and hope you’ll all be able to take part in it too.

Links

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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’?

Discussion: Languages, Storytelling, and the Need for More Translated Books

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Bookstore in China

The topic of translated books and storytelling in different languages and cultures has been on my mind a lot recently. There were two particular things which combined to prompt this:

  1. This Twitter thread regarding the upcoming Death Note Netflix adaptation, the issues with it and why it’s so quintessentially a Japanese story.
  2. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, about the way language makes a difference to how stories are told; especially from reading (listening on audiobook) to a children’s book in Chinese by myself for the first time, and this book is itself translated from Japanese.

So today, I’m sharing some of my thoughts on this topic, and I’d especially love to hear the thoughts of readers from non-English-speaking/non-Western countries; I’m well aware of how limited my perspective is as an Australian and would welcome your insights.

Why we need more translated books in English

Reading translated books allows us to gain insight into different countries, cultures, and their worldviews. It’s so meaningful to read these insider perspectives that such writers share on their respective cultures. Even the simplest things regarding differences in school and home life are a delight to discover, especially in learning about the details, but it also helps me to expand my worldview.

There is also so much we can learn from the storytelling of different countries that is inherent in the way they are told, regardless of whether they’re rooted in their respective cultures, or are more speculative. This post discusses the significance of plot without conflict by explaining Kishōtenketsu, a centuries-old Chinese and Japanese plot structure where conflict is not intrinsic to the story. This is a clear contrast to the Western idea that the former is necessary to create the latter, and shows how books from cultures outside our own can push us to look past certain ingrained ideas regarding storytelling.

Learning from an insider’s point of view on Asia, in particular, is important in helping me to connect to my culture and others related to it, as a diasporic person. It’s also important in resisting the Other-ing, consumerist gaze of the West towards these cultures. Mainstream media chooses to appropriate non-Western cultures, if they’re recognised at all. If reading translated books from different countries was more normalised and prevalent, it would help overcome this perspective. Hopefully it would also encourage ownvoices stories of culturally diverse writers, who are marginalised in Western countries, by valuing different cultures, ideas and points of view.

Languages and Storytelling

Of course, there will always be nuances and meanings that are lost when translating stories from one language to another. I wish I could read more books in Chinese, but I’m far from proficient at it. However, I’ve there have been small passages from the books I study from, and one nover I read together with family. Even from these small samples, I’ve noticed differences in Chinese writing from English that make a huge difference to the story:

  • Language makes such a difference to humour. There were so many times when reading the Chinese book that I thought, wow, the humour here clicks with me in a way that jokes in English-language books usually don’t. It was so clear that these lines would be almost impossible to translate in a way that carried across the same meaning.
  • Points of view – in English, I usually stick to reading and writing deep, usually first-person, POV; omniscient points of view feel detached and head-hopping is irritating and jarring. In Chinese however, there’s something about the language that makes point of view shifts completely smooth and normal.
  • Grammatical differences – in Chinese, there aren’t really past/present/future tenses in the same way as there is in English; instead, the language is heavily context-dependent. So whilst the choice of tense may be very important in telling a story in English, it isn’t so in Chinese.
  • Voice – when listening to the audiobook for the Chinese translation of the Japanese book Totto-Chan, the Little Girl by the Window, I was intrigued by the voice of the narrator, which doesn’t clearly fit into the categories of voice in English-language children’s books. It’s an omniscient narrator who head-hops, who comments on the actions of children in a more reflective point of view, yet somehow feels like it’s being told in a child’s voice.

All of this reflects the importance of knowing more than one language and how much I wish I was better at Chinese (at least I’m working on it now!). Unfortunately the environment in Australia and similar countries is not catered towards encouraging, and lacks tolerance of, linguistic diversity. When we think about the value of reading in other languages, it becomes so clear why it is important to change that.

Translated/non-English Language Books I Recommend

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

You’ve probably heard of this one, but yes – I also loved this imaginative, timeless childlike fantasy.

玫瑰之翼 (Rose Wings) by 月星汐

The humour in  Yuè Xīngxī’s(月星汐) books is incredible and engaging — appealing to me in a way English-language humour often doesn’t, as I said above. I loved this story about the way the relationship developed between Yin Shichen (originally on a nefarious mission for a student secret society) and Armaiti, martial arts girl; it was an incredibly fun read. Sadly I think it’s only available in Chinese, and as I said I can imagine much of the nuances in the language would be difficult to translate into English.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

After suffering a stroke that left him almost completely paralysed, Bauby used the code of blinking his left eye to tell this story. A beautiful and moving tribute to the value of life and living fully in one’s mind.

Totto-Chan: the Little Girl by the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

The author is a famous Japanese actress, talkshow host and a UNICEF ambassador. Based on her childhood, it’s a carefree story of the delightfully unconventional school (e.g. using train carriages as classrooms) where she was so valued.

Translated/non-English Language Books on my TBR

The Smell of Watermelons by Kaori Ekuni (Japanese Edition; Chinese Edition)

Liu Cixin‘s books

Haruki Murakami‘s books

To anyone who has thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them, especially if you’re from a non-English speaking country!

Have you read many translated/non-English language books? Are you multilingual? What are some translated books you recommend?

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein – Review

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Goodreads Link

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury for the ARC!

The Pearl Thief was a book I especially enjoyed for the characters (Julie and the supporting characters were all fantastic), the overall plot, and the historical period with the Scottish setting. Whilst the mystery could have improved in some aspects, it’s nevertheless a book I’d recommend.

Having read Code Name Verity made some aspects of Julie’s life, personality and character development more interesting, but otherwise, it won’t detract from anything if you read this without being familiar with it.

Summary:

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

My thoughts:

Julie and her character development

  • First off, the text makes it pretty clear that Julie’s queer (bisexual from what I gather). Was great to see this represented!
  • I loved how her voice throughout the book was distinctive and immersive. She’s clearly different from and much younger and less experienced than in Code Name Verity, but her voice, wit and humour were so distinctly reflective of her delightful personality
  • Julie’s character arc throughout the story involved the experience of her expanding her worldview, gaining an understanding of the prejudice faced by her friends (the McEwens, who are Scottish Travellers — more on them below), and how she reflects on her economically & socially privileged position in comparison to them when they are unfairly blamed. Whilst I usually shy away from such narratives, here it was done in a nuanced and respectful way which made me appreciate how it turned Julie into who she becomes later on. So overall, it was a compelling part of her character development.

The supporting characters

  • Not only Julie, but the other supporting characters were fantastic and distinctive
  • Ellen and Euan McEwen were definitely the most fascinating and holistic characters out of the supporting cast. I loved how intelligent and independent they were, and the way their relationships with Julie developed as they worked together was fun to read about. This was especially true for Ellen, whose attitude towards Julie shifts throughout the book. The scene where the two of them to see a show together was a lot of fun.
  • Julie’s brother Jamie was such a delight, and I loved the supportive relationship between the two of them.
  • Mary Kinnaird was also admirable (in spite of her flawed actions near the beginning of the book, which are addressed) and the ‘villain’ characters were realistically frightening.

The mystery

  • There was a good set-up for the mystery in this story — a flashback at the beginning of the book was intriguing and tied in well with the substantive part of the plot
  • The rest of the first part of the mystery, however, could have been better. After the main incident which starts it off and leaves Julie in hospital, part of the mystery involves an amnesia storyline, which I wasn’t a fan of (clichéd and often leads to convenient revelations)
  • The rest of the book did make up for this with additional clues and revelations. The ending, whilst not entirely unpredictable, did involve a few twists that surprised me. It also wrapped everything up well, which I really appreciated.
  • Additionally, something The Pearl Thief did really well was how the transitions between the mystery plot and the character-focused aspects of the book were seamlessly woven together.

The setting and time period

  • I’m not familiar with the Scottish setting of this book, so this was really interesting to read about. Distinctive aspects of their surroundings (the rivers, fields, castle and villages) and experiences were written beautifully and made the story unique
  • The dialogue and writing seemed to reflect the time period better than Code Name Verity did; as someone who loves historical fiction, I really liked this.

Overall, The Pearl Thief was a fun dip back into Julie’s character, within an interesting plot and setting. It’s fairly different in tone from Code Name Verity, but in a way that fit the character and storyline, and I recommend it for other historical fiction/mystery readers.

Related recommendations: the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens, set in 1930s England, is a great middle grade mystery series (with a Hong Kong Chinese narrator/one of the protags). The A Tyranny of Petticoats anthology is another great one about young women in historical times. I’ve had Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House and the rest of the Agency mystery series on my radar for a while (also an Asian protag and author, yaaaay).

Have you read The Pearl Thief or any of Elizabeth Wein’s other books before? What did you think of them? Are there other historical mysteries or historical books focused on young women which you’ve read or would like to read?

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.

#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.

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!