Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Character: 5/5

21-year old Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. Drawing inspiration from Viking lore, she is writing (and living) her own legend, tackling life with courage and loyalty to her tribe. She was also born on the fetal alcohol syndrome spectrum (FASD) and is aware of needing to take things slowly, follow rules, and study things more thoroughly than others. Her brother Gert — with his shaved head, tattoos, and a thug-like exterior — has been taking care of her since he extracted both of them from the abusive Uncle who took them in when their mother died.

A remarkable cast of characters populates this unique coming-of-age story as Gert gets into some questionable means of support in a neighborhood rife with violence and trouble … and Zelda tries to help. It has one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and meaningful endings I’ve ever read. It wasn’t the traditionally happy ending I was expecting, but one in which people had to learn some hard truths about themselves and the people they loved. I particularly appreciated the way nobody was presented as all “bad” or all “good” but merely people trying to do their best, not always succeeding, and coming to terms with how to make the best of what they had.

Zelda’s voice is quite engaging. While many reviewers call it “humorous”, I actually found it to be innocent and completely lacking in artifice — which I found quite refreshing. From Zelda directly, galvanized by her Viking research: “Dagaz means to become awake or to transform. That is what I want to do in my legend: I want to go from a normal Viking to a hero.”

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan 28th, 2019.

This I Know by Eldonna Edwards (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I absolutely loved this book — just as I loved her latest book, Clover Blue. The author has such a luminous voice, and Grace — the 11-year old center of the story — completely captured my heart from the first page. There is something compelling about a young voice trying to make sense of the world. I think it must be the start from innocence — it feels fresher and unsullied.

Grace is born with a gift she calls “The Knowing.” She sometimes knows when something is going to happen, she can sense illness and sometimes heal, and she can always talk to her twin brother Isaac — who she remembers from the womb but who never made it into the world alive. Her father is a preacher who worries that Grace’s talents are the work of the devil, while Grace (and Isaac) believe it is a gift from God. And therein lies the context of this delicate and unique coming-of-age story set in rural Michigan in the 60s.

Gorgeous, exquisite, writing; perfect pacing; an array of characters that pull at your heartstrings; and a beautiful, beautiful, ending.

Some great quotes:
“My teachers call me a day-dreamer, but I’m not dreaming. The me who goes places in my head is a lot more awake than the bored me sitting at my desk.”

“I love the soft flesh of Mama’s warm palm against my own even though sometimes I feel a deep sorrow through her skin. Mama usually does a good job of hiding behind her preacher’s wife smile, but sometimes her crinkled forehead gives her away.”

“Daddy tends to leave a dent in soft things. Not just because he’s big, but because he means to. Everything about him is heavy, from his voice to the way his food lands on the floor. Sometimes just in the way he looks at you.”

“Not having Mama as part of our family is like having the thread slip from the needle. She pulled us all into this world and we need her to keep us sewn together.”

“It’s not what I was expecting. And no, I didn’t know that. Lately I feel like a chipped plate at a table set for company.”

“But I can feel him. I feel his loneliness and his sadness as if they were my own. Maybe they are mine. Maybe the reason we get along so well is because we know exactly how the other feels”

“Everyone is offered this gift, but most people turn away from it at a very young age. Truth frightens people. You’re one of the brave ones.”

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Historical Fiction)

A beautifully written, meticulously researched, fictionalized history of the Kindertransport effort which managed to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi occupied Europe in the nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII (relocating them to England which temporarily waived immigration requirements for the effort. A similar effort in the U.S. was quickly quashed by FDR himself.)

We follow two narratives that slowly weave together: one follows Geertruida Wijsmuller or “Tante Truus,” — the Dutch woman who drives the Kindertransport effort from the politicking at home to the many, many, individual rescues in Europe. The other follows children and their families in Vienna who will eventually become part of Tante Truus’ transport.

I loved the characters — particularly the Austrian children. Clayton succeeded in making these children so bright and so real, their pain and determination nuanced and completely beyond the brief words I can find to describe them. Stephan Neuman — a 16-year old, budding playwright — and his five-year old brother Walter. Theirs is a highly cultured family, and I loved the immersion in the rich cultural world that Stephan inhabited. Stephan’s friend Žofie-Helene Perger — a mathematical prodigy whose non-Jewish mother is a journalist who speaks out against the Nazis putting herself and her family at great risk. And how can you not love Tante Truus who literally can’t bear to think about a child getting left behind if there were anything at all she could do to prevent it.

The real brilliance of Clayton’s book lies in the meticulous portrayal of the many tiny details that comprise life at that time — the underground tunnels, the linotype machines, and mouthwatering descriptions of the chocolatier’s trade. Hovering like a black cloud over these small details, the progressive hardships and changing attitudes of neighbors and friends, the slow shame that creeps up on children who are suddenly treated as different, the insidious and constant fear, disbelief, and tension that inhabits every moment. At the same time, the macroscopic details of global policies — the committees, the bureaucracy, the movements, and the fear on the part of foreign populations and governments as they slowly turn their backs on what was happening to the Jews (and other undesirables) in Europe as the Nazis plow their way through the continent. The book is utterly gripping.

For me, this is the best of the recent spate of WWII / Holocaust books: it felt incredibly real, and I was surprised to learn new things about a topic in which I’m quite well-read. I appreciated that the ultimately uplifting story was focused on survival and rescue, rather than the horrors and despair of the camps. A surprising extra: enduring the frustration (with our characters) of watching countries closing their borders to such desperate need (even though Jewish societies had offered financial support to ensure that host countries would not bear the costs) gave me a new perspective on the refugee crises facing the world today.

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Red Birds by Mohammad Hanif (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 /5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A satirical and somewhat surreal modern day Mouse That Roared taking place in an unnamed desert refugee camp in a place where Americans are simultaneously active in both destruction and Aid. A US pilot crash lands in the desert outside the very camp he was meant to bomb. He is rescued by 15-year old Momo — a singular character — crafty, entrepreneurial, and utterly focussed on finding his brother “Bro Ali” who disappeared into the mysterious Hangar at the center of camp and never returned. The narrative cycles between the first person perspectives of these two and Momo’s dog Mutt. Yes — the dog is one of the narrators and is by far the most erudite of the three, serving as a more abstract philosophic commentary on the action and The Way Things Are. Only Mutt sees the red birds who suddenly appear off in the corners as a bit of emphasis on events.

Other characters represent types: Doctor cares only about saving the Desert and not too much about the humans. An American aid worker — nicknamed Lady Flowerbody — wants to save the world — as long as she has a sufficient supply of Perrier. She is pursuing a PhD on the topic of the Teenage Muslim mind. Momo goes along with it — he has been studied many times for studies like ‘Growing Pains in Conflict Zone,’ ‘Tribal Cultures get IT,’ and even ‘Reiki for War Survivors.’

The writing is beautiful. At heart are themes on the importance of being loved and not forgotten, at living a life of significance, and the deep and individual horrors of war and craziness of America’s policy. This quote kind of sums it up — as the pilot thinks of his own American role juxtaposed with that of Lady Flowerbody he says: “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t take out homes who would need shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go? Who would host exhibitions in the picture galleries of Berlin, who would have fundraising balls in London? Where would all the students on their gap years go? If I stop wearing this uniform and quit my job, the world’s sympathy machine will grind to a halt.”

I loved the writing and the story was intriguing, hovering at the border of reality. The satire was apt although by nature left out any positive attribute about Americans and American aid. The tone was not depressing, although the subject matter and conclusion certainly was if you settle back from the tone and examine what lies underneath.

Other great quotes:

“For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen.”

“They had trained themselves to be brave, they were ready to lay down their lives for their God and country but they didn’t know that bravery comes with a high noise levels and then an abrupt silence that lasts forever. You can’t be brave when you are dead. And then promptly forgotten.”

“She has the air of a permanent do-gooder who will just leave when they stop feeling good about doing good.”

“Making some moolah and thanking our creator is the only ideology that works here.”

“I can tell you that if he is a spy he is not very good at it. He is the kind of spy who wishes that they owned a cafe and ran a book club.”

“When my folks don’t have a real explanation, they blame it on war. As if before the war we were all a brotherhood and didn’t throw our trash into our neighbor’s yard. As if war gave us bad breath and crude manners. “

“Three parallel wrinkles on her forehead speak of an intelligent mind. The ones who came before her never smelt this nice. And they stopped coming anyway when the Hangar shut down. It was simple, they bombed us and then sent us well-educated people to look into our mental health needs.”

“Sad mothers are made of compulsive, reckless optimism.”

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A beautifully written novel that captures the heart and complexity of life in rural Afghanistan. 21-year old Parveen is an Afghani American whose parents escaped the country in 1998. Inspired by the best-selling memoir “Mother Afghanistan” by Dr. Gideon Crane, Parveen decides she wants to “help.” She arranges through Crane’s Foundation to visit the village featured in the book and in which a state of the art clinic for women’s health has been built. An anthropology student, Parveen plans to investigate the “structural reasons and power dynamics” that explain why so many Afghani women are dying. However, once established in the village, she is repeatedly surprised by how very different reality is from that described in the book.

The narrative is equal parts external description — the stunning landscape, the people, the events — and internal evolution as she learns more about her privileged status as an American and how very abstract her interests are compared to the reality of what is needed.

Well-developed characters represent a variety of factions and opinions — Berkeley Anthropology Professor Bannerjee, with whom Parveen corresponds, maintains a liberal, but abstract and condescending view of the Afghani people; Lt Col Trotter, representing the US military, believes in the military goals to help the Afghan people and yet faces ever increasing resistance from the locals; Afghani Aziz interprets for the US military, desperate to keep his job and simultaneously keep things from blowing up. All treat the truth as something to be manipulated — Trotter explains that “war was about controlling the story as much as the territory”; Aziz does not interpret exactly but manipulates statements to be more acceptable to the other; Banerjee thinks nothing of betraying Parveen for the “greater good”; and Crane invented half of his “memoir” in order to sell books and inspire donations.

The writing is beautiful and well put together. The memoir style allows multiple layers to be exposed simultaneously — observations of the village and its inhabitants are simultaneously overlaid with anthropological commentary and Parveen’s exposition on her own growing awareness. I particularly appreciated the insightful and multi-faceted commentary about Americans on the global stage — motivations, approaches, and the sad contrast between laudable aims and failing implementations.

Overall, while I did not find this book uplifting or inspiring I did find it deeply educating. Highly recommended.

Good quotes:
“It bothers you Americans that the world is the way it is, doesn’t it?”

“The first time he’d met Dr. Gideon, he said, he also had to give his story. Americans collected and offered them like they were business cards.”

“In moments of clarity she understood that the village was a backdrop against which Americans played out their fantasies of benevolence or self-transformation or, more recently, control. She was as guilty of this as Trotter or Crane. She’d come to play at being an anthropologist, and play was all it had been, because at some point, without much thought, she’d set all her anthropological work aside.”

“The urge to intervene, a high of its own, was a hard habit to break. Salvation could become an addiction, too.”

“Fiction disguised as nonfiction in the service of justice had a long and noble history. Abolitionists had invented or amplified escape slave narratives to dramatize their cause…”

And yet she read on, recognizing that the muscle of moral superiority can be a pleasurable one to exercise. Perhaps Crane, in making this warty presentation of himself, understood that too.”

“It was her first awareness that perhaps there is no self, no core, unshaped by others. From the moment we’re conscious that we’re being viewed, we’re being molded.”

“ ‘What I am here to learn is why so many women in Afghanistan are dying. Without understanding the structural reasons, without tackling the power dynamics that prevent women from having a voice, let alone proper health care, nothing will change.’ She was feeling proud of this declamation and the doctor nodded, as if she were agreeing, then said, ‘At the end of a labor, Parveen, a woman lives, or she dies. That is all that concerns me.’ ”

“To be female here was to grasp at scraps of information and sew them into the shape you imagined reality to be. Into fictions, patterned on distortions and inventions. The women needed an accurate understanding of the peril in which they lived — and the reasons for it.”

“She had, within sight, something fundamental, and also painful. which was that to be an adult was to have to make decisions and take actions that might be wrong. That might cause harm. To live was to bruise, the doctor seemed to be saying: there was no other way. Unlike Professor Banerjee or Gideon Crane, Dr. Yasmeen projected no certainty about the right path to take, the one that would avoid error and hurt; indeed, she seemed skeptical there was such a path. She didn’t think that all the answers could be had, much less claim to have them herself.”

“The digitized faces, fingerprints, and irises of men who’d never left these mountains would live perpetually in a DC suburb. Eternal life of another kind.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 27th, 2019.