Saturday, April 6, 2019

Seven at Sea

Seven at Sea: Why a New York City Family Cast Off Convention for a Life-Changing Year on a Sailboat, by Eric Orton & Emily Orton
Three ARCs have languished on my shelf over summer until they've degraded to simply RC's.  And boxes of books keep arriving.  So when three people I love said they'd finished a book not on my trade list and would I like to read it, I thought, "I'll get to it when I can."  But yesterday I was guided by a sudden exigent need for their rec to jump the queue.  I read all afternoon.

For the sake of transparency, it must be said I'd already heard of the Ortons.  The aforementioned recommending trio has lovingly spoken of this family for years; I even have Karina Orton on my Spotify playlist -- and not just because the recommendations of people I love matter, but because I really like Karina's music.  But I've never met the Orton family or communicated with them.  It's possible my awareness of a single degree of separation between us heightened my connection with their story, but I don't know that I could read Erik and Emily's writing and not connect with their tender honesty, under any circumstance.

Their story is an interweaving of recounted experiences and family philosophy, both of which I found compelling and resonant.

I began reading with a degree of disconnect founded on my certainty I'd struggle to relate to these people who had done something I couldn't fathom even considering.  I'm open to risks and adventure, but braving the beautiful and terrifying ocean?  With my kids?  I surely would find these sea people, other; I'd be just fine viewing them like fascinating specimens with whom I didn't consociate.

I was so wrong.  I felt their family meetings, mulled on their marital growth, nodded at their mantras, and reflected with gratitude on my own spouse's unfailing support of my "day jobs" (home-schooling and writing) and unconventional pursuits (like opening an art gallery at a very inexperienced 21).  I felt alive reading the Ortons' story. 

They weren't this other, Sailing Sort I'd assumed they were.  They were instead dreamers who consciously set goals and became sailors in spite of not inherently being that.  The well-selected opening chapter lays excellent exposition, clarifying the Ortons' exceptional experiences were something they bravely claimed instead of a privilege they were born to.  I was shedding weak suppositions left and right as I learned Emily once feared deep water, that they all experience motion sickness, and how their sailing experience came by way of inventive frugality.  Suppositions shed, I was primed to project all over the place, which for me, makes for seriously emotional reading.  And it was!

The prose itself is nice to read; I pursed my lips with amusement at Erik's love for puns (and corniness generally) and caught my breath at Emily's sudden bursts of contemplation in amidst surface retelling.  Then there's the honesty.  Holy crap the honesty is good.  These people got mad sometimes.  They got stuck in funks.  They had doubts.

I collected little gems as I read -- turns of phrase and imagery I want to hold onto -- sloths on deck, dinghy dates, and friends willing to suck diesel / be electrocuted for you.  There are quotes I've recorded to keep for rereading because I don't want to forget what I felt when I read them.

I'm so glad I read this book and think anyone with a dream (or even the tickle of one forming) would be glad to read it too.

Friday, April 5, 2019

King of Scars, More Grishaverse

King of Scars, Leigh Bardugo
This is the first in a duology about Nikolai.

I've been impressed with all of Bardugo's books, but in King of Scars the narrative voices are more distinct and nuanced, the romance is richer and the dialogue is almost perfect;
  • The story is told from multiple perspectives, but each is engrossing and unique.
  • Queer and bicurious voices are integrated in a way I think significantly contributes to the movement.
  • I wanted more from the romance in some of the earlier books (okay, mostly Six of Crows), but here I found romance that didn't drive the narrative but that made the story better.  It's an art.
  • Although there is apparent attraction, there are no sensual scenes.
  • The world-build is exquisite.
  • Of everything that is strong, the strongest for me has to be the dialogue.  I wanted to read sections aloud all the time because I wanted to replay and share how good it was.  It is so so good, and many of you know, good dialogue is important to me.
  • The only downside I found, is that I have read these as they've come out, and so a lot of time has passed since I read the first books.  Sometimes I make time to reread leading up to a new release, but this new year that hasn't been feasible.  The expositional catch-up and review portions are pretty solid, but I knew I didn't have the depth of appreciation and connection with the characters I could have had if the earlier books had been a recent undertaking.  So if you're coming to this late, you're in for a treat to be able to read them all back-to-back and come into Nikolai's portions with that heightened love for all the players.  (Because there are a lot of players you know and love here!)
  • This book may be about a king, but the women pack all the narrative punch.  I mean, for sure, Nikolai's story and battle is an underpinning, interwoven thread, but the women are the powerhouses here.  So many great ladies!  Ah!
Available in bookstores now.

Review copy received from Hachette.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

We Are Displaced: Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World
We Are Displaced, Malala Yousafzai and Various
This book belongs to many women, not just Malala.  But Malala knows her name's placement on its cover will help these other voices be heard -- that because people will pick up a book by Malala, many will also come to know about Marie Clare being jubilantly thrown in the air at her graduation ceremony, MarÄ«a's longing to pluck a mango from a tree outside her own home, or Analia's fond memories riding clutching her father on his motorbike, secured to him by a yellow strap.  I felt punched with power by the details.

Often the common narrative on displaced persons underscores the trauma or celebrates “improved circumstances.” But We Are Displaced reminds us of beauty lost.  That yes, while there was cause to flee, there were also good things left behind, things that made the place they were fleeing, home.

I needed to read this book.  In a time where people debate immigration policy, refugee housing allocation, the risk of assembly and a foreign presence in our communities, I believe many would benefit from reading this book.  In a world where nearly one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution, I think hearing their stories is more important than ever before.  An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home (source).

If your heart already aches, you'll be open to feel and to learn a little more.  If you haven't given it much thought or gone beyond the numbers, this book may help awaken you to the people and the details behind those staggering figures.  If you're anti- all of it already, you're probably not reading my blog anyway.

I believe how we talk about and what we do about displaced people will be what defines this time in history.  

As a production, the book is excellent.  The stories read well in the order presented, are abridged elegantly with Malala's own experience and introductory comments, and the colour photographs at its centre were something I kept turning to again and again.

Proceeds from the sales of this book go to the Malala Fund -- to help more girls to school and reach their potential.   

Available from Hachette (Jan 2019).

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Catch a Falling Star: Five Stars...albethey late in falling

Catch a Falling Star, Meg McKinlay
I received an advance reading copy for this back in December.  As to why I am only now sharing my thoughts on it, I have pieced together thus:

It took all of one voracious evening for me to read it from title to end matter.  After I closed it, I felt full.  I luxuriated a few minutes in satiated afterglow, then apparently clickety clicked my way onto GoodReads, smugly stamped it with a whopping 5/5 stars, then...fell asleep.

There is nary a sentence of accompanying praise to go with those stars, there's not a word saved in my phone's "Notes"about my reading (which I thought I always did), and there's certainly no drafted review post to be opened now and polished.  How could this be?  This was so unlike me!  Something had gone seriously amuck.

This has come back to me because I did some digging.  And by digging, I mean I scrolled down a smidge on GoodReads to find the date I read Catch a Falling Star.  Bingo. New Year's Eve.  It was this discovery that brought it all back to me.  My husband worked New Year's Eve.  After an hour's read aloud for the offspring (Wildwood Dancing, if you must know) and a dance party thereafter, I tucked in my beloved listener-dancers for the night and welcomed 2019 by crawling into my bed for an uninterrupted book binge.  It was quite an after-party!

The next day we spent at Long Beach playing pole tennis, sun-worshipping, body boarding and throwing back half-thawed popsicles.  Reading thus (without making notes or drafting a review upon completion) and relaxing outdoors with my family thereafter robbed this title of the glowing and timely review it deserved!  I loved this book.  I mean, it was how I saw in the new year, and I 100% would do it all again the same way if given the chance.

I had to get that out of the way -- you must know the delay is not a reflection of mediocrity by any means, but rather an unfortunate price paid for the opposite -- this book was my delicious treat for myself at a time I thought little of homework and more on pleasure.

Now, why did I love it? 
  • The writing is charming and accessible.  I felt like Frankie was confiding in me conversationally.  This helped make a single sitting reading possible.
  • And the curation of details is just so.  What this student is wearing, what that child said -- it's a highly effective highlight reel of Frankie's experience. (One reoccurring specific in the ARC drew a blank for me though; a texta was regularly used to write things. From context I guessed this would be a Sharpie in terms-familiar-to-me, and a good google confirmed as much.  You're welcome, if you are also non-Australian or in the dark on this one.)
  • The 70s setting for this novel lends a warm filter to its accompanying imagery; space station Skylab's omnipresence charges the narrative with quirky fascination and fervour-- a motif that feels rich with relevance.
  • There's a delicate suspense for having these physical and emotional trajectories mapped alongside each other. 
  • As the reader juggles both of those balls, there's no room for romance.  This is a family story and a story about grief.  Don't wait for a love interest to appear. 
  • The interplay between relationships is the meat of it; how imperfect people do their best to be there for each other but how hard that can really be.
  • In the best way, it shares some of the refined magic and messages of The 10pm Question, only I'd venture in a less confronting way (and so perhaps could be suitable for a younger audience).
  • But in terms of suitability and advisory notes on content, Catch a Falling Star is refreshingly clean and a slam-dunk on the tasteful front.
So these are my words, to go with my 5/5 stars; Catch a Falling Star is a winner.  It captures the fragments of warmth and tenderness that flutter and fall through mortality's sieve of pain.  Highly recommended.

I read an ARC from Walker.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

On the Come Up

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

Before I attempt to frame some of my thoughts about this story, I'll quote Neil Gaiman:

“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

This idea -- that reading fosters empathy -- is the main reason I decided to review On the Come Up.  Because if I'm completely honest, as a middle-class white person, I'm pretty nervous about writing a review on this book.  Because: What do I know?  And what right do I have to comment?  Those questions tugged on my anxiety strings.  But louder, was a call to Empathetic Arms; my belief that more middle-class white people should read more widely, acquaint themselves with more voices -- hear diverse stories (and then talk about them).  So though I can't tell you if Angie Thomas writes these voices authentically or confirm whether her novels capture the spirit of the neighbourhoods she describes (though I have it on good authority she does), I can do what I do for any other work of fiction I read -- share what the narrative voice says to me and what feelings I feel are captured (although I'm still a little nervous).

My first note, is that reading this from the outside, I felt some acclimatising needed to take place.  The dialogue read like a dialect of my own tongue so foreign to me I had to sometimes pause, re-read, and decode characters' speech.  Perhaps this might be taken as an indicator of authenticity in and of itself, ha! 

The messages -- that women can have ambitions and that's more than okay, that dreams may take a fight, and that breaking with expectations can be part of that fight -- will speak to a lot of people, from all walks of life.  Those translate loud and clear.  The harsh and heart-aching struggles for low-income families hit me hard.  Hard too, was riding the climbing click-click-click of Thomas' carefully-plotted rollercoaster alongside Bri -- knowing we both would need to come slamming down before the ride was over.  Because for sure, Bri makes some choices that had me going, "No!  Don't do it! She did it..."  But after the climb and slam, there was also relief, progress, learning and closure.  The plot is tight.

Lastly, advisory-wise, there's some heavy content references, so concerned parents could consider reading alongside / before their kids.  There are no sex scenes. There's a fair amount of cussing. 

If you loved The Hate U Give, you don't need this review -- you'll be lining up to get your hands on a copy of this (same neighbourhood, new people) sequel next week.  But if you're someone who sees these covers and doesn't identify with what you see, this review's for you: Read wider; support more voices; empathise more. 

ARC received from Walker.
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