24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: realistic fiction (page 1 of 4)

Abby Reads: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010, 320 pages
Juvenile Fiction

In Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind, Melody Brooks is eleven years old and has never spoken a word. In her wheelchair, she often meets issues of inaccessibility, but as she tells readers in her first-person narrative, she thinks things could be just a little easier if she could express herself with words. Image result for out of my mind sharon draperThough she has some very basic tools to communicate about things like needing the bathroom and being hungry, she’s been unable to make many deep connections outside herself due to her cerebral palsy. When a new technology comes into her life, Melody is suddenly able to get more involved than ever before, but there are challenges she perhaps didn’t anticipate that must be met.

There’s no getting away with writing a review for Out of My Mind without mentioning R. J. Palacio’s Wonder. Both telling the story of a child with physical challenges (one more cosmetic than the other), both novels were published within the last seven years. While Out of My Mind appeared in 2010, Wonder came out in 2012. Between the two, Out of My Mind is superior for the simple fact that it does better work in not falling into the trap of being inspiration porn. Melody is angry and not afraid to show it. She is not always kind, she is not always understanding. And it is this that makes her a sympathetic character, paradoxically enough. Where Auggie of Wonder is known for being extra kind (and certainly this is admirable), he is also essentially awarded for having a disability, which boils down to something offensive — people with disabilities are more than their disabilities, and it is exactly Melody’s negative traits that demonstrate this so clearly.

Another success of Out of My Mind is Draper’s refusal to treat ten-year-olds like toddlers. Frequently, Melody’s peers do things that are cruel, even as they know they are wrong for it. Draper makes no excuses here, heightening the realism of the novel, which again further brings home the point. Even adults are not immune to mistreating Melody, though sometimes this happens — as in real life — with good intentions. The discomfort Draper brings out on the page is excellently handled because she does not suppose that this behavior is cartoonish or the result of a lack of realizing the action is wrong. Sometimes, people are just cruel, and where Palacio tip-toes around this concept, Draper takes it head on in a much more effective manner.

There are some shortcomings in Out of My Mind. On top of being a difficult topic, the first half of the narrative is startlingly slow and repetitive. This serves Melody as a character, of course, and readers’ empathy for her — just as Melody’s life has been monotonous and frustrating in part, as a result of her inability to communicate as others do, so is the reading experience prior to her acquisition of communication assistant technology. Too, Melody is said to have a photographic memory, but this trait doesn’t seem to play out in the reality of the story — perhaps this is a miscommunication of what exactly “photographic memory” means in Melody’s case, but she still must drill trivia questions as she prepares for a tournament in a series of study sessions with her neighbor/caretaker.

I can’t outright say that I loved Out of My Mind. Stylistically, I struggled with Draper’s writing and found it to be slogging in many places. There’s no doubt that the novel touches on a difficult and important topic, but this alone does not a great or enjoyable book make. Though certainly a useful story for a classroom, book club, or heart-to-heart discussion, Out of My Mind is not the thing to reach for if you’re looking for a fun, strictly-entertaining read. Still, if you’re between Wonder and Out of My Mind, go with the latter — not only does the book mostly avoid being inspiration porn, but it also was written by a woman of color and touches on life with cerebral palsy in a reflective and no-punches-pulled manner.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, 233 pages
Juvenile Fiction

After he is wrongly convicted of shoe theft in Louis Sachar’s Holes, Stanley  Yelnats is sent to a correctional facility known as Camp Green Lake. At the institution, he, along with dozens of other boys his age, are forced to dig precise holes throughout the barren desert. Meanwhile, Image result for holes louis sacharsomething from Camp Green Lake’s past is tickling the current inhabitants and influencing their lives in ways they could never begin to believe. As Stanely builds relationships with the other boys in the camp and begins to learn about the kinds of cruelty adults can bestow, a clever and quiet plot unfolds in fabulous reveals from chapter to chapter.

Despite being a fairly simple novel in many ways, Holes is quietly powerful with not only an incredibly-planned plot, but also with an unusual level of social commentary woven in through example rather than heavy-handedness. One of the most striking examples of this social commentary is Stanley’s conviction. Sachar makes it clear that had Stanley’s family had more money and more able to afford a competent legal team to represent him, he would not have been unjustifiably sent to Camp Green Lake. Stanley learns even more about social justice issues as he enters the camp, where he interacts with boys of color and begins to understand some of the implications of their lives. One awkward step away from this pattern is a description from the narrator, in which boys who are digging holes are described as being racially ambiguous due to the dirt on their faces.

With two plot lines running alongside each other, separate in history but together in consequence, Sachar handles most of the overlapping well. Though this concept could easily be difficult for younger readers to follow, Sachar’s attention to detail, refusal to overwhelm, and commitment to clear connections makes the structure completely accessible for its target audience. A few places marked as chapter breaks can feel jarring, but the overall effect is worth it and it is this feature that makes Holes so unforgettable.

Of course, how the two primary plots came together did not seem quite so impressive for me this time. I’ve both read the book and seen the film Holes. I recall my first reading being entrancing, so I have hope that my original experience holds up today. But knowing exactly how Stanely’s situation would be impacted by Kissin’ Kate Barlow did take some of the magic away from the book.

Sachar’s narrator speaks in a familiar and conversational style that feels entirely natural and fun. Holes has just about everything you could want in terms of literary value. It’s well-planned, engaging, imaginative, unique, and quite a ride. If you haven’t gotten to Holes yet, take a weekend ad get to it — you’ll thank yourself.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Random House, 1970, 192 pages
Juvenile Fiction

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume encounters Margaret, a young girl who has moved with her parents from New York City to the suburbs and is beginning to question what it is to be religious and what it is to be a woman. With crossover between her personal religious life and her new social circle, Margaret finds tension in her parents’ relationships with their own parents as well as neighborhood friends and 37732their older brothers. Blume asks important questions about what religion means to the unindoctrinated religious explorers and what it means to be a young girl growing up in America.

Prior to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I had never picked up a Judy Blume novel. Where I admittedly expected some level of innocence and naivete (this was published in 1970! Certainly those were simpler times. No? Well, another discussion for another day), I found a great deal of honesty and challenging topics wrapped up in a beautifully simple narrative and prose. Without a complicated plot, Margaret is left to ponder the wonders of the world and the universe, leaving plenty of questions unanswered for young readers to think on themselves. Despite the natural complexity of religion and puberty (and what a combination!), Blume makes both simple and accessible for her young target audience.

What was especially impressive was Blume’s dedication to making the depiction of Margaret and her friends one of the truest I’ve seen of young girls’ friendships. A particular scene in which Margaret’s group of friends determine rules for their friend group stuck out as especially familiar to me, despite the absurdity of it. I, too, could recall sitting down with friends, notebooks in hand, to place arbitrary rules on our group about boys, communication, and other relevant aspects of our lives. (As an aside, from a professional perspective, I can now tell you that this type of play is in preparation for adulthood, which is pretty neat and makes Blume’s work here even more impressive. As Margaret and her friends are on the verge of experiencing puberty, they are also mentally practicing their adult lives through these exercises. Interesting!)

Similarly realistic, if perhaps slightly underdeveloped, is Margaret’s secret crush. These new feelings that develop within her are scary in some ways, so they’re largely ignored until they can’t be. Even when the crush cannot be ignored, Margaret tiptoes around it, creating a delicious sort of tension that will entice readers to read on.

Meanwhile, though the book is written for older children and younger teens, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret can easily be enjoyed by adults. Plenty of the subtleties of Margaret’s life (to which she does not catch on) are fascinating to watch play out in various ways. Where adults will be savvy about the implications and consequences of various events, Margaret is often oblivious beyond some surface information. This is not Margaret being stupid, either, but it highlights a compelling piece of childhood that we often forget. That said, there were moments and a general feeling of lack of development — while the book remains completely accessible, its deeper symbolism and meaning are really not so deep at all, which might leave something to be desired for readers who prefer to do a little more thoughtful work.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret only takes a couple of hours to read and is a fun experience. Glittering scenes with her grandmother make for a unique piece to an already-important story. Whether you’re religious or not, this novel provides a nice look at what it can mean for some and where sometimes, meaning falls short.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2016, 368 pages
Realistic Fiction

Beginning at the end of Charles Wang’s beauty industry fortune, The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang follows four-fifths of the remaining Wang family on a road trip across the country to older sister Saina in New York. When Charles Wang loses his money thanks to a nation-wide The Wangs vs the World by Jade Changfinancial collapse, he gathers his wife Barbra, his younger daughter Grace, and his son Andrew before embarking on a trip which will reveal the priorities and desires of each character. A backdrop of a crushed American Dream sets the stage for this Chinese-American family while characters continue to grapple with the death of Charles’s first wife, now dead for many years.

It’s no surprise The Wangs vs. the World got as much praise as it did when it came out. Though Chang is an already-established journalist, this debut novel gets at the heart of first-generation life and the pressures the idea of America held against the country’s inhabitants — particularly immigrants. While I am not Asian myself, I recognized a lot of Chang’s stories from family stories my Chinese-American partner has shared with me. This prompted a lot of interesting introspection on my part, and opened a world that was somewhat new to me.

Chang’s characters are highly individualized, each dealing with their family’s downfall differently, or not at all. This high level of development is necessary to propel the prose forward as the novel is primarily literary fiction, and one that focuses on how an event impacts a group of people rather than how a group of people enact a plot. Like lots of literary fiction, The Wangs vs. the World does feel slow at times. With chapters alternating perspectives, still in the third-person, the novel sometimes struggles to keep an even rhythm with interruptions to reconnect with characters that have been ignored in favor of others and some characters carrying more weight than others. Chang, however, has something for everyone; one character might be supplementary for one person, but totally central to another. For example, Chang’s depiction of Charles’s second wife, Barbra, often felt secondary to me as we are such opposite people in every way imaginable. However, Barbra could easily find identification in the many women like her who read the book. Meanwhile, I found more connection with the three children of the story (Saina, Andrew, and Grace — all at different stages in their emerging adult lives), whose lives are more similar to my own.

While each character has a struggle that is specific to them outside of their shared collapse, Saina’s is perhaps the most disappointing. Though her career as an artist also seems to be in trouble, it is her challenges with men in her life that take the spotlight. Despite her otherwise successful adult life, Saina cannot get around the difficulties these men present her, seemingly feeling incomplete without them. Barbra, however, is just the opposite. Although readers might expect a particular mode of operation from the children’s stepmother, they may well be surprised by Barbra’s personality when it is revealed in full. Her complexity is easily one of the most interesting pieces of The Wangs vs. the World.

On top of examining individuals, Chang uses The Wangs vs. the World to inspect family relationships, particularly in the specific Chinese-American cultural context which offers pressures that are different from other cultures.

Ultimately, The Wangs vs. the World is a fascinating study of a myriad of things, juggled wonderfully by Jade Chang. Despite some moments of jerky pacing, the overall novel is definitely worth the read, even for those who typically stay away from literary and character-driven fiction.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #24, “Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color,” and I leave it behind with three hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood
Sourcebooks Fire, 2016, 304 pages
YA Fiction

 

Full disclosure: I work with Jessica Spotswood. I wasn’t coerced into reading her work; it was something that would have interested me anyway. My thoughts here are my own and have no bearing on Jessica as a person, who is lovely. Onward!

After seventeen years without her mother, Ivy is beginning really to feel the pressure of her foremothers’ legacies. For generations, the Milbourn women have left behind amazing works of art in one form or another only to die young in Jessica Spotswood’s Wild Swans. On the coast of Virginia, Ivy struggles Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswoodwith her grandfather’s encouragement to build her writing portfolio while finding new companionship in his favorite student (Connor) and fighting against the assumed romantic entitlement of the boy with whom she grew up (Alex). Meanwhile, her mother returns with her two half-sisters, only her sisters don’t know exactly who she is.

Wild Swans is quietly and realistically feminist, with plenty to consider in terms of fate, self-determination, and taking charge. Though Ivy is not a strictly active character, her power appears in other ways and her thoughtfulness adds to her as a person and to her narrative. Much of Ivy’s development comes through her introspection. She’s incredibly mature and self-aware, which leads directly from her upbringing and grandfather’s role in her life. Spotswood’s characterization of each person is touched with a heavy dose of realism: many characters are paradoxical in their actions and speech, all characters are nuanced, and their interactions with and influences on each other clearly have an impact as relationships do in real life.

Connor is, in some ways, slightly cliched. He occasionally falls into the poet-boy trope, with tattoos and a coolness that many of the other characters find slightly off-putting. But in many other ways, he’s refreshing and real: Spotswood carefully handles Connor as a complete foil to Alex, which helps to reinforce the feminist message of not oweing a sexual or romantic relationship to anyone, regardless of how long a couple of people have been friends.

Spotswood’s story is wrapped up in excellent prose, too. Despite having a rather quiet plot, the book moves quickly with language that isn’t overly long but still exact. Ivy, as a narrator, is able to communicate quite a bit of context without going overboard. She’s concise and uses fairly simple language, but the quality and clarity of the plot, setting, situation, and beyond are not sacrificed for it. The quiet plot, however, also ends quietly. By the end of Ivy’s story, little seems to have truly changed. A few more beats might have tied things up in a more satisfying way, but this might have cost the novel its deep sense of realism, which in some ways feels more valuable.

If you’re looking for something that’s steady and fleshy but not overwhelmingly heavy or dark (though there’s darkness in Wild Swans, to be sure), Wild Swans could be a great next pick for you. It’s a quick read that delivers on balanced emotion and subtlety, well worth the couple of days you’ll spend with it. Whether you’re in on a rainy evening or enjoying the sun’s rays on the beach, give Wild Swans a shot — you just might find something in yourself that will surprise you.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Simon Pulse, 2017, 384 pages
YA Fiction

In When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, readers are introduced to gutsy Dimple and amorous Rishi. The summer before she’s to go to college, Dimple packs her bags for a computer coding camp where she expects to work hard to earn the prize of working with her idol and developing an app28458598 which will help her father and thousands of others. What she doesn’t expect is to meet her future husband, Rishi. Enamored by Dimple and her drive, Rishi is hardly deterred by her naturally horrified response to the rude realization that her and Rishi’s parents have conspired to put the two teens together. When Dimple and Rishi are paired together for their coding project, Dimple is hesitant at best. But perhaps Rishi has more to offer than what Dimple wants to believe.

Young Adult fiction publishers seem to finally be getting the message that we need more diverse books. This is only the very beginning, but with a publication date that quickly followed the final installment of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, When Dimple Met Rishi came at the perfect time. The buzz around the novel is well-deserved. Because the novel is written by a woman who can racially and ethnically identify with her characters, stereotypes are nonexistent or, in the cases where they do appear, are explained to inform the reader and flesh out the stereotype that is actually a cultural feature or, an unconnected individual quirk.

Not to continue comparing Menon to Han, but another fantastic similarity between the two is the novels’ abilities to take a fairly slow, everyday plot without outrageous dips, dives, and heights and maintain a high level of interest in readers. Characters in the novel experience everyday problems with loved ones and friends, many of which readers might recognize from their own lives. However, these conflicts are rarely yawn-inducing. Instead, Menon props up the novel with characters who are well-developed and emotive. With such a high level of development, managing chemistry between characters might seem like a stiff challenge, but Menon proves her skill again in helping readers become invested in Dimple and Rishi’s end with the considerable gravitation between the two characters.

Menon’s setting of a pre-college camp for computer programmers is also highly interesting, and a bold thing to actually show a young woman entering. For all the talk we have around girls in computer sciences, it seems rare to see such a person reflected in fiction and even rarer to see it done well and realistically. Dimple meets plenty of detractors when it comes to her love of coding, but perhaps what really sets this environment apart from similar locations is that Dimple’s coding camp is full of all kinds. While some of Menon’s secondary and tertiary characters become caricaturistic, the presence of those characters at all (such as the stereotypical Mean Girls) assist in creating realism.

Some reviewers had problems with examples of Dimple’s physical abuse of Rishi. I’m not one to believe that characters must be nice or likable to be interesting or worth reading about, but the abuse, particularly as something that was never resolved as a character trait, felt out of place in When Dimple Met Rishi. These instances might have informed readers of Dimple’s character, but given that she never seems to outgrow the behavior, its existence in the novel is troubling.

Finally, When Dimple Met Rishi did run a little long for my tastes. A particular beat of the romance plot toward the end might have been left off for a read that felt a little snappier, which likely would have suited the experience better. However, When Dimple Met Rishi is, overall, almost as good as the hype and certainly worth the time to read. Even aside from being an important novel due to its status as a “diverse” novel (scare quotes because we shouldn’t need novels featuring non-white characters as direly as we do, and yet here we are), When Dimple Met Rishi is worth it simply for the pleasure.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: First & Then by Emma Mills

First & Then  by Emma Mills
Henry Holt and Co., 2015, 272 pages
YA Fiction

Obsessed with Jane Austen and dealing with the new presence of her cousin in her home, Devon of Emma Mills’s First & Then doesn’t want a whole lot to do with anyone. With her cousin Foster comes local superstar football player Ezra, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be out of her life anytime soon, no matter 23310751how much she may want him out. But Ezra perhaps does not have the perfect life everyone believes he does.

With a plot and structure that mimics Austen to some degree, First & Then follows Devon and her mild obsession around the famous author. Mills struggles to define Devon, however — for all of Devon saying she loves Austen, it’s rarely demonstrated in action and the origins of her interest are never explained. It feels, instead, like a symbolic character trait: Devon loves Austen, so her story — at least in this novel — will be one about love and commentary on societal contentions. You know, like an Austen novel.

Despite Devon being somewhat bare bones in the personality department, her love interest is rather interesting. Genuinely mature (as opposed to the fake mature that you often see in YA literature — Edward in Twilight comes to mind first: seemingly mature and experienced, but really just brooding and quite emotionally immature when it comes down to it), the character provides a refreshing example. Though a revealing detail (see more on that at the end of the review, if you don’t mind major spoilers)* ends up being half-baked and underdeveloped, the character overall is fascinating as an individual.

Other folks in Devon’s life make the novel a touch crowded. Too many characters come in and out, which is a mark of real life, but ultimately makes First & Then harder to follow, canceling out any of the realism this aspect provides. Meanwhile, Mills’s plot is a bit slow and subtle, which adds to the vague lack of readability. Furthermore, if you’re not a fan of football and know nothing about it, several football-heavy scenes will again make this book a bit more of a chore than you might expect.

Finally, Devon’s tendency to call other girls at her school “prostitots,” or “PTs” for short, is a frustrating one. She never grows out of this, which I found disconcerting for a number of reasons. While main characters need not be perfect by any stretch, there seemed no real reason for this inclusion, except perhaps some dislike of girls typically deemed as pretty, popular, and perhaps promiscuous (alliteration unintended) by the author in her high school years.

First & Then is not something I’d go out of my way to read. It needed a bit more polishing and a stronger structure to hold my attention. While the prose style was sufficient, the overall concept was in places too subtle or otherwise underdeveloped to be gripping.

*SPOILERS BELOW*

Ultimately, the love interest holds a secret to avoid attention he doesn’t want. This “secret” is that his younger brother died in a car crash. This felt terribly gimmicky and, from someone who lost a brother to fatal injuries in a car crash, I was mildly insulted. The love interest never even gives his brother a name, suggesting that the crash only matters in so much as it is connected to the love interest and his life, as opposed to just being an important event on its own. Though everyone grieves differently, I found this portrayal strange, off-putting, and generally tone deaf to what it’s actually like.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Everything Leads to Your by Nina LaCour
Speak, 2014, 336 pages
Fiction

A set designer for movies, Emi lives in Los Angeles in Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You. With her brother out of the country, she and her best friend move into his empty apartment. Though regular interactions with her ex-girlfriend (and her ex-girlfriend’s current partner) make her uncomfortable, EmiImage result for everything leads to you is determined to make the most of this opportunity and make a break into the behind the scenes of Hollywood. When she discovers a note from a famous actor in an estate sale, Emi is driven to a new mission: find the woman referenced in the note and join the woman with her inheritance. But things are never as they seem in the movies and only sometimes as they seem in real life.

LaCour pieces together a beautiful coming-of-age in Everything Leads to You. Unlike so many other LGBTQIAA+ novels, Everything Leads to You features a young lesbian woman but the story does not revolve around her coming out or around her sexuality at all. While her relationships play a large role in the plot and her sexuality is by no means glossed over, it is not the novel. Coming out novels are, of course, important — but so are celebrations of homosexuality as the everyday. LaCour’s depiction of Emi and her relationships emphasizes the normalcy of it all, which is something sorely missing in most LGBTQIAA+ fiction I’ve encountered.

What’s more, the novel has a totally unique setup, particularly for a young adult cast. Just out of high school, Emi has a job that is unlikely for most people her age, but reasonably realistic all the same. The Los Angeles backdrop makes for an environment that feels new. LaCour’s commitment to the unique location helps to create an atmosphere that is rich and and full of the sort of wonder and style that is only inherent to Hollywood — or, at least, how many of us imagine the area.

LaCour does fall short in prose. While adequate, the sentence structure and vocabulary doesn’t do anything to add to the emotion of the book. It simply tells the story, leaving much of the ambiance up to setting and character actions. Further, Everything Leads to You might be categorized as a sort of light example of literary fiction wherein the focus is on character development over plot, but it remains that the primary conflict simply did not drive the book forward enough. Without a higher level of definition and development, the plot seems more offhand than suits the rest of the novel. This is again emphasized with the lack of chemistry between Emi and the primary love interest.

Everything Leads to You is an important addition to the LGBTQIAA+ fictional catalog, but it has its faults. Like a book in watercolor, it’s a lovely reflection of even the slightly grittier sides of movie making and a tribute to films themselves. A few more rounds of edits might have bumped this one up several notches, but I ultimately finished the novel feeling interested in LaCour’s other works.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #15, “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts. 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson
Ember, 2015, 304 pages
YA Fiction

After the death of her politician father in an unnamed Middle East country, Laila, her mother, and her little brother — the heir to her father’s seat — move to the outskirts of Washington, D. C. for protection. As Laila adjusts to her new American life, she discovers her mother is perhaps not as innocent as sheThe Tyrant's Daughter originally believed and there is more to the American government’s intent than she’s told. J. C. Carleson tells Laila’s story in The Tyrant’s Daughter.

With Carleson boasting her background in international affairs (specifically, “as an officer in the CIA’s clandestine service”), readers might expect her to bring knowledge, expertise, and detail to destigmatize the Middle East, refugees, Muslims, and people of color. Despite her personal experiences, Carleson seems only to perpetuate stereotypes and the fear many Americans express around these groups. While Carleson, in the notes of the book, points out she does not name a country for Laila’s origins for a variety of reasons, she fails to acknowledge that, in not naming a country (or, alternatively, making one up), she allows readers to assume all Middle Eastern countries are suffering under the rule of a nefarious dictator who, among other things, oppresses women in the name of Islam. This problematic approach only serves to other those from the Middle East, those who are Muslim, those who are refugees, and, to some extent (though less so, in this context), those who are of color.

This is further underlined when Carleson, or Laila, as the narrator, describes a moment in which she thinks of her female classmates as “whores” because of the typical American clothing they wear. While this might serve to illustrate Laila’s upbringing, it also once again stigmatizes Muslims and the Middle East in a way that is unnecessary. As a whole, Laila is neither a likable nor interesting character. Manipulative and selfish, she has few inherent traits that are about her. Anything that makes her interesting comes from external forces — her status as a de facto princess, for example. Laila consistently rejects everything around her and understandably so, having been plucked from her home and dropped in a foreign world in which the inhabitants believe the worst of her father. But as her defining character trait, this makes Laila difficult to cheer for or care about. What matters most, perhaps, is that Carleson hasn’t motivated Laila to any kind of concrete character development by the end. Instead, Laila remains as she has throughout the novel, her story only improved by circumstances.

Plot-wise, The Tyrant’s Daughter moves slowly and is enveloped in politics that influence Laila’s circumstances at a level well above her. She is unable to do much or be of significant agency, aside from a relationship that may or may not have romantic leanings with a young man who has come from her home country and may have a stake in the rebellion which killed her father. But Laila and her family are not, it would seem, in any kind of witness protection program despite the dangers their identities pose. As a former CIA officer, Carleson should know here, so she’s owed the benefit of the doubt, but it’s strange to not acknowledge the option, especially when it’s so prevalent in similar fictional stories.

One other small thing — the narrative is told primarily in the present tense aside from a few flashbacks. While this does help to differentiate between the flashbacks and the main events, the present tense is more distracting than anything and this differentiation might be better marked with another font style or a simple scene header describing the date or even simply before. In fiction, present tense often is useful when keeping readers in suspense as to whether the narrator will survive the story or when trying to obscure other potential events, but here, the present tense seems to be strictly a stylistic choice that has no real purpose.

A final aside — Carleson’s representation of librarians struck me as disappointing. After inquiring about information regarding her father, Laila is “assisted” by a librarian. In this instance, “assistance” means recalling an article about him in a magazine the librarian happened to have on her desk and handing the magazine to Laila with little other help. The librarian does not conduct any sort of reference interview (to ask questions such as is Laila, who the librarian doesn’t know is related to the man, interested in his personal life? political life? qualifications? downfall?) nor does she offer more substantial or official materials. I’m not convinced this woman went to library school.

 

 

The Tyrant’s Daughter isn’t what it could be. It’s misleading in its portrayal of Muslims and Middle Eastern refugees which may be forgivable to the extent that fiction is interesting because it’s about interesting people — the outliers — but it ultimately does damage to people who have and continue to suffer from a lack of education in those who are outside their groups. Carleson’s narrative structure and writing style are, simply, mediocre and it’s difficult to side with Laila or even find her interesting when the bulk of what does make her interesting has nothing to do with her character or personality. This is one novel that is perhaps best left to itself.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #10, “Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location,” and I leave it behind with one-and-a-half hearts.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby

Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016, 304 pages
Realistic Fiction

In Some of the Parts, younger sister Tallie has only just begun grieving the death of her older brother. Wracked with guilt from being the driver of the car in which he was in at the time of his death, Tallie has not only lost her brother, but lost her parents to their own grief and her good friend who had just started a relationship with her brother at the time of his death. As she gets to know the new boy in school, Chase, Tallie must confront her own grief and begin to function again or she risks losing more. But it’s harder to let go when she discovers her brother might not be as gone as she thought. Hannah Barnaby paints a painfully realistic picture of a girl who has lost her brother at an age that is too young to experience such pain, but too old to not understand it.

I sought out Hannah Barnaby at an event in Arlington in September 2016, just a few weeks after my own brother died in a car crash. After the talk she gave with another author, I rushed up to her and told her my own story and that I had written a similar story in college, never knowing what was in my future. Barnaby graciously signed the copy I bought from her and later got in touch with me on Twitter to check in with me. I wasn’t able to actually read the book for another seven months, but when I did, I was amazed.

Barnaby so acutely describes what has been my experience around grief and sibling loss. Although my brother was not an organ donor and I did not cause his death, Tallie and I have much else in common in how we handle or don’t handle our grief. The accuracy Barnaby pins the story with can be painful in spots, particularly for those who have been there, but is a rare and excellent thing to encounter, especially for those who are trying to understand and empathize with a character or individual who has had such an experience.

Beyond the specific concept of sibling grief, Barnaby handles the other aspects of the lives of her characters with striking realism. This helps ground the overall plot from being pure emotion and chaos, but can sometimes make following relationships a challenge. Tallie, of course, has school friends and acquaintances, all of which are affected by her grief and potentially their own grief over the loss of their friend. Because it’s unclear how big a part any one character will play at any given time (something that also increases the realism), it’s hard to tell which characters deserve the most attention. A naturally flowing timeline adds to the realism, as does  a commitment to providing an ending that is not overly kitschy or predictable.

As a character and narrator, Tallie leans toward the mature with an adult lilt and a willingness to use SAT words in the everyday situation. She’s observant and often self-aware, though not always in the ways she needs to be. Tallie was a person before this event which tore apart her life, and glimpses of that person make her a fascinating character who is affected by her grief but who is not, necessarily, her grief itself. On the flip side, Barnaby shows grief acting in different ways with different people. Not one of the affected characters respond in the same way, and even when they do, it is often for different reasons. Barnaby has a great grasp on each of her characters, making Some of the Parts all the more enjoyable and important.

The story is somewhat too neat by the end, with a suggestion that now that Tallie has gotten over the hump of her grief, she will return to a normal and happy life. The reality is, Tallie will likely return to her grief which will appear in different shapes throughout her life. While that might be too realistic and too grim, I was disappointed to see it left out (at least from my perspective).

Ultimately, I’m so grateful for Some of the Parts. It articulated much of my early months of grief in a way that I could not at the time and can’t now, because the form of my own grief has changed so much. This could not have been an easy book to write and despite this, Barnaby did not make sacrifices in quality just to tell an important story. It’s well-rounded in nearly every way and a great story for those who have not lost a sibling as much as it is for those who have.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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