book review

REVIEW: The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

Izzy never expected to be eighteen and internationally reviled. But when photos involving her, a politician’s son and a garden bench emerge, the trolls set out to take her apart. Izzy, along with her best friend Ajita, sets out to figure out who’s behind the vicious website while still trying to maintain her grades, humour and sanity. Izzy is about to find out that the way the world treats girls is not okay, and she’s not going to stand for it.

I loved this book so much. This review is probably just going to be me gushing about how The Exact Opposite of Okay gave me all the feels. It’s been so long since I’ve fallen so hard and fast for a book and a main character. I read some five star reads last year but none of those books were ones that I devoured quite like The Exact Opposite of Okay. I read most of this book in one sitting, and to be honest if I’d started it earlier on on the day I first picked it up, I’d probably have read it in one day too.

Izzy is just a phenomenal character. I loved her sense of humour and how she uses that and sarcasm to keep people at bay and to cover up how she really feels. (That’s something I can relate to) I also love how self-aware she is, she knows her faults even if she often tries to hide them from everyone else.

Izzy is a great character as while she readily admits she likes sex and dislikes the double standard men and women are held to when it comes to sex and their sexuality, it doesn’t mean that she’s not hurt, confused and ashamed when private photos of her are spread all over the internet. It’s one thing being confident in what and who you want, but it’s another when all your decisions and appearance is being scrutinised by not only everyone at your school, but all over the world.

I loved Izzy’s friendship with Ajita, how the two of them know each other so well and while they are from different backgrounds that can put them at a disadvantage in the world, Izzy is poor and Ajita is Nepalese-American, they can sympathise with each other over those things because they are unfair in different ways but they never presume one of their issues is bigger or worse than the others.

Izzy and Ajita’s other friend Danny is also important to them both but his behaviour and entitlement put my back up from the very beginning. He and Izzy had been friends since childhood but from the start of the book it’s clear he’s realised he likes Izzy more than just a friend and doesn’t handle the situation well. Danny was a great yet pretty unlikable character for the most part, and that’s because he’s so well-written and believable. I’m sure many women know or have known someone like Danny.

I really like the way The Exact Opposite of Okay was written. It’s all Izzy’s personal blog posts, but with little interjections from future-Izzy along the way. As someone who has had a blog in some shape or form for close to 15 years (I had a LiveJournal and all teenage-me’s deepest hopes and fears are there) I thought it captured the way people can sort of write like a stream of conscious about something that happened perfectly.

The Exact Opposite of Okay is a brilliant story about slut-shaming, revenge porn, and the so-called Friend Zone. It’s funny, unapologetic and truthful as you are willing Izzy to be strong and get through something terrible that she didn’t deserve. Because that’s the thing The Exact Opposite of Okay does so well, it shows Izzy’s struggle with guilt and feeling like she deserves the cruel comments and everything that goes with private images being shared online, but she doesn’t and it’s very clear about who’s in the wrong in the situation and that’s who made the website. We’re just over a week into 2019, but I doubt I’ll love another book this year like I love this one. 5/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Syria: Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

At just seventeen, Yusra Mardini and her older sister Sara, decide to flee their native Syria when the fighting gets too dangerous. Together they make the perilous journey to the Turkish coast and board a small inflatable dinghy bound for Lesbos. Twenty passengers are forced onto the tiny craft and soon the engine dies and the boat begins to sink. Yusra, Sara and two others jump into the sea to lighten the load and help navigate the water for an exhausting three and a half hours until they reach the shore, they save the lives of everyone on board. Butterfly follows Yusra’s life from a happy childhood, to growing up in a war-torn suburb of Damascus, through Europe to Berlin and on to Rio de Janeiro where she competes as a part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra, her sister, and the other people they met as they travelled to Europe are all so incredibly strong and brave. Yusra and Sara have to leave Syria without their mother and younger sister. While they face dangers as they deal with the sea, smugglers, and the police across Europe, there’s still the constant worry about their family who are still in a city where there’s almost constant shelling and gunfire.

It’s tough to read about Yusra’s life in Damascus after the conflict starts. It’s sad that she becomes desensitised to the sound of gunfire or explosions so quickly when she’s a young teenager. She and her family have so many near misses when it comes to dangerous situations. For instance, Yusra is training in the swimming pool when a bomb falls through the ceiling, lands in the pool, and doesn’t explode. There’s a mad rush to get as far away from the place as possible and that incident puts a stop to Yusra’s training and dreams of the Olympics for a while.

Yusra’s story does well to capture how there’s good and bad people everywhere. How someone might call the police on a group of refugees because the constant media cycle about terrorists makes them paranoid, but then others might volunteer to help people find clothes, food, and somewhere to stay in a country that’s far from home.

Butterfly does so much in disproving the narrative that some portions of the media like to present about refugees. None of them want to leave their home. Before the fighting starts, Yusra and Sara are like any other teenage girls, they go to school, they swim, their have friends and go shopping. Because we, by which I mean Western audiences, often only hear about countries in Syria when there’s conflict, and see images of bombed out cities, and people living in tents with no electricity, it’s easy to take that as face value and presume that’s what life has always been like for those people when in fact it’s the complete opposite.

Yusra’s internal battle with the word “refugee” was fascinating and explained really well. It’s so easy for her to see it as an insult or a sign she’s a charity case, for instance she struggles to decide if she wants to be a part of the Refugee Olympic Team because she feels she should get there the same way as any other competitor. As time passes though, thanks to the people she meets and what she learns about herself, she decides that it’s just a word and it doesn’t make her any lesser than anyone else.

Butterfly is well-written and engaging. I found it easy to care about Yusra, her family and new-found friends. Yusra is an inspiring young woman, but she makes it clear that while she’s learning to use her fame and voice to bring attention to the thing’s refugees go through and how they are still people with hopes and dreams, she is still the same person who loves to swim and wants to compete for her country in the Olympics. 4/5.

REVIEW: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka loves her valley home and her quiet village, even though it’s close to the Wood, a corrupted place full of malevolent power. Close to her village in a tower lives the Dragon, every ten years he chooses a girl and keeps her for that time. The next choosing is fast approaching and Agnieszka, just like everyone else, knows the Dragon will take Kasia, her best friend who the most beautiful and talented. But events don’t go how everyone predicts and when the Dragon arrives it’s Agnieszka, not Kasia, he chooses.

Uprooted is a fantasy story with magical creatures and a beautiful magic system. How the magic worked for different characters and how different magic users would craft spells was always interesting to me. The Dragon is a wizard and he likes things in order and logical, especially when it comes to magic and spells. Agnieszka on the other hand, is more chaotic and organic when it comes to weaving spells. Her learning about her abilities and how it differs from so many traditional wizards and witches was both fun and interesting.

The Wood is such a unique villain as it were. It’s something that is alive and has thoughts and goals that are sometimes beyond what people could imagine. It’s an unsettling presence throughout the story and when someone is taken by the Wood, it won’t give them back easily. It corrupts creatures, people and the land around it. There’s not only the Wood to worry about, there is also political intrigue with Kings and courts that Agnieszka and the Dragon have to deal with.

The problem I had with Uprooted was I never felt the urge to pick it up and continue on to the next chapter until I hit the 300-page mark – that was almost three quarters of the way through the book! I think that was down in part to the writing style, it paints a very eerie yet beautiful picture, and while stuff did happen before page 300, it was all building to that moment but it hadn’t really pulled me in. I mainly read Uprooted for my A-Z Reading Challenge. It’s a few days before 2019, the only letter of the alphabet I hadn’t completed was the letter U, so I did persevere with Uprooted when under normal circumstances I would have probably put it down.

Uprooted is a good magical story that somehow manages to feel whimsical and haunting at the same time. The setting feels like a fairytale but it has a darker undertone too. On the whole, the characters and their relationships were compelling, but the story never did enough to enthral me. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

One summer’s day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Decades will pass before Holly understands what sort of asylum the woman was seeking….

The Bone Clocks had been sitting on my shelves for four years. I’d read, and enjoyed, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell but from that I knew his stories could be fantastical and epic and I was never really in the mood for the concentration I’d need to have to read a story like that. In the end, I got the audiobook from my library and that got finally got me to read this story. The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jessica Ball, Leon Williams, Colin Mace, Steven Crossley, Laurel Lefkow and Anna Bentinck, and I thought they all did a fantastic job at bringing the many characters to life.

The Bone Clocks is so much more than its two-sentence blurb suggests, but at the same time, I have no idea of how to give this story a concise and somewhat spoiler-free summary. The Bone Clocks is a story that spans decades, and while the story might not always be told from her point of view, Holly Sykes is always connected to the characters you’re introduced to in some way. It’s equal parts confusing and fun, especially in the first half of the book, seeing how this character you are now following is connected to Holly and how their relationship with her will unfold. While Holly is the central character that a lot of the big events and decisions revolve around, the other characters each have their own story and personality that’s usually just as engaging as Holly’s.

Holly Sykes is a character that grew on me. She’s young and naïve when you first meet her, and somewhat unlikeable too but seeing how her experiences, good, bad and unexplainable, affect her life, she becomes more sympathetic and mature. She suffers a trauma at a young age and doesn’t know how her life will be affected by granting the strange old lady, Esther Little, asylum. She becomes entangled in something much bigger than herself, and it take a while for everything to become clearer, and even then, there’s some events and characters that almost can’t be explained. The other characters are fully-formed with some being unlikeable while others are almost undefinable. Ed Brubeck was probably my favourite character as he felt the most realistic and relatable to me.

The Bones Clocks is well-written with some beautiful passages and engaging characters. It is weird and fantastical, but at its core there’s Holly Sykes and her very human life. There’s so much going on in The Bone Clocks, it’s hard to give it a definitive genre. There is magic, secret wars, family drama, death, and souls play a major role too. The Bone Clocks is an epic story, but it is an odd and sometimes confusing one too. You spend so much of the novel, not know what’s really happening or how everything is connected, that when things are explained, there is a lot of exposition.

Still, I did enjoy the audiobook and I think consuming the story that way helped me take it in and become more enthralled by it than if I was reading a physical copy. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Romania: The Fox was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller

Translated by Philip Boehm.

Set in Romania during the last months of Communist dictator Ceaușescu’s regime, people struggle to keep their minds and bodies intact in a world that’s permeated with fear. Adina is a young school teacher, Paul is a musician, Clara works in a wire factory, and Pavel is her lover. But one of them is working for the secret police and is reporting on the others.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter was a bit of a difficult read for several reasons and the way it was written was the main one. There were little things like how there are no speech marks when someone is talking, so you definitely needed to pay attention to what’s going on – especially when there was more than one person talking in a paragraph. Then there’s the attention to detail the author has. There’s so much focus on tiny things like the creases in a dress, how ants move, or how the chalk is like on a blackboard, but when it comes to the characters, they don’t get much description or backstory at all. It’s almost like it’s an intense study of the time period it’s set. This writing style makes the characters very distant and hard to connect with, as it’s as if the environment they live in is more important than themselves.

The main plot of the secret police, and someone in their friendship group not being trustworthy, doesn’t really kick in till halfway through the book. The first half of The Fox was Ever the Hunter is more of a study of the environment the characters live in. The intense descriptions make the town feel like a very cold and unwelcoming place to live. It seems almost hopeless and when Adina, Paul, or Clara make an appearance they feel like they’re sleepwalking through their lives.

I could see some people loving how The Fox was Ever the Hunter was written as its prose is often poetic and strangely beautiful, but for me it made it a bit of a slog to read.

READ THE WORLD – Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Yun Ling, the only survivor from her internment camp, sets out to build a memorial to her sister. Her quest leads he to The Garden of Evening Mists, and to Nakamura Aritomo, a man of extraordinary skill and reputation, once the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. When she accepts his offer to become his apprentice, she begins a journey into her past, inextricably linked with the secrets of her troubled country’s history.

The Garden of Evening Mists is told in the first person from Yun Ling’s point of view and spans over fifty years. The novel takes place in three time periods, when Yun Ling is a retired judge and writing down her story, when she becomes a gardener’s apprentice, and when she’s a teenager in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during Japan’s invasion of Malaysia. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Anna Bentinck and I really how she narrated it. The way Bentinck narrated it was great as she had a different voice for the older Yun Ling and the younger Yun Ling making it easier to follow what point in time the story is set.

I knew very little of Japan’s invasion of Malaysia during World War Two, or Malaysia’s history in general, before reading The Garden of Evening Mists. As it spans so many years, you get to see how the country changes over time, the different political influences it has, and how the people must adapt and deal with some the atrocities they face.

Yun Ling is a brilliantly complicated and realistic character. She suffered a great deal at the hands of the Japanese, she suffered physical and mental abuse, her family was torn apart, and she became a changed person due to her experience. She has every right to hate those that hurt her, but her feelings go towards all Japanese people so naturally her relationship with Aritomo is strained – at least to begin with. Seeing Yun Ling learn to deal with her anger, hurt and resentment and try and move on with her life was really powerful and compelling. Her relationship with Aritomo was fascinating as they were constantly learning from one another and as they slowly started to share more about their pasts, they were becoming a solid unit.

There were some surprises along the way as slowly Yun Ling started to piece together hers and Aritomo’s pasts, and how they may have been connected long before they met. The Garden of Evening Mists is a great historical story with some beautiful writing. The way the garden was described was so vivid and stunning, but equally the brutality Yun Ling faced was just as vivid and shocking. I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists far more than I was expecting to, and would recommend it to just about anyone. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Northern Ireland: Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell

A collection of eleven short stories of childhood, adolescence and motherhood.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project (I find them to be a good way to gain an insight into a writer’s country and its people, and they’re also usual a quick read) but I’ve never had as much of a visceral reaction to a short story collection as I did with Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes.

Each story ranges from 10 – 25 pages, some are in second person but most of them are in first person, and each story is about a female character. Each story is about a young girl, or a teenager, or a mother, and they’re each like a little snapshot in a moment of their lives. I think my favourites were “Thirteen”, “Through the Wardrobe” and “Inextinguishable”. In “Thirteen” a young teenager has to deal with her best friend moving to London, how they first of all write multiple letters to one another each week but slowly the letters stop being written. “Through the Wardrobe” is about a young trans girl figuring out why she feels sick when her older sisters are given Disney princess dresses for Christmas while she’s given a Peter Pan outfit. “Inextinguishable” is about a mother grieving for her daughter and finding some form of release in the music her daughter loved.

There are stories that feel very true to life. One story has a teenage girl being sexually harassed without really knowing what was happening, another story is about a teenager fantasizing about her teacher, or another feeling hollow and helpless.

Each story is powerful and compelling in its own way. They are stories about first loves, sexual desire and romance, but they are also about friendship, growing up and family. Some stories are sad, some are hopeful, while others are almost nostalgic and melancholy.

Caldwell really captured the mindset of young children, the pain of adolescence, and (I presume) the terrifying reality of being a parent. While I might not have been in some of the exact situations as the female characters in these stories, I remember idolising a baby sitter, losing touch with friends, and having a whole lot of feelings inside that I didn’t know what to do with. Each of the female characters felt so honest, true and relatable and that was down to the brilliant writing Multitudes is fantastic short story collection and I can’t recommend it enough. 5/5.