contemporary fiction

REVIEW: This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

Katsuyamas never quit—but seventeen-year-old CJ doesn’t even know where to start. She’s never lived up to her mom’s type A ambition, and she’s perfectly happy just helping her aunt, Hannah, at their family’s flower shop. She doesn’t buy into Hannah’s romantic ideas about flowers and their hidden meanings, but when it comes to arranging the perfect bouquet, CJ discovers a knack she never knew she had. A skill she might even be proud of. Then her mom decides to sell the shop — to the McAllister’s the family who swindled CJ’s grandparents when thousands of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Soon a rift threatens to splinter CJ’s family, friends, and their entire Northern California community; and for the first time, CJ has found something she wants to fight for.

This Time Will Be Different has a lot more going on in it than the conflict about the family flower shop. There are discussions of racism, sexism (and how the two can intersect), teen pregnancy, unplanned pregnancy, and family, relationship and friendship drama too. All these elements make CJ, her friends and her family feel more three-dimensional as while they might be concerned with the McAllister’s racist family history and the fate of the business, it’s not the only thing that’s going on in their lives. There are the little things along with the big things, and the things that they didn’t want to confront until they suddenly come to ahead.

CJ is a very interesting and layered character. Sometimes I’d like her, sometimes I didn’t, because she was a messy person. She’s incredibly loyal but she can use that loyalty to cover up how she’s really feeling which can be petty and insecure. She’s not great at communicating and bottles a lot of her fears up until they all come pouring out in tears or cutting comments. CJ is someone who feels like she’s a failure, she doesn’t get great grades, she isn’t athletically or musically talented, and she doesn’t have the drive or goals that her mother has. It often appears that CJ is the kind of person that doesn’t try that hard, because then it doesn’t feel so bad when she fails, and she uses her failures as a protective shield against the rest of the world.

CJ’s relationship with her mum is often fraught as CJ worries that she’ll never do anything to make her mum proud, and that her mum regrets having her. The two of them have some great discussions and the writing is great as it shows how CJ can go with sympathising with her mum in one moment, to being angry with her the next, and back again. It’s true to life as when people have arguments or heated discussions, they feel a lot of different things at different times, especially if the other person says something they weren’t expecting. There’s almost the nature vs nurture idea going on in This Time Will Be Different. CJ was mostly raised by her Aunt Hannah due to her mum wanting to have a career, meaning CJ is similar in a lot of ways to Hannah. She still has some of her mum’s influences in her, but she is also her own person and it is as she becomes more comfortable with the idea of who she is and what she’s interested in, that who she is becomes more clear to her.

The frank discussions of what happened when hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans were sent to Internment Camps and how it still affects people generations later makes This Time Will Be Different a poignant read. When CJ starts to fight for her family’s heritage there’s a lot of talk of racist trolling, the white saviour, and how some people don’t see the big deal and are almost happy to let injustice slide if it doesn’t affect them. The Internment of Japanese Americans is something that happened not that long ago with people still alive who went through it, and their children and grandchildren perhaps still dealing with the emotional and financial consequences. With what’s going on in the world at the moment, it seems like now, more than ever, it is a part of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

This Time Will Be Different is a fast-paced book though it does end quite abruptly. Not everything is tied up neatly and leaves some questions which is fine, but there doesn’t seem to be any closure for CJ and how she feels about her successes and failures now. Also while the romance was sweet, there was a lot of mixed messages as CJ doesn’t believe in true love, meaning the romance is a very slow slow-burn romance.

This Time Will Be Different is a compelling read with a fantastically flawed and interesting main character. It’s funny, sad and shines a light on a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten about. 4/5.

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REVIEW: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker’s family and community have turned away from the world and closely follow the Lord’s words. Every part of Rachel’s life is controlled; what she wears, what she does, who she is meant to be. Her future is laid out for her; modesty, children and obedience to her future husband. But when Lauren, a girl who escaped the community five years earlier returns to Rachel’s small Texas town – her whole world is turned upside down as she allows herself to ask the questions that have been bubbling inside her.

Devoted was a very engrossing book. Rachel is a wonderfully complex character as she grapples with conflicting ideas of what it is to be faithful to God while still wanting to be loved by her family. Rachel loves to learn; she’s always got her head in books but her father doesn’t feel it’s appropriate as she is meant to be a wife and homemaker without any ideas above her station.

The idea of what abuse is in Devoted is only mentioned briefly but it is an important thing. When Rachel first learns of Lauren’s perspective after growing up in the same place but then leaving to move in to the big city, Rachel is surprised to hear Lauren call the environment abusive. To Rachel abuse means being hit or touched inappropriately, but what is clear to the reader, and slowly becomes clearer to her, is that she, like many of the young women in her community, is the victim of emotional and psychological abuse. That mental abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse is never outright said, but conversations between Lauren and Rachel showing how they both have lingering problems thanks to what they’ve experienced – even Lauren who has been out of that world for 5 years. The friendship and support between Rachel and Lauren is so important to both of them and even though Lauren is about five years older than Rachel with more worldly experience, as a character she is never pigeonholed as Rachel’s mother or sister figure. They both make mistakes as they learn to help and support one another and that’s OK.

The discussions of faith, praying and God were really interesting and tactful. Not all religion is “bad” but those who pick and choose what words to follow, especially if those words promote the subservience of women, aren’t necessarily nice people. It offers a more complex idea of religion and faith, and there are many ways to be faithful and there is no “right way” as it is all down to personal choice.

Rachel struggles with her faith when she’s at home with her family. The way her father and Pastor Garrett preach is often uncomfortable and Rachel often feels she’s making mistakes and is not good enough for God when she has questions or a desire to learn things. It’s when she can step away from them that she can connect to God in her own way, she doesn’t have to cut herself off from her faith just because she no longer believes or practices like her family has done, and how she has done her entire life.

Devoted is a book about a sensitive topic but it’s one that is always handled with care. While Pastor Garrett and the threat of the “brainwashing” camp Journey of Faith looms, members of Rachel’s family, and even other people in the community, aren’t demonised for what they believe. What Devoted manages to make clear, is that the way Rachel’s community follows religion is not healthy or the right way for everyone. Rachel’s older sister Faith appears very happy with her life, settling down with a husband and having a child in her early 20s, but that doesn’t mean that is the kind of life Rachel should be made to have if she doesn’t want it. 4/5.

REVIEW: A Girl Called Shameless by Laura Steven

It’s been two months since a leaked explicit photo got Izzy O’Neill involved in a political sex scandal that got national coverage. The Bitches Bite Back movement is gathering momentum online, and when a girl at school has a sex tape shared online, Izzy feels a fresh surge of anger and pain as she leads the charge against slut-shaming. Izzy and her best friends Ajita and Meg use comedy to fight back as they want to change the state law on revenge porn and get people to listen to them.

A read and reviewed The Exact Opposite of Okay at start of the year and I absolutely loved it. I’m very happy to say that A Girl Called Shameless is a more than worthy sequel.

A Girl Called Shameless is an enthralling book. It’s the sort of book you can read in a day because of how fast-paced it is, how layered and funny the characters are, and how it balances tough topics with levity and teenage-relatability.

In A Girl Called Shameless, Izzy and her friends start a movement to get the law changed as in her state revenge porn is legal. It was a great look at grassroots activism, how the pressure and desire for change can be almost suffocating, but also how there can be a lot of support out there. One thing that I thought worked really well is how through this book, the feelings Izzy felt when her explicit photos were shared online haven’t necessarily gone away. She might put on a front, but she is still hurt and angry and her confidence has taken a knock too.

Izzy has a lot going on in her life and it was good that it showed that not everything goes well all the time. Izzy finally gets a part-time job to help her grandmother pay the bills, she has an agent for her scriptwriting, she has school, and she also has this role of an activist. Izzy gets pushed to breaking point in this book, and sometimes she breaks, but she’s got a great support system around her and a strong sense of self so she keeps moving forward.

A Girl Called Shameless is even more inclusive with its message. Being against slut-shaming and fighting to get revenge porn made illegal is still the main focus of the novel, but it brings in other areas of oppression albeit sometimes briefly. There is a trans girl at Izzy’s school that gets involved with the Bitches Bite Back website, writing articles about how trans people can be affected by revenge porn. Izzy’s boyfriend Carson is black and the two of them talk about his fear of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a sharp shock when Izzy realises that Carson might not feel comfortable or safe to join a protest with her, because the police mean a different thing to him.

A Girl Called Shameless is funny, thoughtful and empowering. Izzy’s friends and family are just as important and complex as in the first book, and the narrative style of being written in blog posts with interjections from future-Izzy was great too. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Morocco: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki grew up in a one-room home with his mother down the stinking alleys of Casablanca. He’s always dreamed of escape and then one day, when the father he presumed was dead turns out to be very much alive and very wealthy, Youssef is whisked away from the slums to the luxurious life of Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the poverty of his childhood behind, he finds some harsh truths and difficulties he must face.

Secret Son is a traditional coming of age story as Youssef grows a lot as a person as he explores who he is and where he’s come from. Once he finds out about his father, Youssef is quick to leave all he’s known to live what he feels is a better life. He leaves his mother and his friends and moves to a new apartment where every one of his whims are catered for as his father promises him many new things. While Youssef can be criticised for dumping those who had card about him for so long, chapters or passages from other characters points of view show how the people surrounding him, including his mother and his friends, have lied to him many times.

Whereas his mother wants Youssef to get a good education and go to university to better himself, he lacks the drive or ambition to do that. especially once he learns who his father is. Once Youssef and his father get to know one another, Youssef doesn’t see the point of studying as his father can just get him a good job on his word alone. Once again proving the phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Youssef is very naïve really. He’s dreamed of a better life for so long that when he gets that opportunity, he never questions what it might cost him.

Secret Son has a good mix of personal and political drama and it takes the time to examine how the two can overlap. Youssef is Muslim and as he grows up in the slums, he becomes aware of a political party that make a lot of promises to the people who live there. At first, they seem to be a force for good but as time goes on corruption is clear on both sides of the political spectrum. When Yousef’s friends begin to work for the party, Youssef gets tangled up in plans bigger than himself.

Another major aspect of Secret Son is the class divide. Youssef might go from the slums to a penthouse, but he never really fits in with the rich life, and when he visits his mother and friends, he no longer fits there either. The sad thing is that Youssef doesn’t seem to notice how after experiencing his father’s wealth, he no longer fits in either class. The novel definitely doesn’t shy away from the realities of Casablanca and how peoples lives are so different to one another even when they live just a few streets apart.

Secret Son is a very engaging and easy to read book. The writing is simple yet never juvenile and Youssef makes a frustrating, complicated and interesting main character. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Greenland: Crimson by Nivaq Korneliussen

Five young people’s lives collide in Nuuk Greenland as secrets are revealed and relationships crumble. Inuk has something to hide and runs from his problems. His sister Fia breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and falls for Sara. Sara is in love with Ivik who holds a big secret. Ivik struggles with gender dysphoria, and transgender identity, while Arnaq, the party queen pulls the strings of manipulation, bringing these five lives to a shocking crescendo.

Translated by Anna Halager.

Crimson is the UK title of Last Night in Nuuk, a book I’d been aware of as it was written by a young Greenlandic author and is set in the country’s capital city. Besides from that, all I knew about the books before diving into it was that it was about the interconnected lives of five young people who are in their early twenties.

Crimson has five chapters and each chapter is from a different character’s point of view. It’s not a truly linear story which makes delving into these characters lives for such a short space of time interesting. As the story progresses some events from previous chapters are retold from a different perspective, through this you can see different sides of an argument or what happened next after the first character had left the party for instance.

Each character, and therefore each chapter, has its own distinct voice. This helps as besides a couple of sentences at the start of the book about each character giving you the most important facts about their lives, you are thrown into this book blind, learning about what makes each character tick in around 30 pages. Some chapters are more like diary entries while others are written like a stream of conscious, this can be a little jarring, but it does make each character feel different.

While these five characters are all connected in some way, they all feel very alone and drifting through the days. Sara is the one who is more obviously depressed while Arnaq uses partying, drinking and sex to ignore her problems even though those three activities often cause her new ones. I feel Crimson is an unflinching look at what it is to be someone in your early twenties, when you’ve got no real career prospects and you don’t truly understand yourself or anything that’s happening around you.

Crimson is a story about people struggling, their connections, love and sexuality. It’s a quick read at less than 180 pages and the way it’s set out, in each chapter you don’t just learn about the current character you’re following, but you see other sides to characters you’ve previously met. Even though this story is set in a country that appears to be so remote it’s almost alien to me, it’s a story that’s universal as young people will have fun and be irresponsible and make mistakes no matter where in the world they’re from. 4/5.

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.

REVIEW and GIVEAWAY: One Would Think The Deep by Claire Zorn

I was contacted by Ransom Publishing to see if I’d like a copy of One Would Think The Deep to review, and they were nice enough to send me a second copy to giveaway! More on the giveaway below and on my Twitter, and just so you know, my thoughts on the book are my honest opinion.

Sam has always had too much going on in his head, and now his mum is dead and it’s worse than ever. With nothing but his skateboard, his discman and some clothes in a garbage bag, Sam goes to live with the only family he has left; Aunty Lorraine and his cousins Shane and Minty. But his mum cut ties with them seven years ago and he doesn’t know why. Sam faces suspicion and hostility in his new home, but he starts following Minty around like he did as a child. Soon he’s surfing with Minty, finding it to be the one thing that cuts through the static in his head. But the secrets of the past refuse to stay hidden. What happened seven years ago that caused such a rift? Why won’t anyone tell him who his father is? And if things weren’t complicated enough, there’s also this girl…

Set in 1997, One Would Think The Deep is like a love letter to Australian surfer culture. Surfing is Minty’s life and it could be a way for him to leave his small hometown and make a name for himself. The way the beach, the ocean and Sam’s experience learning to surf is described, paints such a vivid in my mind it was almost like I could hear the waves. The setting and counterculture described in One Would Think The Deep reminded me of the films Point Break (1991) and Lords of Dogtown (2005) so if you like either of those films, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

I really liked Claire Zorn’s writing style. It’s beautiful as you were inside Sam’s head, but like him, there is also a distance there between what he experiences and what he feels. It’s almost a gentle, contemplative story so when there are outbursts of emotion they are even more affecting.

Sam is such an interesting character. He has a lot of grief and anger that he’s dealing with, or not dealing with as the case may be, and while his mother’s sudden death is a big part of that, as the story unfolds you see that he was angry before that too. The way his mind works, how there’s almost too much going on in there and his memories are like photographs he files away so he doesn’t have to think about them.

The secrets the adults in Sam’s life keep from him bubble away under the surface and while he meets new people and potentially finds love, those secrets and his own confused mind drag him down. It’s like if he doesn’t know his past, or come to terms with his past actions, then how can he figure out what his future should be?

Sam, his Aunt Lorraine and the rest of the main characters feel like very real, flawed people. While their stories develop over the course of the book, it feels like you only spent some time with them and they’re going to continue living beyond the pages of the book.

One Would Think The Deep is a slow burn story, about a young man figuring out who he is and who he wants to be. It has beautiful writing, and a gorgeous setting. The only negative, and it’s a small one, is that it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the story and the writing, but once I had loved seeing what might become of Sam. I feel like it’s a book that will play on my mind for a while. 4/5.

Like the sound of One Would Think The Deep and fancy your own copy? Make sure you follow me on Twitter and retweet this tweet and you could be in with a chance to win a copy – this giveaway is open internationally too!