contemporary fiction

REVIEW: A Thousand Perfect Notes by C.G. Drews

Beck hates his life. He hates the Maestro, his mother who will except nothing but the best when it comes to playing the piano. Beck is forced to live out her dreams and expectations and nothing is every good enough – it makes him hate music. That is Beck’s life. That is until he’s partnered with August on a school project. August is bright and carefree and can’t stand to see anyone or anything in distress. Beck begins to see that there is more to life than music and fear, but can he take the steps to rescue himself?

Trigger warnings for emotional and physical abuse from a parent to their child.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is often heart-breaking. It’s told from Beck’s point of view and his fear; confusion and the glimmer of hesitant hope he has deep down are all palatable.

To say Beck’s mother is horrible would be an understatement. She is angry that she can no longer play the piano, so all her energy and passion is directed at making Beck love the music she claims to love. Nothing but perfection is good enough for her and she can always find fault with Beck’s playing. And when she finds fault she can be cutting with her remarks or violent with her hands.

Beck’s little sister Joey is the one bright spark in his life before August, and his mother knows this and threatens Joey in order to make him practice and be on the piano. Joey and Beck’s relationship is just lovely. She’s such an authentic young child, who manages to be wiser than her years but also really sweet and loving.

August is like a breath of fresh air for Beck. Their friendship grows organically as she’s stubborn but sensitive to Beck’s moods as he doesn’t know how to act around her, or how to act around anyone who is kind to him. Watching their relationship develop, and how Joey fits in with the two of them, was great.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is a tough but brilliant read. Having it be a relatively simple story with its focus on Beck and his life makes it a sad read but that focus allows you to get to know Beck so well that you can’t help but put yourself in his shoes and want his life to be so much better. One thing I really liked about A Thousand Perfect Notes is that it never says Beck is a victim, he has an inner-strength that even he doesn’t necessarily realise is there to begin with and the story allows him to use that to rescue himself. It’s not that once August is around, everything becomes OK – it’s so much more than that which is wonderful as anything less would’ve been a disservice to both Beck and August as characters. 4/5.

I chose A Thousand Perfect Notes to be my pick for this months Monthly Motif Challenge “Read a book you think is a perfect vacation read and tell us why” as I always think it’s easier to read and enjoy a hard-hitting story when the sun is out and you have little to worry about when you’re on holiday.

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REVIEW: Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Maya Aziz loves making films and dreams of attending film school. But she’s torn between two worlds; there’s the one where her parents expect her to be the perfect Muslim Indian daughter, attending school close to home and getting a boyfriend her mother deems “suitable” and there’s a dream one, where she can attend film school and maybe finally say more than two words to the boy she’s liked since grade school. But when a there’s a horrific crime hundreds of miles away from her home, and the suspect has the same last name as her, Maya’s whole life is turned upside down as the community she’s been a part of all her life becomes consumed by fear and bigotry.

Love, Hate and Other Filters is an engrossing read and that’s mainly down to how compelling Maya is as a character. She’s sarcastic and funny and loves everything about filmmaking. She also loves her parents but doesn’t always feel they understand her. I loved her relationship with her aunt Hina, they are both rebellious in their own ways when it comes to tradition and it’s nice that Maya has an adult in her corner when things get tough with her parents.

Maya’s so compelling because you can totally understand where her fears and frustrations come from. There’s so much bad stuff happening in the world and while her parents are justifiably worried, they take it to a level that Maya just can’t deal with as she’s desperate to be more independent and follow her heart.

The romance between Maya and Phil is sweet and they both learn so much about themselves by being honest with each other. They both have dreams that are different to what their family and friends might expect of them and it’s great to see them find each other. Maya’s best friend Violet is brilliant as well, she’s outspoken and loyal and is the kind of best friend we’d all want – especially when you’re trying to navigate high school.

While Love, Hate and Other Filters is told from Maya’s point of view, there is a short passage at the end of each segment from the point of view of the terrorist. It’s unsettling and I’m unsure if it’s needed as Maya’s story is so interesting on its own.

Love, Hate and Other Filters is a fast-paced story that’s heartfelt and funny but also heart-wrenching at times. Maya is such a great character and her parents are so well-rounded too that it hurts when they fight but you never stop wanting Maya to be able to do what she truly loves. Love, Hate and Other Filters is a great #OwnVoices debut novel. 4/5.

REVIEW: Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Best friends Charlie, Taylor and Jamie are heading to SupaCon! Charlie is a blogger and actress promoting her first film at SupaCon and it’s her chance to show the fans she’s completely over her breakup with co-star Reese Ryan. When she meets super famous online personality Alyssa, Charlie begins to think her long-time crush isn’t as one sided as she thought. Taylor’s more reserved than Charlie. Her brain is wired differently making social situations often terrifying and a fear of change makes her constantly re-evaluate what she wants from her best guy friend Jamie. But when she enters a fan contest to meet her favourite author, Taylor begins to rethink her lifelong goal of always playing it safe.

Queens of Geek is a super quick read, I flew through it. It’s all set during one weekend at a fan convention called SupaCon so there are a lot of geeky references to comics, cosplay and fandom in general. It’s kind of a love letter to fandom, and how people can find safety and comfort in fandom and the TV shows/films/books that people can bond over. It’s a nice looking into the world of comic cons and how they can be very overwhelming but also be a place to meet likeminded people and make new friends.

The story is told in alternate perspectives, Taylor and Charlie’s. Taylor has anxiety and Asperger’s and it’s insightful hearing her explain how she feels in certain situations and about life in general. She’s almost constantly struggling but still loves her friends and her fandom. Taylor is bisexual and has had a past relationship with a boy and during her time at SupaCon gets to know Alyssa. Their romance is really sweet and they both talk about how their past relationships have affected them and what they’re looking for going forward.

The amount of communication between Taylor, Jamie, Charlie, and Alyssa (and all combinations of thereof) was extraordinary. Any misunderstandings are more likely to last a couple of paragraphs than a couple of chapters. It’s both great to see a solid group of friends or a potential love interest be so open about their thoughts, feelings and fears with one another, but also a bit disconcerting as it’s something that is (unfortunately) so unusual in fiction, and often in real life as well. So often one character gave an encouraging speech to another character that it felt unrealistic.

Queens of Geek is definitely a character driven book. There’s not really any plot twists or big moments, instead it highlights various important diverse topics like sexuality, mental health, body image and unhealthy relationships. All these topics are handled well but the story sometimes felt like it had been put on the backburner in order for a character to say their piece about a certain topic.

Queens of Geek is a cute, quick read with some great characters who really support one another. Jamie, Charlie and Taylor have a solid friendship and each of their personalities shines through. However, it’s not a memorable read for me as it felt like it was trying so often to tick as many important, diversity boxes as possible that it didn’t end up grounded in reality. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

Grace is the preacher’s daughter and the new girl in school. Rosina is bold and outspoken and dreams of music rather than working at her family’s restaurant. Erin is often misunderstood but her love of science and order doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel. The three of them are brought together by the idea of changing things, of justice for Lucy Moynihan – a girl who was run out of town for accusing the popular guys at school of gang rape. Together, Grace, Rosina and Erin form the Nowhere Girls, an outlet for their rage and a place of strength and decide to avenge the rape of a girl none of them knew.

The Nowhere Girls is a phenomenal book. It’s like Asking For It meets Moxie but it’s its own thing and what a powerful, heartfelt thing it is.

The Nowhere Girls is told in alternating perspectives, so you get to be inside Grace, Rosina and Erin’s heads, as well as see glimpses of what other girls at their high school think and feel. Having these moments from other characters points of view, some of which are unnamed characters, shows the wide scope of feminism as one black girl muses the movement must’ve been started by white girls because if a black girl did it they’d be seen as disruptive, while a trans girl wonders whether or not she’d be included in the group or would be seen as a spy.

All three main protagonists are well-rounded characters with their own problems at home, whether that’s an over-bearing parent or a family member with dementia, but they form a unique bond over their passion to change things. They are also a diverse group of characters. Rosina is Mexican-American and a lesbian, she’s comfortable with her identity but she’s not sure if she’ll ever tell her mum about her sexuality, Grace is fat and has a lot of faith in God but not necessarily in people and Erin has Asperger’s and is reserved but smart and is trying to live her own life.

What Grace, Rosina and Erin do together is start a movement in their school for the girls. It crosses the boundaries of normal high school cliques, as girls come together to talk openly about sex and boys and how both make them feel – the good and the bad. It’s a very open and honest take of girls’ sexuality and it’s refreshing to see girls talk to one another about it and share their experiences. Through this movement, the girls at the high school become empowered and have a sense of unity that crosses social circles like they never had before – it’s wonderful to see.

The ending of The Nowhere Girls made me cry because it was so hopeful, emotional and inspiring. Grace, Erin and Rosina start something amazing but it’s every other girl in the school, and some boys too, who stand up and stop letting the boys who say sexist or racist or homophobic things getting away with it.

The Nowhere Girls is so great I read it in three days. I couldn’t put it down as I longed to give these girls a hug and to tell them how amazing they are, seeing the strength of the solidarity between young girls was just brilliant. It is one of those books that everyone, especially young people, should read. The Nowhere Girls does deal with a tough topic, but it’s handled well and sensitively, and shows there is hope that justice can prevail. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend Nicholas Young, she has no idea what she’s going to face. She’s looking forward to spending time with Nick’s family until she’s faced with private jets, expensive cars and luxury mansions. Rachel is thrown into a world of extravagance and dynastic superiority and nothing could prepare her for Eleanor – Nick’s formidable mother with very strong feelings about who’s the right, or wrong, girl for her son.

Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of fun. It’s over the top and ridiculous a lot of the time but the way it’s written pulls you into these characters lives and their antics. While Rachel and Nick and their relationship is at the heart of this story, you meet a lot of other characters and each chapter is from a different character’s perspective. This makes it interesting as you have Rachel, who’s American born Chinese and while she has a good education and career, is not used to the lavish lifestyle and the way all these people who have grown up in and live in Singapore think about money. It gives you both the outsider and the insider perspective.

I really sympathised with Rachel a lot. While Nick is lovely he’s also very naïve about the wealth he comes from and does nothing to forewarn Rachel about what the world he grew up in is like or talk to his parents about how serious he is about her. Rachel’s left floundering for a lot of the story as she must contend with spiteful and jealous people, mostly women, who believe she’s just after Nick’s fortune.

A lot of the other characters, on the other hand, are unlikable. They’re rude, thoughtless and self-serving but that’s what everyone is like in this upper-class society is painted as. It was heard to connect with a lot of them because so many of them were nasty but were apparently being that way for the sake of the family. Eleanor especially was an interesting yet seemingly heartless woman.

Crazy Rich Asians does have a lot to say on class, immigrants, different types of Asians – those who are from mainland China, those who were educated in England or Australia, and those who have stayed in Singapore for most of their lives. Characters all have different relationships with money and many of them are so far removed from the “real world” that their outbursts over having the right designers or private jet is often unbelievable.

The ending of Crazy Rich Asians does seem a bit rushed, especially after a good portion of the book was building up to one moment. However, it is the first book in a trilogy so perhaps the messy ending is made a bit neater in the sequel. A sequel I’m not sure if I’m desperate to read, as a lot of these characters were just not relatable or even nice people – I don’t think I can survive in their world for long periods of time. 3/5.

REVIEW: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Dimple Shah has everything figured out. She’s on her way to study computing and coding at Stanford and has no interest in her mother’s attempts to find her the “Ideal Indian Husband.” When the opportunity to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers arises, her family must know what her principles and goals are really… right? Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when he hears from his parents that his potential future wife will be heading to the same summer program as he is – he’s totally on board. But when the two of them end up meeting, it doesn’t go the way either of them thought possible.

One of the things I was worried about going into this book, was that Dimple and Rishi wouldn’t be on equal footing because he knew something she didn’t and there was the risk for it to become a bit creepy and manipulative. I’m so happy that wasn’t the case. The first time they meet, right at the very beginning of the book, Dimple learns what’s been going on, so they are on the same page from pretty much the outset. This allowed their potential relationship to develop on their own terms, spending time with one another as friends (or more than friends) and actually getting to know each other in an organic way.

Dimple is a great character. She’s headstrong, focused and smart, though she can appear to be a bit selfish but that’s mostly down to her belief that she can’t have it all – that it’s impossible to have both a successful career and a fulfilling and loving relationship. Rishi on the other hand, is so soppy and romantic, wanting to please his parents and being a huge follower of tradition, that it’s almost a surprise when he shows some backbone. I think that’s the interesting thing about Rishi, he grew on me as the book progressed. He’s not just someone looking for love, he’s caring, smart and protective. Dimple and Rishi look like opposites on paper, but their personalities end up complimenting each other.

Dimple’s friendship with her roommate Celia is wonderful. They are a friendship of today, meeting on the internet and arranging to room together before they’ve even met face to face! There’s a quote that I absolutely loved that came from a conversation between Dimple and Celia; “But I still want to be your friend. I think we should still stick together and be each other’s moral support. But maybe it’s okay if we’re not friends with each other’s friends.” I thought it was brilliant because it’s true. You can be friends with someone but not really be friends with their friends, and it’s quite a mature way of looking at relationships and recognising their differences.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet, delightful story. It’s a bit predictable in the romance but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. It’s a rom-com in book form and it embraces all the usual clichés that come with that. That being said, the characters and their relationships are wonderful and you fully root for them by the end of it. When Dimple Met Rishi is a fun quick-read, but it probably won’t be that much of a memorable one for me. 3/5.

REVIEW: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Vivian Carter is fed up. She’s fed up with her school’s sexist dress codes, the gross comments from boys in class and how her teachers let it happen. Viv has had enough. Inspired by her mum’s youth as a punk rock Riot Grrrl, Viv creates Moxie, a feminist zine she distributes anonymously to her classmates. Moxie becomes its own thing as girls start sharing it and come together to spread the Moxie message. Before she knows it, Viv has kickstarted a girl revolution.

I adored this book! Moxie is about teenage girls learning about how feminism isn’t a dirty word and that they can stand up to casual sexism in a place where they’re supposed to be safe – school. Seeing Viv and her friends slowly learning what feminism means, that yes it’s about equality but it can also offer a sense of unity, is wonderful to see.

I loved Viv from the very beginning. She’s always been the “good girl who follows the rules” but when the small little jabs that happen day in, day out at school, something inside her ignites and she acts. I can feel Viv’s frustration, fear and excitement with this Moxie movement she almost unwittingly starts. She is kind of making it up as she’s going along and that makes it all the more exciting. I also really liked her friends and how they didn’t always agree on everything, they may have small disagreements, but they still support each other.

The great thing about Moxie is that it tries to show the different sides of feminism. There’s instances where Viv see’s injustices but not all of them as she’s white and it’s not till a girl who’s black explains it to her that she realises where she may not have been as inclusive before and does her best to change her attitude. Another thing was that while it never took the outlook from Viv and the other girls, it took a moment to show how decent guys just don’t always get what it’s like, even when they are nice and don’t like other boy’s sexist behaviour. There’s so many great quotes in Moxie but one of my favourites is “I know all guys aren’t dicks, I get it. But the thing is, when there are so many dickish dudes around you, it gets hard to remember that, you know?” It’s a pretty perfect response to the #NotAllMen argument when women speak out about what they go through.

Moxie is a fantastic book. Seeing the girls of a high school, with all the usual cliques coming together across the social divides that are usually there in high school, is wonderful to read about. It gave me this funny feeling in my chest because so much of what Moxie is about felt so real to me. I loved that it offers this sense of hope and unity, so much so that I ended up getting teary-eyed as I finished Moxie. I loved it so much and it’s currently my favourite read of 2017. 5/5.