The Unforgettables – By G.L. Tomas

The Unforgettables Rating:

Synopsis2Back home in Chicago, Paul Hiroshima had it all.

Popularity, charming looks and a talent for the arts that made him admired by his peers. Moving to Portland, Maine the summer before his senior year was going to change all that. With his city life behind him, there was definitely no reason to make the best out of a bad situation—that is, until he meets the amazing Felicia Abelard.

Over a love of comic books and secret identities, Felicia becomes the sidekick to his hero; there’s just one problem: they weren’t supposed to fall in love.

As the season comes to an end, Paul and Felicia face in-depth challenges to preserve their summer formed bond. With the brink of the new school year at hand, this tale of best friends and first loves will make their year unforgettable.

My reviewI had a feeling I would end up loving the book right from the moment Felicia’s Haitian-American Christian meat-loving family would invite their new neighbors – Paul’s vegan Buddhist family. This set the tone for a wonderfully inclusive story, where differences are not just accepted and celebrated, but respected. It isn’t just blind, ignorant acceptance. The characters try to understand those differences, sometimes by directly asking, more out of blunt curiosity than courtesy. So when Felicia’s mom directly asks Paul’s Welsh mom (and not his Japanese dad) about “how” she ended up following Buddhism, it makes for a really good scene.

This is pretty much the spirit with which the entire book is written, where people with different faiths and “atypical” families and people with “niche hobbies” go about with their heads held high. Of course, it isn’t always easy, as we see with Felicia who dreads school because of all the passive-aggressive bullying. Or Paul, who is nervous about his final school year in a new town, worried about being coerced into taking more “traditional” and practical courses by his mom for his college, instead of allowing him to go into art school. I honestly loved the tug-of-war between Paul and his mom, both of whom are dyslexic and have different ideas about what “limiting yourself” means. By the end of the book, you are left with no doubt that Paul wants to go into art school because that is one of his primary passions and not because his dyslexia limits him from doing something else.

Can’t “understand” why someone is “different” from you? Well, honestly, sometimes kindness and basic decency goes a long way in making someone feel better. Felicia, being a social “nobody” in school, makes an impact in a little girl’s mind just by being patient, friendly and soft-spoken.
What if differences are something you can’t immediately “accept” though you understand it on some subconscious level? Well, you consciously challenge those phobias. It is a slow process, as Felicia knows, seeing her mother struggling with and facing her bi-phobia.

One of the main strengths of this book is the well fleshed-out family dynamics of both Paul and Felicia. We have involved parents and annoying siblings. We have parenting conflicts and sibling conflicts. Absent parents in YA has become such a cliche that coming across families like this always feels good to witness. So does watching responsible teens with a good head on their shoulders. Despite everything going on, both with each other and dealing with their own issues in school or at home with their parents, Paul and Felicia are never making vindictive, self-destructive decisions. Felicia never lets all the drama in school get in the way of her focus on what really matters – studies. Paul, despite not always understanding what is happening with his on-off friendship/romance with Felicia, doesn’t treat sex with someone else as a frivolous rebound decision.

The story of Paul and Felicia works because both of them grow in the relationship. Because Felicia comes to terms with her own insecurities – of being awkward and “hard to like” in comparison to Paul’s easy-going and people-pleasing nature. And Paul comes to terms with the fact that, with some people, it is harder to get them to open up – to talk about their fears and apprehensiveness. I found Paul’s frustrations with Felicia very real and to be honest, I felt that in the last 1/3rd of the book, Paul’s PoV was written better than Felicia’s. I think the problem was that the story focused more on Felicia’s fears of how her parents would react to her dating. But instead of all the “telling” through Felicia, I just wish there was more of “showing” wrt. her parents being that rigid. There was a bit, but just not that effective to convince me. Instead, I would have personally liked it if Felicia’s inner conflict centered more on the fact that she and Paul were such different people.
Because, I personally felt that after a certain point in the book, that was the main conflict. The authors actually did a really good job showing this – as long as Paul and Felicia were just the two of them together during the summer vacations, they were doing just fine with their comic-book geek-ing and the cosplay. But once they were thrust into the “societal environment” of the school, they had a harder time realigning their “social selves” with their deeply personal relationship.

Read this book if you are looking for a well-written YA love story (but this book is a lot more than just that)

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) by Zoraida Córdova

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas, #1)   Rating:

Hardcover:  336 pages
Expected publication: September 6th 2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Note: I won an copy of this book via Samantha’s YA Halloween giveaway.

overview Alejandra “Alex” Mortiz is not just any other Bruja. She is one of the most powerful Brujas of her generation.  But if she could have it her way, she doesn’t want anything to do with the magic that runs in her lineage; her blood. All Brujas usually show or start exhibiting their magical abilities before they are sixteen. Well, so has Alex; a long time ago. But she has hidden this fact from her mom and sisters. Showing it the first time killed her pet cat and drove her dad away from home so she wants nothing to do with magic. But with her Deathday celebration just days away, she is worried that she can no longer exercise the choice to subdue her magic. After all, the whole point of the Deathday ritual is to invoke the blessings of her ancestors’ souls so that she is able to control and use her powers in the best possible way.When Nova, a mysterious Brujo boy with a shady past tells her that there is a way to refuse her “rite-of-passage” to become a proper Bruja, she is determined to see it through.  With hopes of living a “magic-free” life, she takes matters in her own hands and tries out a different Canto in her Deathday ceremony. But instead of wiping out her magic, it wipes out her entire family and guests…

Now, she has to turn to Nova for help to get them back. But getting them back from Los Lagos – a place where the dead rest before passing on and where Brujas are banished into exile by the Deos  – is not going to be easy.

My thoughtsBringing in elements of Latinx culture and folklore into its world-building of magic systems and ancestry, this book was all kinds of wonderful. I loved how centered it was on family and traditions passed down from generations. It is something that I don’t read a lot in fantasy world-building these days. I mean, maybe it is just the genre- but everything is so large-scale with huge stakes, kingdoms, and borderline-dystopian, if not dystopian. The world in Labyrinth Lost felt “smaller” in geography but cozier. Even when the story shifts from regular Brooklyn to the magical Los Lagos, it felt like some strange private island and not an open battlefield. I think by keeping the actual magical locations easy to remember and understand, the author could focus more on what Alex was going through emotionally in trying to understand and process what is happening around her and within her. (Psst.. it does help that we get a map of Los Lagos).

I can also now understand why this book made it to so many of the LGBT recs list last year. Alex’s bisexuality is presented in the same way any cishet characters’ romance would have. This is how it should be in fiction, and I needn’t have to be “applauding” a book for it.  But it doesn’t happen that often.  So kudos to the author for such a casual, non-gimmicky rep. Thank you for not unintentionally othering Alex.  There is enough of that nonsense going on in real life.

I loved all the Mortiz family scenes, especially with her older sister Lula. It was nice to see her not being the usual older sister stereotype – rude, bitchy, insecure and aloof from the rest of the family. I can’t wait to read about all of them again in the next book and maybe see more of them. This book, understandably, was all about Alex getting her family back so we don’t read much of them in this book. Although, the author does manage to make their presence felt as much as possible during Alex’s journey.

I rarely see Hindus as one of the MCs, so it was nice to see Rishi Persaud not just being a token desi character. (Sidenote – Rishi is a very uncommon choice of name for a girl.) It was also nice change to see a desi who is not shown as conforming in terms of styles or choices. (I am not saying that it is not accurate rep, but it is just that I have already seen such characters in too many books, so Rishi was a welcome change) Oh, and thank god she is not eating “naan-bread” or “chai tea” but just roti and dal. No, seriously, I thought if I did look twice, I would see “roti-bread” or “dal-lentil” instead.

I am not sure how I feel about Nova though. His backstory and motivations were explained in the end but it was all at once and it felt rushed, and I don’t think I even understood it in terms of the “magic logic”. I also feel that in terms of magical concepts, the plot might have been.. stronger (?) if all the explanations didn’t come back to (or rely heavily on) souls. (So many of the other elements that we see throughout the book, like magical creatures, just come together in the end like some sort of a monolith.) That just made some things in the end feel less menacing than it should have been. The main villain – the Devourer – definitely should have creeped me out. But I felt like I could have probably taken a kitchen knife, jumped into the pages and stabbed her in the – well, wherever her heart is supposed to be.

Alex is more likeable and personable once she is more accepting and open about how special her family and heritage is, and how special Rishi is to her. But just by herself, she is pretty clueless through most of the book .. which works. There is nothing more eye-roll worthy than a Chosen One being a know-it-all. Alex gets a lot of help and pretty much blunders her way through a good portion of the book before having direct advice handed out to her about just how exactly being a conduit of magic works. But I feel  I would have probably liked and know more about HER (rather than all that comes with being a Bruja) in the next book (assuming the next book features her..)

I can’t wait for synopsis of the second book to come out. The tidbit released by the author last month has me wondering whether it is again going to be from Alex’s POV or someone else’s.

A (very disappointing!) Little life

A Little Life Rating:

Buy Links:

                                                     Paperback        Hardcover          Kindle
Synopsis:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

My Review: 

(Note: This is more of a rant and contains spoilers.)

WTF did I just read?!!!! The only emotion I was left with by the end of the book was anger, because this book could have been so much more if it had used less pages and the author had resisted piling on every misery-as-a-result-of-abusive-childhood onto one single person. The mildest analogy (for the lack of a better word) I can make – Take all the victims in all the seasons of Law and Order  SVU, heap all their traumas one over the other, and dump them over one person – and you get Jude St. Francis.

And no, I don’t think it is unbelievable that someone can have such a terrible childhood. That is not even my main issue with the book.  My issue is that everything else surrounding it was so unbelievable – For someone who has seen such horrors, who was abandoned as a baby, raised in a monastery and abused over and over again, by hundreds of men, both physically and sexually – he seems to have had an incredibly easy transition into a successful academic and professional life. He easily makes friends, co-exists with roommates, and wins court cases, cooks amazing food, is a wonderful pianist and mathematician and loved by his peers and feared by anyone who faces off against him in court.

And for all the talk about friendship, none of his friends are forceful about him getting counselling, and just let his self-harm continue through decades. He has a large group of friends, the sorts who take care of him or clean his apartment when he is bed-ridden after his latest hospital visit. But no one, no one puts their foot down to have him committed to a psychiatric facility or rehab. Just because they are scared Jude will cut ties with them.

In a few ways, this book was brilliant – possibly the most horrifyingly vivid close-up of what it is to live through such a trauma, and the self-loathing that stays with you. This was probably the first book I read which dealt with adult adoption and I loved how the author conveyed the feeling of constant doubt and insecurity of Jude with respect to the entire transition to being someone’s son – by law – at the age of thirty. Especially someone like Jude, who constantly feels he isn’t worth that privilege and that whatever is happening is too good to be true. I loved Harold and enjoyed the chapters with his first-person narration.  I wish we could have heard more from his wife Julia too. It is just weird she didn’t have much of a voice considering both Harold and Julia adopt Jude. Then again, this book doesn’t really have any prominent female characters.

The extent to which Williem goes to make Jude a part of his life was incredibly heart-warming, but I honestly preferred Jude and Williem as friends than lovers. I mean, what is the opposite term for being queer-baited? Because, that’s how I felt. It was touching to see the Williem’s love for Jude as a friend, and there was no indication he was homosexual or bisexual. So, I didn’t understand why the author felt the need to change “legitimize” it that way.  It felt like, suddenly the author thought it would be unusual to show Williem devoting his entire personal life caring for Jude as a friend, so she went ahead and made it a romantic relationship. I honestly didn’t see it coming, because prior to that, the author seemed so secure in showing  a selfless friendship. But then she decided, “Okay, so Jude and Williem are practically cohabiting, it is so weird to have two middle-aged guys living together, so let me change their equation to something more..”

I am so divided over this. I loved Jude and Williem and yet, was just very unconvinced with some aspects of how their relationship progressed. (This is a general observation about the book too. While I loved that there was LGBT representation, I was not entirely sure it was done well.) Williem and Jude have intimacy issues and later Jude admits he hates having sex, so with Jude’s permission, Williem has sex with other …. Women.  Like.. what?! There is a moment in the book when someone asks (or mentions?) him about being in love with a man and he replies that he is not in love with a guy; he is in love with Jude.  Soo, does the author want to imply that for Williem, being with Jude is all that mattered? It really wasn’t about the gender? I guess the author’s intention was to state that sometimes the society’s expectation to label everything isn’t always met and maybe that’s why Williem doesn’t even explicitly admit he is a bisexual. But, I just felt that this wasn’t conveyed well and a lot was left vague. Heck, with the conversations always being about “straight or gay?”, I felt there was a bit of bi-erasure.

The synopsis was so misleading!!! It wasn’t about four friends at all. It was all about Jude, everything was about him. JB and Malcolm fade away after a couple of hundred pages and I almost wanted to DNF it at that point. I went into this book thinking it was about four friends and though Jude might get more prominent page-time, we are going to get character-arcs for JB and Malcolm too.  But I was sooo off-the-mark. What irked me is how even when some other character got their “moment” in the book, it too turned out be somehow all about “how would Jude feel?”  So, after JB some cruel remarks against Jude during his drug addiction phase, he is immediately boycotted by Williem and Jude for a major part of the book. Oh well, his fate is no different than the two dozen names of Jude’s friends who keep popping up. And there are a lot of friends. All of whom adore Jude and never lose their patience with him. I am not sure what is about Jude which inspires such loyalty though. I mean, he never really confides about his past with them though they keep asking him. Apart from his work, he doesn’t do anything else to have fun and he being a litigator sets him apart from the artistic crowd of Malcolm, Willem or Malcolm. So, what does he even talk with the others? We never get a sense of what kind of a person Jude is beyond his past.

It felt like by the end of it even the author was tired, because all the beautiful prose that held my attention through most of the first half, turned weary and it was just hard for me to plough through the last couple of hundred pages. My patience for all the excessive details (over JB’s art, Malcolm’s architecture, Jude’s injuries and Williem’s movies) was wearing thin.

All of it ends with the most lazy and predictable plot twist (if you can call it that) ever.  I am not even sure why I just didn’t ditch the book. Maybe it is because I have been looking forward to reading it for over a year. Maybe I just thought the ending will be more hopeful for Jude. But, none of that happens. I have read books dealing with these issues (though not so many in the same book and dealt by the same character), and have liked a lot of those books. My problem with A Little Life was that there is no ebb and flow to the story. It is just incredibly one-note – on one side we have Jude who goes through every horrific experience possible and on the other hand we have him and all his friends being super-successful in their fields with lots of wealth (world-famous artist, world-famous architect, world-famous actor and so on). While the entire book could have really used an editor, I also question the need for a lot of the social gatherings that happen in the book. Some of them just don’t serve any purpose and I just found it so unrealistic that around two dozen of their common friends keep in touch so frequently through the years. All of them land up in the same city from different places and when they don’t, Williem or Jude fly over to whichever part of the world they are and meet them – and again, why do we need such details every time they meet friend X or friend Y for dinner? I do applaud one thing though – the representation of LGBT, ethnicity, and the differently-abled in the background cast of characters (well okay, there were times I went “tokenism” in my head, but I am willing to shrug it off) .

Hanya Yanagihara can write, and write brilliantly. This book could have been brilliant too. If only there wasn’t all that gratuitousness floating around.

Phantom Limbs – By Paula Garner

  Rating:

Note: I won an ARC of this book via giveaway hosted by Amy@novelgossip

Buy links:

Kindle       Hardcover   Audio CD

Synopsis2

How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

My review (contains mild spoilers)

This was a wonderfully nuanced novel in its exploration of so many powerful themes through its characters. I thought it would be easier for me to talk about each of them taking turns for the three main characters:

otis I loved how Garner made sure he didn’t turn out to be a sad Mary-Sue version. I mean, he is described as someone with an athletic body, good with kids, and a loyal friend and totally disinterested with the fact that all these attributes would easily get him a date. Sounds typical and unreal, right? But, Garner does make him believable. There is a history, reason, and background to the way he is.

Themes explored:

Sexuality: Sure, he is still pining for Meg, but you also see glimpses of how he is (or might have been) a regular teen when he does notice that someone is good-looking or mentally compares someone with Meg. The closest female relationship he has had since Meg left him is his friend-slash-coach Dara. There is a moment in the book where he does compare Meg to Dara and how he finds the former more physically and sexually attractive. I just found it interesting that the only person he immediately sought to compare with is the probably the only female friend he has. So, while Meg and he have a lot of shared emotional baggage and history which binds Otis to her, I wonder whether he and Dara could have ever been more than just friends.

Friendship – Oh, they were more than just friends all right!! I mean, not lovers but definitely not your regular buddies either. It was an intense friendship because at its root, it was borne out of a need to numb the past wounds. It definitely started out at a need-based relationship – Otis needed a routine something that would force him out of the grieving stupor over his brother’s death. Dara needed another goal to replace her own scuttled Olympics dream. So Otis welcomes Dara’s vigorous swimming training and humors her Olympics ambition for him. Dara was just content in living vicariously through him. But finally the carefully constructed and fragile schedule starts coming apart when Otis realizes that time is running out for him to confront Dara with the fact that he isn’t really chuffed about training for the Olympic trials. The mail from Meg and later, her reappearance further distracts him.

I absolutely loved his equation with Dara. Sure, at times their friendship felt symbiotic but there was something so pure and honest about it. I loved how Otis recognized and acknowledged that Dara was crucial for him to get through the months after his brother’s death.

Loss – Otis has grieved for the last three years, not just over the loss of his brother but also Meg – who leaves him without any explanation. His brother, Mason’s death is like a scab that he can’t scratch at, it is always there. He wants to preserve Mason’s memories forever, but each good memory is followed and clouded by the fact that they can’t be relived in the present day.

And Meg? Her disappearance hurt him, but her reappearance confuses him further. He sees that she has changed and realizes he isn’t the same either. He compares his pain to that of a phantom limb – of something that exists in nothingness and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

dara  Definitely one of my favorite characters this year!! She is described as someone who is gritty, hates sympathy coming her way due to half her left arm missing, and has always had a bit of a reckless streak in her.

Themes explored:

Sexuality – This book and Dara will definitely be on my LGBT recs list this year! I loved how Garner wrote her as she was trying to let her defenses down and accept that there is nothing wrong to be a little “vulnerable” in love. It was a huge step for Dara to let someone that close to her life – her inner thoughts and insecurities. It was also difficult for Dara because she knew it is something her father wouldn’t approve.

Parental Abandonment – Her father emotionally abandons her after her accident because he had set his sights on her winning the Olympics. She craves for that love and acceptance from him again and this is one of the reasons she is hesitant to reveal to everyone that she might be a lesbian. Because, she worries it might be the last straw for her father.

It isn’t just her father who has abandons her. Her mother does too… but to say anything else will be a huge spoiler.

Loss – She has suffered from many losses – of her parents, dreams, and a degree of independence with the loss of her limb. She insists on driving a car with a clutch and manual gear system (though she can afford a better car) because I guess, somewhere she likes being challenged every day? I wasn’t really sure why.

The hardest loss for her is definitely her limb because it isn’t just that – She doesn’t have half her left arm and what that leaves her with is the occasional phantom pain that she can overcome only by either the mirror box or Otis rubbing his hands in front of her (thereby creating a virtual reality). The pain is hard on her psyche especially when it shoots up during her swim sessions. After all the efforts to wave off sympathy, her body doesn’t support her  when she most needs it and she feels embarrassed when her teammates watch her writhing. Moreover, it feels like a cruel taunt aimed at her whenever she is trying her best to continue doing what she loves – swimming.

Friendship – Otis is her protégé slash closest friend. He is the first one who is privy to her past and the first person in whom Dara has confided so much. I loved how Dara changed through the book, from someone who wanted to hold onto Otis for the lost dream he represented to someone who was willing to let him go for his sake. Some of the revelations in the end totally surprised me. Throughout the book, we mostly see how Otis is more perceptive towards her and understands her but we never really get a sense of it being reciprocated. But, in the end, we see that she understands him and has listened to him all these years.

meg  Since the story is from Otis’ POV, we are as clueless about her as he is. I mean, a large part of the story’s “mystery” is centered on her. Why did she leave? Why did she come back? What happened in her life the past three years? These are the questions Otis desperately wants to know, and yet he is scared to ask because it is also related to Mason’s death. He has tried to stay aloof from the exact details so far because he is scared to know any further. This was probably the only part of the book that I felt a bit lacking – the whole routine where Meg wants to tell him but he doesn’t want to listen and when he does want to know, Meg doesn’t open up. It was built like a big mystery plot but the revelation isn’t that surprising.

Themes explored:

Well, since Meg is a bit of an enigma and revealing anything more about her would be a major spoiler, I am just talking about a couple of themes (and skipping others):

Guilt – This was probably the reason for all that changed in her after Mason’s death. As the years pass, the burden becomes easier in some ways, but harder in many other ways. This intense feeling of guilt is also shared by Otis’ mom. One of my favorite Meg scenes is between the two, because it provided some sort of closure to a painful chapter in her life.

Loss – Otis was her best friend and first love ; so leaving him when she had just entered her teens was hard. In addition, she also has to deal with the loss of the family structure that she has always known – due to her parents separating.

Overall impressions – This was definitely my favorite book released this year. The ending was deeply satisfying and I was so happy that no character was shortchanged or treated shabbily by the other.