Book Review: Little Bee, and World Refugee Day

little bee refugeeLittle Bee
by Chris Cleave
Contemporary Fiction
267 pages
Published 2009

Today is World Refugee Day. First observed in 2001, it is dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of refugees all across the world. African Refugee Day had been observed in some countries prior to the UN declaring it World Refugee Day, but the Organization of African Unity agreed to have the two days coincide.

To honor World Refugee Day, today I’m going to talk about Little Bee. Little Bee is a Nigerian refugee in the United Kingdom. She and her sister witnessed the destruction of their village by an oil company’s thugs, and were hunted down to eliminate the witnesses. In a chance encounter on a Nigerian beach, she met Sarah and Andrew, a couple from London trying to save their marriage by going on an exotic holiday. The encounter changes the lives of all three of them, and when Little Bee makes it to the United Kingdom, they are the only people she knows. She arrives at their home on the day of Andrew’s funeral, and Sarah takes her in.

The book switches between the viewpoints of Sarah and Little Bee, and it does suffer from that, a bit. I couldn’t wait for Sarah’s chapters to be done so I could get back to Little Bee. Her viewpoint – her voice – was enthralling. Some first-person views are just the person thinking to themselves, while some first-person views are the person talking to the reader. Sarah was the first type, and Little Bee the second. Reading her explanations of the differences between her old life and her new life, and how the girls from her village wouldn’t understand things, was amazing. I was hooked within the first ten pages of the book, specifically her note about scars:

I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.

The events Little Bee talks about having witnessed are horrifying. And she recognizes that. She could be bitter, she could be depressed, she could be insane, but she is not. She manages to have hope, and even joy. She sees other refugees around her commit suicide, and in fact always has a plan for how to kill herself “if the men come.” Because the stories of refugees always begin with “the men came and they…” and she’d rather kill herself than let herself be taken. Despite this, she has hope for a future. Or perhaps she simply takes joy in the present.

The book is not a happy one. Like Sing, Unburied, Sing, it’s an important book but not exactly an enjoyable one. There are enjoyable parts. But there are very hard parts, too. (I should note, here, a TRIGGER WARNING for a graphic description of rape, when Little Bee tells Sarah what happened to Little Bee’s older sister.) It did not end the way I wanted it to, though it ended in an unexpected way. I suppose it was too much to hope for a Happy Ever After when the vast majority of refugees don’t get one.

For all that there were very tough scenes to get through in this book, I’m still putting it on my Best of 2018 list. Little Bee’s voice and viewpoint is amazing, the story is well researched, and the plot absorbing. This is a book I’d like to have on my shelf.

This book fills the “book talked about in another book” (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) prompt for PopSugar 2018, and the “refugee MC” prompt for Booked 2018.

From the cover of Little Bee:

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book.

It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.

Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there . . .

Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds. 

Book Review: The Animators

animatorsThe Animators
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Contemporary Fiction
386 pages
Published 2017

I hadn’t actually intended this to be one of my Pride Month reads, but Mel, the main character’s best friend and business partner, is lesbian, so it turns out that it counts! I read this book as part of Litsy’s “Buddy Reads” program, where everyone participating reads the same section of the book and discusses it before moving on to the next section. So I’ve been slowly reading this one over the past month. I’m not sure I would have read this if not for the Buddy Read.

This book surprised me! I enjoyed it, and I wasn’t sure I would. Mel and Sharon have been friends since college, spurring each other to greater artistry in their chosen field of adult cartooning. (Not porn, just not childish themes.) They work well together, with Mel coming up with most of the beginning ideas and Sharon hammering them into a shape that will work and keeping them on track through projects. But Mel has a drug and alcohol problem, and Sharon has a stroke, and working through all of those things are really what the book deals with.

The two go back to visit Sharon’s hometown in Kentucky at one point, and the way Sharon describes the town, and how surreal it is and how she never felt like she belonged, even when she lived there – that was a really hard-hitting passage for me. I went back to my own hometown last Christmas, and I felt the same feelings Sharon has in the book. Seeing those feelings actually put into words was….strange.

I honestly didn’t like either Mel or Sharon for the first few chapters, but as the story unfolds, they begin to open up. The book is about growing up in some ways; the two of them, though advancing in their careers, haven’t had to do a lot of maturing emotionally until the events of the book. I thought they both become much more likable as that happened.

The writing was excellent in this book, the character development outstanding, and the plot heartbreaking in places. Even though it’s not my typical reading fare, I really liked it.

You can find all my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of The Animators:

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Book Review: The Book of Essie

book of essieThe Book of Essie
by Meghan Maclean Weir
Contemporary Fiction
319 pages
Releases June 12, 2018

It’s so hard to decide where to start with this book. First: it’s amazing. Second: Content Warning. For a number of reasons. Rape. Incest. Gay Conversion Therapy. Suicide. Nothing extremely graphic; the most graphic concerns the conversion therapy, which is where the suicide occurs. That section was hard to read. A lot of sections were hard to read. But the book was SO GOOD. It’s about Essie and Roarke’s escape from all that, so ultimately it focuses on the future, and it’s a hopeful, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of book. But daaaaang these topics.

I loved so many of the characters here. Essie and Roarke, Roarke’s best friend Blake, Liberty, the reporter, her boyfriend and her camerawoman. They’re all amazing. Essie’s determination, Roarke’s courage, Blake’s understanding – every character has something to offer in this book. The way Liberty’s history entwines with Essie’s, so she knows where she’s coming from and can offer advice from experience, and how Liberty flashes back to her childhood so the reader understands her conflicts – it’s all just so amazing.

I identify pretty closely with a lot of this book myself; I was raised very conservative Christian, though at least not in a crazy cult like Liberty was. But the way Liberty talks about her boyfriend challenging her beliefs and waking her up from them hit very close to home. It was weird to see it on the page.

“I had been home as well, a painful few months during which I began to see my parents, our family, and our church as Mike might see them, as anyone who was not us would see them. I still loved my parents, very much, but I was also deeply ashamed. I began to wonder what would have happened if I’d seen it earlier….I decided that I would not go home again.”

I was cheering for Essie as she broke free of her bigoted family. Every step of the way. And Roarke – oh, Roarke, who my heart broke for, who stepped up to the plate and loved Essie in his own way, and gave Essie what she needed. It helped that Essie offered him precisely what he needed, too, but I didn’t expect how their relationship evolved.

I loved this book, start to finish. This is definitely one of my favorites of 2018.

I received this book a little early, through the Book of the Month club. It releases this Tuesday, June 12.

From the cover of The Book of Essie:

Esther Anne Hicks – Essie – is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Should they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Pass the child off as Celia’s? Or try to arrange a marriage – and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie seeks her salvation in Roarke Richards, a senior at her high school with a secret of his own to protect, and Liberty Bell, an infamously conservative reporter. 

As Essie attempts to win the faith of Roarke and Liberty, she has to ask herself the most difficult of questions: What was the real reason her older sister left home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?

Written with blistering intelligence and a deep, stirring empathy, The Book of Essie brilliantly explores our darkest cultural obsessions: celebrity, class, bigotry, and the media. 

Book Review: Deerskin

DeerskinDeerskin
by Robin McKinley
Fantasy
386 pages
Published 2014

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

You know, sometimes you just need some escapist fantasy. McKinley’s lyrical prose was just the ticket for me last night. There were a few times where I thought “I’d like to know what happens next, quit with the digression already” but then I got caught up in the digression itself! I’ve read several of McKinley’s books – The Hero and the Crown, Pegasus, a few others. She is a master of her craft, weaving magical tales that make you really SEE the world of the book.

Lissar/Deerskin survives some intense trauma in the beginning of this tale – it was hard to read, but McKinley hit the middle ground of being just graphic enough to really impress the horror of the assault on you, without being overly graphic. I think it could definitely be triggering, though, so be warned. Lissar survives, and escapes, and spends time healing before going among people again and learning to heal emotionally as well as physically.

The book is predictable – I knew where she was going and who she’d fall in love with from the moment she left home – but no less absorbing for that. I did like that for once, an author dealt with trauma recovery in a realistic manner, instead of just “oh well she loves him so the trauma won’t bother her anymore!” because PTSD doesn’t work that way.

Deerskin is another enchanting tale from McKinley, with parts that are genuinely hard to read. I wish the description had been more blatant that when Lissar is fleeing “her father’s lust” they really meant his assault, not just his desire.

From the cover of Deerskin

Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.

But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”

The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!

On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.

Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.

Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.

Book Review: Saints and Misfits

saintsSaints and Misfits
S. K. Ali
Young Adult
325 pages
Published June 2017

Yet another debut novel that I loved! Saints and Misfits covers a few months in the life of Janna, a Muslim high school student. It opens with her assault by “the monster” as she names him, a well-respected Muslim boy at her mosque. The book covers some normal high school events – finding out her crush likes her back, sneaking up to the roof of the school to talk to her best friend, struggling with her parents not understanding her – but also involves things unique to her experience. She has to exist in the same spaces as her assailant, and she’s better at it some times than others. She has to find a way to deal with leaked photos of her in gym class without her hijab. (Her gym classes aren’t co-ed, so it’s okay to be without her hijab – it’s not okay for men to see her that way.) Meanwhile, she’s playing chaperone for her brother’s courtship, and being forced to share a room with her mother because her brother is moving back in with them.

It’s an interesting, fairly light read about a culture Americans like to demonize, and a topic that doesn’t get enough attention. I enjoyed Janna’s personality and determination, and her relationship with the senior citizen she helps take care of down the hall.

I liked the ending. It showed her slowly building up the courage to confront her assailant, and then doing so. While we didn’t get a concrete resolution, it was strongly implied, and I’m okay with that.

S.K. Ali is based in Toronto, so this book is part of my Read Canadian Challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. this book!
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of Saints and Misfits:

There are three kinds of people in my world:

1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.

2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me–the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.

Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.

But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?

3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

Like the monster at my mosque.

People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

Except me.

Book Review: The Clothesline Swing

clothesline swingThe Clothesline Swing
Ahmad Danny Ramadan
Fictional Memoir?
288 pages
Published April 2017

I had to force myself to finish this book. It was okay at the beginning – I was hoping it would get better, and it did not. The Clothesline Swing is the the story of two gay Syrian refugees. It’s an interesting framework; the narrator, one of the two, is telling stories to his husband to keep him in the world of the living. (The husband is dying from an unnamed illness.) There’s a catch, though – Death is also with them, as an actual presence that can be talked to and interacted with. He smokes a joint with the narrator at one point, and tells stories of his own – even plans a party – at another point. The story flicks back and forth between their past and their present with some unpredictability as the narrator tells his stories.

Because of the presence of Death, and the kind of hazy, in-between space that the stories reside in (between life and death, between awake and asleep, between fantasy and reality), the entire book is a little dream-like. I don’t particularly enjoy ever-shifting books that don’t have some kind of solid foundation for me to start on.

The book did a good job of showing the dangers of being gay in middle-eastern society, and also showed how hard it is to be a citizen of a country at war with itself. The list of friends who have died in violent ways is threaded through the entire book of stories. She was caught in a crossfire in an alley – he killed himself after being forced to marry a woman – he died when his office was shelled – she died from a car bomb.

I don’t know. It’s a strange book. I’m hesitant to say don’t waste your time, because it covers important topics, but the dreamy quality just ruined it for me.

Ramadan is a Syrian refugee living in British Columbia, making this book part of my Read Canadian Challenge. It’s also my pick for “book about death or mourning” for the Popsugar 2018 challenge, and “unconventional romance” for the Litsy Booked Challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. this book!
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of The Clothesline Swing:

The Clothesline Swing is a journey through the troublesome aftermath of the Arab Spring. A former Syrian refugee himself, Ramadan unveils an enthralling tale of courage that weaves through the mountains of Syria, the valleys of Lebanon, the encircling seas of Turkey, the heat of Egypt and finally, the hope of a new home in Canada.

Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, The Clothesline Swing tells the epic story of two lovers anchored to the memory of a dying Syria. One is a Hakawati, a storyteller, keeping life in forward motion by relaying remembered fables to his dying partner. Each night he weaves stories of his childhood in Damascus, of the cruelty he has endured for his sexuality, of leaving home, of war, of his fated meeting with his lover. Meanwhile Death himself, in his dark cloak, shares the house with the two men, eavesdropping on their secrets as he awaits their final undoing.