ARC Review: The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

29736467The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

Pub. date: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Delacorte Press  
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781524715878
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Netgalley and Delacorte Press for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Trigger Warnings: Death of a sibling, death of a best friend, death of an ex-boyfriend, suicide, leukemia, alcoholism, mentions of drug dealing, marijuana use, death of a queer character.

Plot: Told from the perspective of three teenagers, all of whom have experienced the loss of a loved one. Autumn lost her best friend, Shay her twin sister, and Logan the boy he loved. They’re navigating grief each their own way, and are reunited by their love for one band’s music. 

I often hear about how people find contemporary novels formulaic and clichéd, and while a lot of it boils down to taste, I think some it also depends on the kind of contemporary novels people are reaching out to read. For skeptics of the genre, I invite you to give Ashley Woodfolk’s debut YA novel a shot. It tackles grief in such a profound way while delving into the many complicated and flawed things that make us so human.

The three main characters, along with the secondary characters, are all linked to each other via their connections to a local indie band called Unraveling Lovely. Autumn’s best friend Tavia dies in a car accident while driving to a party, and Autumn is racked with guilt because she was supposed to accompany her to the party and chose not to at the last minute. Her coping mechanism involves spending all her time she can at Tavia’s house, particularly with Tavia’s brother Dante, and emailing her constantly. Her grief seems immeasurable and she doesn’t think anyone else’s, not even Dante’s, can even compare. Shay’s left ‘twinless’ after losing her sister Sasha, who’d succumbed to the leukemia she’d been suffering with since the age of 11. The twins, along with a couple of their friends run a music reviewing blog, and Sasha is constantly reminded of Shay from every queued blog post, and every time someone else, including their mother, looks at her. Like Autumn, she’s in place where she feels nobody can possibly understand what she’s going through. Logan struggles with grief and guilt over the loss of his ex-boyfriend Bram, and blames himself for some things he said to him as their relationship was ending. He feels responsible and struggles with a lot of “what ifs”, wondering if he’d contributed to Bram’s depression and consequent death by suicide. Logan’s depression lead him to alcoholism that resulted in the breaking up of Unraveling Lovely, of which he was a member. Now, he harbors resentment for Bram’s girlfriend Yara and leans on watching Bram’s vlogs as he grieves for the person he loves. 

The three teens are narrators of their own stories, and while their losses are separate, their grief brings them together. As the stories develop, we’re shown how their lives overlap and intersect. They each lean on their love for music, even when sometimes it doesn’t seem enough. This is a poignant thread that ties together all of them and the book itself, as the characters otherwise don’t have anything else holding them together. However, the story in itself such an emotional and captivating one, and I think these connections, fragile as they are, just speak to how grieving can be both an individual and universal experience all at once. 

The writing style in itself is pretty simplistic- lots of short sentences with strong, distinguishable narrators. I thought this worked well for a story that was fraught with so many emotions and the writing didn’t distract from that. In the end, you’re not left with characters that are completely healed with all their issues resolved and closure experienced, rather, you’re shown the significant effects of the tiny steps taken towards the beginnings of their healing process, with the help of good and necessary support systems. These strong themes of love, loss, pain, and hope will surely resonate with the book’s target audience, many of whom need books like these to feel a little less alone as they navigate a complicated world and tumultuous emotional spaces. 

Overall, a phenomenally strong debut offering a perspective on grief that stays with you even after you’ve finished reading the book. If you’ve known me a while you know that I inhale stories that tackle grief, loss, and pain, especially realistic stories, so this book was tailor-made for me and has officially made it high up the favorites-of-2018 list. Fans of Adam Silvera and Nina LaCour, consider this me shoving this book in your hands. 

 

ARC Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao

35297380American Panda by Gloria Chao

Pub. date: February 6, 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse  
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781481499101
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Netgalley and Simon Pulse for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Plot: Seventeen-year old Mei is a freshman at MIT, thanks to skipping fourth grade- all part of her parents’ master plan. This plan also includes Mei becoming a doctor, marrying a Taiwanese boy selected by her parents, and have a bunch of babies. Unfortunately, between her hatred of germs, her inability to stay awake during biology lectures, and a crush on her Japanese classmate Darren, Mei knows that she doesn’t want this future that her parents have planned and worked so hard for. When she reconnects with her estranged brother Xing, she begins to wonder whether it was worth keeping so many secrets from her parents, or if it was possible for her to find a way to live life on her terms. 

I think the Goodreads synopsis of this contemporary YA novel can be a little misleading. I went in expecting a hilarious romantic comedy of errors, but instead was hit with a plethora of intensely complicated emotional drama. Gloria delivers a very real story that is not uncommon in many Asian families. Mei is a strong narrator throughout the book, and I found myself getting caught up in her angst and conflicting emotions. She’s clearly experiencing a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance- wanting to make her parents happy and not let their sacrifices go for nought, while at the same time having ambitions and dreams of her own that are so far left field from what her parents have envisioned for her. While I didn’t grow up with parents as intense as Mei’s, my expat childhood was filled with a lot of these constant, conflicting desires. Gloria does an excellent job as portraying them for what they are- hardworking immigrant parents who’ve lived their lives holding firmly onto these perspectives and values and wanting their kids to have a secure future to the point where they’ve lost sight of personal happiness and their kids’ happiness, and the fact that the world and the country they live in is very different from the one they grew up in. Mei’s parents are very conservative and old-fashioned, ascribe to all manner of superstitions and beliefs, and yes, their love is conditional on their kids’ obedience- as evidenced by the fact that their son is estranged for falling in love with a non-parental-approved girl. I developed a certain appreciation for Mei’s mother, especially towards the end of the book. She’s a complex woman, her own story is sad and touching, and as a reader you’re definitely given some perspective on how the same cultural values and beliefs she upholds has had its effect on her own life. 

Mei’s character arc itself is really strongly written and great to follow- she goes from being the kid who is too scared and too sheltered to disobey her parents, to a person that accepts that in order to live her life on her terms she is going to have to be okay with disappointing them once in a while. Boy, is that a life lesson, and one that does not get easy over time (yes, this is indeed the voice of experience). Juxtaposing her passion for dance and her lack of interest in her pre-med courses is a really good choice in terms of the writing and helps with the progression of the story. It also really made me empathize with her emotional turmoil. I also absolutely loved that she’s a college student; that transitioning worldview and exposure to a plethora of ideas, experiences, and possibilities was one that I related to completely because I remember experiencing those things when I was 17 and had moved away from my parents for the first time. It’s exhilarating and nerve-wracking, and superbly depicted in the story. 

As for the other side characters: I adored her brother, and I was super invested in their relationship. Again, I could relate to that entire story arc on a personal level (not my immediate experience, but it’s happened within our family). You can still see how he does hang onto some of the values he was raised with, and it’s interesting to see how sometimes you can fall into the traps of sharing your parents’ thought processes even if you don’t mean to. Ying-Na serves as a reference for all the things that could happen if you choose to go against your conservative parents and community, and I really liked how she doesn’t just remain a caricature in the end. Darren is an adorable love interest, but I definitely appreciated that their romance was a secondary arc that was there to reinforce the primary narrative instead of taking over Mei’s story. 

Overall, this is an intense and emotional read. All the tiny pieces of the puzzle don’t miraculously fall into place in the end; these characters are all a work in progress, as in life, which I appreciate deeply. Unfortunately I didn’t write this review before my ARC expired but I think there’s a potentially amatonormative sentence in there somewhere that made me wince (don’t quote me on this, I don’t remember it. I’ll just have to wait for the finished copy to double-check). However, this novel is still deeply personal and Gloria’s voice and writing are an important addition to the Asian diaspora. Familial expectations versus following the path of uncertainty; undoubtedly, many will find a home, heart, and connection in it.

 

 

 

ARC Review: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

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Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Pub. date: January 16th, 2018
Publisher: Soho Teen  
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781616958473
Source: Edelweiss

Thanks so much to Edelweiss and Soho Teen for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Trigger Warnings: Anti-Islamic verbal statements and incidents, domestic terrorism, bullying, physical assault, suicide bombing, kissing

Plot: Seventeen-year old Maya Aziz is your not-so-average teenager straddling the line between two worlds; one where she’s expected to be the good Indian daughter to conservative Indian parents, well-mannered, possessing decent culinary skills, and on her way to college to become a lawyer, and the other where she goes to film school in New York City, and maybe kiss this white boy she’s been crushing on for a while now. She’s busy living her life with her best friend Violet, sneaking off to spend time with the crush, and making documentaries, when an act of domestic terrorism results in absolute upheaval in Maya’s life. 

I often hear readers complain about how contemporary fiction can sometimes be too predictable, falling into a few standard tropes with the players dressed in different costumes, lacking imagination and the ability to draw them in. Well, I’m happy to report that isn’t the case with this book. Sure, there’s teens, there’s angst, there’s conflict, a plethora of emotions, but Samira Ahmed has managed to deliver a gorgeous coming-of-age story that doesn’t necessarily cater to the formula. She’s done such a great job combining the fluff, the angst, and serious relevant issues, drawing the reader into what turns out to be a very compelling novel. 

Maya as a protagonist and narrator is such a wonderfully developed character. She has super conservative Indian parents, and Her relationship with them resonates with (I think) a lot of diasporic Indian kids- parents who worked extremely hard and made sacrifices to ensure their kids have good lives, parents who want their kids to have steady and secure futures, who are afraid that their kids not growing up in their homeland means that all their morals and values will be lost, parents who want to keep their only child close by because they’re hesitant of the world they will have to send them into, and parents who rebelled for their own life choices and then turned around and promptly became the same naysayers the previous generations were, because they’re conditioned to react that way to new experiences. All of the best interests at heart but unable to recognize that their children are growing up in an environment so different from their own and navigating their own challenges. These traits can seem like stereotypes of Asian parents, but to me they were written and portrayed from such an honest perspective, and several times I felt such empathy for Maya. My parents don’t share all of those qualities, but they most certainly fall into several of these archetypes. It’s always simultaneously comforting and frustrating to see this represented so accurately, especially in YA fiction- teen me would definitely have benefited from reading books like this one. This again, is not necessarily representative of all Indian parents (we’re not a monolith), so I’m sure these characters arcs will resonate with some and not with others.

Besides her complicated relationship with her family, Maya is an ambitious girl with big passions, which is so great to see. Film-making is clearly not just a hobby, but her passion, and her tenacity is evident by the lengths she’s willing to go to in order to make it happen for her. I’m a big fan of ambitious teens of color who are unapologetic about their passion. They’re unabashedly nerdy about this thing that they love and determined to figure ways to make it happen for them, it’s very affirming.

An integral portion of this book is how it tackled anti-Islamic rhetoric and events, and this is where it shines without turning into just an “issue” book. Throughout the novel are tiny microaggressions interspersed in the narrative (and appropriately challenged), all leading up to the tumultuous event that casts a dark shadow on this small town. A brutally honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a Muslim in America in the aftermath of an incident of domestic terrorism. Maya’s own reactions and experiences, as well as that of her family’s, how it affects their relationship with each other, their choices, their fears, and how they’re viewed in the eyes of their small community- Samira delivers with gut-punching accuracy. This makes it such an important book, not just in terms of representing Indian-American Muslims, but a book that should be read by those outside that community, and give them some food for thought on how they could be complicit in maintaining such a rhetoric and how they can be solid allies. 

As for the romance and the side-characters, these were equally well-done. There’s a bit of a love triangle early in the book that’s resolved quickly, and the romance is pretty cute for the most part(bit of an overkill with the mentions of Phil’s dimple, but hey, that’s an alloromantic thing you can’t avoid I guess). Her friendship with Violet is just awesome (love me a supportive best friend all day everyday). Hina is the aunt that dreams are made of, what an amazingly supportive parental figure and buffer. The dual narrative was fine, I don’t think it did much for the story, but it didn’t get in the way either. 

All in all, an absolutely emotional and gratifying story. Samira’s prose is gorgeous, and Maya’s wit and sarcasm is brilliant and cracked me up throughout the book. Full of nuance, with the ability to kickstart several important conversations among readers, Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a well-rounded and gripping debut. 

P. S. In case you’re looking for some #ownvoices reviews of this book, I’m linking both Fadwa and Maha‘s reviews for further reading.