Reading Diaries: The YA Lead with Magic and Agency

When it comes to setting a yearly goal for my reading, my motto is always to set the bar very low, because then I won’t feel so bad for not reading a book a week or some other incredibly unmanageable number.

So at the beginning of 2019, I set a goal of reading 25 books this year. As of yesterday, I’ve surpassed my halfway mark (13 books). To be honest, I don’t really care about the numbers. I care much more about the substance of the few books I read each year. I like thinking about them critically, devouring reviews on YouTube and Goodreads, and if I liked that particular book, seeking out other books with similar themes. I care more about diversifying my bookshelf, and seeking out stories from authors who don’t have the same identity or experiences as me. (And I especially care more about reading reviews of those books by people who do share that identity.)

But I will admit, it’s fun to keep track of how many books I’m able to read in a month, and by the end of the year, how many pages, words, etc. It’s fun to be able to point at those numbers and say, “Hey, I did that!” I don’t really have hobbies outside of writing, reading and sewing, so I guess reading statistics are like the bookworm’s version of tracking sports statistics, or going to car shows, or collecting Pokemon cards.

So, here are the books I read in June. The books that pushed me past the half-way mark.

Book #1: The Modern-Day Retelling With a Dash of Drama

“Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.”
(Source: Goodreads)

Thoughts: I don’t usually read romance, but I had heard good things about Ayesha at Last and wanted to give it a try. Plus, the author, Uzma Jalaluddin, is Canadian and the book is set in a Toronto suburb. This modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice offers complex characters that experience intense personal growth and change through budding romances, family hardships and the unspooling of secrets. I loved following Ayesha’s journey as a young woman figuring out her calling in life and wriggling out from her cousin’s shadow. The book is very, very dramatic and long and the villains of the story are so exaggerated in their antagonist ways that they border on caricature status. But as a reader who tends to go for slower and quieter narratives, I definitely embraced this and enjoyed the change of pace. I can’t say that I became a hardcore romance fan after reading this book, but after dipping my toes with Ayesha at Last, I’m more open to it now than before.

Book #2: The YA Lead With Magic and Agency

“With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.”
(Source: Goodreads)

Thoughts: Teen me would have loved With the Fire on High. Growing up, I struggled to connect with my Latino culture and heritage. I sought out books, movies and TV shows featuring Latinx characters to help me learn and feel a better connection, to understand the different cultures and countries under the wide umbrella of Latinx identity. I don’t really have to tell you that the pickings were slim, and often riddled with stereotypes. So I’m very very happy to see more Latinx authors in the spotlight today, writing stories that are going to resonate with readers of all ages. I also would have loved this book (and loved reading it as an adult for this reason) because Emoni has so much agency and really chooses what’s right for her, even when it goes against the grain of what others expect of her. I also loved the touches of magical realism sprinkled throughout the story, as seen with Emoni’s magical gift of transferring memories and emotions through her cooking. I think magical realism in YA literature is going to grow in popularity over the next few years, and Elizabeth Acevedo is setting a very high standard on how to masterfully integrate it.

Book #3: The Unputdownable Study of Suburbia & Motherhood

“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules. Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.”
(Source: Goodreads)

Thoughts: Holy smokes, I LOVED LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. I can’t believe it took me this long to read it. Little Fires Everywhere is about a lot of things. Motherhood, adoption, pregnancy, racism, classism, privilege, and how they each intersect with one another. I love when a book can make me love or hate a character with a burning passion, and my god did I loathe Elena Richardson. She made it so easy to root for Mia and Pearl, who I adored regardless.

Another thing I love? Omniscient narrators. This book absolutely benefited from this stylistic choice by Ng. This birds-eye view allows you to spy on the characters, to know things about other characters that they themselves don’t know, and to see into their future. Almost like you’re an anonymous neighbour down the street, carefully keeping tabs on the whereabouts and happenings of everyone around you.

Book #4: The One that Made Me Reflect

“Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”
(Source: Goodreads)

Thoughts: Before I gave my own rating of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on Goodreads, I read through some of the reviews. And you know what? I’m mad. Some reviewers call the book overrated simply because they don’t like the writing style. It’s too slow, the dialogue is too simple, too realistic, nothing happens, and the most irritating of all: it has no plot. Sure, maybe some of these qualms are valid. The pacing is slow and the story doesn’t follow a predictable narrative arc. But I worry that when reviewers focus on the writer’s style–and not how it has the power to provide comfort to its readers, how it has the potential to make a kid say, “Hey, that’s me!”–they will turn readers away. Readers who may otherwise love or need a story like this.

All of this is to say: I enjoyed this book. And I actually liked the writing style, but that wouldn’t have changed my rating anyway. I like how Benjamin Alire Sáenz portrays a realistic and loving family dynamic and shows how family secrets can take a vast and unending tole. I loved the bits of humour (Ari’s repetitive use of the word shit had me giggling a few times) interspersed between the dark moments and growing pains that Ari and Dante endure together.

Thinking back on my earlier days of reviewing books, I have probably been guilty of giving a low rating because I didn’t like the writer’s style. But moving forward, I want to be more careful and critical when I rate and review books. Just because something isn’t for me, or for you, it doesn’t mean that someone else out there won’t love it.

Thanks for reading! What did you read in June?

P.S. Have you seen my new blog header? Hope you like it.

Find me elsewhere:
Instagram
Twitter
Goodreads

Reading Diaries: The “Favourite Book of the Year” Frontrunner

I recently discovered the joys of reading e-books. I figured, I spend so much time on my phone anyway, I might as well do something more productive with it than watching The Office bloopers on YouTube.

As a result, I’ve been reading a lot more than I usually do–on my commute to and from work, before bed, when I wake up, any spare moment I get, really. I’m always worried that strangers on the train will judge me for being yet another commuter glued to their phone, avoiding all human interaction. But I remind myself that reading is a part of how I take care of my mental health, how it helps me, and how it keeps me motivated to keep working on my own book.

So, here’s what I read in May. It’s a short list compared to what most bloggers accomplish in a month, but I’m trying.

Book #1: The “Favourite Book of the Year” Frontrunner

Thoughts: Apologies in advance to every other book I read this year. It’s going to be very hard to top The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It had all of the weirdly specific tropes that I live for. Made-up celebrities who feel so real. Unconventional storytelling. Feels-like-a-movie kind of writing. As I devoured the book, I couldn’t help but imagine who would play each of the characters in the movie adaption. (I really hope there will be one!) Through the main character, Evelyn, Jenkins Reid writes at length about the life of a bisexual movie star whose sexual identity is suppressed under the restrictive societal norms of the past. It was very refreshing to encounter a book with bisexual representation, as I find (at least in the books I read) this identity is not explored too often in literature.

Summary: Aging and reclusive actress Evelyn Hugo (think: Marilyn Monroe levels of fame and beauty) invites Monique, an emerging magazine writer, to pen her biography. But as Evelyn begins to share her life story, revealing deeply personal secrets and stories that she has never shared publicly before, it becomes clearer that the odd pairing have a deeper connection that changes everything.

Book #2: The Dark YA That Could Totally Be a Movie

Thoughts: I loved reading Keep This To Yourself by Tom Ryan for a number of reasons. 1. Ryan is agented by Eric Smith, a literary superstar who has helped publish an amazing list of books (so I knew this one would be just as stellar) 2. The book has major Canadian vibes, and took me back to my trips to Halifax. It’s hard to capture that kind of coastal vibe, but Ryan does it so well. I could smell the salty caves, hear the thrashing water and picture the farmlands so vividly. 3. The thriller kept me guessing and guessing, and I kept getting proven wrong every time! I’m usually pretty good at guessing twists and reveals, but this one really stumped me along the way. (Also, this book very much fits into the “reads-like-a-movie/TV show” category. I can see it being a hit with Riverdale fans.)

Summary: In the seaside town of Camera Cove, Mac Bell is determined to uncover the identity of the Catalog Killer–the serial killer who claimed four victims a year ago. The victims include Mac’s best friend, Connor, who left behind a cryptic note before his murder, leading Mac on a twisty adventure to solve the crimes that unraveled his small community.

Thanks for reading! What did you read in May? What’s your favourite book you’ve read so far this year?

I Was About to Quit Writing. And Then This Happened.

The time has come for me to finally write the blog post I have been waiting to write, for what feels like my entire life.

I started writing this blog post four months ago. The original ending was far different than the one it has eventually ended up with. Twenty-five revisions and many hours of self-doubt spirals later, I’m finally ready to share what has been going on in my life.

I’ve struggled with anxiety since early childhood. Irrational fears, paranoia and worry have been a guiding force in my life. I have pretty much always lived as though a piano were about to fall from the sky and crush me. My anxiety occupies a large part of my brain, leaving very little room for things that make me happy. For me, anxiety is the default, the switch inside my brain that is always turned on. It has stolen many life experiences from me – things like hanging out with friends, roller coaster rides, family get togethers, or even having a well-balanced diet.

Anxiety has also played a huge role in my struggle to keep a blog, and on a more detrimental scale, my struggle to write a book as I’ve always dreamed of doing.

Many people in my life know me as a writer, and many have put a lot of faith in me to write a book. For that, I’m truly thankful. Most children with artistic tendencies have their dreams squashed early on, long before they even have the chance to flourish. That was never the case for me. My teachers, friends and family, especially my mum and my grandparents, have always always championed me from the moment I declared that I wanted to be the next J.K. Rowling, no matter how lofty that dream was. Growing up, my grandparents collected and documented almost every piece of writing that I created throughout the years; my mum made sure that I always had a notebook in my possession.

But the truth is that writing, above everything, has coexisted with my anxiety to the point where I’ve struggled to separate the two. My struggle with anxiety has permeated every aspect of my life, and writing is no exception. In fact, it is the part of my life that my anxiety loves to feast on the most. Anxiety is the goblin on my shoulder telling me I can’t do it, that I’m a failure, that nobody is listening, that everything I come up with sounds horrible, that people will laugh at me and what I have to say. I had so much anxiety wrapped around my ultimate goal of writing a book, that all of my self worth, identity and what little confidence I had became tangled in this toxic mix. For every word I wrote, a pain would grow bigger in my stomach, a train would barrel through my mind telling me I can’t do it. I put so much stock in me becoming a writer, that when I failed to produce the results I wanted, I ultimately felt like I had failed at my only purpose in life. The one thing I was remotely good at.

Of all the things that anxiety has stolen from me, writing a book has felt like one of the biggest losses. To me, writing was more than a dream or a career. Writing was always going to be my way of helping others by making them feel happy or hopeful, to bring misfits and outsiders to life. Writing was my way of releasing the characters that banged on every surface of my brain.

Everything came to a head in October 2018. I started writing a book following a few characters very dear to me, but I couldn’t get past Chapter One. The failure train kept barreling through my thoughts, persuading me to hit backspace on my words over and over again.

My anxiety had always been bad, but this time I knew something was really wrong, and it went far beyond my lack of confidence in my writing. Not a week would go by when I wasn’t calling myself a failure, putting myself down and reducing myself to tears. For weeks, I endured migraines, nausea, vomiting, and memory problems. My body was at war with my mind. This went beyond the writing problem – the anxiety was impairing my ability to function in every aspect of my life, to the point where I’d be writhing on the couch every night without any explanation for the source of my worry. The mental pain had manifested physically and it was never more apparent to me than during this time that I needed help – not just in that moment, but a long time ago.

I knew that if I didn’t make a change then, I would spiral even further downward. So, with the help of my family, my amazing husband, friends, and a new doctor, I got the help that I so desperately needed. It has been seven months since I made big changes in my life to help cope with anxiety. In this time I have seen a change, not just in my mental health, but also in my day to day life. I began to do better at work, pursued creative projects I’d always wanted to but never had the confidence to, and I started to carve out time to just breathe and enjoy my life.

Despite taking this pivot, I was still lacking the confidence to pursue writing. Because even after taking a big step in coping with my anxiety, I wasn’t about to blossom into a new person over night. Over the years, the anxiety had done an outstanding job at chipping away at my self-worth – and it wasn’t going to be easy to build it back up.

I was on the verge of distancing myself from writing, veering on quitting completely. I had convinced myself that I needed to accept this failure, move on with my life and pretend my writing dream never happened. I drafted this blog post with the intention of gently sharing that I was “taking a break” from the path that many hoped and expected me to pursue. I needed to give up on my dream because I just wasn’t good enough.

But one weekend while visiting my grandparents, my grandma (we call her Mingo) told me that recently, while watching television, she felt compelled to write me a letter. She said that I didn’t need to read it and that it probably didn’t make sense. So naturally, it made every bit of sense in the world.

The letter read:

My dearest Nadya,

I have been going through my photos and documents and I came upon “Ivory” that you wrote for Buelo. You have such a wonderful gift when you write a story. The reader cannot wait to turn the page to see what is coming next.

Please listen to me: life gets in the way of our dreams and hopes of what we expect from life. DO NOT let this happen to you – or else one day you’ll wake up and say to yourself, “Why didn’t I pursue my dreams?”

Do not put your writing on the back burner – keep it alive – so you can give the world the gift of finding the hope, laughter, love, and sadness that is in your writing.

I do not know if you realize there is something special about you – I don’t believe you have the confidence in believing in yourself yet.

But I know this will happen. Please don’t leave this discovery too long.

I love you and I am so proud of you.

Love,

Mingo

That little letter, handwritten by my grandmother while she was probably watching The Voice, stopped me from hitting “publish” on the original version of this blog post. And honestly, in a way, it probably saved me from shutting the door on my dream forever.

Without knowing it, my grandma re-wrote the middle of my story, gently veering me down a path towards a very different ending. For the first time in seven months, I re-read Chapter One and realized that I am not a failure. That I do have something inside me, that I have something to say.

As a person with a mental illness, I know that my trajectory in life will never be simple. I will always have anxiety, no matter what steps I take to continuously get better. There are still bad days and very bad days, days when I don’t want to leave the house. The difference is that now, there are far more good days, the kind that give me the permission to just be.

My grandma was right. I don’t want to abandon this dream. I want to try again – one last time – and see where it takes me. I not only owe it to my family who has done everything in their power to one day see my name on the cover of a book, but also to myself. Because I have gone through way too much to simply harbour everything I’ve felt – the sadness, the joy, the pain, and ultimately, the feeling of hope that I want to pass on to others.

I’ve come to appreciate the time that I have on this planet and what I do with it. I often think about my very last moment on earth. If I look back on my life, what will I see? Will I regret it?

I don’t want to see the young woman crumpled on her couch with a goblin on her shoulder. I want to see the girl who got up, again and again.

I feel hopeful about Chapter Two – whenever that may begin.