Books

That Thing We Call A Heart Review

To preface my review, I’d never heard of this book or any reviews prior to reading the story so I was going in very blind. I saw it on the new books shelf in the YA section, picked it up and brought it home. I don’t have a long winding prologue for this review, this is all I could muster today, so I’m going to jump into the book review.

That Thing We Call a Heart is by Sheba Karim and was published May of this year. The novel follows Shabnam Qureshi during her last summer at home before college. She is at odds with her best friend, Farah, after Farah decided to wear the Muslim headscarf without consulting Shabnam. With a bleak summer ahead of her because of this estrangement, Shabnam is not excited for the season, until she meets Jamie. After he gets Shabnam a job at his Aunt Marianne’s pie shack, Shabnam beings to fall in love with Jamie, likening their relationship to the rose and the nightingale from classic Urdu poetry. As the summer progresses, begins to reconnect with Farah, but she mistrusts Jamie, which increases tension.

Generally, YA contemporary romances are more character driven novels, which is fine; this simply means the characters have to be enjoyable to read about. That Thing We Call a Heart was sorely lacking in this department. I strongly disliked Shabnam, I  felt she was selfish and uninteresting; she was a terrible friend and came across as way too immature for someone about to enter college. Jamie was also just a crummy character; though I will say I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be written this way. Part of the plot, is Farah’s dislike and distrust of Jamie, soI wondered if Jamie was written as shady to give reason for this negativity.

While this would make sense, it weakened the romance of the novel. Shabnam was all-in immediately and it felt like insta-love, which is frustrating with a romance novel. What makes this even more confusing was the general lack of romance presented. It is confusing that Shabnam was so heavily in love with Jamie when the relationship was so weak as written, it was just so incredibly unbelievable and uninteresting.

Honestly, I was going to give this book two stars because of how weak the romantic story was and the atrocious characters, but Farah and the last 20-30 pages saved it for me. As I’d noted several times, Shabnam was egocentric most of the novels 300 pages, but experienced considerable character growth during the last chapters that earned back a star. The last third of the book also had a lot more of Farah’s story (though still not much) which made things better for me.

Honestly, I wish this story was about Farah. I think there were a lot of unanswered questions that were presented about Farah’s life and we kept being told that we’d come back to it, but we never did! That drove me crazy, particularly because Farah was the only redeeming character in this story. If I could give any advice for Karim’s next project, it would be please write a story about Farah.

On a more positive side, I love how Karim presented how a devout Muslim isn’t what people often assume they are. Farah, who took her faith seriously, still smoked weed and dressed in a modest, but eclectic style, and still kept with her faith. I think seeing greater diversity in the presentation of Muslims is important as it helps people realize their is more than one way to be a devout Muslim, just as there is for all faiths.

I also enjoyed the introduction of Partition. I know little about Partition, or the division of India into Pakistan and India; it wasn’t discussed much in my history classes and I’ve almost never seen it in books. My only knowledge of this time period is from quick snippets in films I’ve watched. Karim’s discussion of it in the book and how easy it was to believe Shabnam’s lie about it, shows just how little people know about a pivotal moment in fairly recent history. It made me want to learn more about it. While I didn’t find this to be an enjoyable romance, I thought it showcased important elements of history that will hopefully have readers looking to find out more about Partition.

TL;DR: Overall, a fairly weak story, with unlikeable characters and a shoddy romance. On a positive side, presented an often unseen picture of devout Muslims, who break “from the norm.” 3 out of 5 stars.

 

Books

The Crystal Ribbon Review

This book is one where I fell prey to a beautiful spine and then the gorgeous cover immediately after plucking it from the shelves. I am glad I picked it up as it expanded several horizons I didn’t even know existed.

The Crystal Ribbon takes place in medieval China and follows the story of 11-year-old Jing. She has a difficult life, in her small village of Huanan, where she is picked on by the local children for the similarity her name shares with the towns deity, the Great Huli Jing. Because her family is incredibly poor, when a wealthy family offers to buy her to be the daughter-in-law/nursemaid to their young son, her family jumps at the opportunity. Jing is against this marriage, but her cruel aunt forces her to do it anyway and her father fails to stand against his sister. Jing is sent to live with the new family where she is treated even worse than before. Despite this, Jing promises to return home and the story follows her journey to finding herself and her way back to Huanan.

I enjoyed The Crystal Ribbon a lot. Jing was a strong, female lead who stood on her own two feet throughout the story, never acting or being treated as a damsel in distress. I rarely come across novels that focus on women or young girls going on journeys to find themselves, and I loved the book for this. Jing goes through a lot of hardship, but it doesn’t make her cruel, it doesn’t harden her soul, it simply steels her will. I genuinely loved seeing this in a story. Too often, women who have struggled are shown to become vicious and that isn’t always the case. So, that was a refreshing component of the story.

I also loved how much I learned about Chinese culture from the story. Initially, I was confused by the Chinese mystical creatures, jings, because they weren’t immediately explained with great depth, but I found their role in the story compelling. These creatures play an important role in the book as they provide companionship and support to Jing during her journey. Previously, I was not aware these spirits existed or what role they played in medieval Chinese culture so this was really interesting to read.

Another shocking discovery was what tong-yang-xi was. Several of the reviews I read that disliked the book argued they were uncomfortable with the level of negativity and violence, both physical and emotional, Jing experienced. While I can understand that this may be difficult to read, it would be poor form for authors to write only about positive things. Lim wrote an honest and well-researched novel. The reality is that many young girls would experience this kind of harsh treatment from family. Tong yang xi was a very real practice in Chinese history, and not writing about it because it is difficult to read would be wrong.

Reading about Jing experiencing this was appalling, but it made me want to learn more about tong yang xi. Though I trusted Lim’s research and account of Jing’s experiences (though fictional, they are based in truth), I wanted to find out more from a non-fiction source. Indeed, I found the practice continued even into the twentieth century despite the creation of marriage laws in China, though it occurred in rural areas where it is much more difficult to police.

I think people downrating the story because they don’t like this reality is unfortunate and a little ridiculous. Though I don’t agree with the practice, I’m glad Lim brought it to light in The Crystal Ribbon. I had no idea this occurred and I’m sure I am not the only one who was shocked to learn this.

However, I do have negatives about the story as well. For this book being rated as middle grade, it seemed to have more adult themes that make me wary giving it to a younger audience. If you were to have a child read this book, I would only recommend it to kids with a maturity level greater than that of their age.

Additionally, I felt for Jing being 11, she spoke with a vocabulary beyond the knowledge and education of a child her age and wealth. This did take me out of the story a little but not enough to have a significant impact on my reading pace. Moreover, when it came to Jing’s age I had a difficult time keeping track of her aging. She started out at 11 and then suddenly she was 13 a few pages later. The progression of time was confusing and difficult to keep up with.

Overall, for a debut novel, I think the plot was well -executed, -researched, and -written. I am looking forward to reading another novel by Celeste Lim.

TL;DR The Crystal Ribbon featured a strong, female lead who goes on a journey to find herself and return home. Some of the subject material may be too mature for a middle grade audience despite being rated to them. 4/5 stars.

Books

“And I Darken” Review

I will say this about Kiersten White's novel, And I Darken, it has a beautiful cover. I'm not gonna lie, I'm a hypocritical reader. I often tout the age-old adage "don't judge a book by it's cover" yet here I am, a judger of covers. There were two main reasons I picked up this stunning hardback, the first because it was making its rounds on booktube and the YA reading blog-o'sphere and the second, I love a book with a gorgeous cover.

As mentioned countless times already it seems, I'm a flawed human. I love a book with a nice cover, and the best covers are the books that tend to break my heart. I am so torn over this book. Its like I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I am also invested enough that I want to read the sequel. Ultimately, I ended up giving the book three stars on Goodreads because I just didn't know what to do. I didn't hate it, but I also didn't love it, so 3 felt like a solid middle ground.

To provide some background on the story in case you don't know about it: Lada Dragwlya and her younger brother, Radu, are traded to the Ottoman empire as collateral to keep her father, the Prince of Wallachia, under control. While there, the siblings befriend Mehmed, the young and largely irrelevant, middle son of the sultan. Both of these things makes them targets in the court and their lives become a game of survival, with Radu choosing to fight with his mind and Lada, her fists.

And I Darken is the first book in a trilogy with the second novel, And I Rise, released this past June, and the finale of the trilogy to be released the summer of 2018. Its an alternative historical fiction printed in June 2016.

Now for the review: the beginning of the book was pretty dull for me; the first hundred or so pages are told from Lada and Radu's point of view when they're children and though I understand why this was used as a literary device, it was so incredibly boring. I'm honestly not sure how I finished the book, I mean I was 136 pages in and I still didn't know if I liked it yet or not. Lada is an anti-heroine in this book and I love having someone bad to root for. But Lada is annoying, and it seems as though White is trying to portray her as intelligent but she seemed largely ignorant and thoughtless. Radu on the other hand was shown to be conniving and far-thinking despite him being a bit of a weakling.

I didn't really like Mehmed, he was a primary character despite never seeing his point of view. He was selfish and irritating and much of the novel revolved around him which was off-putting. I would switch back and forth between liking him and hating him. He just sucked which to be fair he had in common with most of the characters. Character-wise, I found myself supporting Radu mostly because he was the least awful. Again Lada is an anti-heroine, but if its well written I should still want to support her that fact be damned.

White did a fairly decent job laying the ground work for their growing roles in Mehmed's political life as they grew older. I would say the book would be better served by having it split into two distinct parts. The first 200 pages would stand as part one, the introduction of characters and a making of a considerable sacrifice. Despite being catered to a young adult audience, the first half read more like a middle grade novel, whereas, the next 200 pages felt more young adult and contained most of the action and character development.

A considerable majority of the book lacked action to the point I was practically catatonic when it appeared in spades on page 376, three-quarters into the book. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Nevertheless, the way the book ended hooked me enough to want to read the sequel, so lets hope this next book picks up before page 300. Something this novel failed to accomplish.

If you read it, what did you think?