Mini Reviews: Heavy and Uplifting

I saw this meme recently and if that doesn’t perfectly describe my reading!

Meme with text in bar at top and an image of Obi-Wan Kenobi, acted by Ewan McGregor, with his hand on his chin lost in thought. Text at top reads "When you're asked for a 'beach read' recommendation but you only read depressing literary fiction"

Image credit: Library Fines

The books below aren’t all literary fiction, or necessarily depressing, but they are quite heavy though there are some uplifting moments too!

Book cover for Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. A Black teenage girl stands in pajamas with a feather in her hand. She is very tall compared to the city she stands in, a purple city block covered with brown buildings.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: YA Fiction
Own voices: Black MC

A thought-provoking and haunting novel about a creature that escapes from an artist’s canvas, whose talent is sniffing out monsters in a world that claims they don’t exist anymore.

I’ve talked about this one a bit before and of course so have many in the book world. It’s the first I’ve read by Emezi and I’m glad to have finally checked out this well-loved author.

This book has an interesting premise in that it takes place after all the ‘monsters’ have been driven out of the town. Kids are taught about how the ‘angels’ of the city led this revolution to drive out evil but many folks avoid directly talking about the kinds of crimes and societal issues that this community has supposedly moved past.

It’s something that feels very recognizable in our present day, with people increasingly calling for awareness and reform regarding issues impacting minoritized groups. Emezi bases the story around an important question, “How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?“, and it’s one that challenges the way we think of our own interactions with our communities.

There are some beautiful lessons here in the importance of community care and the strength people have when they all come together.

Book cover for We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib. Rough silhouettes of people fill up the space in shapes of pinks, orange, and greens.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib
Genre: Memoir | LGBTQ+
Own voices: queer Muslim

A triumphant memoir of forgiveness and family, both chosen and not, We Have Always Been Here is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever felt out of place and a testament to the power of fearlessly inhabiting one’s truest self.

This was my first read of the year and it was incredible. I finished it in two days! It’s a memoir telling the story of the author’s experiences as a queer Muslim, and listening to it as an audiobook in the author’s own voice made it that much more emotive and evocative.

Habib’s recounting of her childhood, conflicts with her family, and threats from extremists can get quite heavy with her descriptions of discrimination and abuse but as the title suggests, her story is ultimately hopeful as she learns more about herself and where in the world she belongs. This is another beautiful story about community and the strength of people finding those with similar experiences and creating a joyful life.

I learned a lot from this book and I’m grateful to have learned more about Habib’s photography projects as well.

Book cover for In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende. Photo of a street covered in snow, barely visible, with a pink flowering tree in the top corner.

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Genre: Literary Fiction
Own voices: Chilean-American

Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.

Well I have to say, I went into this book expecting a much lighter story. This is not that and while I did enjoy the book, it took some time to adjust my expectations.

I’ve heard a lot about Allende and I would really like to read more of her work, even if this one wasn’t stellar for me. That said, I learned a lot about Chile and Guatemala’s history and I appreciated this first-person perspective on the experience of refugees and immigrants coming to America. There’s a lot of trauma in these pages, mostly reflective as this cast of characters share their histories with each other, but it can get quite graphic.

I really liked each of the three characters we get to spend time with and though it’s a traumatic recollection in part, the mystery and intrigue was a humorous addition to the story. By the latter half, it becomes clear that the book is aiming to be a love story but that felt like an odd addition, sticking out from the tone we’d had thus far, so the ending was a bit awkward for me.

I listened to this one on audio and while I enjoyed each narrator, one for the three characters, it was a bit difficult to follow dialogue. Each chapter is from the perspective of one of these characters and so for example the ‘Lucia’ narrator would read the Lucia chapter. However, the Richard and Evelyn’s dialogue within that chapter would also be read by the ‘Lucia’ narrator. I would’ve preferred if the character’s narrator for each could’ve stepped in for their respective dialogue to make it clear who was speaking.

Book cover for Sabrina & Corina. Illustration of a Latina woman looking to the side with her dark hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She wears a black top and a red flower in her fair, with more flowers surrounding her arms. An illustrated heart in the centre of her chest is surrounded by pink flowers and leaves.

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Genre: Short Stories
Own voices: Latina

A haunting debut story collection on friendship, mothers and daughters, and the deep-rooted truths of our homelands, centered on Latinas of indigenous ancestry that shines a new light on the American West.

Short story collections are often a bit of a hit or miss for me but I did mostly enjoy this one, and personally I enjoyed the later stories so it got better for me as it went on.

A lot of the stories were about abuses against women, from extreme physical abuse to systemic discrimination. As I’ve talked about before, this is one of my least favourite topics in books so it turned me off at first, especially as I hadn’t heard this about the stories from all the hype I’d seen for this collection. Still, the author’s strength in writing shines through so they were still enjoyable to read.

One point to mention, there were several uncomfortable uses of outdated terminology relating to Indigenous peoples. I assume part of this is due to the time period the author has set these stories in but I don’t think it was necessary.

Have you read any of these books?
What are some community-centred books you recommend?

Own voices identification based on information made public by author.
Cover images from Goodreads.

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