Swing Time by Zadie Smith | Review

For the past year, it’s seemed almost impossible to have a bookish discussion without somebody mentioning ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith.  Once again, I’m the last person to arrive at this party!

Every review I have read or heard of this novel has been nothing short of glowing, it was just recently announced as being on the long list for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. With that in mind, forgive me if my review seems a little subdued. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, I just don’t seem to have had the same life changing experience as everybody else who read it. Perhaps, I’m just naive, this is a book that’s bursting at the seams with a lifetime of experiences, some of which I can relate to, others that I have yet to experience. If I were to read this book again in a few years, or maybe even one, I have no doubt that I would take something completely different away from it. Already, after only one reading, it’s clear that this is the kind of novel that you can read again and again, each time finding something new.

It is also important to note, at this point, that the story follows the lives of two women of colour, their friendship at a young age and their bond changes, bends and breaks as they grow up. As a white woman, I will never understand the experiences of people of colour, so this book wasn’t written for me.

Zadie Smith’s writing is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Somehow, her writing is simple yet so vivid. She captures the atmosphere of earlier childhood beautifully and the excitement, apprehension and delicacy that comes with new friendships. Swing Time takes place in London, New York and West Africa and Smith captures each place in a way that makes the distinct and separate from one another but when weaved together form a rich and vibrant narrative.

The thing I will take away from this book is the portrayal of friendship as a non-linear thing. As young children, we seem to expect that the friends we make in primary school will stay with us for life when for many people this isn’t the case. Many friendships are not constant, just like everything in life, they ebb and flow. The dynamic between two people changes as their lives do. Sometimes, life events bring them closer, others, it breaks all ties they have for good. Only last week, I realised that I am no longer in contact with anyone I considered a friend before the age of fifteen. In the beginning of the novel, Smith captures that sometimes uneasy relationship that comes from the friendship between young children, the constant impluse to lie to one another and the desperate need to be liked by the other person. Smith really hones in on the role that lying and dishonesty have to play in young friendships and how that can travel through life.

There are aspects of this book that have really stayed with me and inspired me. In a year’s time, I will reread it and hopefully, I will take something new from it.

Have you read ‘Swing Time’? Let me know what you thought in the comments.

 

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz | Review

As I write this post I have only moments ago finished reading ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Usually, I wait until the day after completing a book to start writing a review but I was so excited about this one, just couldn’t wait! With that in mind, I apologise if this review is a little all over the place, I’ll do my best to keep it professional but I have A LOT of feelings! This is the heartwarming coming of age story of two Mexican-American boys finding out about themselves, their sexuality and all the secrets of the universe.

Finding myself in book characters is one of the reasons I love reading so much. In Ari, I feel like I’ve found a character I can really relate to, from the way he has a lot of feelings that he wants to talk about but also hates talking about, to the way he becomes aware of his sexuality so gradually without realising for a long time. There were so many quotes from Ari that really connected to me because I was reading about someone who was articulating things that I have felt for a long time.

My favourite thing about this book is that it was a very typical YA romance story, but with an LGBT+ couple. So often, books about same-sex couples are made and marketed completely differently to books about straight couples. This book, however, was very much a typical coming of age story about two teenage boys, it just so happens that those two boys realise they are in love with each other. That feels like really effective representation when the story could include any couple but is specifically about a gay couple. What was particularly interesting to me was that neither of the boys ever used the word ‘gay’ to describe themselves or each other. Dante says he likes kissing boys but he never labels that. This to me, was a really accurate portrayal of what it’s like to question and realise your sexuality at a really young age. One of my favourite things about this book was they Ari and Dante’s parents realised they were in love with each other before they did! It’s so nice to read about accepting, loving families for a change.

Although this book is classified as a YA novel, it didn’t feel like typical YA to me. Often, I feel that YA authors use many stereotypes when writing teenage characters which can lead to some very cringeworthy reading. All of the characters in this novel felt believable and real. They were flawed but likeable. It was particularly refreshing to read about healthy family relationships and children who respect their parents. When Ari discovers an envelope in one of his mother’s draws, he knows it’s being hidden from him for a reason so he waits for his mother to bring it up in her own time rather than tearing it open herself. Even though Ari and his father don’t have an easy relationship, they both work hard to understand each other.This is an incredibly cinematic book and would make an absolutely beautiful film. Please, please, PLEASE, can somebody adapt this story into a beautiful, coming of age, indie film. The book itself is very dialogue heavy as it is, it almost reads like a screenplay already!

This is an incredibly cinematic book and would make an absolutely beautiful film. Please, please, PLEASE, can somebody adapt this story into a beautiful, coming of age, indie film. The book itself is very dialogue heavy as it is, it almost reads like a screenplay already!

I’m not at all hesitant to say that this is my favourite YA book, and definitely, my favourite read of the year so far! Have you read ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’? Let me know what you thought in the comments, and I’d love to hear recommendations of similar books!

Disability in ‘Everything Everything’ by Nicola Yoon

Last Wednesday, I posted some thoughts on changing my mind about books, particularly ‘Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. When I first read this novel, I raved about how much I enjoyed it and appreciated the representation of people of colour and that it included a character with a disability/chronic health condition. I was uncomfortable with the ending but my love for the rest of the book outweighed that. Since I first posted that review, I’ve thought a lot about the way disability is portrayed and the more I’ve thought about it, the more uncomfortable and upset it has made me.

In ‘Everything, Everything’, Maddie has an immune disorder known as SCID which means she can not go outside or she would become seriously ill. However, at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Maddie never had this condition and she is in fact, perfectly healthy. It is this revelation that allows her to be with her boyfriend and have a ‘happy ending’.

This is an incredibly frustrating trope in literature where a character who is living with a disability is suddenly cured and all their problems are solved. Not only is this a very unrealistic portrayal of people who live with disability/chronic illness (that’s not to say it never happens but many people with a disability or chronic illness will have said condition for the majority if not all of their lives) but it sends the message that people can never be truly happy whilst they have a disability. I can tell you first hand that this simply isn’t the case.

The fact that this kind of representation was included in a Young Adult novel is even more troubling. Young people with disabilities who read novels which contain this kind of representation of people with disabilities will start to believe that having a disability devalues them as people and makes their life less worthwhile. There is so much negativity surrounding disability in the world and for many, literature and fiction is a safe place to turn to where they can feel accepted. How can this be the case for young people with disabilities when they are quite literally erased from stories?

As somebody who has lived with a disability all my life, I completely understand the frustration that comes with having to miss out on things as a direct result of my disability. There is a fine line between not letting your life be defined by your disability and accepting where your limitations are. However, the message of ‘Everything Everything’ is very clearly ‘living with a disability isn’t living’. Maddie is persuaded to leave her house and run away with her boyfriend because he can’t handle dating someone with a disability. Dating and relationships are difficult enough to navigate with a disability, we don’t need books telling us how difficult we are to love.

I genuinely believe Nicola Yoon was trying to portray a character who is not defined by her disability which I really do appreciate – we need more stories like that! However, it’s execution was not successful. I’d be interested to know how much research was done into disability whilst she was writing the book. Did she run this story past anyone with a disability first?

After seeing the trailer, it seems those ableist messages are even more prominent than the film. This is hardly surprising when you realise it was made by the same people who gave us ‘Me Before You’.

What are your thoughts on disability in ‘Everything Everything’? Have you seen the film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Blood Sisters by Jane Corry | Review

*Trigger Warning: This book includes scenes of self-harm and rape.*

There is nothing more exciting to me than getting stuck into a mystery or a thriller. So, when I read the description of ‘Blood Sisters ‘ by Jane Corry about two sisters, fifteen years on from a horrific accident who are being watched and followed by somebody who is desperate for revenge, I HAD to read it.

The story is split between the perspectives of two sisters, Alison and Kitty. Even before knowing all the details of the accident, it is clear that both women have been deeply affected by it. Kitty suffered severe brain damage and is unable to walk and struggles to communicate as a result. Corry was very respectful in her depiction of Kitty and effectively portrayed the character’s frustration at being unable to communicate what she was thinking to those around her. Corry also did a brilliant job at portraying the way people with disabilities are treated so poorly by society. From relatively minor things such as using a patronising tone to bigger issues such as not trusting people with disabilities to care for children.

Unlike thrillers I have read in the past, ‘Blood Sister’s starts off slowly, very slowly. In fact, it wasn’t until I was over halfway through the book that I felt things were beginning to pick up. I know even thrillers can’t be fast paced all the time and, sometimes, a slower narrative is key to building tension, but in this case, the pacing of the story was unnecessarily slow at times.

To me, neither of the girls were very likeable. Alison in particular, I struggled to empathise with from the very beginning and couldn’t understand a lot of the decisions she made. Whilst I don’t know if this was Corry’s intention, it made certain revelations about Alison and her involvement in the story far less shocking for me personally. Having said that, one of my favourite things about the story was the ambiguity between which sister was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I think my dislike for both girls really helped play into that.

Some details of the story felt a little inaccurate. Often when reading fiction, I’m able to suspend a certain amount of disbelief (it is made up, after all!) however, some of these things were founded in reality and were so integral to the plot that I found it difficult to overlook. For example, I didn’t understand why prisoners who were clearly very dangerous were being held in an open (and seemingly minimum security) prison. Granted, I’m no expert in the criminal system, so if I am being unfairly critical, please correct me!

It was completely by chance that I stumbled upon this book so I’d not heard of Jane Corry before. After doing a bit of research, I am curious to read her other book ‘My Husband’s Wife’ as I’ve heard brilliant things about it.

Have you read ‘Blood Sisters’? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

*An early copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher via NetGalley, however, all opinions are my own and I am not being paid for this review*

 

‘Everything, Everything’ by Nicola Yoon | Review

*This review contains spoilers! Proceed at your own risk*

Maddy has been ill her whole life. She is allergic to everything so must spend all day, every day inside. But, when a new family move in next door, Maddy starts yearning for more from her life.

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have a real love/hate relationship with YA literature so I’m relieved and excited to say that I enjoyed ‘Everything, Everything’ by Nicola Yoon. *

There are so many characteristics of YA books that make me roll me roll my eyes but Nicola Yoon managed to deconstruct all of these. For example, a big pet peeve of mine is when teenagers speak to each other as though they are in a Jane Austen novel. To me, it feels like the author has completely misunderstood how teenagers speak and interact with each other. Maddy had a very distinctive style of speaking that could be seen as mature for her age, however, because Maddy spends her whole life at home, reading and researching, it makes sense that her vocabulary would be more advanced.

Of course with any book, there are always going to be aspects you dislike. For me, that came in thr character of Carla, Maddy’s nurse. Her job is to look after Maddy and to make sure she doesn’t become ill. However, Carla arranges for Maddy and Olly to meet and spend time together. Of course I understand why, she wants Maddy to be happy and have as ‘normal’ a life as possible.  Regardless, Carla had a duty of care, to allow Maddy to be in such a potentially dangerous situatuion was irresponsible. I realise the meetings were important to the progression of the narrative but it would have been more believable if they were organized by a friend or sibling.

I was also uncomfortable with the ending. There are so few stories about characters with disabilities or chronic illnesses. It was upsetting that Maddy’s discovery that her illness wasn’t real was seen as part of her happy ending. Personally, I would have found the ending much more realistic and inclusive if Maddy’s story ended with her and Olly living a beautiful life together with Maddy’s illness – trust me, it can be done!

What I loved about this story is that, at the heart, it was a very simple ‘boy meets girl and falls in love’ story.  Coupled with teenage hormones and Maddy’s determination to be more than her illness, it becomes a story of bravery, and experiencing a life full of extremes.

One thing Nicola Yoon demonstrated beautifully was Maddy’s determination not to be defined by her illness. The line “What am I if I’m not ill?” spoke to me in a way so many books featuring characters with disabilities have tried and failed to do.

‘Everything, Everything’ feels like the kind of novel ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was trying to be (that’s not to say TFIOS is bad, it just didn’t work for me). On the whole, representation was better. Maddy and Olly were drawn to each other because of their personalities rather than Maddy’s illness. Maddy is also a person of colour, the fact that this surprised me whilst I was reading made me realise just how white my reading has been recently.

I can’t wait for the film to come out in the UK and to see this wonderful story played out on the big screen.

Me Before You: Representation in Literature

*This post contains spoilers*

 

People with disabilities are one of the most underrepresented minorities in the media, so it was hardly surprising that Jojo Moyes’ best-selling novel ‘Me Before You’ which featured a main character with quadriplegia garnered international media attention. Disability comes in so many forms and every single person is affected by it and deals with it differently. Therefore, it is impossible to represent every experience of disability, however, the portrayal of disability throughout ‘Me Before You’ was troubling in many ways.

Assisted suicide is a difficult topic to discuss and one that should be dealt with care and respect. Unfortunately, this is not how it felt when reading ‘Me Before You’. Will’s choice to end his life was treated as the only possible option. Whilst, the decision itself was not problematic as it was Will’s and Will’s alone to make, it was portrayed as the best thing that a person with a disability could do. Of course, Will’s choice to end his life is valid and this narrative is a reality for many. However, it was portrayed by Moyes as the bravest decision Will could have made, not for himself but for the sake of his loved ones. This further perpetuates the damaging misconception that people with disabilities are a burden on their loved ones.

Much of the promotional campaign surrounding the film was centred around the tagline #LiveBoldly, a direct contradiction to the conclusion of Will’s story. This was clearly a reference to Will leaving large amounts of money for Lou (his girlfriend and carer) with the instruction to live her best life. From this, it is clear this story was written for able bodied readers, Will’s disability was merely a plot device used to invoke reader and audience sympathy for the other characters.

For far too long, people with disabilities have been side lined or erased altogether, often when a person with a disability is featured in books or on screen it is to elevate the able-bodied characters. They are often used to make the able-bodied characters feel grateful that their lives are ‘not as bad’. This idea that disability is a tragic story and a life not worth living is over used and tiring, no one is defined simply by their disability. It’s time we start writing characters with disabilities rather than disabled characters.