From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless, and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle
Jesse Thistle’s account of drug addiction is scalding and downright painful. I winced repeatedly throughout his story; his voice is so raw and uncomfortable that my skin was crawling. How can someone be on the brink of destruction for so long and come out on the other side? Jesse was abandoned by his parents and lived with his brothers in foster care for a short time before finally ending up with grandparents. Jesse’s cycle of alcohol and drug addiction leaves him homeless and struggling on the streets of Canada. The memoir focuses on the trauma and shock of his downward spiral. It’s unsettling but a vivid portrayal of poverty and addiction. I wish more time was given to the story of his recovery. Jesse’s redemption and the awakening of his Metis heritage is a brief wrap-up at the very end of the memoir and doesn’t bring the reader to a full circle understanding of who he becomes in the end. This memoir is searing but I wanted a little more understanding of how he was able to turn things around by becoming a scholar, fully enveloped in the richness of his Indigenous culture. Prepare yourself to squirm; this one is cringy and downright guttural at best, but a worthy read nonetheless – a glimpse into the abyss.
I expected to fly through this and then gush over it with my other book friends but instead, I slogged through for weeks and found myself avoiding it entirely. It starts with an engrossing love story between Ifemelu and Obinze as young Nigerians. Ifemelu heads to America with the plan for Obinze to join her, and things don’t happen as they intend. Ifemelu is faced with what it’s like to be Black in America and begins writing a blog. Her reflections on race, culture, identity, and immigration are thought-provoking and eye-opening. She writes about what it’s like to be Black in Nigeria versus in America. When Adichie leads with her characters, the book is amazing. When she strays and takes on commentary, it gets choppy, long, and burdensome. Her heavy introspection forces the plot away from the characters and loses the beautiful story-telling that captured my interest early in the book. I longed for Ifemelu and Obinze to tell more of their story but by the end, the momentum crashed and burned. It ended up feeling like a set of disconnected short stories with a thin thread of commonality that never created anything whole.
This duology is a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in Shanghai in the 1920s. Two major gangs run the city and are constantly embroiled in a longstanding blood feud. Juliette Cai, recently returned from America, is the heir to the Scarlet Gang while her childhood friend and once-flame, Roma Montagov, is heir to the Russian White Flowers gang. A sickness creeps into Shanghai, one that causes people to claw their own throats out, and as gang members on both sides fall to this new rival, both Juliet and Roma struggle to find answers. Is it contagion or a monster lurking beneath the darkness of the Huangpu River? Roma and Juliette have to put aside their differences and work together to save their city. The sexual tension between these two is fire. They feign hatred for one other with intensity but then can’t tear away from each other’s eyes; a single brush of a fingertip sends them reeling back to a time when they cared for each other deeply, and family feuds didn’t matter. The push-pull of attraction is satiating. I love how Chloe Gong immerses this story of love and yearning amidst themes of colonization, identity, and culture. Juliette is Chinese and returns only to find that she feels like an outsider in her own home country as foreigners have taken over the city. Roma is torn between loyalty to his family and the violent path they’ve carved out versus loyalty for people he loves regardless of gang ties. The setting is lush with bright lights and seedy, dark alleys, filth and fringe, holstered guns and flapper dresses, gritty streets and golden decadence, and you can’t help but feel part of the city. I didn’t love the ending; it was a hodge-podge of too many things, and it felt a little rushed but still a gorgeous young adult blend of sweeping classic elements and intricate modern drama.
I want to snuggle this book; it’s so warm and fuzzy. This is definitely going on my favorites pile for many reasons. I finished it and couldn’t stop smiling. Linus Baker is a rule follower, and he lives an ordinary, lonely life with a cat. He’s employed as a children’s case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and he takes his job very seriously. Linus is charged with inspecting orphanages and making sure the children are “safe” and well-cared for. Due to his extreme sense of duty and strict adherence to rules, Linus is sent on a special, highly classified assignment to Marsyas Island where he meets a peculiar group of magical children that test his limits, his patience, and everything in between. Each child has a fascinating magical ability that humans fear, and Linus begins to wonder if the government wants the children protected or hidden. Mysterious and magnetic, Arthur Parnassus is the caretaker, and in his steadfast dedication to the children of Marsyas, he also helps usher Linus into a new understanding of what it really means to protect them when rule-following doesn’t always shape up to be fair. The message in this book is so universally comforting and seamlessly blended that although it’s set in a fantasy world, it feels like it’s real and completely applicable now. The humor is injected into this book in just the right places, and I chuckled, giggled, and laughed out loud all the way through. I don’t think I could dare pick a favorite child of Marsyas, but Lucy is especially darling as the Antichrist. Don’t be fooled by this sweet review; this book is not a breezy beach read. It’s brimming with tough conversations about hate, prejudice, and the bystander effect. In our world where differences are feared and hatred abounds, T.J. Klune finds a way to leave readers with a little hope. Look for the light in folks and focus on that shimmer; there are joyful parts to our differences, and you can’t help but grin when you see them shining on these pages.
Adapted from a popular video series, “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man,” Emmanuel Acho, former NFL player and sports analyst, lays out an accessible explanation of systemic racism for younger readers. The format of the book and casual conversational quality make it more approachable and easy to understand. He covers a wide range of topics that lend insight into what it’s like to be Black in America including relevant terminology, historical context, cultural appropriation, use of the N-word, voter suppression, etc. Although I don’t feel like his book is covering anything radically new in the realm of antiracism, the style feels fresh, and his call to action is perfect for younger audiences.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a champion for women, and her research is thought-provoking on many levels. Her candor is revealing and challenges perspectives on immigration and women’s rights. Ali uses staggering statistics and mounds of data to present her argument that the increase in sexual violence against women in Europe is linked to increases in immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Stringent gender roles, polygamy, and a lack of legal protection for women all contribute to oppressive ideology. Ali points out how European women are changing their behavior by avoiding certain locations and types of transportation to ensure they don’t become victims of sexual violence. European leaders are afraid to discuss the connection for fear of being labeled racist or xenophobic. Subways offer female-only cars. Parks offer benches for women exclusively. Cafes and bars in parallel community neighborhoods consist of all-male Muslim patrons who sometimes intimidate female citizens if they try to enter. As Muslim asylum-seekers flood into Europe, attacks against women have escalated. Ali asserts that Europeans are putting their heads in the sand instead of facing down a problem that is slowing eroding women’s rights and changing society’s attitudes toward women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an immigrant herself, raised in Somalia and having suffered from genital mutilation, she does not advocate against immigration but instead believes that asylum seekers should be required to assimilate into the societies they wish to join. Young Muslim men, as the primary demographic for asylum seekers, must be taught that European culture gives voice and equal protection to women, and they must integrate into this type of society or be denied entry. They will have women colleagues in the workplace, women as bosses, and women in public, dressing as they please. Ali believes that immigration laws have become too loose, and both legal and illegal immigrants have little to fear when seeking refuge in Europe. Ali’s research, while unpopular and contradictory amidst liberal values, has given voice and legitimacy to a concern that has dire implications for European women and sets off warning bells for Americans.
Typically we like to pack in as much culture and sight-seeing as possible, but with this trip, we decided to maximize laziness to its full potential. We chose an adults-only all-inclusive resort with no intent on leaving the pool/beach except for eating and sleeping. We fulfilled our goals, drank a lot, ate a lot, and learned almost nothing about Mexico. It's what we needed this year.
The first issue we encountered was our transfer from Cancun International Airport to the Valentin. We were ushered outside and had to stand in the sweltering heat for over 45 minutes until our van arrived. The driver kept telling us it would be ten more minutes which eventually led to an eternity dripping with sweat. Our flight arrived about fifteen minutes early, so we expected to have to wait, but everyone was tired and hungry (total of three couples) with the heat pushing us over the edge. It wasn't a great start.
The hotel more than made up for it once we arrived. It's gorgeous: lush grounds, lizards everywhere, flowers blooming around every corner, and incredibly friendly staff. We stayed in the Deluxe Junior Sweet which is the base level accommodation and was fine for our needs. The property is expansive, and they have staff zipping golf carts along the paths willing to take you anywhere at any time.
The pools are exquisite. We spent very little time on the beach simply because there's so much to do at the pool: huge bars, lots of space to float around, a wild, party side, and a calmer, quieter side. They have various exercise classes happening in the main pool and events including a Michael Jackson impersonator, a mechanical bull, and many other hilarious and entertaining diversions. There's also a pool with a lazy river.
Bar service was great everywhere. The pool bars have all sorts of fun festive drinks and shots, and we tried tons of them. We especially loved the atmosphere at Don Miguel. One night, the piano player took requests, and the guy can literally play EVERY SONG. He plays just by hearing it in his headphones; it was incredible.
This bar also serves some interesting cocktails like this pictured cucumber martini. The wild ones include a flaming coffee drink that the servers pour from overhead as the flames shoot up the trail of the liquid. We also tried the cotton candy cocktails they serve with a puff of the fluffy stuff on top before dissolving it down to a perfectly sweet but not overpowering blend.
Although we did resolve to stay as lazy as possible, I did sneak away for one quick mini-excursion. Three of us did a quick two-hour snorkel led by the hotel's excursion company located near the main pool. We boarded a boat directly off the hotel beach, and they took us to a reef nearby. It was the perfect amount of time, affordable, and in beautiful, clear water. We saw sea stars, a giant conch shell, and colorful fish. It was well-worth it to break up the pool time.
Ultimately, we had a blast. The negatives weren't enough to take away from our fabulous time. I don't know that we'd stay here again, but we enjoyed it immensely and wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Valentin.
Mexican Gothic is reminiscent of an atmospheric Scooby Doo mystery set in Mexico but without the canine hijinks. The thing is...I like Scooby Doo. I really do, but it’s also corny and campy. This is how I feel about Mexican Gothic; I liked it but found the mystery reveal to be a little too absurd and not in line with the rhythm and feel of the first half of the book. Peel off the mask and jinkies, it’s Mr. Howell, the grounds caretaker!
Noemi is living life as a quintessential debutante in 1950s Mexico when her father receives a bizarre letter from her newly married cousin, Catalina, who is clearly unwell. Concerned, Noemi travels to an old, foreboding mansion called High Place to check on her welfare. High Place is cold, dreary, run-down, and staffed by strange people with even stranger rules. Catalina married into the Doyle family, a once powerful and wealthy empire in the mining industry. The family has a long, troubling reputation in their small, countryside village, and rumors swirl about murder and madness. Seduced by the lure of the old house and the puzzling darkness of the Doyle family, Noemi desperately tries to figure out why Catalina won’t or can’t leave only to find herself becoming more and more like a prisoner herself. The Doyle patriarchs are creepy and disturbing. Moreno-Garcia blends the spooky characterization and setting in a masterful writing style. I was hooked up until …
...the mold. The mold in the walls of the house takes on a life of its own, and at first this is pretty fascinating. The house is oozing with decay and a sinister, pulsing dampness that makes it seem alive. I was so excited to see where the author would go with this. Is the mold causing the family’s madness? Will it absorb Noemi and trap her there forever like the rest of this macabre family? Then things take a left turn, and I’m done. I can get on board with evil fungus, but Moreno-Garcia takes the story down a path that crosses into eleventy-billion themes including immortality, rotting old men, eugenics, gender roles, romance, and transmigration. Uncle Howard is decomposing along with High Place - disgusting and perfect for a Gothic horror, but not when it’s jumbled together with all of these other wild plot elements. Uncle Howard and Virgil dabble in theories of natural selection and eugenics – gripping but covered so briefly that it loses steam and feels like a sideshow to the main event. The big reveal at the end was so off the charts that it bordered on ludicrous thus the Scooby-Doo comparison. As much as I enjoy Noemi as one of those “darn meddling kids,” the ending was just too preposterous.
Read it, but prepare yourself to suspend belief on many levels. The characterization and imagery are flawless, and it’s a solid spooky read with some interesting commentary on humanity. “Scooby Doo taught us that the real monsters are humans...and if that isn’t deep, I don’t know what is.”
Get this one on your shelf book friends! I may be a convert. I’ve always complained about verse novels, and here I am falling in love with another one. Home is Not a Country took my breath away, and now Clap When You Land revived me. Rich with sadness, longing, loss, and the complexities of being a young adult dealing with tragedy and trauma, this book is a powerhouse. A father dies in a plane crash on his way to the Dominican Republic. Two daughters mourn his tragic death – one in New York City and one in the Dominican. Each girl doesn’t know the other exists until they start piecing things together. In their grief, they find ways to deal with their anger and find forgiveness, family, and each other. Elizabeth Acevedo paints a picture of two very different settings, both colorful and charming. I love how each character tells her story in the back-and-forth chapters, slowing coming to grips with this new reality and the blank spaces that used to be filled with a father’s presence. It’s a really touching story of how ties bind people together in often bittersweet, unplanned ways.
There There by Tommy Orange
This contemporary novel reveals the voices of twelve different Native characters living in Oakland, California as each struggles to come to grips with his or her identity, history, and heritage while living in an urban community. Tommy Orange interweaves the experience of modern urban Natives with the calling of tradition as all of the characters make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. They’re all connected in one way or another and reflect the true complexity and variety of Native culture. I really could not get into this. I appreciated the overall theme of the book, but felt disoriented by the shallow characterization and lack of historical background. For example, one of the characters discusses her experience during the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, and I was completely lost. I don’t know enough about this historical event and felt adrift because it wasn’t explained. I guess I would have a better appreciation for this one if I had more historical context, and It did inspire me to do some research. There are a lot of characters, and this is a short book. I just couldn’t really connect with them, and it read more like individual short stories than a novel with the exception of the very end when things come together. I think the goal was to show all of the characters’ varied lives and experiences in a modern setting and not focus on history as much, but I still felt disconnected along the way.
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
I simultaneously hated these characters and loved them beyond words. Jayne is a hot struggling mess of a person. She moves from Texas to New York City to attend fashion school bringing a collection of baggage that new scenery can’t shake off. She lives in a dump of an apartment, illegally rented and mostly disgusting. Her boyfriend is a tool who continues to use her, and her friends are inauthentic. She’s honestly just a sad sack with zero motivation to pull herself out of suffering. Her misery is raw. She’s a real character with deep self-loathing and pain that seeps out of the pages like blood from a wound. Jayne is emotionally estranged from her Korean parents and avoids her sister, June at all costs even though she also lives in New York City. She struggles to make sense of the disconnect she has with her culture, her body and the eating disorder she slowly reveals, her sibling bond or lack thereof, and the painful childhood she endured while living in Texas with immigrant parents. June reveals that she has uterine cancer, and Jayne has to come to terms with what this means for her family, her sister, and herself. June lives in a high-rise, has expensive clothes, an impressive city job, and is everything that Jayne is not. June’s cancer diagnosis not only reveals her fragility, but it also gives way to the cracks in her exacting veneer.
Although this is ultimately Jayne’s story, the sisters are each portrayed in all manner of real characterization: good, bad, and sometimes really ugly. They’re each hilarious, vulgar, self-involved, sensitive, impulsive, loving; they’re all of these things and more. I appreciate how the author, Mary H.K. Choi, doesn’t paint each sister in one single hue but rather shows each dappled in her own colors that vary by day and mood like real people are in ordinary life. This book is moody for all the right reasons, and I found it to be odd, repulsive, mesmerizing, and wonderful. It’s unique in a way that it’s not quite comparable to anything else I’ve read, and for that, I’m smitten.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.