A Place for Us: Book Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza published in 2018.

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“A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from. In a narrative that spans decades and sees family life through the eyes of each member, A Place For Us charts the crucial moments in the family’s past, from the bonds that bring them together to the differences that pull them apart. And as siblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar attempt to carve out a life for themselves, they must reconcile their present culture with their parent’s faith, to tread a path between the old world and the new, and learn how the smallest decisions can lead to the deepest of betrayals.”

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This is the first book released under Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, and I don’t think she could have chosen a better debut novel.

This book is divided into four parts. The first part opens up with the wedding of Haida, Layla and Rafiq’s oldest child. Immediately there is tension between the family due to Amar, the youngest in the family, making an appearance after running away three years prior. The second, and by far longest, part takes us back and explains exactly why Amar left, which has a lot to do with his relationship with his strict father. The third part goes back to Haida’s wedding, the reader now having the knowledge of everything that’s happened in the past. Finally, the fourth and in my opinion, the best part, we explore all the past stories that were told in the prior parts of the novel from the fathers perspective. Here, we learn that the hardened exterior that his children witnessed throughout their childhood may have just been a façade for the emotions that he was unsure of how to handle.

The majority of books that I read are very plot centred, and when I say that I mean my main motivation to continue reading is to find out how the plot is going to develop. A Place for Us is a rare exception where I continued reading solely for the characters and how they would continue to develop. I had a genuine interest in all of their lives and really wanted the best for them, almost as if I knew them in real life. Whether you yourself can strongly relate to the characters, each member of the family is portrayed so flawlessly imperfect in such a realistic and authentic manner that you’ll find yourself immensely caring for them.

The novel started off a bit slow for my liking, yet others might view this as a leisurely plot. As I mentioned above part two was the longest, since it covered the better part of the family’s troubles. Yet I felt that some parts dragged on and could have benefited from a bit of light editing. The pace did pick up significantly around part three when family secrets were revealed and past endeavours were exposed. Another small detail that irked me was the transitioning between perspectives so freely. The main point of views switched between Hadia, Amar and Layla, also altering between different periods of their life. Since it was not apparently clear when the POV’s were switching, I was confused and found myself backtracking to figure out whose perspective I was witnessing the story from. These are minor complaints though that can be worked through quite easily.

Mirza, despite being so young, possesses such a unique wisdom and gracefulness about family, religion and culture. Even better, she managed to masterfully weave these together to create the heartbreakingly real narrative of a modern Muslim family living in America. She touches upon the impact of 9/11 as well as the more recent political glutton that is President Trump. The pressures of devoting yourself to religion is what creates the gap between Amar and his father, something I’m sure must be common nowadays. Both the beautiful and cruel aspects of faith are highlighted in this timeless story.

Part four was by far my favourite. Anyone knows that I’m a sucker for the character trope of the strict and hardened authority figure concealing their true emotions, mainly because they don’t know how to express their true emotions. This Rafiq in a nutshell. Throughout the entire novel, the reader saw him through the lens of his children and wife as the uncompromising leader of the family, but part four allows us a glimpse into his mind. Here, we see him struggling to find a balance between his love of Islam and the love of his family, not to mention his almost palpable desperation to connect with his estranged son. It was beautifully written and the perfect way to end this novel.

A Place for Us has the potential to translate so well into a diverse array of cultures and religions. The raw emotions portrayed by Mirza are applicable to each and every one of us. If you’re still unsure about picking up this book, I’ll endorse it for the same reason that I recommended The Hate U Give; if you can’t find something to relate to in this, you’ll definitely find something that you can learn from it.

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Beartown: Book Review

Beartown by Fredrik Backman published in 2017.

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“People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.”

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This novel is the physical embodiment of this vine.

Beartown is the name of a small community that revolves around hockey. The junior boy’s upcoming hockey finals are not only a source of pride and joy but future economic stability. So the weight of an entire town of individuals is on the shoulders of a group of seventeen-year-old hockey playersno pressure though. The star of the junior team is Kevin Erdahl, a hockey phenomenon that is headed straight for the big leagues. This is all until he rapes fifteen-year-old Maya at a party. Oh yeah, to make things worse, Maya is the daughter of the general manager of the hockey club Kevin plays at. The reader watches this town fall apart in the name of the very sport that they claimed brought them together

A hallmark of a good book for me is a great opening line, and Beartown definitely provided this,

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there”

Not only does this provide an element of anticipation and motivation to keep reading, but I love how in the last line Backman uses the word “we”, adding a sense of inclusion, almost like the readers are part of the story. My attention was immediately grabbed and made me excited to continue with this story.

I usually talk about characters, but there are so many people in this book that there really isn’t a main character. Normally this might be confusing and scattered, but in this case, it made the novel more unique since the town itself is taking the role of the protagonist. The citizens within Beartown are so intertwined in each other’s stories that it transcends one single character. The town itself has a heart of its own and therefore leads most of the plot.

I should probably also include a trigger warning for this book. For a book primarily about hockey, it covers some heavy topics such as homophobia and as I mentioned above, rape. Backman handles both topics gracefully though, so if you do have a history with either of these subjects, it still may be worth approaching this book with heightened caution.

For example, there’s an eloquently written line about rape trauma that caught my attention,

“For the perpetrator, rape lasts just a matter of minutes. For the victim, it never stops.”

As if the actual act of rape wasn’t enough, the aftermath was almost as horrifying. Not only do people turn against Maya, but they view Kevin as the victim. I could go on and on about the many ways this book made my blood boil, from people accusing her of lying, to blaming her for everything, and even people consoling his parents. It was the toxic masculinity and unwavering loyalty that had these town folks idolizing a teenage boy simply because he was good on the ice. In their eyes, he could do no wrong, which is extremely frustrating to witness. I found myself physically clenching my fists in angry, and even had to take a break from it so I wouldn’t get myself too worked up.

The reason I was getting so upset is because of how real this situation is. Backman perfectly captured the language people use when discussing rape. I was specifically reminded of the Brock Turner case, and many other situations like this that probably go without a trial. It’s a tragic look into the lives of many women (and men) who are the victims of rape.

Now I will say the story did seem to drag in some places. The actual climatic incident didn’t happen until almost 200 pages in, and even beyond that new characters and plot points were being introduced. The first one hundred pages or so was leading up to the semifinals (the lead up to the actual finals didn’t last nearly as long). So put plainly, some parts of this could benefit from a bit of mild editing, but overall I’m not complaining.

The ending was bittersweet, and that’s the best way I can put it without spoiling anything. I probably wouldn’t have written it any differently; Backman even used the story technique of writing about the characters life ten years in the future. This is a particularly interesting move since he has another novel published called Us Against You, which is the continued story of the Beartown community after the incident. The aspect I love most about this is that nobody has to pick up his sequel for this story to be finished, but it’s the choice of the reader if they want more. You won’t be losing anything from the original book if you choose not to read the second. I love the freedom Backman allows his readers, and because of that, I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Us Against You.

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How to Walk Away: Book Review

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center published in 2018.

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“Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her; a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment. In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that life might find her in the last place she would ever expect.”

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This might be my favourite title for a book because it represents the story in both a physical and emotional way.

The novel is from the point of view of Margaret, a young woman who has her entire future mapped out. In a grand gesture to propose, her boyfriend practically forces her to fly in the plane that he’s piloting (even though she had a fear of flying). He ends up crashing the plane on landing, and while he walks away without a scratch, she is left is third-degree burns on her neck and paralyzed from the knees down. Margaret is now faced with a totally different future than she expected, and the reader follows her through conflicting emotions of despair and hope.

First thing I usually touch on in these reviews is characters, so let’s discuss. The voice of Margaret is very powerful yet relatable. She has this dry sense of humour that resonates well with me, yet it also leads to the unavoidable dark thoughts one might have if they were in her place. I’m so glad that it didn’t have the sickeningly inspiring commentary that a lot of tragic stories have, as Margaret’s character told it as it is. It’s awful. It’s something that no one would ever wish to go through, no matter how “wise” or “enlightened” you come out on the other side. It’s like most things terrible things in life when it happens, you just deal with it and move on best you can.

Speaking of characters, Center had this incredible ability to flip my feelings about a character, specifically Margaret’s mother, Linda. She is made out to be the villain at first, yet it’s later her vulnerable side is revealed through exposing her past faults. I went from hating her presence to wanting to comfort her, a giant leap for a side character in a grander story. I was thoroughly impressed.

Prefacing the novel, Center opened her acknowledgments by saying that she had to do massive amounts of research for this book, and you can definitely tell by the events that take place. Like I mentioned before, it’s realistic in the mix of positive and negative emotions. It’s the epitome of the saying “You don’t know what you have until you lose it.” I caught myself wiggling my toes a lot while reading this, and thinking of all the times I’ve used my legs, and all the times I will use my legs in the future. If there’s ever a book to read that will put you in your place and allow you to feel grateful, it’s How to Walk Away.

There was a scene that reminded me of one of my favourite books, The Catcher in the Rye. I have no idea if this minimal connection was intentional, but I noticed it and it warmed by heart. For those of who have never read The Catcher in the Rye, the main character Holden makes an observation about time while visiting the Museum of Natural History. He remarks that every time he visits it, he’s changed in some kind of way as a person, yet the museum stays the same. There’s a scene in this book where Margaret feels a remarkably similar feeling about her grandparent’s cabin for the first time after the accident,

“Being back here was exactly as bad as I’d feared. Everything was the same as it had been since my grandparents had bought the place in the sixties. The screen porch door still squeaked and slapped. The gopher hole by the back steps hadn’t moved. The pear trees my grandmother had planted still rustled in the breeze.

The only thing different was me.”

I love this scene for more than just its relation to Holden, but for its relevance in everyone’s live. We all have a place like Holden’s museum or Margaret’s cabin.

A major aspect of the story I didn’t mention in my personal summary was that Margaret ends up falling in love with her physical therapist, Ian. Their journey of healing by each other’s side is heart wrenching and genuine. Though my favourite part is that the story did not revolve around this romance, it was simply another aspect of Margaret’s story. This story had so much more to it; identity, estranged families, rocky recoveries and more. He is not the prince that comes to save her, but just someone that helped her save herself. I will admit, some scenes with him were a bit too cheesy for my taste, such as on the boat near the end, but I’ll also say that this story is so bleakly realistic that maybe Margaret deserved a few fairytale moments. Some parts near the end even made me cry a little bit.

I want to be best friends with Margaret and her sister Kitty. I was itching to help them and for them to help me at the same time. In fact, I feel like I do know these characters as if I just sat down with Margaret for an afternoon and she told me her life story. I think everyone should immerse themselves in her world and try and learn a little from her. The heartbreak and desperation were almost palpable, yet the hope that ultimately founds its way to Margaret is awe-inspiring to the extreme and definitely worth the read for anyone who can get their hands on this book.

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