Review | Watch Us Rise, Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan

40025175Watch Us Rise is a call to action to teenage girls everywhere to stand up, speak their minds, and fight to make their voices heard. It tells the story of Jasmine and Chelsea, who start a women’s rights club at their high school and write blog posts that resonate with other students. When the principal shuts them down for causing discord amongst students, Jasmine and Chelsea rally their friends, women teachers and women in their community to fight for their club’s right to exist.

It’s the kind of book that’ll speak to teenage girls who have something to say and feel frustrated by all the barriers in their way. The story will also hopefully inspire girls who feel silenced by those in authority to speak up and find allies within their own communities. At a time when some of the most vocal figures on social media are teenagers, Watch Us Rise is a catalyst that reminds readers of all ages that we have the right and the obligation to speak our truth.

The novel does get a bit heavy-handed at times, but Jasmine’s story fleshes it out and makes these characters feel real. She’s dealing with her father’s cancer, and with larger issues like racism and fatphobia. One of the plot threads that resonated the most with me was how even Chelsea, who is Jasmine’s best friend, had no idea that most of the clothes in their favourite shop were too small for Jasmine. This comes to a head in a big way near the end, and is a compelling reminder that even the most ‘woke’ people and the most caring friends can fail to recognize their own experiences of privilege.

Chelsea was a bit harder for me to relate to, if only because her activism at times feels performative. For example, she refuses to wish her Catholic grandmother a Merry Christmas because she wants to honour other holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but she knows nothing of these holidays except what she reads on Wikipedia. Or she goes for a walk around the block, and complains about every single advertisement for being sexist. Other characters do call her out for some of what she does, but with the exception of Jasmine calling out Chelsea’s thin privilege, the story seems to set up most of the other characters’ reactions as wrong.

Her activism also sometimes feels reductionist, like she sees everything in black and white, with no room for nuance. Chelsea’s main beef is with what she calls the “princess industrial complex,” and how women are expected to just be pretty and wait for Prince Charming. While I agree that media raises unrealistic expectations of women’s looks and limiting notions of women’s roles, I admit sympathizing with the mean girl characters who wore princess outfits and were accused of bullying. The story sets it up so the mean girl characters were indeed targeting Chelsea and Jasmine’s blog posts, but I’m a bit tired of people policing how girls should behave, and that includes people like Chelsea who think wanting to be a princess is bad, full stop.

That being said, the book isn’t written for me necessarily, but for teenage girls. And I can certainly remember how fulsomely I threw myself into my beliefs when I was a teen. One of my favourite quotes in high school was, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.” So, to be completely fair, I may have been a lot more like Chelsea than I realized as I was reading this. (Interestingly, that favourite quote of mine is often attributed to a man, Voltaire, but in actuality was written by a woman, Beatrice Evelyn Hall. Chelsea and teenage me would likely have both been overwhelmed with fury at that injustice.)

So while adult me feels like telling Chelsea to chill out, teenage me would have likely been right there with her, feeling inspired to go forth and make some tangible change in my own community. And that’s exactly the kind of reader whom I hope discovers Watch Us Rise. I hope that readers, and particularly younger ones, take heart in how much Jasmine and Chelsea are able to accomplish with what really began as just a couple of blog posts.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Homecoming, Andrew Pyper

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This book blew my mind. Halfway through The Homecoming, I tweeted:

It’s 9:28 PM. I’m at 56% of The Homecoming. Do I:

  • Read on (So exciting!!)
  • Stop (Nightmares!!)

And that was pretty much my frame of mind throughout most of the book. I tried switching to a different book to avoid having nightmares, found myself unable to concentrate because I really, really wanted to keep reading The Homecoming, and finally at the 61% mark, I chickened out completely and burrowed under the covers, trying to think of anything but the story. The last time I remember being this affected by a book is, fittingly enough, another Andrew Pyper title, The Guardians. I’ve read other unputdownable books since The Guardians, so I might be misremembering, but this at least puts The Homecoming at my absolute favourite or second-favourite Andrew Pyper books ever.

The set-up for The Homecoming is absolutely my kind of atmospheric thriller: a controlling but absentee man has died, and his family has to stay in the same house for a month, isolated from all forms of outside contact, in order to claim their massive inheritance. It’s a set-up straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, and for a while, I expected one of the family members to murder another, and a third family member stepping up as amateur detective, And Then There Were None-style.

Except of course, this being an Andrew Pyper novel, things got quite a bit weirder and more twisted than I anticipated. Family members all having the same dream of a boat, alien music and drowning, for example. Mysterious figures in the woods. A doorway to an old campsite with violent messages graffitied to the walls. Things go wrong, and what I love about this is that everything that could be supernatural could also have a realistic explanation. The story is incredibly frightening, horrifying, terrifying — and I feel the need to include all those words because I went back and forth through an entire range of emotions while reading this book — and throughout it all, there’s this undercurrent of disquiet that just had me going “WTF” the entire time.

The best part for me is that all the scary bits are framed by this incredibly rich and complex family drama. The characters come to terms with how they feel about the man who died, and how they feel about all the stuff they’re learning about each other and about their family as they’re trapped in this house. So for all the fear this story raised in me, I also found it incredibly moving and emotional. I cared deeply for these characters, and the big reveal was more tragic than I could ever have anticipated.

And finally, I love how the book took on a bit of a sci fi twist. Like all good sci fi, even the more outlandish parts of this book are rooted in reality. And no matter how messed up the big reveal is in itself, the truly chilling thing about it is that its logic is believable. I can actually see why someone would do such things and, more horrific, I can actually see why some may consider such actions in service of a greater good.

This book is brilliant. Read it.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada and Netgalley for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Three Little Words (Bridesmaids Behaving Badly # 3), Jenny Holiday

40057347A week before her best friend’s wedding in Florida, Gia is stranded in New York with the wedding dress. Also with her is Bennett, the best man at the same wedding, who is carrying the wedding rings. A winter storm has cancelled flights for the next few days, so they decide to road trip the journey instead.

I love Jenny Holiday’s Bridesmaids Behaving Badly series, and I’m sad that Three Little Words is the final title. I absolutely love this quartet of friends — Jane, Wendy, Elise and Gia — and their unswerving loyalty and devotion to each other makes me nostalgic for my best friends back in the Philippines. Jenny Holiday is so good at depicting female friendship, and I love that the climaxes of all the books involve all the friends (and in this book, even the significant others from earlier in the series!) coming together to support the main character and nudge them towards their happily ever afters.

Jenny Holiday is also extremely gifted at combining sexy with sweet with funny, and somehow manages to craft a very emotional, complex, moving romance that still maintains a lighthearted, somewhat comedic feel throughout. Gia Gallo isn’t the type of heroine I usually relate to — she’s tall, super beautiful, and a successful model — but Holiday makes her feel so real that I can almost see myself in her while reading.

Gia is a few days away from turning 30, and beginning to realize that she may soon become too old for the modelling jobs she enjoys. As the story begins, she has just completed a photo shoot where she couldn’t fit into the clothes assigned to her, so she had to wear a less fashionable design intended for older women, while her original outfit was reassigned to a younger, thinner model. First: awesome that Holiday calls out the fashion industry for designing for young and thin women. Gia’s turning 30 and wears either a size 2 or a size 4, so she’s definitely not old nor plus-size, so it’s telling that she’s already struggling to meet the fashion industry’s standards.

But also, while I may not be able to relate to the struggles of being a model, I can certainly relate to being 30 and having mini-crises of faith about my career choices. I can definitely relate to Gia’s fear that the one thing she’s always been good at (in her case, looking beautiful) may no longer be good enough, and that she can be so easily replaced by equally beautiful rivals who have their whole careers still ahead of them. Gia’s afraid she may have reached the pinnacle of her career, and has no idea what she can do next, and more to the point, what she’s actually capable and qualified to do next. As with so many Jenny Holiday books, I read this, and feel so heard.

I also love Bennett, the chef with a checkered past and a heart of gold, who wants to someday open up a community kitchen to feed persons living in poverty. Living in New York City makes it difficult to save up enough, so for now, he runs a Pay-What-You-Can night every Thursday at his five-star restaurant, and basically gives away fancy, five-star meals for close-to-free. Like, how can you not love this man?

I especially love how kind and caring he is with Gia. In particular, when she admits to him that she “has issues with food,” he doesn’t judge her or get on her case about eating more, but rather simply cooks delicious meals and lets her eat (or not eat) as she chooses. I also love how he sees potential in her that she doesn’t realize herself, and knows how kickass she can be at a career shift.

And finally, the best part about Bennett is that for all his do-gooder traits, he’s not perfect. He has a wild past that has estranged him from his parents, and so a lot of his good deeds are motivated by somewhat selfish reasons, as he tries to assuage his guilt over stuff he’s done before. Gia and Bennett help make each other better, and are super sweet together. They also have incredible chemistry. I’ve always loved Jenny Holiday’s steamy scenes, and the ones in this book are fantastic.

Three Little Words is probably my second favourite of the series (my all-time favourite is still the novella Merrily Ever After). It’s a wonderful, fitting conclusion, and brings back all the characters we’ve come to know and love, while still giving Gia and Bennett their full due at a love story.

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Thank you to Forever Romance and Netgalley for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.