Family Reads: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist by Sunil Yapa

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist had been on Ash’s shelf for awhile. She had purchased it on the strong recommendation of a close friend. When I asked her what book she would like to do for Family Reads, she told me she was about to start reading this one. It was also on my TBR (I had seen some good reviews from other bloggers), so our interests converged nicely.

On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor–a boyish, scrappy world traveler who’s run away from home–sets out to sell marijuana to the 50,000 anti-globalization protestors gathered in the streets. It quickly becomes clear that the throng determined to shut the city down–from environmentalists to teamsters to anarchists–are testing the patience of the police, and what started as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence.

Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the lives of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn’t seen in three years, two protestors struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country’s fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the president of the United States.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (minor spoilers ahead).

We both gave this book ★★★★. Ash commented that she felt it wasn’t often I gave a book she picked four stars. (Though when we looked back at the five previous Family Reads we had done, we realized AnnihilationHouse of Leaves and A Monster Calls were all stand out reads for both of us. Ash had picked all of those books.)

We were pleasantly surprised to find the story told from multiple viewpoints, as we weren’t expecting that. We had thought the story was going to primarily be about reconciliation between Victor and his father via the protests. That was not at all where the story went. The narration through many different perspectives made the story more interesting than we had anticipated.

We both liked the narrative style. From the very first page, the prose keeps a nice rhythm which kept us turning the pages. There were a lot of lines in the book that felt very descriptive – one line ‘zingers’, things you wouldn’t normally say to describe a person but that work nicely in a novel. For example, this line about one of the police officers – “The last time Park hugged someone was at a funeral” – gives you a clue into his personality. That was when I started to think something might be off about this guy. The line that got Ash thinking something wasn’t right with Park was when he was estimating how many cops would die that day. I found the police officer characters pretty infuriating. Even Julia seemed a little weird, not in the ideal mindset for a police officer.

Our discussion evolved from the police officers to the rest of the cast of characters. We concluded that everyone was kind of strange except Victor. They all had some sort of skeleton in their closet. Bishop was a somewhat complicated character. There was a bit about how he stood in a grocery store for hours that made me think “This is a guy who needs some help”, a guy who probably shouldn’t be Chief of Police. We couldn’t decided if he actually liked his son. Charles was a favourite character of ours. He thought he could make a difference for his country but he gets trapped by everyone’s opinions. Charles’ story added another layer to the book. It wasn’t just about some kid and his dad, not just about why people protest, but also about globalization and the grand picture. We felt there are two aspects to this book: the personal story of the characters and the bigger story of globalization.

Regarding the ending – it was pretty ambiguous?? We weren’t too sure. I tend to read endings too quickly. Ash thought that Victor had a near death experience. I don’t generally like ambiguous conclusions; I’m too plain and straightforward for that sort of thing. We also didn’t find the epilogue very satisfying. Ash wondered how separate epilogues are from the main story. I feel they’re like a PS, a bonus to the main story line.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a FistFinally, we both liked the cover and found it highly appealing – that swirly motion, the bright colours, the strong font. We also liked the hardcover design, but we discovered that neither of us likes yellow on a book cover.

 Final Thoughts

Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge.

This book is the first literary/fiction novel Ash and I have read for Family Reads. We both enjoyed it more than we expected, despite our loose familiarity with protest movements and our uncertain grasp of the conclusion.  Have you read Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist?  What did you think of it?
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Family Reads: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Robin Roe’s A List of Cages

A List of Cages

Somehow, this book ended up on Dad’s to-be-read shelf. We picked it because it was readily available at the library and because we had previously talked about reading more YA together.

When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian—the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.

Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kindhearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives…

Our Discussion

Vague spoilers about the conclusion ahead.

What we liked best about A List of Cages is Adam and his friends – a bunch of good eggs. They reminded me more of my high school experience than most YA books I’ve read. I asked Dad if it was strange reading about a modern high school. Was it much different from his experience? He said not really – particular the cafeteria scenes felt familiar.

Adam and Julian narrate the story in alternating first person sections. Unlike other books we’ve read that take this approach, we found the voice of each character was well-distinguished from the other.

Reading about Julian’s experience was certainly heartbreaking at times – especially when we considered that there are real kids who are experiencing abuse like he does. I choked up at the parts where Julian tries to justify Russell’s behaviour, showing he doesn’t know how he’s been manipulated. Roe does an excellent job at showing how kids can come to feel like they deserve what their experiencing, how they can get trapped in an abusive situation.

The ending felt a little abrupt – suddenly, the story became very dramatic. There were tense and painful moments throughout the story, but the conclusion has a lot of fast action.

Final Thoughts

Dad has only read a couple YA novels in general and I had never read a book about a child abused by their guardian, so A List of Cages was a new reading experience for both of us. I wouldn’t have elected to read this book on my own – the subject matter is too sad – but the positive characters and support from friends that Julian receives makes it a good read.  Have you read A List of Cages?  What do you think about reading YA that tackles such real and painful subjects?

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Family Reads: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne

Borne by jeff Vandermeer

Ash and I read VanderMeer’s Annhiliation  for our first Family Reads together (two years ago tomorrow!). When we heard of Borne, we agreed that we should read and discuss it for Family Reads. Somehow, I didn’t expect our discussion to turn out so similar to our discussion on Annhilation – though I suppose I should have known better given the author and the subject matter! We went back forth and circle around various plot related questions. Because of the nature of our discussion, this was a difficult one for me to hammer into a narrative suitable for a blog post, but I tried, haha. I decided to focus on three topics: the cover and setting, what was revealed in the Company building at the end, and the role of the Magician. (Somehow, we talked for an hour and didn’t even begin to talk about Borne or the environmental implications of the story or Rachel and Wick’s relationship or any of the other interesting bits of the story. There’s a lot going on in this fascinating book!)

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (spoilers abound!).

Cover and Location

One of the more superficial things Ash and I loved about the Southern Reach trilogy are the cover designs by Charlotte Strick. Borne also has a striking cover (by Rodrigo Corral) that we loved but we had to ask – did the flower have anything to do with the story? Plant life seemed to play less of a role in Borne than in Annihilation. Perhaps the easiest answer is that the plant represents the general degradation of Rachel and Wick’s world. One theory we came up with about the flower is that maybe it has something to do with Rachel being from a tropical island. Then we had to backtrack and ask, where is Rachel from? Ash imagined Indonesia; I went with Madagascar. (Where do birds of paradise grow? I looked this up after our discussion – native to South Africa, the emblem of Los Angeles…) Now we’re back to the cover. Ash chose Borne as her staff pick at work, so a lot of people have been asking her about the book because it has her name on it and they want to know if the story’s as cool as the cover. She tells them yes.

One last comment: Ash and I have come to enjoy VanderMeer’s books particularly for his world building. We love how he can be so vividly descriptive, yet still leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.

What’s really revealed at the end?

My big question that I wanted to discuss with Ash was what was actually revealed when Rachel and Wick went poking around the Company building. Our discussion wound back and forth as we tried to break things down.

What did Rachel learn at the Company building? Ash said that she learnt her memories weren’t real. Okay, then how much of her memories weren’t real? Did she just forget that blip surrounding her parents death, or could it be everything she remembers from before the city is false?

We didn’t settle on an answer to that question (which of Rachel’s memories are true or false) before moving on to what happened in the Company building when Rachel first arrived, if she and her parents came in crates through some kind of portal? Of course, that led us back to another question – is the city Rachel and Wick inhabitant an alternate reality or the world we know? That’s what I was trying to get at at the beginning of our discussion when I asked what was revealed in the company building. Was the existence of a parallel universe, alternate reality, whatever, established? We agreed that it was (with the caveat that we both blaze through endings too quickly so maybe we missed some nuance). That led us two theories: 1) Rachel’s city is an alternate reality that the Company entered to mess around with biotech or 2) Rachel’s city is in ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, and the Company messed it up so bad they went to an alternate reality – the good city viewed in Company building. Our conversation drifted from there – whichever theory might be the right one doesn’t really matter – but we agreed that the big reveal had been the existence of another world/dimension/reality.

 

The Magician

The relationship between Rachel and the Magician was one I had lots of questions about. I wondered why she seemed to be an antagonist. Didn’t she just want to get rid of Mord? Why did she have to be awful to Wick and Rachel?  Ash suggested that, since she worked for the Company, maybe she felt guilty for that and wanted to improve the city. I noted that the Magician didn’t know about the wall/portal and Wick did – he was higher ranking than her? (Then there’s that thing about Wick being biotech…) One part that really puzzled me at first was Rachel killing the Magician just like that and commenting that the Magician didn’t have any power over her because she had already read Wick’s letter. Wick’s letter mentions that the Magician acquires Rachel’s memories. Could this mean more than initially thought? Maybe the Magician has absorbed, internalized, all of Rachel’s true memories…maybe the Magician is who Rachel was before.

Final Thoughts

 

 

I thought Borne was a more straightforward book than Annihilation but maybe not, given our discussion! We never really came to conclusions, but we still enjoyed theorizing. I left out a lot of random stuff (about Mord, multiple Bornes, etc.) because this post was getting out of hand.

As we wrapped our discussion, I wondered which I book I enjoyed more – Borne or Annihilation? Just comparing comparing Annihilation (not the entire trilogy) and Borne – ooh, well, I think I prefer Annihilation for the world building and Borne for the characters. When I asked Ash which she preferred, she said the same thing! Though they’re similar in a number of ways, each book has its own strength and we recommend both. Have you read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s works? What are your theories for what was going on in Borne?
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Family Reads: Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On being black and white in Canada

Black Berry, Sweet Juice - Family ReadsWe had tried reading two novels about Ireland for this month’s Family Reads. Unfortunately, we found both novels to be incredibly dull. I asked Mom if there were any books by authors she liked that she hadn’t yet read. That’s how we ended up on Lawrence Hill’s author page. Mom has read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, The Illegal and Blood. I knew virtually nothing about growing up biracial in Canada. Thus, we chose Black Berry, Sweet Juice for our January Family Read.

In BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE, Hill movingly reveals his struggle to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb, he is imbued with lingering memories and offers a unique perspective. In a satirical yet serious tone, Hill describes the ambiguity involved in searching for his identity – an especially complex and difficult journey in a country that prefers to see him as neither black nor white.

Interspersed with slices of his personal experiences, fascinating family history and the experiences of thirty-six other Canadians of mixed race interviewed for this book, BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE also examines contemporary racial issues in Canadian society.

Our Discussion

Hill explores how one’s personal identity can differ from the external identity thrust upon them by those looking at them from the outside. Hill writes about how people are judged by their skin colour as to what their identity is. But that, of course, is a dangerous and often wrong assumption to make. A person’s internal understanding of their identity might not have anything to do with their skin colour.

Hill’s book was an eye opener for Mom and I. We are White in every direction I can see on the family tree. We’ve never had to think about the possible discord between our identities and our skin colours. We’ve never had to think, “Oh, I’m White, I need to make a concentrated effort to connect with the White community, learn about my cultural identity, etc”. We are just that way, we are just White and we don’t have to do anything in particular to confirm that. In contrast, Hill and the people he interviews have all had to give conscious consideration, in one way or another, to their racial/cultural identity.

Hill writes about a “brewing interest in my racial identity” (64). This quote stuck out to me, as I’ve never had to ‘brew an interest’ in my racial identity. Mom and I can’t fathom what it must be like to have to actively learn about racial identity, cultural history, etc. Mom pointed out that she has never considered herself ‘German-Canadian’ (her father came to Canada when he was 19 years old). She has never had to assert that aspect of her identity or consider it in the way that biracial Canadians do. She and I have never had to ‘choose’ to be White, i.e. choose to fit in with that community – that’s the White privilege we have.

The Question

Towards the end of the book, Hill presents an imaginary dialogue of the ‘race’ question, an infamously pervasive question in Canada (and similar countries, I imagine):

STRANGER: “Do you mind my asking where you are from?” [This is code for “What is your race?”]

ME: “Canada.” [This is code for “Screw off.”]

STRANGER: “Yes, but you know, where are you really from?” [This is code for “You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?”]

ME: “I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth. [Code for “I’m not letting you off the4 hook, buster.”]

STRANGER: “But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?” [Code for “I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question.”]

Mom and I discussed how that question, “Where are you from?”, takes on a completely different tone depending on who it is presented to. If someone asks us (my White Mom or I) where are you from, we generally know they mean it literally. If they want to know our family background, they ask directly. It’s not a challenge; usually it’s just polite conversation. Rarely is that question asked of a person of colour for the sake of polite conversation. As Hill notes, it becomes a challenge to a person’s Canadian identity (177). Part of our White privilege is never having people challenge our Canadian identities.

Many Experiences

Hill’s stories about growing up biracial added another dimension to his exploration of race, as we had not considered the identity struggles a biracial child may experience. Mom told me about a friend with a biracial daughter. Mom had never considered that that child may have difficult time growing up because of the different racial identities of her parents.

We appreciated that Hill includes interviews with a number of other Black-White biracial Canadians. Sharing various points of views shows that everyone’s situation can be different. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of how to manage a biracial identity. Black Berry, Sweet Juice really hits home that a single voice cannot an entire community represent. Nearly all interviewees, however, understand they will almost always struggle with being defined against Whiteness. Because White people do not consider biracial people to be White, they cannot find acceptance in those communities like they may find acceptance in Black communities.

For many people with one black and one white parent, it appears to hurt more when we are rejected by the black community than when we are discriminated against in the wider community for being black (106).

“When white people look at you, they’re never going to see white. They’re always going to see black. Therefore you’re black.” (110)

Final Thoughts

Mom and I both learned a lot from this book. We highly recommend it, especially to White people who, like us, had never really considered how the experiences of biracial people may differ from those who are ‘all Black’ or ‘all White’.
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Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Family Reads: Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan’s Save Me a Seat

Ash (my sister) and I had originally chosen The Queen of Blood for this month’s Family Reads. She tried reading it for a few weeks and couldn’t get into it. I suggested she choose a book from my Cybils reading stack instead. She chose Save Me a Seat because it sounded cute.

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

Our Discussion

The authors write in first person, alternating chapters between Ravi and Joe. We have both had bad experiences with co-authored novels, but Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan have struck the right balance in Save Me a Seat. A reader might assume that Weeks wrote Joe’s chapters and Varadarajan wrote Ravi’s chapters. Though each boy has their own voice, the writing styles don’t differ hugely between them. The chapters flow nicely from one to the next. We both prefer this type of co-authoring (where you can’t especially tell who wrote what, and the style remains consistent throughout the book).

We both appreciated how realistic the story seemed. According to the author bios in the book, Weeks  was “born and raised in the United States […] and teaches in [an] MFA program in NYC”, while Varadarajan was “born and raised in India […] and now teaches second grade in Princeton, New Jersey.” Does that qualify this book as an own voices narrative? Ash and I think that it is at least safe to guess that the authors’ own experiences have informed their writing. Ash especially pointed out the frustration Ravi experiences when people cannot correctly pronounce his first name (rah-VEE, not RAH-vee), let alone his last name (Suryanarayanan). One might imagine Gita Varadarajan has encountered similar experiences.

Accents

I asked Ash if she ‘heard’ Ravi’s voice in an Indian accent. She said that she didn’t; that she never hears characters unique voices – it’s always just that ‘voice in her head’. I asked her that question because, although it’s usually the same for me (no differentiation in character voices), I actually did hear Ravi’s voice with an Indian accent. I wondered if this was because I’d  been tutoring an Indian student for about 10 hours a week and I was more ‘in tune’ to the accent. His voice was very clear in my head when I started reading. Some features of Ravi’s language that I noticed were the use of continuous tense (ex. “am playing”, “will be going”) and a slightly more formal vocabulary. After awhile, though, I stopped hearing his accent and he settled into my generic middle grade voice.

I note this observation because one of Ravi’s challenges throughout the book is that (apparently) nobody can understand his accent. When I finished the story, however, I started to think that was an assumption made by his teachers and friends. They weren’t really listening to him; they just assumed they couldn’t understand what he was saying because he had an accent.

Storyline

Joe and Ravi do not really interact throughout the story. This surprised me, as I imagined the book follow a structure of them directly arguing and fighting in the first part, then begrudgingly teaming up to take down the bully in the second half. Ash expected Joe and Ravi would defeat the bully in a stereotypical or negative way (ex. he would turn out to be a misunderstood new friend or they would bully him back). We liked how the alternating perspectives revealed how Joe and Ravi misunderstood each other (and other characters), and how they learnt about the problems with making assumptions. Overall, we enjoyed the plot of the novel, and we were happy with the conclusion.

Reading and Recommending Middle Grade

Ash doesn’t usually read middle grade. At the start of our discussion, she asked if she is judging the book for herself, or for other people (children or adults) who might read it. I explained that I generally evaluate a book for how it satisfied my taste, while making some general comments about aspects that other readers may or may not enjoy. At the end of our discussion I returned to this point, asking Ash if she thought this would be a good read for the intended audience (children 8 to 12 years old). She said, “A lot of the things I said I like will apply, I think, to kids as well and other adults. Especially in our current culture where there is a lot of immigration and many ESL learners in classrooms. The story is cute and interesting, not cliched.

Final Thoughts

We liked a few other components of this book. Non-English words are not italicized. “Ravi’s Glossary” (ex. tennikoit, Ovaltine) and “Joe’s Glossary” (ex. index card, tofu) can be found in the back. There are also two recipes – one for the cookies Ravi brings his teacher and one for apple crisp. Finally, Ash pointed out that the title (Save Me a Seat) can refer to the story’s conclusion, creating a full circle from the cover to the last page.

Save Me a Seat impressed us both with its storyline and well-written characters. Have you read Save Me a Seat or any similar middle grade books? What do you think about co-authored books? 
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