wrap up: books read in April 2017

  • If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (ARC) ★★★★ + review
  • Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski (ARC) ★★★★ + review
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ★★★★★ + review
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie ★★★★ + mini review
  • Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge (ARC) ★★★★★ + review
  • Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka (ARC) ★★ + review
  • A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen ★★★★
  • Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault ★★★★ + review

Best: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Runner up: Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge
Worst: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

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With just 7 books (6 novels + 1 play) this wasn’t as productive of a reading month as my last couple have been (11 in February; 10 in March).  However, a lot of my reading time this month was spent with Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault, which I’m loving, but it’s incredibly dense and taking quite a long time to read.  I was actually hoping to finish it by the end of this weekend, but I’ve got 60 more pages and a headache so that seems like wishful thinking.  But maybe.  We’ll see.  (EDIT at 10:58 pm on April 30: finished it!  Review HERE.)

Anyway, in terms of quality, it was a great month!  Each one of those 4 stars is actually more like 4.5 but I adhere to Goodreads’ lack of half star limitations, alas.  It pains me to not be able to list If We Were Villains and Murder on the Orient Express as my favorite and runner up – that’s just how good those other books were!

I don’t really do monthly TBR lists because the next book I decide to read always changes on a whim, but there are a couple we can definitely look forward to seeing on my blog this May: I’m definitely going to review Fire From Heaven; I have to read Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose for a bookclub by this time next week; I have Roses of May by Dot Hutchinson and White Fur by Jardine Libaire from Netgalley; I won Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen in a Goodreads giveaway (the first I’ve won in a year!!  finally!!); I have American War by Omar El Akkad from my April BOTM box; and I’ve promised Chelsea that I’m going to make an effort to read more SFF in the near future, so hopefully at least one from that genre.

Yikes!  I’d better get reading!

What was the best book you guys read this month?

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book review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

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Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

US pub date: August 1, 2017

★★☆☆☆

In theory, I should have loved this book. A literary, character-driven story about an unexpected death in a small town with just a flavor of mystery is literally right up my alley (see also: Everything I Never Told You, Swimming Lessons, Dead Letters, You Will Know Me, etc. – all books I loved!)

But for me, Girl in Snow just didn’t work. And it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough of a mystery – I’d been expecting that. Or that the main characters weren’t really good people – this is something I really don’t mind in fiction.

Honestly, it was because the writing was painfully juvenile. I just couldn’t get past how irritating I found the prose. It read like YA, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a genre that I particularly enjoy. The fact that this is being marketed as an adult literary mystery suggests that Kukafka was aiming for an adult audience and missed the mark entirely.

From the other side of the door came the swell and sway of her breathing, a delicate rhythm that reminded him with such peaceful clarity that he was alive. I am, I am, I am, she told him with this inhale and exhale and inhale and exhale. I am alive, and so are you, and isn’t this a paralyzing thing?

Yeah, this is definitely the sort of thing that I may have found poignant when I was a teenager.

The other thing I hated about the writing was that practically every other paragraph was a character remembering some trivial detail about their past, that urgently had to be recounted. These characters couldn’t stay in the present long enough to have a simple conversation, and it started to drive me crazy. Maybe I’m just not sentimental enough, but I couldn’t keep from rolling my eyes when your story is filled with lines like: ‘He was having fish for dinner. Once, his dad took him fishing.’ Okay, that’s not a real quote. This is:

“Is this a church?” Cameron asked.

Cameron’s family used to go to church. He would sit between Mom and Dad and wonder how long he could hold his breath without dying.

This is just…. literally the entire book is written like this.

Of the three characters, I didn’t find any of them particularly compelling. The police officer investigating the case, Russ, was so bland that I audibly groaned on more than one occasion when I saw that the upcoming chapter was his POV. Cameron, Lucinda’s stalker who believes himself to be in love with her, was a character who I found rather disturbing, and while I think this was partially the point, he wasn’t someone whose head I particularly enjoyed inhabiting. His chapters also read as the most juvenile, which makes sense, as he’s the youngest narrator, but I think it’s possible to write from the point of view of teenagers (especially when it isn’t even first-person narration) without losing your adult voice as an author. Jade, a girl a few years older than Lucinda who hadn’t liked her, was definitely the most interesting of the three, but the fact that so much of her narration was taken up with pining after her ex-boyfriend was a bit tiring.

I should have been able to finish this book in two days, but it ended up taking me two weeks, because every time I put it down I had no motivation to pick it back up. This was an overwhelmingly blasé reading experience. I was hoping for at least a few moments of poignancy or insight, but Girl in Snow left me cold. I felt like it never really delivered on anything it promised, and I’m left wondering what exactly the point was.

I don’t want to be unkind. This is Danya Kukafka’s debut novel, and she’s a young writer. While her writing style obviously wasn’t to my taste, I will make the distinction that it wasn’t objectively bad. I just think this book would have worked so much better targeted at a younger audience. There’s a lot that teenagers can take away from this story: Jade’s struggle with her body image, Cameron’s vulnerability. But as an adult reader who was hoping to read an adult novel? It just didn’t do much for me.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Simon & Schuster, and Danya Kukafka. All quotes are taken from an ARC galley – it’s possible that they may be edited before publication.

+ link to review on goodreads

top 5 wednesday: Authors You Want to Read More From

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

April 26th: Authors You Want to Read More From: Talk about some authors that you’ve only read one or a few books from, and you NEED to read more!

For this week’s topic I decided to focus on authors who’ve only written one or two books, as opposed to prolific authors like Shakespeare who I should get around to reading more of one of these days. Instead, all of the authors I’ve chosen I hope will publish more in the future!  Also, all women, because why not.

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Hanya Yanagihara: Of her two novels, The People in the Trees and A Little Life, I’ve only read the latter, but it had such a profound effect on me that I won’t even hesitate to call her one of my favorite authors. I’ve heard mixed reviews of The People in the Trees but I do intend to get around to it one of these days. Regardless, anything she publishes in the future I won’t even hesitate to pre-order.  Her prose flows with an effortless beauty, and the characters she creates are flawed and sympathetic.  A Little Life was almost painfully bleak and difficult to read, but it was also one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read.

 

994Hannah Kent: Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites was published in 2013, and her sophomore novel, The Good People, comes out in the fall in the US. I’m really looking forward to it. With Burial Rites, Kent managed to combine historical and literary fiction – two of my favorite genres – to create a story that was both atmospheric and emotionally devastating. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to read her new one.

 

celeste-ng-c-kevin-day-photographyCeleste Ng: Another one with a new novel coming out in the fall! Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, was an absolutely outstanding little book, which I found to be a masterclass in intricate storytelling. I actually have an e-galley of her new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and I can’t wait to get around to it! I think even if I hate it (which I doubt I will), I’ll still read anything Ng does in the future, because an outstanding novel like Everything I Never Told You can’t possibly be a fluke. This woman is a genius.

 

caitedolanleach.jpgCaite Dolan-Leach: Her debut, Dead Letters which I read recently, is the quintessential ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book – but I loved it. I thought Dolan-Leach’s writing was so clever, and it suited the story flawlessly. She had such a distinct style in this book, and I’m mainly curious to see if and how she’d change it up in the future.  Also, as Dead Letters was a ‘literary mystery,’ I’m curious which of those two genres she’ll pursue in the future, or if she’ll continue on with more literary-mystery hybrids.  Whatever she decides to do, I’m sure I’ll love it.

 

nightshotsmallerKatharine Beutner: And finally, a relatively unknown author… Beutner’s debut, Alcestis, a lesbian retelling of the Euripides play of the same name, was published in 2010, and she hasn’t come out with anything since. I didn’t love Alcestis unconditionally, but I thought Beutner’s prose was outstanding and she showed so much promise for a new writer. Plus, I’m really interested in retellings of Greek mythology (and especially retellings such as this one which included an LGBT twist as well as a lot of feminist aspects), so if she decides to write something similar in the future, I would love to read it!

Which authors do you guys hope will publish more in the future?  Or, alternately, which published authors do you hope to read more from?  Comment and let me know!

The Greek Gods Book Tag

So earlier today Zuky @ The Book Bum created The Greek Gods Book Tag, and being a huge Greek mythology fan, I couldn’t resist this theme.

Rules by Zuky:

  • Pingback to me here so I can read all your posts!!
  • You can use my graphics if ya like, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to
  • Tag as many people as you want, but please, share the love

Zeus: King of the Gods – your favourite book

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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo: Choosing a favorite book is a bit like choosing a favorite child, but I think I’d be lying if I said anything other than Les Misérables.  This book changed me.  I’ve read it twice – all 1400 pages of my Signet Classics translation – and love every word of this epic story.

 

Hera: Queen of the Gods – a badass female character

17333319Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: Agnes Magnúsdóttir was actually a real person, but because there are so few first-hand accounts and her personality was entirely fabricated for this novel, I’m counting her as a character.  This beautiful and devastating novel about the last public execution in Iceland tells the story of Agnes, forced to live out her final days in a remote village awaiting her execution.  Rather than being painted as a villain, Kent humanizes Agnes, rendering her painfully sympathetic, and raising questions about the mental strength required to endure while you know your life has an expiration date.

Janus: God of Beginnings – your favourite debut(s)

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Being a classics nerd who’s obsessed with The Secret History, I will fully admit to being a total cliche, but that’s okay with me.  This debut from Donna Tartt is outstanding.  It’s also one of the only novels I’ve ever read that’s set in Vermont (the homeland), so I automatically felt a strong connection with this story and these characters.  Though so far my life has involved far less murder.

Athena: Goddess of Wisdom – your favourite non-fiction book

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: This true crime story about the capture and execution of the killers behind the Clutter family murder in 1959 Kansas is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Capote definitely bends the boundaries of nonfiction (notably including entire chunks of dialogue that there’s no way he would have been privy to), but ultimately, this is an incredibly well-researched book, that provides a unique and haunting perspective on the case.

 

Aphrodite: Goddess of Love – a book you adore and recommend everyone read (other than your favourite book!)

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Everything I Never Told You by Celete Ng: This is my go-to book to recommend when I’m not familiar with someone’s particular tastes, because this is the sort of book that has something for everyone.  Part mystery, part character study, part social commentary on discrimination and the quiet ways individuals are shaped by racism and sexism, this book is an extraordinary feat.  The writing is beautiful and evocative, and it’s impossible to put down.

Hades: God of the Underworld – an evil book you wish didn’t exist

51sz0tslgal-_sx330_bo1204203200_Red Rising by Pierce Brown: Or, if this hideously misogynistic novel has to exist, I’d rather it wouldn’t be marketed toward teenage boys – a demographic who could really benefit from some positive representation of strong female characters.  Unfortunately, every woman in this novel exists as a potential love interest without much of a personality beyond that, and women are portrayed as trophies to be won and abused and bartered at the whim of the vastly more powerful men.  I can’t remember the last time I was so offended by a book.  And aside from all that, it just isn’t very good.

Poseidon: God of the Sea & Earthquakes – a beautiful & ground-breaking book

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: Beautiful and groundbreaking just about covers it.  I’d never read a book about the Japanese annexation of Korea before this, and I learned so much about the twentieth century history of these two countries that I’d been completely ignorant of.  This book provides such a nuanced exploration of themes of nationality and cultural identity; and beyond that, it’s written with elegant prose and contains a host of memorable and sympathetic characters.

 

Apollo: God of the Arts – a beautiful book cover

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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie: I usually pride myself on not getting seduced by pretty book covers… but when I saw this one in my local bookstore I bought it about sixty seconds later.  I love simple covers with a splash of color, so this one is perfect.  Aesthetically pleasing and not too busy, with a clean font.  I love it.  (I read this recently and didn’t feel like writing up a proper review, but my mini-review is HERE.)

 

Hypnos: God of Sleep – a book so boring you almost fell asleep

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When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore: Unpopular opinion time!  I couldn’t stand this book.  It bored me to tears.  I thought the diversity was fantastic (two POC protagonists, one of whom is trans), but aside from that, this fell totally flat for me.  The plot was incredibly feeble, and for such a short novel it was unbearably repetitive.  Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book – I’m not a huge fan of either YA or magical realism – but I was in the mood for something a bit different and hoping to love this.  Alas.

 

Hermes: Messenger of the Gods – a book you sped through

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Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge: I think partially given the nature of literary fiction and classics, which is 90% of what I read, books rarely grab me immediately.  I sort of have to soldier through the first couple of chapters until I start to feel invested.  But this book hooked me from the very first page.  I read the first 20% in one sitting which I rarely do, and then finished it the next day.  I could not put this book down.

 

 

 

Tagging (as always feel free to skip this if you don’t feel like doing it): Chelsea @ Spotlight on Stories // Hadeer @ Hadeer Writes // Callum @ Callum McLaughlin // Ann @ Ann Reads Them // Bentley @ Book Bastion

book review: Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge

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Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge

US pub date: April 4, 2017

★★★★★

This is an unassuming little book, the sum of which somehow manages to exceed its parts and become something unexpectedly extraordinary. There’s nothing terribly original about this book’s premise – a plane crashes, two strangers need to learn how to survive together – but reading Castle of Water is like taking a breath of fresh air. I was surprised by how much I loved it.

Barry Bleecker one day decides to leave his corporate Manhattan job and travel to the grave of his favorite painter, Paul Gauguin, which lies somewhere in the Marquesas. French architect and newlywed Sophie Ducel and her husband Étienne are on a honeymoon in French Polynesia, and they decide to take a detour to visit the grave of singer Jacques Brel, incidentally buried a few yards away from Gauguin. When their plane crashes somewhere between Tahiti and the Marquesas, Étienne and the pilot die on impact, leaving only Barry and Sophie to survive on a small island together – which is complicated not only by Sophie’s grief, but also by a limited patience and understanding for each other’s language and culture.

Dane Huckelbridge’s prose is hard to describe. Castle of Water is told in third-person omniscient narration which is almost insensitively concise; full of facts and devoid of any sentimentality. This story is also told with a weird, offbeat humor that resists any temptation of melodrama. It’s not at all what you’d expect and should theoretically clash with the premise of the story, which invites an onslaught of emotion and introspection. But, somehow, Huckelbridge’s approach works. Better than it should, and yet, better than its maudlin alternative. This story isn’t heartless, it isn’t cold and unfeeling. And it isn’t a comedy, either. At its core this is a bitterly, achingly sad story, which managed to both make me laugh out loud and break my heart.

Sure, this book is full of unrealistic conveniences: the survival kit they salvaged from the plane has literally everything they could possibly want; they each have unique survival knowledge that transcends the very basics you’d learn in the boy scouts; there is no universe in which three pairs of contact lenses being worn every single day is going to last a person several years; Sophie is magically able to continue to have her period despite her drastic weight loss and without any mention as to how on earth she dealt with it without an unlimited supply of tampons (this one really bugged me), but getting hung up on these details is to miss the point, because this is so much more than a simple Survival Story. If you want to read 300 pages about people surviving in the elements with nothing but the clothes on their backs, there’s plenty of fiction and nonfiction about that already. In giving these characters certain basic necessities, Huckelbridge is bending this story in a different direction, making it less about Survival and more about the characters themselves, how they interact, and how their relationship progresses. Castle of Water is first and foremost a story about humanity; about two imperfect strangers drawing on each other’s strengths in order to endure – not only to physically survive, but to sustain themselves on a deeper level.

It’s hard to communicate what exactly was so special about this book which seems so unremarkable. I can only say that Castle of Water is a book with many hidden depths, and it was a joy to read. Though there weren’t a lot of surprises, plot-wise, the big surprise was really the emotional reaction these character elicited from me. Barry and Sophie were incredibly sympathetic and complex in their own right – Sophie in particular I grew rather attached to – and I’m sad to be leaving them behind.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Dane Huckelbridge.

+ link to review on goodreads

top 5 wednesday: Favorite LGBTQ+ reads

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

April 19th: Favorite LGBTQ+ Reads: Talk about your favorite books that feature LGBTQ+ characters or are by LGBTQ+ authors.

I love this topic. LGBT+ representation is so important, and something that definitely makes me more likely to pick a book up. For this topic I decided to focus on books that contain LGBT+ characters rather than books written by LGBT+ authors, though at times they go hand in hand.

This was hard to narrow down! The first three on this list are highly recommended if you’re tired of LGBT+ narratives steeped in tragedy – the last two, not so much, so proceed with caution.

3103Maurice by E.M. Forster: What’s even more radical than the fact that this book about an LGBT relationship was written in 1913? That the author decided to give his gay protagonist happiness. Maurice is a beautiful story about the titular character coming to terms with his sexuality in Edwardian England, living in his elite and secluded world at Cambridge.  Maurice Hall is thoroughly unspectacular in every way, a perfectly respectable member of society, except for this one, glaring thing that sets him apart.  While this narrative has all the potential in the world to turn tragic, Forster resists, creating a story that can offer hope to LGBT readers even a century after it was written.  Posthumously published in 1971, Maurice graciously allows the reader access to Forster’s perspective on homosexuality from the early 1900s, making this a unique classic that’s not to be missed.

81ztg9z2b1hlThe Price of Salt (or Carol) by Patricia Highsmith: In this lesbian classic, a young woman, Therese, trapped in the tedium of her department store job one day meets Carol – a fashionable and alluring older women. The two embark on a relationship that takes them on a road trip across the country, pursued by a private investigator who attempts to blackmail Carol into choosing between her child and her lover. This is a beautiful and gentle story about two fantastic and memorable lead characters, whose relationship you’re always rooting for. (Fantastic performances by the two lead actresses aside, I’m actually not a huge fan of the film. I thought it missed part of the point by taking a lot of the focus away from Therese. Part coming of age story and part reckoning with her sexuality, this is Therese’s story first and foremost, and I think the film suffered from switching a lot of the focus to Carol.)

51zpwum78pl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Angels in America by Tony Kushner: In this massive host of characters, I believe only two in the entire play are straight, so if you like theatre and you like LGBT+ stories, look no further than Angels in America. Set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America, Kushner weaves together a bizarre and fantastical story about an eclectic group of characters all searching for truth and honesty and happiness, as themes of sexuality and religion and the American identity intersect. This ambitious play is seven hours long, broken into two parts (“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”), and it has some of the most beautiful writing that I’ve ever seen. If you get a chance to see it definitely go because it’s visually very stunning, but just reading the script at home is also more than sufficient to get immersed in this story.  The miniseries starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, et. al is also fantastic.

11250317The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: If you look at any ‘best gay novels’ list you’ll usually see The Song of Achilles toward the top, and with good reason. In this retelling, Madeline Miller takes the Iliad and hones in on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus – a relationship which scholars for centuries have debated the nature of – and makes it an explicitly gay romance, filling in the blanks of their relationship. Fans of the Iliad know it’s a tragic story from the outset, but it’s also not without genuine moments of beauty and tenderness, making for an incredibly emotional ride from start to finish. The Song of Achilles is ultimately a testament to the strength of the love between these two characters – a love that’s endured throughout the ages.

tender-by-belinda-mckeonTender by Belinda McKeon: In 1990s Dublin, two young people meet – Catherine and James – and immediately form an intense bond, which quickly spirals out of control for them both. I debated whether or not I wanted to include this, because its inclusion on this list is a bit of a spoiler (if you read the summary on Goodreads, there’s no mention of an LGBT+ character). But you do find this out pretty early on (about 20% into the book, or not even that far) so I honestly don’t think I’ve ruined too much for you. I did really want to include Tender, because it’s a fragile and overwhelmingly sad exploration of the self-destructive behavior that people engage in to try to hide or suppress part of their identity, and a good reminder that for as much progress as our society has made, being out even today or as recently as 1990 isn’t a simple thing.

Honorable mentions to Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka-Brunt, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and Alcestis by Katharine Beutner, all of which I was also considering for this list.

So what are your favorite LGBT+ reads?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

US pub date: March 7, 2017

★★★★★

Sometimes you encounter a book that’s been so hyped up that you’re almost afraid to read it, because there’s no way it could meet or surpass your expectations, right? But then sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and let yourself believe the hype, and Exit West is the reason why, because this book was every bit as extraordinary as I’d been led to believe.

Exit West is a delicate yet hard-hitting exploration of the immigration experience, and of the strength of character required to leave your home and family, without any guarantee that where you’re going will be safer than what you’re leaving behind. Both hopeful and achingly sad, this short little novel is an absolute tour de force.

Saeed and Nadia, two young people from an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, meet and fall in love, even as they find themselves living in increasingly dangerous conditions as their city is torn apart. Meanwhile rumors start to crop up of doors that can transport you to another part of the world, but not without a price, and not without danger and uncertainty. Left with no choice, Saeed and Nadia pay for a passage through a door, and step through. These doors are not the point of the story, so those who were drawn to this novel for its promise of magical realism may be disappointed; they’re merely the abstract literary device that Mohsin Hamid chooses to employ in order to elevate themes of relocation, alienation, and the commonality of the human experience.

As Saeed and Nadia are bandied about to different locations across the globe, their relationship matures and regresses in accordance with each new circumstance they find themselves in. We follow their journey from the early moments of attraction to the quiet tedium of a love gone stale, as their relationship eventually, inevitably takes a turn that tugs at your heart as a reader, because even in a story characterized by fear and hunger and war and brutality – especially in a story characterized by these things – we want to believe that it’s possible to move forward, that it’s possible that love and normalcy can be retained. Devastating as this story is at times, it’s also not without hope, thanks in part to being grounded so firmly in the lives of these two compelling central characters, who grow and change as needed to survive, but who never become irrevocably hardened by the horrors they experience.

While there’s an undeniable universality to this story, this was a novel written for the times we’re living in, that speaks, most ostensibly, to the Syrian refugee crisis. We can’t turn a blind eye to the millions of families and individuals affected by this crisis, and Hamid uses his narrative to challenge us to inhabit a more compassionate and forgiving world. (More information on the Syrian refugee crisis here: x, x, x.)

Hamid’s prose is exquisite. I can’t conclude this review without mentioning that. This unconventional journey that he takes us on is chronicled in a writing style that’s appropriately wistful, poetic, subtle, and powerful. It’s exactly this effect of the writing paired with the story that makes this novel so unique and striking.

Part literary fiction, part romance, part war story, with a touch of magic, Exit West is the sort of book that has a lot to offer. But it’s also a quiet story, and rather than expecting to be blown away right out of the gate, you have to be willingly to immerse yourself in this novel and allow it to slowly begin to wash over you, until you’re completely submerged.

+ link to review on goodreads