All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: With The Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo

With The Fire On High 
Elizabeth Acevedo
Hardie Grant Egmont
2019, 388p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Ever since she got pregnant during freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela.

The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.  Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible.

But then an opportunity presents itself to not only enrol in a culinary arts class in her high school, but also to travel abroad to Spain for an immersion program. Emoni knows that her decisions post high school have to be practical ones, but despite the rules she’s made for her life — and everyone else’s rules that she refuses to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

I heard a lot of wonderful things about this book last year when it was published and it was always on my radar to read. Then I realised that it would fit neatly into at least one category for my Reading Women Podcast Challenge, which bumped it up my priority list a bit. I hadn’t read anything for that challenge yet and I’d like to make steady progress in each of my challenges throughout the year, rather than trying to scramble to find reads to finish them when it’s coming to the end of the year. So I requested this from my local library.

Emoni had a baby about two years ago when she was around fifteen. She’s now seventeen and her “baby girl” is old enough to go to daycare. Emoni fought hard to stay in her regular school, rather than going to a school specifically for young teenage mothers and she finds her plate full up with not only parenting her child and finishing school but also working part time at a burger place in order to earn some extra money. She lives with her grandmother, who also raised her after Emoni’s mother died during her birth and her father wasn’t able to cope with the idea of single fatherhood, heading back to Puerto Rico. He visits every year, appearing and vanishing at will, leaving Emoni with some very complicated feelings about him. She’s no longer in a relationship with her daughter’s father although the two do have a relatively amicable coparenting agreement, albeit one that favours Tyrone in that he only has every other weekend now that she’s getting old enough to have sleepovers away from Emoni. The day to day parenting load is all on Emoni and her abuela, who has helped Emoni from day one.

Emoni’s passion is food and she’d love to work within this industry, but she’s not sure how to map out her future. School can be a struggle for her and university is just more years between her and earning enough money to support her daughter (and grandmother). Plus she’ll graduate with debt. Then her school introduces a culinary arts class, which could help Emoni realise the future she wants for herself.

I adored this book. From the very beginning I was hooked on the story and really became invested in Emoni’s life, her attempts to balance everything and make the best life she could for herself and her daughter. She’s dedicated and determined and works so hard. She is pretty honest about her abilities as a student – plenty of work doesn’t come easy for her and she knows a lot of colleges will be out of her grasp. She’s a natural at cooking though, instinctively knowing what ingredients complement each other and how to really give a meal something extra. Her food evokes memory and she just has that true connection with food. She’s not a recipe or rules person however, which causes her some conflict with the chef in charge of the culinary arts class she enrols in at school. He knows she’s incredibly gifted but in order to do the job, you have to learn the theory and have that background knowledge. I really enjoyed the way the two of them clashed a bit at first but I think deep down you could tell how supportive he was of her and how he thought she had a place in the future in that industry. The ideas and motivations that Emoni has to raise money for a trip to Spain is really impressive – she thinks outside the box, practical ideas that not only help them in their goal but give them experience.

I appreciated the balance in this story – there’s equal parts devoted to Emoni’s struggles with her ‘load’ – school, work, her daughter, her grandmother as well as her complicated feelings for and relationship with her father, as well as her precarious co-parenting agreement with her ex-boyfriend and the difficulties faced in sharing that as well as the complications of his family not approving of her. There’s also a new boy at school who wants to be friends with Emoni but she definitely wants to make sure that he’s not just looking for one thing. Seeing as she got pregnant very young, she saw how that changed the way people looked at her, and how they continue to still look at her that way. She didn’t get pregnant alone but her ex doesn’t face the same sort of judgement that Emoni does and he also has very little in the way of responsibility. He also wants to tell Emoni what she can and can’t do in regards to other boys and who she can and cannot bring around her home and have around their daughter. I liked the way Emoni stood up for herself calmly but firmly. It’s the same when she feels looked down upon by his mother, or judged for not doing the right thing. I admired her restraint at times, the way she managed to keep herself collected even when she was being unfairly treated.

I should also mention the food, and Emoni’s love of and devotion to preparing the food of her culture. Her grandmother is from Puerto Rico and her father has gone back there to live. I love reading books about food, where food makes up an important part of the narrative and this book has some mouthwatering descriptions and Emoni’s passion for cooking leaps off the page. I especially like the way her cooking played back into her relationship with her father and his complicated feelings about eating her food. It was such a small part of the book but it was very powerful. Also Emoni emails her aunt, her late mother’s sister a lot and they swap recipes back and forth, Emoni often altering them or adding her own flair and then sending it back. It was a way for her to be able to stay connected to her mother’s family. So many subtle ways in which the author explores relationships and connections.

I really enjoyed this. I know Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X is also well lauded but I generally do not do well with poetry. However I might just be tempted to try it…and I’m definitely looking forward to future offerings.

9/10

Book #19 of 2020

I’m going to count this one for prompt #1 – author from the Caribbean or India (with the diaspora counting for this prompt). Elizabeth Acevedo was born in the US to Dominican parents. This is the first book completed in the challenge!

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Reading Challenge 2016: Australian Women Writers Challenge

AWWC2016

I’m a little late with this but I am once again signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016. In previous years I’ve read a lot of books for this challenge and I’m sure I will again this year – it’s the sort of challenge I don’t have to seek out titles for, they’re just what I read. I’ll still be counting my books towards the challenge and trying to keep up with linking my reviews on the site but this year I’m also going to try something new.

I need to try and diversify my reading – it’s one of my personal reading goals for 2016, so that means more literary fiction, more classics, more stuff like fantasy and science fiction, more crime – basically more everything except contemporary fiction, YA and romance, lol. I’d like to try some authors of different backgrounds and books that feature more diversity within their characters.

2016 is all about quality and diversity for me, not quantity. If you have any suggestions of must reads or books you know are coming out that you think might fit, please leave them in the comments.

Note to self: pay off my library fine so I can go back to using it.

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Review: Nona & Me – Clare Atkins

Nona & Me (online)Nona & Me
Clare Atkins
Black Inc Books
2014, 286p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Rosie and Nona have grown up as close as sisters – they are sisters despite the fact that Nona is Aboriginal and Rosie is not. Nona’s family members have been adopting Rosie’s family members for generations now and the two families are as one. As children, Rosie and Nona laugh, learn and play together. They are inseparable until they are nine when Nona moves away.

When she returns at age 15, things are different. Despite the fact that Rosie still lives in the remote Aboriginal community with her mother, she no longer goes to the school there. Instead she goes to the high school in the nearby mining ‘town’ and has moved on to other friendships. Rosie’s social life revolves around the popular and confident Selena as well as Selena’s good looking older brother Nick, neither of whom have good opinions about the local indigenous population.

It is 2007 and the year that John Howard announces his infamous and controversial “Intervention” policy which puts the mining town population at odds with the Aboriginal communities. Rosie has been struggling to fit in because of her upbringing – she’s been brought up to think differently about the Aboriginal people and their lifestyles. Now she finds herself in the unenviable position of having to choose where her loyalty lies: with her best friend, her sister, the one who is supposed to be her family forever or her new first love.

In a word, this book is powerful.

It begins in 2007 when Nona returns to the area she left 6 years ago and Rosie sees her at the high school. At 15, Rosie is on the cusp of many things and she’s struggling with her place. She’s been raised on a remote Aboriginal community with parents who respect and cherish their way of life. She learned smatterings of the local dialect, had her own Aboriginal name given to her and spent much of her time playing with Nona, her Aboriginal yapa (sister) or spending time with her extended family. However since Nona left and Rosie moved to the high school in the nearby mining town, things became different. There’s not the same sort of tolerance, understanding and respect for the indigenous community that she was raised with. At times there is judgement, stereotyping and blatant racism.

Rosie is torn between a desire to be ‘normal’ like the other kids – to be able to live in town and go to the pool, or the shops for a coffee whenever she wants. To go to a party and wear a normal dress bought from a store instead of something her mother made for her by reusing some other household cloth item. She wants to have friends, maybe a boyfriend in the handsome and older Nick. At the same time, she can’t bear to hear the sentiments that these town people often express. She is half ashamed of where she lives in front of them, but at the same time feels the need to passionately defend both the community and its population when they are disparaged.

I could really understand Rosie’s conflict, I think that desire to fit in and be accepted is present in all of us in some way or another, most definitely when we’re in the awkward teenage part of our lives. She’s already on the outer not living in the mining town and being limited when she can get in and out to social events and she knows that voicing some of her real opinions and even some truths will get her seen as an outcast. When she begins seeing Nick, the older brother of her friend Selena, it’s very clear that they have different ideas and that Nick will never really be able to understand Rosie’s upbringing and relationship with the Aboriginal community. You always want the people you care about to understand you, or to at least be able to accept your differences and it becomes obvious that Nick and Rosie are going to really struggle to find this harmony.

As well as showing the close relationship between Rosie and Nona and the similarity of their childhoods, this book also shows the divide that their lives have taken. Rosie has stayed in school and is already thinking of the College of Fine Arts in Sydney when she graduates in a couple of years. By contrast, despite wanting to become a nurse after a stint in hospital as a child, Nona has missed a lot of school and will need much in the way of help and support if she is to be able to graduate and complete the training that she will need. Despite being only 15, she lives pretty much an adult lifestyle, just another difference in the two cultures and this is something Rosie does struggle with. She doesn’t see how this can or should happen to a girl who is the same age as her, despite having grown up within the culture and probably having seen it before. It also takes time to highlight the other problems that Aboriginals in remote communities face, such as drinking and “sniffing” (petrol or glue) and the ways in which some are attempting to help them, rather than jailing them or punishing them.

Nona & Me highlights really just how far we still have to go. I know it was only 7 or 8 years ago but I’d actually totally forgotten about the “intervention” policy until it appeared in this book. It showed me just how far removed I am from the communities in the Northern Territory and other outback areas and how little I know about what it’s like there. This book gave me a glimpse into that: the oppressive heat, the remoteness, the hunting and fishing they do for both fun and food and the bonds that can develop between two very different families. I would have loved Nona’s side of the story as well as Rosie’s, I find myself wondering about her long after I’ve finished the book.

Highly, highly recommend this one….to everyone.

9/10

Book #206 of 2014

AWWW2014

Nona & Me is the 77th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

You can check out author Clare Atkins’s guest post, The mother who writes and the writer who mothers here

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Author Guest Post: Clare Atkins

Today I am happy to welcome Australian author Clare Atkins to my blog. Clare has been a scriptwriter for several very successful television shows and has released her first novel, Nona & Me this month with Black In Books.

Clare Atkins author photo

The mother who writes, and the writer who mothers.

 

Many authors say that writing a book is like giving birth. In the case of Nona & Me this was more literally the case than usual. The idea for the novel was conceived just months before I conceived my third child, and most of the writing was done while I was pregnant. My due date provided an unmovable deadline for the first draft. I was racing the bump and I won by an extremely slim margin: I finished the draft on a Thursday, printed it out to give to community members for feedback on Friday, and went into labour on Saturday.

I had a girl and we called her Nina, after Nina Simone. Funnily enough we didn’t even think of the similarity to ‘Nona’ until weeks later, when I started getting feedback on my first draft. The story is set in the remote Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, where I was living at the time. I felt it was important to get feedback from people who had lived and grown up there. I also worked with a fantastic Yolngu woman and teacher, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr Stubbs, to ensure the material was culturally correct. I took my newborn baby Nina with me to these feedback meetings, balancing her on my lap or laying her down to sleep on a mattress while we talked. Nina’s days growing inside me may have been filled with the tap of fingers on keyboard, but her early days in the world were very much about human connection.

Those first-draft conversations centred on how to make the friendship between Nona and Rosie, and their two families, stronger. The bones of it were there, but it needed more detail and love to flesh it out. I had talked to many people for research during the writing process, but now I was looking for something specific: I wanted to talk to mothers with children who had grown up in Yirrkala, to learn what that friendship felt like from the inside. I was lucky: friends put me in touch with a Ngapaki lady who raised her children in Yirrkala in the nineties. She was no longer living there, but I spoke with her for hours on the phone. She was generous with her time and open about her experiences: her family’s life had been very much intertwined with that of a Yolngu family. The Yolngu mother had become one of her best friends. They had fished, cooked, laughed and cried together. Their children grew up as siblings, with the community their extended family. It was Rosie and Nona’s mothers’ story in real life. Hearing about this manifestation of the ideal of it ‘taking a village to raise a child’ brought tears to my eyes.

The second draft was a lot stronger. I rewrote while Nina slept: a few hours in the morning, a few in the afternoon. I submitted it to my publisher, Black Inc, and luckily they loved it. The editing process was gentle and supportive, like a mother cooing to her child, wanting only the best for its life. And now, two years after Nona & Me was first conceived, the book is making its way out into the world. And I feel anxious and excited because, even if it isn’t perfect, it is my baby. I can only hope readers love and cherish it as much as I have.

Nona & Me (online)

Thank you so much Clare for your beautiful post! I’ll be back tomorrow with a review of Nona & Me but in the meantime, here’s a little more about it courtesy of Goodreads/the publisher:

Rosie and Nona are sisters. Yapas.

They are also best friends. It doesn’t matter that Rosie is white and Nona is Aboriginal: their family connections tie them together for life.

Born just five days apart in a remote corner of the Northern Territory, the girls are inseperable, until Nona moves away at the age of nine. By the time she returns, they’re in Year 10 and things have changed. Rosie has lost interest in the community, preferring to hang out in the nearby mining town, where she goes to school with the glamorous Selena, and Selena’s gorgeous older brother Nick.

When a political announcement highlights divisions between the Aboriginal community and the mining town, Rosie is put in a difficult position: will she be forced to choose between her first love and her oldest friend?

AWWW2014

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