30 Days of Pride: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Title: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication date: 18 February 2020

Genre: Adult | Literary fiction

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

I find it horrendously difficult to review literary fiction because you want to live up to the intense delight and specificity of the prose and I can just never manage to do so. It can also be so difficult to talk about a book in which very little happens, that is so reflective and contemplative as Real Life. But I’ll try! I really enjoyed Real Life. Outside of my more frequent genres of reading, it is such an expressive and contemplative journey of a queer Black man questioning his existence.

Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black, Southern man from Alabama, who’s at graduate school at a very white Midwestern university studying biochemistry. After an unexpected encounter with a friend he thought was straight, Wallace is forced to confront his life, his misery, his past trauma, and his very existence in a world he feels so on the edge of.

Real Life isn’t a book with a huge ton of action or drama. Instead, we follow Wallace from the inside. It’s a highly contemplative novel, and one that evokes pain not dissimilar to being brutally punched in the chest several times. Many times throughout reading, I paused and sat there with that feeling of a hole in my chest, taught with anger and the unfairness at how Wallace is treated, and the way he is living life so devoid of happiness. We see the way a hugely traumatizing event as a child has impacted on every relationship in his life, how his parents reactions have forced him into a man who struggles to centre himself and his feelings and hurt in the world, thinking them so worthless to others. He works so hard to please others, at the expense of his own feelings. It was particularly difficult and confronting to read the passages where Wallace considers the racism and microaggressions he is faced with for being Black, both at his University and in his friendship group. To see the stark effect of these constant attacks on Wallace. To see him so without hope, without happiness, so empty. To see himself ostracised even within a group of friends, because of the silence of those supposed to care about him.

Taylor’s prose is an easy, flowing read for literary fiction (which I so often find overwrought and pretentious). But this wasn’t. It felt very tenderly crafted, each word chosen so carefully to pull the reader into Wallace’s emotional state, almost hurting to the point of numbness at times, as Wallace was. It is beautifully and evocatively written. We spend most of the novel in Wallace’s head, as this story is highly reflective as Wallace considers his place in his friendship group and in this new relationship. As a lot of literary fiction tends to be, there is no hugely satisfactory AHA moment, when the villains get what they deserve. Much like life, this story isn’t happy. As much as I longed for there to be a moment for Wallace’s friends to be taken down a peg, for them to suffer for how they’ve made Wallace suffer, part of the most painful and powerful moments of this book is in the realisation at the end that sometimes you don’t get that moment. And that this story could so easily be not a story, but someone’s life. That moment is painful, in the recognition that this is life for a lot of people, but powerful because in knowing and recognising that, we can fight within ourselves and in those around us to change.

Real Life definitely deserves the praise and acclaim it has been receiving. Very inwardly focused and reflective, it’s a very evocative book, one that will have you crying alonngisde Wallace as be contemplates his life.

Book review: When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Title: When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia

Publication date: 28 July 2016

Genre: Contemporary | Young adult

Page extent: 354 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads blurb: Before Mina, my life was like a completed jigsaw puzzle but Mina has pushed the puzzle onto the floor. I have to start all over again, figuring out where the pieces go.

When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees – standing on opposite sides.

Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre.

Michael’s parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values.

They want to stop the boats. 
Mina wants to stop the hate.

When Mina wins a scholarship to Michael’s private school, their lives crash together blindingly.

A novel for anyone who wants to fight for love, and against injustice.

Honestly I am so here for all these political activism books I’ve been reading this last month. What a book. This is an absolutely unforgiving, honest, incredible portrayal of refugee politics in Australia.

When Michael met Mina he was on the opposite side of a protest. Accompanying his parents, founders of new political party Aussie Values, Michael is protesting to protect white Australian values – he’s all about stopping those boats, refugees should wait in the queue and all the other racist Australian shit. 

Mina is on the other side. As a refugee from Afghanistan, Mina has lived through entering Australia via boat, and the subsequent detention centre. When Mina wins a scholarship to Michael’s prestigious school in the Sydney Northern Shores, their paths cross again. Here, Mina faces the aggression and hate that has become everyday and normal for people of colour. Idiot teachers and idiot students dislike that she’s different and strong and fierce and not afraid to show it. She isn’t afraid to hide her views, and will shut you down if she disagrees. She is SO AWESOME.

When Michael Met Mina is a tale about activism and growth. Michael is a product of his upbringing. A classic case of what happens when you just go along with your parents’ beliefs. He’s never questioned their beliefs, or his own, until he meets Mina. The feelings he develops for Mina lead him to question what he’s learned.

He’s a bit of a shithead. I won’t lie, I can’t say I ever really got on board the Michael train. His utter privilege and lack of consideration for Mina as he ‘grew’ as a person and learned how not to be a racist asshat just really made me unable to root for him and the relationship. And if he hadn’t thought Mina was hot and wanted to get to know her….would he ever really have changed, since that was the spark that led to his growth?

“You want me to make it easier for you to confront privilege because God knows even anti-racism has to be done in a way that makes the majority comfortable?”

At the end of the day: Mina deserves so much better. She is such a strong character, such an absolute fighter. She’s so fierce and brilliant and can stand up to people like Michael. I just don’t understand how she could fall for him. Even as he’s changing as a person, he does it in a way that makes it all about him. Not cool, Michael.

The book does however fight stereotypes in a brilliant way – whenever someone makes a comment typical to hear in Australia, it is questioned and fought against. Nothing is ignored, and the book delves deep into some very recognisably Australian values, making it an extremely real and relatable book. It pictures both small and large acts of racism, from the little constant comments and stares, to the physical violence. I also thought the way Michael’s parents were pictured was absolutely spot on – they are nice, kind people. They have a ton of friends. They are cool, calm, and collected. But they’re also racists – and I liked that they were portrayed as such. Not all racists are the stereotypical incel-Nazi. We interact with them everyday. It was excellent to see this portrayal, which is something I don’t think often pictured in books – we usually only get the obvious racist, not the more common calm and polite racist. And really, it could be argued that they are the ones with more power to harm, given how they do often appear so rational and collected, as Michael’s parents did in all their interviews in the book.

When Michael Met Mina is a great story about addressing stereotypes and fighting against racism. But the romance fell short for me as I really didn’t get behind Michael’s problematic behaviour and comments.

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

Book review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Title: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Publisher: HarperTeen

Publication date: 16 October 2018

Genre: Contemporary| Young adult

Page extent: 310 pages

Goodreads blurb: It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down. 

What an absolutely wonderful book!! You can tell this book was so personal to the author because the emotion, the relevance, the relatability are all so strong, it’s just so stunning. 

Shirin can’t remember life before 9/11. That was when it changed. Before, she was just another slightly odd person on the street. Now she’s the enemy. She’s branded a terrorist. She is attacked verbally, physically, mentally, wherever she goes. So, she puts up a front: she is unbothered by the stares and accusations, unbothered by the treatment. She puts earbuds in and listens to music to help her ignore the world around her. 

But when her brother starts a breakdancing crew, and when Ocean enters her world, her well fought stance to stay unbothered changes. Because Ocean is nice, and kind, and says stupid idiot things but he’s so kind and loving and he makes her want to pretend the world isn’t awful. But it is. And whilst Ocean doesn’t want to accept it, Shirin doesn’t want him to be hurt by what will happen if suddenly she’s seen with the star basketball player and darling of the school, Ocean.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is such an honest and brutal tale. From the constant microaggressions Shirin suffers through, to the utter hate which follows her and Ocean getting together, to the pain and despair she feels at having to hurt Ocean to help him, it’s such an entrancing and beautifully painful read. Told from Shirin’s POV results in so much insight and exploration of her feelings, we can see how much she struggles to stay unbothered and strong, to see how she wants to open up to Ocean, but doesn’t trust the world around her to let her be (and she’s right…) But we also see her change from the intimidating, unflinching person at the start of the book, to someone who has learned how to open up and how to trust, and accepts that maybe she doesn’t have to be so closed off anymore. It’s such a remarkable coming of age tale, and beautiful to see Shirin’s thoughts and emotions as she deals with both hate and love. 

Ocean is also such a lovely character. We seem him fight for Shirin without understanding of the consequences, too caught up in his privilege to see the truth, and so it comes as such a shock when the fallout happens. But he’s so determined to stand up to everyone around him because Shirin is worth it (she is SO fucking worth it, because she is awesome). 

I loved the element of breakdancing – it was interesting to see Shirin’s confidence grow across the novel, as she grew herself, and I loved the joy that was felt on the pages when she danced. 

The book will also truly open people’s eyes to the hate and constant aggression Muslims face, as well as the very real, very awful impact this has. I’d love to say this book will change people’s behaviour – and I really hope it does, because it bloody well should. But I can’t say I have that much faith in humanity. 

This book was such a beautiful romance, with a clearly personal touch from the author. It was so lovely to read and the last few lines were just absolutely brilliant 😭😭

Paws out,
Rach + Draco