I’ve got three WIFYR-inspired bite-sized reviews for you today! What I mean by that is that I was inspired to read all three of these books because of the WIFYR writing conference I just attended. The first two were written by Trent Reedy, who ran my workshop and the last one was written by Carol Lynch Williams, who ran the conference. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
Published by Scholastic Audio Books, Arthur A. Levine Books on July 1, 2012
Genres: Young Adult
Narrator: Ariana Delawari
Length: 8 hours and 27 minutes
My content rating: YA (Themes of war, Some implied sex and implied abuse)
In the tradition of SHABANU, DAUGHTER OF THE WIND and THE BREADWINNER, a beautiful debut about a daughter of Afghanistan discovering new friends and opportunities after the defeat of the Taliban.
Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her--"Inshallah," God willing.
Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to her village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha--but can she dare to hope they'll come true?
When I first mentioned that I was going to be attending a WIFYR workshop led by Trent Reedy, lots of my readers gushed about Words in the Dust. I was chagrined to admit that I hadn’t read it yet, though it had been on my TBR for quite some time. I’m so glad that this conference gave me that little extra nudge I needed to pick this book up—I had no idea what I was missing out on!
This book explores Afghan life and culture and the sometimes tenuous relationship that the Afghan people have with American soldiers. In this book, the Americans aren’t portrayed as perfect people or as saviors—in fact, sometimes they can be downright ignorant of the very culture they’re living in—but the Afghans aren’t perfect either. While we see some elements of Afghan culture as beautiful, the darker side is also shown, especially where women are concerned.
Zulaikha’s story (and the story of her family) is both heartwrenching and hopeful. Reedy based it loosely on his own experiences in Afghanistan, and many of the details of the story come from that place—there can be no doubt that the emotional stakes in the story are real. That emotional heartbeat of the story shines through.
I had the pleasure of talking to Trent about the book after I read it, and it’s quite obvious that the strength of his conviction and his passion to tell Zulaikha’s story is still alive. He told me about some of the real-life circumstances that were mirrored in the book, and you can still see the horror in his eyes as he talks about it. The brutality of war is real, but this book puts a spotlight on hope and gives us an understanding of the Afghan people and how they have struggled to recover from the injustices of the Taliban.
(I listened to the audiobook, and thought the narration was fantastic. I loved that the author’s note was also included, since it was important).
If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books on August 26, 2014
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Length: 9 hrs and 14 mins
Source: Purchased, Library
Mike was seven when his father was killed in mysterious circumstances in Afghanistan. Eight years later, the family still hasn't recovered: Mike's mom is overworked and overprotective; his younger sister Mary feels no connection to the father she barely remembers; and in his quest to be "the man of the family," Mike knows he's missing out on everyday high school life.
Then, out of the blue, Mike receives a letter from his father - the first of a series Dad wrote in Afghanistan, just in case he didn't come home, meant to share some wisdom with his son on the eve of Mike's 16th birthday. As the letters come in, Mike revels in spending time with his dad again, and takes his encouragement to try new things - to go out for the football team, and ask out the beautiful Isma. But who's been keeping the letters all these years? And how did Dad actually die? As the answers to these mysteries are revealed, Mike and his family find a way to heal and move forward at last.
I wasn’t sure at first if this book was going to be for me. The beginning of the book seemed like it might focus a bit too much on football with snippets of military life. Since I’m not much of a football fan (and military stories are hit or miss for me as well), I wasn’t sure this would work for me—but the story ended up being much more nuanced than I expected and was a really enjoyable read!
Mike’s dad dies in Afghanistan and no one will talk to him about what happened. They just want to tell him that his dad was a “hero” and leave it at that, which leaves Mike feeling no sense of closure. When he suddenly starts getting letters from his dad, he realizes that this is his chance to understand him—and to understand his family dynamics (including his mom’s intense overprotectiveness). Mike’s dad’s messages are poignant, and it’s easy to see how Mike is so affected by them. I especially loved that there were some connections to Words in the Dust that are eventually revealed (though you definitely wouldn’t need to read WitD first). And I loved the blooming romance between Mike and Isma and the complicated friendships and rivalries (some that are redeemed, and some which aren’t).
(I did this one half on audiobook and half via the hardcover that I bought. Enjoyed the narration, but I just wanted to finish it more quickly.)
Never That Far by Carol Lynch Williams
Published by Shadow Mountain on April 3, 2018
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
My content rating: MG (Deals with themes of death)
After her grampa dies, the last place Libby expects to see him is sitting on the edge of her bed. But that’s what happens the night after the funeral.
Even more surprising is that Grampa has three important things to tell her: first, that she isn’t alone or forgotten—“The dead ain’t never that far from the living,” he says; second, that she has “the Sight”—the ability to see family members who have died; and third, that there is something special just for her in the lake. Something that could help her and her father—if she can find it.
Libby and Grampa try to help her father heal from his grief, but it will take all of Libby’s courage and her gift of Sight to convince her father that the dead are never truly gone.
Never That Far is set in the lush, rural landscape of central Florida and is a story that celebrates friendship, hope, and the power of family love.
This book shows how Libby navigates the loss of her grandfather. Libby has to process her pain, but she’s helped by the fact that she has the Sight and can still talk to her grandpa after he dies. But her father, on the other hand, refuses to believe in the ability to see the dead. He grieves the loss of his father (and his wife and mother) and pulls away from Libby. The story really becomes more about Libby reaching out to her father and closing the gap between them. The story is sweet, and I loved the paranormal aspect (always a bonus with me).
My favorite element of the book is the unique voice. The Libby is a twelve-year-old girl in rural Florida (in the 60’s, I believe), and her speech and inner dialogue reflect that beautifully. I really enjoyed reading a book in this voice, but some people might be put off by the speech patterns since they’re different from the way most of us talk. For me, it was a definite bonus, though.
This was a super quick read, with many lines that I wanted to read again and again. Very sweet. I highly recommend it!