A Review of Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein

Published February 16, 2023 by Bloomsbury

Hungry Ghosts unfolds over several months in 1940s Trinidad, where the tide of colonialism is visibly withdrawing, but the prevailing mood is uncertainty about the future, not celebration. This is a heady brew of a book, steeped in local atmospherics and so tautly plotted that the reader does not forget for a single page that a disaster is coming.

The novel revolves around three places: Bell Village, the Changoor farm, and a nearby barrack. Families of workers live cheek-by-jowl in the barrack, a ramshackle building of wood and tin, divided into rooms for each family. Among these are the Saroops—Hans, Shweta, and their son, Krishna. Hans works the land for the wealthy and eccentric Dalton Changoor, whose sudden disappearance triggers the plot when his wife Marlee receives a ransom note and asks Hans to stay on the farm for her protection. To the disappointment and hurt of his wife and son, Hans has internalised the racial and ethnic hierarchy that runs through Trinidadian society under colonial rule, and it is their growing disillusion with him as he recedes from the life he has created in the barracks that fuels Krishna’s rejection of ‘civilised’ life—the Village, the Changoor’s wealth, his Presbyterian School.

Hungry Ghosts is embedded in the social and cultural context of its time. Hosein uses the Saroop family to show not just the historic subordinate legal status of Hindus in Trinidad but also how that public inequality permeated the private sphere. For example, Hans and Shweta’s marriage is not officially recognised by the state because it was not consecrated in a Christian church. After a heated argument, Krishna realises what his father said about him under his breath “bastard child,” revealing what he thinks his son’s place is in the dominant social order. At school, meanwhile, Krishna is expected to play the part of a ‘civilised’ Christian, as distinct from his Hindu family. Throughout the novel, even the barracks begin to seem like a house under siege—from state-sanctioned discrimination as much as from nature itself, with the walls always seemingly one storm away from collapse.

One of the novel’s chief strengths is the complexity of each of these characters, especially their moral ambiguity. Hosein allows the reader considerable freedom to judge the relative importance of their many motivations. Notably, none of the Saroops is immune from the dream of a better, more comfortable life in the Village, despite their suspicions that they will only be transplanting their unhappiness somewhere new. Shweta is haunted by the death of their firstborn, a tragedy the parents never discuss with one another, and this missing daughter is the ‘hungry ghost’ of the title, her memory eating away at their strained marriage. Hans is driven by lust and adoration for Marlee—the luxurious lifestyle she embodies, and the dream of starting again, leaving past mistakes and tragedies behind—but also by internalised ideas about Christian civilisation and Hindu backwardness, and, probably, the belief that Shweta and Krishna will benefit in some ‘trickle-down’ way from his association with the wealthy. With adolescent righteousness, Krishna rails against the compromises, social climbing, and pretensions of his father, but nevertheless dares to dream that by moving to the Village he will win over the girl he loves. Marlee, meanwhile, who is in many ways presented as the novel’s antagonist, is also given a backstory that shows us how her character—her mixture of social conformism and self-interest—was shaped by an oppressive, suffocating marriage entered into as an escape from prostitution.

Breaking up the linear narrative with backstory chapters lends added depth to these characters, which is necessary given the size of the cast (a list of characters is given at the start). Often these backstories help us to sympathise with characters we otherwise would not, by posing their character flaws as the products of earlier trauma, as with Hans and Marlee. While the strength of this approach is that it extends our generosity and discourages us from judging characters rather than their actions, it sometimes makes it harder to discern what is really motivating these characters, and so inevitably some of the human drama and conflict risks being muddied or diluted. For example, through his backstory we understand that Hans is motivated by a fear of becoming his violent father, but how this relates to the decisions he makes throughout the novel is not always clear. Hosein also has one chapter shift back and forth between two synchronized narratives, so we can see what characters are doing in different places at the same time—a technique that helps sharpen the pace and avoid the feeling that we have spent too long in one character’s company.

My ARC’s blurb informed me that the novel is inspired by oral storytelling traditions, which I could feel in the frequent use of clipped, incomplete sentences to slow the pace and zoom in on revealing detail, as well as in the occasional direct address and the freely roaming third-person narrator, interspersing scenes with characters’ dreams and memories. The narrative voice is strong and distinct, engaging the reader for over 300 pages, although the downside of this is that sometimes I would have preferred a more externalised point-of-view, allowing the reader to infer why these characters behave as they do, rather than always being told the reasons. That said, even with such access to their interior lives, I finished the novel feeling that each character still represented a unique puzzle that was mine to try—and probably fail—to solve. In other words, continually describing the contents of their heads did not render these characters any less complex.

Hungry Ghosts is a heavy read: its moments of joy are few and far between; the plot advances slowly, marshalling many threads; and the reliance on close third-person holds us close to these characters’ fear, anger, and sadness. But Hosein has realized his characters in such depth that we care about everyone, while the dread-laden atmospherics leave us in no doubt about the tragedy to come. This is an impressive debut by a talented storyteller, which deserves a wide readership.

Sea Change

Nico doesn’t know that Daddy’s dead, only that he’s been gone a lot longer than he should have been. Mama says maybe the boat found more scallops than there normally are this early in the season, and maybe he decided to see how many he could catch in one go. But Daddy’s never fished more than two weeks at a time, and tomorrow morning makes three since he left. I know he’s gone for good this time, but I don’t say this to my brother.

Nico runs down the beach in nothing but his swim trunks, wire bucket in his hand. It’s October and the water’s barely warm enough for swimming, but Mama asked me to get some quahogs today since the weather’s so nice. They bury down deep in the sand and you have to get out past your waist to find the big-bellied ones, and I hate the feeling of eelgrass on my feet so I told Nico he had to do it. I say it’s a game and that if he fills the peck basket in under an hour then I’ll make us hot dogs for dinner. They’re his favorite.

Mama’s been working overnight shifts at the diner this week, on account of Daddy’s trip being prolonged. That’s what she calls it, prolonged. She says it’s running longer than it should but it’ll be over soon, that he can’t call to say good night since he’s working hard to find fish like most of the other dads on our island. Thing is, most of those dads have already come in and gone back, unloading their catch and spending a night at home like our own father was supposed to. I know Mama’s worried ’cause she’s been talking in her sleep again. Real words but also sounds like she’s crying and doesn’t want anyone to hear. I stay quiet when I do, until the house is still and the only sound is my brother breathing in the bed next to mine. He sleeps through everything, which makes it easy to protect him.

“I found three, Mari!” Nico yells from the water. Daddy always goes quahogging when he’s home, so I think he’d be okay with me making Nico do it now. I give him two thumbs up and watch the horizon, looking for boats coming back from the edge of the world. I stay still and wait for something to change, but the wind is steady from the southwest and I get itchy from the spray.  I decide to walk down toward the end of North Cove, knowing Nico will be fine without me for a few minutes.

The beach is lined with new houses, the kind owned by people who live in Boston and only come for a few weeks in the summer. Skukes, we call them behind their backs. Each June they come down in droves and pluck shells and sea glass from the surf, burn midnight bonfires. They shop at the outlet mall; they don’t go to church on Sundays. I remember when I was little and there were only a few of these houses lining the shore and now there’s so many that they look like a wall, long and high. I’ve made friends with a few of the kids, but they’ve never asked me up to see the inside. They make me feel like I don’t belong when really it’s the other way around. Mama says the houses are up on posts so that the hurricanes don’t wash them away; Daddy says it’s because the people that own them think they’re above us; I think they’re both right.

The wind’s picking up and I untie Mama’s pink sweatshirt from around my waist as I turn back. It’s the one Daddy bought her when we went to Cuttyhunk last spring. It smells like her perfume, all powdery and clean, and I lift the edge of one sleeve to my nose so I can find her better. Mama says that even when you don’t have nice things, you should still try to make it look like you do. That’s why she always wears perfume, even when it’s Saturday and she’s gutting bluefish for dinner. I breathe her in and walk back.

Nico’s tugging the basket behind him as he comes up the beach and I see it’s already full. He’s beaming sunshine from the round spots on his cheeks. “Make my hotdog with relish, Mari,” he shivers, and I smile because Daddy always asks Mama to do that for him. I throw a towel over him and he laughs light and quick, the quickest glimpse of our father.

“It’s really okay that we’re eating meat on a Friday?” he asks.

“I don’t think Jesus’ll mind.”

“Mama would.”

“She said it was fine,” I lie. “C’mon, storm’s coming.”

Nico runs ahead of me and beats his bare chest, yelling like he’s king of the beach. I carry the peck basket and sort through the batch; I didn’t check it before we left, and we’ll have to throw some back since they’re too small. I toss a handful out into the surf and remember Daddy saying you have to be honest when you fish so that there’s always something for everyone. I want to believe he’s still out there even more than I want Mama to tell Nico the truth that he’s not.

“Mari!” he yells, his voice stolen by the wind. He’s kneeling in the sand next to a brown cardboard box and waving at me to come toward him. We can never come to the beach without him finding something to take home, and I hope that this time whatever’s in the box isn’t garbage. People throw things out of their cars when they’re driving over the causeway, things they don’t want or don’t want others to find, and the ocean takes them away. Tires, empty gas cans, old soda cans—you name it, it’s there. One time I found a needle like the ones the doctor uses to give us shots, and Mama said no more picking things up unless she was with us.

I touch my brother’s shoulder and look inside the box.

“Bunnies,” he says, and I count their small bodies. Twelve in all, huffing and heaving against each other as if they might blow down the box and scatter. “Where’d they come from?”

I want to tell him that someone didn’t want them, that they’re too small and birds will eat them since they don’t have their own mama to protect them, not like we do. “I don’t know,” I tell him, just because it’s easier and he won’t fight it.

Nico picks one up and holds it near his face. The rabbit stays still with its eyes shut, but I can see it tremble. Nico makes his own eyes big and looks me square. “Can we keep it?”

I know we can’t, that there’s hardly enough food for us as it is. It’s why Mama sent us out clamming today.

“What would it eat?” I ask.

“Milk,” he says. “And grass and lettuce when he’s bigger.”

“And then what? Where’s it gonna sleep? What’s it gonna do when you go to school? Prince will eat it in one bite, first chance he gets.”

“No, he won’t!” Nico cries, hugging the rabbit into the hollow of his neck. Its ears stick out and wiggle in the air. There’s goosebumps on my brother’s arms and now he keeps his eyes closed tight. Mama would say no; Daddy would say maybe.

I shiver and grasp the sleeve of Mama’s sweatshirt, then take it off and wrap it around his shoulders.

“Put it inside,” I tell him. “In the front pocket, so it doesn’t get squished when you walk.”

“What about the others?”

“What about them, Nico?” I do my best to hold a stiff face like Mama does when I bring home bad grades. Nico pouts his bottom lip but doesn’t say anything, and we walk on.


We’ve lived on West Island since before I was born, in the house where my Daddy was once little. It’s got a porch in front and an orange buoy swing in the backyard, near the vegetable patch where we bury our old dogs. We raise Newfoundlands and Mama names each one Prince, so that when one’s gone we always have another. Prince the Fourth is our dog now and he’s waiting under the porch with his tail wagging.

“You stay away from that dog or we’ll have rabbit soup for dinner,” I say and hand the peck basket to him. I don’t think Prince will actually eat the rabbit, but I don’t want Nico to know that. “And put the quahogs in the sink so Mama can clean them tomorrow. Do you want carrots or potatoes with dinner?”



“C’mon, Mari!” he whines.

I wait. He knows Mama’s rule: only one vegetable at a time so the others can keep growing.

“Carrots,” he says, and stomps up the stairs so hard he startles Prince out from his hiding spot. I pat him on his head, and he crawls back under the porch, waiting in the dark for his dinner.

Inside I hear Nico in his room talking to the rabbit, and I’m grateful he’s not whining at me to sneak some cartoons. Mama has a lot of rules, and it’s my job to make sure we mostly follow them when she’s not here. No TV, unless it’s the weekend. I’m the only one allowed to use the stove since Nico tried to make grilled cheese once and scorched the wallpaper when he forgot to flip the bread. We have to do our homework before we can play outside, there’s no whining about going to church, and we have to rinse our feet off at night when we’ve been at the beach so the sheets don’t get sandy. Since Daddy’s been gone there’s been a whole bunch more rules, like no answering the phone and no TV or radio when Mama’s not there. I know that’s because they’re talking about the boat, about Daddy and the crew and how no one knows where they are. Mama’s even been hiding the newspapers, but I found one yesterday under the porch and it said they’re gonna call off the search soon if nothing changes.

I make Nico copper pennies with maple syrup and save the carrot peelings for Prince; I’ll let him come inside after we eat, even though Daddy says the dog makes the house smell like feet and Mama gets mad when Prince’s hair sticks to the old green couch. I put water on to boil and turn to the clams, which sit in the sink like a pile of rocks. You have to fill the sink with cold water and leave them in there for a long time so they spit out all the sand and dirt, or else when you eat ’em later you’ll taste grit. I think about how long it takes for them to get clean and wonder if that’s what Daddy’s doing down in the water, spitting out the stuff that doesn’t belong before he goes up to Heaven. 

“Mari, the pot’s boiling.”

Nico’s wearing pajamas with ducks on the front. He’s holding the baby bunny, who’s wrapped in a towel. Its eyes are open now and they’re shiny like marbles, two little orbs taking in this strange new world.

“I know,” I say and turn the knob down. “How many hot dogs do you want?”

“Can I have two?”

“You can have three.”


“Yes, I’m still full from lunch. You need to feed your rabbit first, though.”

Nico scurries to the pantry and pulls down a nearly empty box of powdered milk, the one Mama wrapped in a plastic bag so no bugs get inside and have babies. But I know there’s bugs in there, and don’t rabbits eat them anyway? “Let’s finish the box,” I tell my brother, “and we’ll get a new one at the store tomorrow before Mama comes home.” Nico nods and pours the powder into a cup. I spoon hot water on top and mix it, and soon we’re dipping our fingers and the rabbit’s sucking down droplets from our pinkies.

“She likes it,” Nico smiles.

“I thought you said it was a he.”

“It’s a she. Amelia.”

“You named it?”


I place the hot dogs into the simmering pot. I know this means we can’t get rid of the rabbit now; it’s why we never name the chickens, so it’s not sad when we chop off their heads. Amelia licks Nico’s pinky and I hand him the cup of warm milk and tell him he needs to find a shoe box for her to sleep in. They go off in search of her new home, and I dish up supper for Prince. I chop the ends off the hot dogs since Nico won’t notice them gone, and scatter them around the slurry with the carrot peelings on top. I make Nico’s hot dogs with relish and put the copper pennies in a bowl, then yell to him that I’m gonna feed Prince and he should eat while it’s hot.

On the front steps, it’s nearly dark now and Prince gobbles his food down like he hasn’t eaten in weeks, when really it’s just been since last night and he’s gone longer in the past. I wrap my arms around him tight and listen to him breathe, calm and steady. This Prince is mine, and the next one will be Nico’s. I like how everything about this dog is dark except his tongue, how it sticks out like a little splash of pink paint that someone forgot to wipe up.

We sit on the steps until rain starts to fall and I stand and push Prince up to wait by the door. I like the way our house looks, lit up yellow from the inside with the black night around it. It’s always warm and safe, my favorite place in the whole world. Daddy was going to put a new roof on this year, “before the first snow,” he said. But now he’s not here and the shingles are peeling up in the wind, and I wonder how long it’ll take before we’re stepping around pots and pans in the living room to catch the rain leaking in.

Prince barks and the darkness comes back, and I let the light pull me inside. He shakes his back and sends water everywhere so the air smells like dirt and salt and musty fish, then he runs into the bedroom I share with Nico. I step softly down the hall so they won’t hear me, and I peek around the doorframe.

Nico is belly-down on the floor wearing his shiny Easter shoes, the box they came in now full of dish towels and brown fur. Prince looks up at me and I hold up my hand, telling him to stay where he is and willing him not to jump down and scare the rabbit. The last thing I need is to have a wild animal loose in the house.

In the kitchen, I drain the sink and move the quahogs; their water needs to be changed anyway. They sit on the counter with their feet poking out while I wash the dishes. It doesn’t make me feel better, not like I wish. I wish I could go to church now. I miss the candles and the incense, the way the light falls through the stained saint windows and lands on the choir while they sing “One Bread, One Body.” I want to kneel in the confessional booth and feel better like I do when I tell Father Murphy about sneaking candy after dinner or giving April Perry the middle finger on the bus. I want to tell him I’m lying for Mama, for Nico. Instead I put the quahogs back in the sink with new water, turn out the light, and return to our room.

The light’s still on but Nico’s asleep on the floor, the shoebox cradled against his stomach. I take the blanket from his bed and tuck it around him like when we sleep on Daddy’s boat. He sighs and puckers his lips, same as he did when he was a baby. Amelia shuffles in her towels and looks at me through one eye. She is so calm, not like I thought a wild rabbit would be, so I put the lid on but leave it ajar. Prince digs on the carpet and I hear him turning ’round before he settles in to sleep next to my brother. We are all together in this room, safe and sound and home again. Outside the rain hits the windows and the wind blows hard, and I fall asleep thinking about spring.


I wake to a thin light poking through the curtains, same as it does every morning. It’s chilly now, much more than yesterday, and the tip of my nose is numb. Prince thumps his tail and stares at me from the floor, where Nico’s spread out like a starfish with the covers kicked off. I get out of bed and cover him again, then I peek inside Amelia’s box. She is there, quiet as I left her, with that one eye still looking at me. Her nose twitches and makes me want to sneeze, and I put the lid back on. I feel warm like I do when Mama catches me in a lie. Mama will be angry when she sees, and I know I’ve made a mistake. I still need to get to the store before Mama comes home, so I bring the box to the kitchen and take a few dollars from my allowance jar and leave Nico a note that says I’ll be back in time to make waffles and please not to make them himself. Prince follows me to the front door. I grab Mama’s pink sweatshirt and put it on over my pajamas. I do not want to leave, but I know I have to.

Outside the morning is sharp and the puddles splash against my bare feet. I walk quickly toward the causeway, knowing I have to get rid of this rabbit. Mama never would have said yes in the first place, no matter how much Nico cried. She’s hard and soft at the same time, and I decide that I’ll get a candy bar at the store as a peace offering for Nico.

Prince stays at my side as we keep going toward the beach, toward the place where the sun sits low on the edge of the ocean. I wish it would go back down there and pull my Daddy up with it. I know that he’s down with the stones and sharks, looking up through the water like he’s looking at the sky. The sky above my head rolls thick with clouds crashing into each other, all gray and silver and blue. Prince runs toward the jetty and barks at cormorants that’ve taken over the osprey’s nest inside the channel marker. That’s how you know summer’s really over: the osprey stops crying and takes her babies south before the devil birds move in.

I pull Amelia out from Mama’s sweatshirt and hold her tight between my hands. I don’t want to love her, but I do. Especially the way the smallest bit of sunshine through the thin pink skin of her ears, like light coming through stained glass. I didn’t know I could love something so quickly, and I hope it will be just as easy to unlove her, to not hurt or wonder about what will happen to her. Her old box is up ahead, a few yards from where Nico left it, and I push away the thought of him waking up to find his rabbit gone. Amelia twitches and I kneel down to put her back where she came from, back where she belongs, so that she can be a worry for someone else instead of us.

Inside the box the other rabbits are still. They’re covered with wet sand and stray pieces of seaweed, and they don’t look up at me like they did yesterday. I touch one: it’s cold and limp and its chest stays still when I press on it with my thumb. Water comes out of its mouth. It doesn’t cough or tremble. It doesn’t do anything. The others are the same. I put Amelia in the front pocket of Mama’s sweatshirt and feel her move, clawing around with the dollar bills and settling. We stay still together while I decide what to do.

I do not know how to take care of this thing that needs so much taking care of. If I bring her back to our house and place her in the garden, a hawk will make quick work of her. If I leave her on the beach, she will be blown away with the gale. I can’t get to the animal shelter on foot either.

Prince lies down in the dune grass and whines as I drag the box down to the surf. I let the water wash over my knees, feel the sting on my cuts and scrapes, and imagine myself being made clean. I do not want anyone to find these dead rabbits¾especially my brother¾and the sea will swallow them like it swallowed up my Daddy. That’s what it does best: we sail its waters, we steal its fish, we pick its quahogs. But for everything we take from it, it takes from us tenfold. High tide is coming and the current will pull the box out to the open sea and the other islands. It will sink somewhere in the between.

I pull Amelia from my pocket and she stirs, as if this were all a dream and she was deciding if she should wake up or roll over. I blink tears and one falls on her head. She barely even moves. There is no chance of hope for her here, so I place her inside the box with her brothers and sisters as though she were a Sunday offering and watch as she hunkers down between them. She fits there, and I close the top before pushing the box into the water.

I try to be gentle and let the water take her like Moses in the reeds. The box moves slowly at first, then all too quickly until suddenly it’s out of my reach before I can grab it back. I know Mama is lying to us about Daddy because it’s her job, because it’s what she has to do as our mother. The box sinks lower and joins the horizon, the same as my Daddy did when he went off on his last trip and we didn’t know he wasn’t coming back. Now Mama and I both have secrets to keep from Nico.

I stand in the water and the eelgrass licks my toes, and I think about my brother asleep at home, how soon he’ll wake up when the gray light turns gold and realizes his rabbit’s gone. He will scream and howl, and it will be my fault. He will forgive me, I tell myself. Someday. I try to think of happy things as I call out to Prince and trudge toward the road. I lift the sleeve of Mama’s sweatshirt to my nose. I think about her and the neon lights of the diner, the way they catch on her teeth as she smiles when she sees us coming in the front door, how they make the darkness under her eyes look deep like still water.

Mama’s the kind of person who pushes her shopping cart all the way back to the grocery store when we go shopping. She gives money to the Boy Scouts when they fundraise outside the library. When I get mad and yell at her, she yells back but always tells me she loves me. When we fight, she makes me to go to my room and then brings me warm milk. We kiss and make up. She puts notes in my lunchbox, goes to all of Nico’s football games, and lets Prince lick the bottom of the peanut butter jar. She always kisses Daddy no matter how awful he smells. Always. My mother is good, right down to her core, even when she doesn’t seem like it, and I hope one day I’ll be good like her too.


Winner of F(r)iction‘s Spring 2021 Poetry Contest.

Wormwood made
her moon shine.
The Good Book

lied. The last days
came first, came
in the fertile years,

each one a breast.
Her lips made words
to plant a new nation

full of old county dirt
before the weather
was on her body,

burning like a broad
lawn, her hair like drawn
flames, her mother’s screams

once wood, are now dust
and oranges. She notes how
limbs break mid-flow

like a misstep,
like a shifting line, whitening
even the fullest fires.

her arm is, just as night is,
silence. Dark acres
and white clover

are a gesture
towards the curve
of her bended knee.

A Review of You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen

Published February 8, 2022 by Inkyard Press.

There is something incredibly heartfelt and tender about Laila Sabreen’s debut novel You Truly Assumed, and I believe it develops out of the passion and innocence our three main characters exhibit. This book makes a choice to venture into the repercussions of terrorism and the associated Islamophobia by starting off the story with a terror attack near The Capitol in Washington, DC. What sets it apart and makes it a fascinating read is that firstly, it has three female, Black, Muslim characters, which makes it beautifully intersectional, and secondly, it is set in the YA genre. There continues to be a dearth of writings about how the youth of our generation feel about massive political events and how such prejudices impact and reverberate in their lives. This story is a serious attempt to shine a light on those prejudices. 

When reading up on the significance of decolonizing literature, one thing that comes up over and over again is the impact it has on representation. As a woman of color, I too grew up devouring books in which I couldn’t identify with any characters and it makes me happy that there will be young adults who will find stories where women of color take center stage. Our three powerful leads—Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah—are all Black and Muslim. While all young women, they are portrayed as individuals, with their own desires and faults, and this makes Sabreen’s writing much more thoughtful and a better representation of the real world.

Sabriya grows up in a mixed-religious family, while Zakat comes from a town that has a strong presence of a Muslim community. Farah is brought up by a single mother and has difficult ties with her father. Each of our characters is taking their own journey but they still connect with each other powerfully and sincerely. The bedrock of these ties remains the blog that they have created together to share their experiences of being Black and Muslim and offering that same opportunity to express themselves to people from those very communities. In the same story, we are covering a range of ideas from the identity crisis that they go through, to the importance of having strong community ties, to how that strengthens them and keeps them grounded. We also get to know about their dreams, the fears that haunt them, and the hopes that keep them going.

Our characters are brought together by Sabriya’s written reflections about the terror attack, which when left on her blog site, becomes viral. This is where the title of the novel comes from—the blog is named “You Truly Assumed.” Zakat and Farah soon join in to offer their own unique talents to elevate the blog, which continues to grow. Each of them feels the aftermath of the terror attack in different ways, but in spite of that, they make space for each other’s narratives and recognize what brings them together. They learn what makes them the same as they start this journey to make Black, Muslim women feel seen and heard. I also like how this story plays with the use of technology and social media, which at present has become a powerful, omnipresent tool to build and sustain connections among people across states, countries, and even continents.

When writing about young adults, we can’t ever forget the passion that drives them in the face of the problems of adolescence. Adults can intellectualize or desensitize themselves in the face of hurt, fear, and pain. Our characters here are thoughtful, kind, strong, and so incredibly brave. They are falling in love, mending friendships, renewing their faith in families while at the same time tackling this massive, painful burden of Islamophobia. They carry the larger picture in their heads and there is so much passion in their actions to make a difference. They truly believe that they can change the world.

One might complain about how the narrative—even when working with such a heavy topic—has a very simple arc. Our characters engage in seemingly small acts of fighting against prejudice and discrimination and standing up for themselves. They have difficult conversations with racists, challenge discriminatory behavior, and attempt to go to a vigil for someone from their community. But isn’t that what we want to tell our youth? That your voice matters, what you feel matters, and every small step you take towards fighting what feels overpowering matters?

It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book feeling hopeful and inspired, even excited. I am looking forward to the impact that this book is going to leave on our young people, how it will kickstart sensitive discussions on the histories that Black, Muslim people live with, as well as the intersectionality of struggles, especially those that have to do with identity politics. It is far from the simple and linear trajectory that people like to believe and it has a deep-seated impact on the day-to-day lives of those identifying with marginalized communities.

While many YA books are full of humor and the lighter things of life, it takes an incredible amount of thoughtfulness and sensitivity to mesh the genre with the serious, overpowering, and challenging. Sabreen skillfully manages to do just that. She reminds us that if you truly believe in the cause you are fighting for, all you have to do is take a step in that direction, no matter how small. She reminds us of the power we hold, the importance of having faith in our voices and stories, and how much all of it matters. This is exactly what the youth of today need to hear and this is exactly what You Truly Assumed tells us.

A Review of Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Spoiler Warning!: This review contains extensive spoilers for Zoe Hana Mikuta’s novel, Gearbreakers.

Published June 29, 2021 by Feiwel & Friends.

“[W]hen the times were desperate enough, when the people were frenzied enough, at a certain point we went past praying to deities and started to build them instead.”

In that opening sentence, Mikuta winds us into the world of Gearbreakers. Godolia, the capital city as well as the nation’s namesake, reigns tyrannical and terrifying, across everywhere their mechas can reach. The 200-foot-tall robot enforcers, known as Wind-Ups, and their pilots annex surrounding populations, ruthlessly converting them into resource towns. They’re hindered only by the boundaries of the continent itself. The Badlands, where nomads eke out a living, is the only place left untapped.

Sona Steelcrest is a Pilot with revenge clenched between her teeth. The book begins on her first day waking up as a Modded Pilot at the astonishing age of seventeen. Sona, we learn quickly, has no intention of being Godolia’s tool; instead she is here to bring it down from the inside.

Meanwhile, Eris Shindanai is a Gearbreaker. Based in a rebel hideout in the Badlands and feral-teen captain to a crew of even younger, even more feral teens, Eris’s life revolves around the adrenaline rush of bringing the giant Wind-Ups down. When a mission goes wrong, Eris finds herself captured by a mecha and imprisoned in the Wind-Up headquarters. Until Sona proposes an alliance to escape.

Told in alternating POVs between Sona and Eris, the voices of the two girls could very easily have blurred. Their romance is built on the common ground of rage and twin desires for revenge and vengeance. However, I thought the two POVs were cleverly separated by Mikuta.

It wasn’t love at first sight; it was an instant lightning bolt of look at the girl laugh in the face of death like it doesn’t fucking matter, which morphed into the softer mutual respect of let’s destroy our common enemy together because you’re just as filled with fury as I am. And then quietly became only you truly see me. Unfortunately, I didn’t believe the love story; the foundations of the romance aren’t laid before the house is built. Their love moved supremely slowly and then swiftly in directions I didn’t feel made sense for the characters in the moment.

The world-building was excellent though. I loved the unit structure of the Academy and the Pilots. Some of my favorite moments were when Mikuta had a piece of tech operate casually, naturally embedded in the world; she’d name the object in a throw-away line and then a few paragraphs later, use it—world-building at its finest. I loved the feral, death-defying, fate-defying nature of the Gearbreakers; of Sona who refused, in her own way, the destiny being prescribed to her.

However, readers should know this book starts slow. The first 20 percent of the novel is hefty world-building and tonally a lot of rage. Sona’s grief-stricken, rage-stricken POV is a lot of the first quarter of the story and Mikuta’s metaphors are lengthy; there were several sentences that I had to re-read several times that I feel an editor could have pared back, while still preserving the voice difference between Sona and Eris. A lot of the book relied on this anger and grief that is propelling these two characters forward, and some readers could find it overly repetitive.

I am a sucker for found-family tropes but struggled to engage with the scenes that involved Eris’ unit, as the feral nature shifted from moments of believability when I cheered, to moments when I wondered if anyone would actually do that. I also felt that rather than being three-dimensional characters, they were more of a one-note flavor that threaded through the book, which meant that when a member of Eris’s unit dies, it didn’t impact me in the way that I would have expected it to.

This was possibly affected by the pacing, which I also struggled with. I may just have had different expectations as to what the plot would be like, or what kind of story was being told. While nearing the climax of the novel, the story pauses for a few moments and Mikuta takes time to further develop the romance, and the tension that had been building to a conclusion dissipates.  

If you’re looking for a kick-ass sci-fi dystopia ruled by massive mechas and two scrappy girls determined to pilot their own destinies, come hell or high water, this is a book for you! I am looking forward to the sequel, and for anything Mikuta writes in the future. Her world is an interesting one, and I look forward to her further developing her craft.

A Review of Reset by Paolo Pergola

Published October 1, 2021 by Sagging Meniscus Press.

Reset by Paolo Pergola is an engaging exploration of what it means for your life to be put on hold in an instant, forcing you to critique your existence and your society. Most of the book takes place in a hospital room where the protagonist, Lapo Pardini, has spent months recovering from a serious car accident. A morose scientific researcher, Lapo experiences significant memory loss after the accident and as his memories return, he is able to examine them. In the hospital, most of his days consist of counting ceiling tiles and contemplating his life and his choices. Reset is a stunning exposé of the chaos and angst associated with being human. Lapo outwardly expresses what is often in many of our hearts. Somehow, this book made me want to cry, laugh, scream, and breathe a sigh of relief all at the same time.

Despite the fact that Lapo is trapped in a hospital bed for over a hundred pages, the book feels action-packed. Pergola takes readers on a cerebral journey chapter after chapter. In a way, it’s more exciting than if we constantly witnessed a changing location. Since most of the narrative exists in Lapo’s head, readers must connect with him on an intimate level. Even the conversations he has with others are told to us through his perspective. This narrative style creates tension as readers empathize with, cheer on, and grow frustrated with Lapo throughout his recovery.

While Reset is about new beginnings after Lapo’s accident, it feels timely in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the book, we see Lapo become disenchanted with the “outside world” and all the conversations and elements of day-to-day life that feel pointless. Lapo insightfully expresses “I do like living, but I want to stop doing, I just want to think, to remember.” He doesn’t want to split his time between responsibility and enjoyment. As we all process what has happened in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, it almost feels like we’re waking up. As Lapo questions the life he was suddenly snapped out of, I couldn’t help but recognize those feelings in myself and in my peers as we examine the way our lives used to be and question where we’d like to go next. All the pressure for him to suddenly resume life after this accident, after just getting his memories back, is overwhelming. It kind of feels that way for us too in this next phase of the pandemic.

Throughout Reset, we see Lapo remember all the dreams he once had and didn’t pursue. We see him question the decisions he did make and whether he likes the life that he had before the accident. While reading the book, I sometimes wanted to take Lapo’s side, as I felt like the other characters only offered mundane conversations. At other times, I couldn’t help but be frustrated with Lapo’s lack of drive or enthusiasm. I was surprised at how many different emotions and thoughts the author was able to pull out of me in such a short time.

The narrative itself flows beautifully. It’s rare to encounter a book in which it feels like every sentence serves a purpose. Paolo Pergola skillfully gives readers a book that is engaging right to the end, without that common lull in the middle of the book. However, I did find myself wishing for more insight into certain character relationships, like how Lapo’s relationship with his wife, his colleagues, and his friends had changed since the accident. It felt like some threads were left untied at the end of the book, but overall, it was a very satisfying read. If you are looking for a book to captivate you, move you, and make you think about things in a different way, this is definitely one to pick up off the shelf.

A Review of The Stolen Kingdom by Jillian Boehme

Spoiler Warning!: This review contains extensive spoilers for Jillian Boehme’s novel, The Stolen Kingdom.

Published March 2, 2021 by Tom Doherty Associates

What happens to magic when it’s been stolen? How might that power manifest in those who were never meant to have it—and in those from whom it was taken? And when circumstances throw the descendants of those lines together, how can they overcome the century-old conflict they inherited? Jillian Boehme asks these questions in her new YA fantasy, The Stolen Kingdom.

The story opens in Perin Faye, a kingdom ruled by the corrupt Thungrave royals, with both a royal wedding and a war on the horizon. First, we meet Maralyth (Mara) Graylaern, the headstrong seventeen-year-old daughter of the kingdom’s most prized vintner. She soon discovers that she is the long-lost heir to the throne when rebels kidnap and extort her into participating in a coup that will make her queen. Next, we meet Prince Alac Thungrave, nineteen years old and second in line to the throne—and the magic—that his family stole from Mara’s ancestors. He hates his role as the overlooked son and wants nothing more than to leave behind the magic corrupting his father and elder brother, dreaming instead of a peaceful life making wine. When Mara must enter into a plot to murder the royal family, she must pose as a noble to gain entrance to the elder prince’s wedding, where she and Alac first meet. As the day of the coup draws ever closer, she struggles to hide her true identity and purpose from Alac as they both contend with their growing feelings for each other.

I regret to say that I found the premise of this book a lot more compelling than its delivery. Boehme has laid a lot of good groundwork here but often doesn’t follow through. More than once, I felt the story rushed through significant plot points and dwelled too long on others, with underdeveloped characters and concepts, and I found myself wishing for more depth in a lot of places. For example, the magic system feels weak. For Mara, the “rightful” heir to this magic, using this power is easy and intuitive, requiring no significant effort to wield or learn. This makes her power seem limitless and unearned. In contrast, Alac’s father and brother seem to only hoard the magic for themselves, claiming to have “tamed” a darkness that used to terrorize all of Perin Faye. Furthermore, many of the characters do not extend beyond their tropes, and as a result, I often found it difficult to invest in their development arcs. There are also frequent references to the Thungraves’ oppressive rule of Perin Faye throughout the story—including Mara once calling out Alac’s ignorance and privilege—but we witness very few examples of such.

That being said, I do feel this book has some strengths. The descriptions, particularly of the food, are lush and vivid, such as “soft-boiled eggs in a nest of sautéed mushrooms, several thin slices of ham, and two steaming buns dotted with sage . . . served with butter and several jams in beautiful, cut-glass jars.” I also appreciate that so much of the novel centers around vineyards and gardens, which serve as good touchstones for a story in which magic can either give life or wither anything it touches. Boehme does a good job of building the suspense as well, particularly in the last one hundred or so pages of the book, when she raises the stakes even higher and the characters must face darker, more complex challenges.

But what intrigues me most about this book is the concept that the Thungraves are hoarding stolen magic, and I admire how Boehme chose to use that concept as a plot device. Outsourcing the central conflict to the magic and describing corruption as the heirloom of a terrible wrongdoing—corruption as a tangible, malleable thing—is an interesting choice. It allows Boehme to create a (more or less) peaceful resolution to the conflict—that is, a resolution that doesn’t come about through a climactic battle, which I think should happen more often in the fantasy genre. Mara and Alac must find resolution through restoration, not retribution.

This is the kind of story that left me wishing the author had given me more because the story has so much promise. And while this book wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, I still plan to keep an eye on Boehme in the future. This is a writer with potential, and I’m interested to see what comes next.