Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)

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Review #107

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. 

Following the death of her husband to cancer, Nour’s mother wants to be closer to her home country and her family. In the summer of 2011, Nour and her family move from their apartment in New York City to Homs, Syria. But Syria is changing, and not for the better. Shells and bombs become a daily occurrence, and when their house is destroyed Nour and her family are forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees.

Eight hundred years ago, a young girl named Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a world-famous cartographer who is embarking on a journey to make a map of the known world. Along the way, Rawiya ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

The gorgeous cover art for Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars is what initially attracted me to this book. I knew little to nothing about the plot, and therefore had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel that uses the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop for a story about family, bravery, and finding a place to belong.

A lot of attempts have been made recently to capture the refugee experience. The Map of Salt and Stars tells a deeply personal story. Nour doesn’t care why her neighborhood is suddenly being bombed. She doesn’t understand the political tensions between Libya and Algeria, or why refugee boats are shelled before they can reach shore. All Nour knows is that she has lost everything but her mother and two sisters. She knows that she wakes up every day in a different place, often cramped with groups of other people, all of whom are running away from the destruction and danger of war. By keeping laser-focused on Nour and her plight, Joukhadar ensures that the reader forms a close bond with her.

Also contained within the pages of The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Rawiya, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become an apprentice to the esteemed cartographer al-Idrisi. Her 11th century journey with him along a route similar to the one taken by Nour as she flees from country to country. I enjoyed Rawiya’s story and the fresh perspective that it offered. Most of our ideas of the ancient world are from the Greco-Roman viewpoint, but The Map of Salt and Stars shows it through Muslim eyes instead. While Europe was buried in the Dark Ages, the scholars and scientists of the Muslim world made terrific advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They also made some of the most detailed maps of the time period, and that is where Joukhadar sets her story.

The Muslim names for the ancient cities of the Mediterranean were unfamiliar to me, and I often found it difficult to know exactly where the ancient adventurers were at any given time. There is a map included along with the table of contents, but it is a bit inconvenient to switch back and forth to the map on an eReader. This may have been one of the reasons why Rawiya’s story fell short in comparison to Nour’s. Rawiya’s struggles against mythical beasts feel far removed from reality, where Nour must fight against an enemy that is far more real and more dangerous.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Map of Salt and Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I Made it – OneYearOneHundredBooks is One Year Old!

Last month I completed my goal of reading and reviewing one hundred new books over the course of a year! The feeling of setting and reaching a goal has been incredible satisfaction mixed with mild exhaustion.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed creating and writing this website for the past year. I have tried blogging many times in the past, and it’s never stuck until now. Setting a goal and working hard to achieve it has helped me through some rough patches in the past twelve months, and I’m surprised by how much I learned about myself. In no specific order, here are a few observations from my first year of blogging.

1. ) Looking back, it is startlingly obvious that I was not in a good state of mind last year. My immigration process was taking forever, I had no friends in the city, and I spent the majority of my time binge-watching television shows. In the twelve months since, it’s as if nothing has changed but everything has changed. I am much happier and healthier both mentally and physically than I was last year. I’ve spent hours scavenging the city looking to books to complete my Goosebumps collection (only five to go!). I joined a book club, which has forced me to confront my social anxiety and join in on group conversations. I began volunteering for an amazing charity which allows me to spend time with rescue cats. And my permanent residency was finally approved! Now I am entering the terrifyingly exciting world of job hunting and trying to launch a new career in writing. Reading some of my earlier posts, it’s as if at some point over the past year I emerged from a darkness that I hadn’t even realized I was drowning in. There are still struggles of course, and there are times when I feel like I’m spinning out of control, but overall the general feeling is one of hopefulness.

2. ) Running this website helped me a lot this year. I’ve never been able to truly commit to writing a blog, mainly because I’ve never felt that my thoughts and ideas were terribly interesting or important. I have tried to stay away from tracking hits and likes, but it has still given me a boost of confidence to know that people visit my site and enjoy the things I’ve written. I don’t get crazy traffic, but it’s rare for me to go a day without at least one visitor. I am so proud and so grateful to all of the people who have journeyed with me through this year and more than one hundred books.

3.) I started this blog out of boredom, but it’s become surprisingly useful. As I said, last year was not the best time for me. I remember how homesick I was at the prospect of yet another holiday season away from my family. When I came up with the idea to start writing book reviews, I knew I needed to set myself a challenge. I never really expected anyone to actually read the reviews I was writing, but I was desperate for something, anything to occupy my attention. Fast forward a year later, and I am attempting to begin a career based around writing. I’ve applied for jobs for content writers, proofreaders, copy writers, and other related fields. One thing that I noticed was many of these companies ask for writing samples to be included with a resume and cover letter. So this website has had the unexpected benefit of doubling as a portfolio!

4.) I fully intend to challenge myself to read another hundred books next year, and I want to expand oneyearonehundredbooks as well. Starting next year, I will be welcoming guest bloggers to post their own reviews on this site. I am hoping to bring more variety and opinions to the table, and I’m always looking for contributors! If you’d like to write a book review or a book vs film comparison, please leave a comment or email me at oneyearonehundredbooks@gmail.com.

Keep an eye out in the next few days; I’ll be publishing lists for the best and worst reads of the year! Until then, check out 2017’s My Ten Favorite Books of 2017 and Ten Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2017

Happy reading everyone!

-Ashley

Book Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (2016)

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Review #106

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead.

I was ten years old when James Cameron’s Titanic was released, and like millions of young girls in 1997, was completely obsessed with the film and the boyishly handsome, adorably baby-faced Leonardo DeCaprio. Twenty years later, my love for Leo has never faded, and neither has my interest in the story of Titanic and its place in history.

The Midnight Watch has the odd challenge of trying to sustain a narrative using characters that were only indirectly involved in the events of April 14, 1912. The story of the Californian, which was the nearest ship to the Titanic on the night of its sinking and could potentially have saved the lives of the 1500 people who died that night, is more of a footnote in the larger context of the Titanic story. The failure of the Californian to respond to the Titanic’s distress signals is one of the countless bits of misfortune that all came together to cause one of the most famous maritime disasters in history. Even James Cameron, whose insistence on historical accuracy during filming bordered on obsessive, did not include the Californian in his film. stating that switching perspectives to another ship took away from the feeling of isolation that the passengers on the Titanic must have experienced that night. In a way this book reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, another instance of “background” characters being given the full spotlight.

Author David Dyer needed to present a cast of characters strong enough to make us forget that our old favorites such as Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, Bruce Ismay, and Molly Brown are conspicuously absent. He splits his narrative between Second Mate Herbert Stone, the watchman who first saw the white distress rockets sent up by the sinking ship, and Steadman, a bulldog journalist on the hunt for the truth about the Californian. Stone is plagued by guilt and indecision when he wakes up the morning after his midnight shift and learns the fate of the Titanic. His story is sympathetic, but pales in significance when viewed next to the deaths of over a thousand people on the Titanic. Steadman is the archetypal hard-jawed bourbon-soaked workaholic newspaperman from the turn of the century. His only defining characteristic is that he somehow manages to chase down leads and secure interviews with various higher-ups all while being soddenly drunk.

I did enjoy Dyer’s meticulous attention to detail, particularly when describing the Californian and its crew. Dyer worked for years as a ships officer, and he is clearly writing from a place of experience. I don’t know much about naval terminology besides port and starboard, so I enjoyed learning a little bit more about steamer ships. Also, it’s refreshing to read a completely different perspective on a well-known event. One of the things I love most about historical fiction is its ability to help me think of an issue from a variety of angles. The Midnight Watch offers a unique and creative approach to the enduring legend of the Titanic.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Midnight Watch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository!

Happy reading everyone!