Monday, January 9, 2017

Audiobook Review: A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliot

This was, if not my first-ever audiobook, my first-ever Audible purchase! The narrator was fantastic in every way. She really nailed the emotions, inflection, and overall delivery, bringing characters to life in a way that resonated with me long after the book was finished. I may go out of my way to seek out more audiobooks by Quincy Tyler Bernstine regardless of content. 

Audiobook review

Let's start with that, then! This is a 5-star audiobook for sure.

From my friend who narrates audiobooks, I know there's a bias against female voices in the audiobook industry. The assumption is that they aren't as versatile and can't imitate male characters "believably." Quincy Tyler Bernstine had a mid-range voice and was perfectly able to perform all the male characters in A Wish After Midnight. I call B.S. on this double standard. Every voice had a particular way of speaking which felt natural to the character, no matter their gender.


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Quincy Tyler Bernstine. source

One of the main characters is Judah, an immigrant from Jamaica and Genna's love interest. Judah is something of a firebrand who doesn't identify as African "American" the way Genna does. When he is trying to fit in, his Jamaican accent is less pronounced. But when he's talking about his home country and ideals, his Jamaican accent becomes more heavy. This was a clever move on the part of the narrator, and if I recall, is actually signaled in the text. 

A Wish After Midnight: Plot and Setting

A while back, I posted about this when I was first starting to listen to it. Audible warned me that it contained "diverse content," which I thought was eyebrow-raising. At the time, I speculated that that warning was because A Wish After Midnight uses the n-word. It does, but I think Audible's warning goes beyond that and veers into racial prejudice. This seems particularly egregious because it's an #ownvoices work. Zetta Elliot is a Canadian author and a self-described black feminist who moved to Brooklyn and has lived in the US for 20 years. 

A Wish After Midnight depicts teens living in a poor part of Brooklyn. Genna is a shy and quiet girl who wants to use her school smarts to escape her neighborhood. She does have a bit of a chip on her shoulder as far as feeling superior to other kids, but she's also carrying the weight of her mother's expectations that she'll be the perfect child who will go to college, get rich, etc. She feels somewhat displaced from her heritage, and this question of identity is a major part of the book. For example, she feels unable to identify as Latina despite her Latino father and feels it would be inauthentic to claim her Native heritage. The first half focuses on her dreams, her home life, and her babysitting job.


A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott

When she meets Judah, the new boy from Jamaica, she starts listening to his ideas: she's intrigued by the idea of finding out more about their heritage, she begins to grow locs and practice her boyfriend's Rastafarianism, she gains more self-confidence about her body, and she starts to feel like she has a place. 

After a fight with her mother, though, Genna storms out of the house and retreats to the garden: a place where she goes to feel at peace. Through a string of unfortunate events and a timely wish, she finds herself -- and Judah -- transported back to Civil War-era Brooklyn. There, Genna must learn how to survive as a young black woman in the 1860's, find Judah, and decide whether she wants to return to her own time or try to make a life where fate has placed her. 

So Genna's Pretty Cool

I liked Genna because she was sort of the nerdy, quiet girl, and that was me a lot of the time. People assumed I was boring because I didn't chat much. Introverted protagonists ftw!

She's also a great character in many other ways. While she's traditionally feminine and aware that she doesn't have much in the way of physical strength, she is willing to use the wits, muscles, weapons, and tools available to her to defend herself. At the same time, A Wish After Midnight touches on many of the challenges and compromises girls make when negotiating their interactions with the world. I thought this book handled gender issues with great insight and care. 

The Dudes

Masculinity is also a central theme of the novel. Genna's father, for instance, had issues of feeling inadequate after he was unable to provide for his family after he was injured. Her own boyfriend defines his masculinity by whether he is able to protect her. Genna and Judah have to work through some of the more toxic notions of masculinity in order to make their relationship work. 


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They are eventually able to acknowledge Judah's feelings of helplessness and emasculation -- particularly as perpetrated by whites -- as valid, without forcing Genna to compromise for him by pretending to be weak. Part of Judah's arc is acknowledging the privileges he has as a man and the way he sometimes holds Genna to a double standard, while part of Genna's growth is realizing that as a woman she is exempt from certain types of mistreatment that Judah experiences. 

Idk. I studied masculinist criticism in college, which is sorta-kinda an offshoot of feminist criticism which examines the depiction of masculinity in literature. So I guess it's something I just tend to pick up on, and I was intrigued by its treatment in A Wish After Midnight. Plus, even though Judah made me want to SCREAM with irritation occasionally, the romance between Genna and Judah is really positive and rewarding. One of my top 10 YA romances. 

Err...Genre? Ehh??

So, the summary, cover, and Amazon classification pitched this as a time-travel or portal fantasy. It also sounded like Genna and Judah were equally important viewpoint characters. 

This is not the case. A Wish After Midnight is told in first-person from Genna's POV, with Judah absent for a huge chunk of the book. I would also classify A Wish After Midnight as historical fiction. The time-travelling wish fountain is more of a plot device to get the teens from one era to another. Magic, technology, fantasy, or any other elements beyond realism are never explained and barely feature. If you're looking for a portal fantasy, this isn't it. However, it's great as historical fiction! The concept/setup reminded me of the 1988 novel The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.


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Buckingham Fountain (Chicago) source

The main conflict is the growing tension between the free African Americans and the immigrant Irish in Brooklyn, eventually leading to the draft riots. Many teens may not know this history. We covered the draft riots when I was in high school, but we spent most of our time on the battles and politics. I have always loved history and was beyond excited to see a novel about the Civil War "home front" that wasn't Little Women. 

Slurs, issues, and other stuff

A Wish After Midnight deftly handles the leadup to the draft riots, exploring racial and economic tensions. I won't go into too much detail; it's all covered in the book. 

Coincidentally, I was reading The Star of the Sea right before A Wish After Midnight. The Star of the Sea is a historical novel about the Irish famine, poverty, the flight of many Irish to the United States, and the total failure of the US government to treat the refugees with respect or basic human decency. A Wish After Midnight takes place just 10-20 years after the book I'd just read was set, which was serendipitous. The two groups were very different but also had a lot in common, and both novels touched on this (though A Wish After Midnight goes more in depth).

Either way, with questions of refugees and current racial tensions in the US, both The Star of the Sea and A Wish After Midnight were eerily relevant historical novels. 



A Wish After Midnight does contain context-appropriate racial and ethnic slurs throughout, including the n-word and several offensive terms for Irish Americans and white minorities. It also contains some of your average swear words, though for someone with my mouth, these barely registered. Overall, this is a book for mature YA readers rather than younger kids -- whimsical as wishing on fountains may sound.

More diversity: Mental Illness, Family, and Body Type

While racial and ethnic identities are the focus of this book, some other themes are touched on as well. After Genna is traumatically injured, she experiences phantom pain from her injury even after it is healed. Genna aspires to be a psychiatrist who helps people with trauma and PTSD, so this issue ties into her established goals and personality. 

Genna also comes from an underrepresented type of family. Her grandmother used to live with them, her father is currently absent, and she has a single mom. She has both full and half-siblings, and they are a multiracial family. While some of her siblings seem to embrace this multiethnic heritage, such as her more conventionally pretty sister, Genna finds it confusing and struggles with accepting her body type. She is skinny and tall and believes her hair is ugly. It's only when she meets a boy who likes her, starts growing locs, and exploring more traditional ways of doing her hair and clothes that she starts feeling more confident in her body. 

It was also unique (and somewhat of a relief) to see a book where Christianity wasn't the main religion addressed. Judah is Rastafarian, and Genna adopts many of these practices as well. Initially she just does it to please her boyfriend, but over time it takes on more personal meaning for her. 

The Conclusion Was a Bit of a Downer (SPOILERS AHEAD)

The climactic scene takes place in the draft riots, where Genna eventually makes it back to the fountain in the chaos and wishes herself back home again. When she asks someone what date it is, they tell her it's...wait for it...SEPTEMBER 10TH, 2001. 

Yeah. They get back just in time for 9/11. I was like, "WHAT? AFTER ALL THE SHIT THEY JUST WENT THROUGH? DON'T THEY DESERVE TO BE HAPPY??? JFC!"

Another message in the ending seemed to be that black and white people can't get along in America and that things won't ever get any better. Hence why they decide to leave, and hence why Genna gets back just in time for things in America to get a whole lot worse (proving the book's point). However, this seems to be troubled by Genna's reunion with her mother and her renewal of her ties to her present-day life. Does she decide there's no hope for America because she's resigned to being stuck in the past, or because she doesn't believe people can move forward in her own time? I'm interested to know whether the author would consider this a separatist book, and also whether the sequel affects this reading of the ending. I'm also interested in hearing from any African American readers or reviewers. What did you think of the portrayal of race here?

Other stuff (spoilers over)


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I really need to know what happens.

Basically, this book takes a lot of emotional stamina to finish, especially if you've got it on audio. I would also like to add: trigger warnings for racial slurs, racial violence, and parent-child and spouse-spouse domestic violence. These things are way easier to read on the page -- where I can see what's coming and skim if need be -- than to listen to on audio with no warning or control over my pace. 

It's an absorbing read BUT THAT ENDING. ARGH. It was VERY sequel-teasing. Luckily, there seems to be a sequel out there!

Rating

I'm giving this 4/5 stars just because I was annoyed by the lack of explanation in regards to the fantasy/science fiction/"speculative fiction" elements. It was just like, this thing exists, OK bye and we'll never mention it again! Perhaps we'll hear more about it in the sequel?

4 comments:

  1. You gave some great insight for this book Laura. Excellent work. I need to read Wish After Midnight. Checked my kindle and I had bought it on sale in 2014 and forgot about it. The sequel intrigues me as well so I need to get cracking. Also added the Irish novel to my wishlist.

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    1. I hope you like it. It's a good book. Pretty long, but definitely worth the length! I'm going to see if I can get the sequel with my next Audible credit. It ends on something of a cliffhanger.

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  2. I haven't read much historical fiction beyond Outlander, but this one looks like a good choice. :)

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    1. Ooh, Outlander! I've heard good things. I need to read it. It involves time travel as well, doesn't it?

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