‘Sup readers? Welcome to this week’s On The Shelf, where I do my best to subjectively ascertain whether or not a book has what it takes to stay on your shelf, or whether it’s better-suited for your e-reader. There’s not any sort of genre restriction, in order to make this column, a book simply has to be newly-released (or at least new enough that talking about it won’t put you to sleep). We’ve explored the paranormal, historical fiction, fantasy, collected trades of single issue comics, and thrillers. But overwhelmingly, most of the books reviewed are in the YA genre, and this week is no exception (I promise, next week’s will be a little bit “older”).
This week’s pick is Adi Alsaid’s (Let’s Get Lost, Never Always Sometimes) new YA contemporary, North Of Happy. North Of Happy follows Carlos, a boy whose whole life has been painstakingly laid out for him, courtesy of his bullish-but-successful father, whose expectations of Carlos are particularly stifling and stringent, given how Carlos’s older brother Felix has already made himself comfortable in the role of “family disappointment.” In contrast with Carlos’s neat and tidy by-the-book life, Felix is a free spirit with a healthy sense of wanderlust. Felix is a globetrotter; he’s been all over the world (much to his father’s dismay) with no intent on returning to the “settled” life that awaits Carlos. Despite their opposing life-paths, Carlos idolizes Felix, the older brother who is brave. The older brother who doesn’t cave to expectations or pressure. The older brother who taught him everything he knows about cooking— Carlos’s true passion. It’s always an adventure when Felix is around, and when he’s waiting for Carlos outside of school one day, intent that he should ditch his responsibilities and go all over Mexico City on a brotherly quest, Carlos can’t say no. But a day that started out so magically ends in unspeakable tragedy. Carlos witnesses Felix’s murder, and nothing has been the same since. Feeling less than half of a man and seeing Felix (who sometimes adds some nifty advice, in the body of a pigeon or in the screen of the TV. Just to make those hallucinations extra vivid) everywhere, Carlos is chomping at the bit to escape the life his father is still pushing on him. Even after death, Felix is advising his brother to ditch their parents’ plans for him and follow his true heart: hopeful that it will help him stop seeing a mirage and feel like an actual human again (or feel anything at all, really), Carlos takes a leap of faith and runs off to the United States. While there, he meets a girl— naturally— Emma who wrangles him a job with a celebrity chef. She also happens to be Emma’s mom. As he hones his skill in the kitchen, he also starts to fall in love with Emma, and he must decide who he is, and what his true path really looks like.
I really appreciated North Of Happy. Death is a delicate topic, and also a bit of a taboo subject within a lot of families. It’s not that the person who died is forgotten or anything, it’s just that life goes on, and you can’t spend your time dwelling on someone, even if they were once your whole world, even if they took the sun with them when they died. But for those who— like Carlos— experience it up-close-and-personal, it’s even harder to set a path and move forward. This is what Alsaid’s Carlos tries to do: forging ahead in the face of death is one of the hardest things to do, and reading about Carlos’s worst times is heart-wrenching. The thing about grief is that it never actually gets better, your life just gets different, and unfortunately, Carlos’s family is a horrible support system. The domineering father, whom Felix was dead to before his actual murder, and his mother, who is reluctant to argue her husband’s resolute position, probably for fear of igniting a powder-keg. But Carlos’s mother is the one who gives him the clearance to take off to the States, to honour Felix’s memory in some way, so while she’s the Trophy Wife in public, she certainly understands more than she can readily admit to in private. I also liked the angle Alsaid took with Carlos’s father— while I didn’t like him, I saw echoes of people who are like him (preferring to bottle it all up, pretending not to feel pain and that the child who “wronged,” you is nonexistent). Seeing that reflected was, if not the most pleasant experience, at least realistic (and it made me a heck of a lot more aware of and thankful for my family dynamic. So if nothing else, this book is a reminder that it certainly could be worse).
Carlos as a main character is someone you want to root for, someone who is dealing with unimaginable loss and, at the same time, feeling the thrall of first love. I thought putting recipes at the beginning of each chapter was a creative, unique touch, and found Alsaid’s writing easy to fly through. Carlos and Felix are so vivid as characters, I could picture them clearly while reading. North Of Happy is one of those gems that you can pick up and when you look up again, dragged back to real life for some reason or another, the novel is almost done and you’re wondering how long you’ve been sitting here, because your butt is stuck to the couch, your stomach is grumbling, and you could swore you just started this book like, an hour ago (is it presumptuous to be asking when the movie’s coming out? Because this should be a movie).
Seriously, though. North Of Happy was a great book, and I definitely recommend it have a place on the shelf. If North Of Happy sounds like it might scratch the itch you’ve been wanting scratched, check it out here.