The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

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Published by Walker, April 2017, 436 pages, £2.00

This is an outstanding debut novel, young adult story and a contemporary peep hole into the thorny topic of race in America. I loved every word of it and slowed down my reading pace to stall its ending. It’s also a very ‘now’ book, like Melissa de la Cruz’s Something in Between which is about immigration and identity in the eyes of a high schooler, published just before Trump’s rise to power. I was half way through ‘The Hate…’ when I heard news of the Charlottesville rally. However, that doesn’t mean it should be read just because of its current-ness. What strikes the reader is the stubborn timelessness of prejudice and corrupted politics. There is however, a sense of hope that change is still possible, even if it’s slow and painful.

Sixteen-year-old Starr witnesses her childhood friend being shot by a police officer for no real reason. And just like that her life is turned upside down. Raised in a rundown community, known for crime and gang warfare, she attends a private school on the privileged side of town. After the incident, Starr is exposed to the harsh division of her two worlds. As the case builds up and goes public, injustices and ugliness are dragged to the fore. Attitudes remain infuriatingly fixed, refusing to budge. As the sole witness, the pressure and responsibility rests upon Starr’s young shoulder to set the score.

‘The Hate U Give’ also stands for THUG, which is taken from the rapper Tupac’s lyrics: ‘Thug life: the hate you give to infants f*** everybody’, a nod to the author’s musical past. The seed of hate fosters fear and even more hate, like an endless circle with no progress for anyone. Starr is made to realise how she had succumbed to acting and talking different at her school. The fear of being stereo-typed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘angry black girl’, caused her to iron out her identity. This is something I understood as an ‘ethnic minority’- the desire to down play your race and to blend in.

Despite the seriousness of the topics, Thomas manages to keep the novel strictly teen with talk about fashion and sports, as well as a cute romance. Most of the plot is centred around an exciting build-up as the readers wait to see whether Starr will speak out. However, there were some slow parts which I believe is intended as relief from the heavy subjects.

We need more books like this.

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Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Published by St. Martin’s Press, September 2013, 481 pages, £1.19

What started as a light-hearted story about a young woman’s first days at Uni quickly evolved as a thoughtful tale about mental health. Do not be fooled by the cutesy cover. While it is upbeat and quirky, it moves into darker corners of everyday life.

Cath lives and breathes fandom. She and her twin sister Wren devoured a children’s fantasy series called Simon Snow. They wrote wreathes of fanfiction, hung out in forums and went to late night book releases. Their obsession grew at the same time their mother had left them. In that sense it was not so much a craze but a way to cope. For Cath, it was not only the option to live in someone else’s world, but to have their words become yours. In writing fanfiction, she ensured that the story that comforted her during the painful separation, never ends. This is a notion that really hit home. Cath takes comfort-zone to a whole new level.

As the sisters head off to college, Wren is keen to become independent and live apart. So Cath is faced with a terrifying new life, away from a once inseparable twin and a father who also never fully recovered from the family trauma. We soon realize that this is more than your usual freshmen jitters. Cath has trouble engaging with new environments and people, preferring to almost starve than ask where the food hall is. A big bulk of the novel focuses on how she navigates through this, with the help of some zesty characters and a cute farm boy. This is when the plot slows a little, but the author easily maintains a constant liveliness to the story.

Cath is a very sweet character and I imagine she speaks to many types of ‘fangirls’. We all understand how special certain books are, their characters, worlds and most importantly their words. We root for Cath to grow in confidence and independence, not so she can cast away her past but so she can finally create her own stories.

xxx

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Published by Penguin, April 2017, 340 pages, £3.99

5 stars

This book blew me away. A world in which young women develop electric powers to zap and kill. It was a truly thunderous read which left me feeling shocked and singed. The remnants of the story are still crackling in my thoughts, so much that I’m not sure how to convey all of them in this review.

The book follows 4 main POVs: Margot, an American mayor who acquires the power from her daughter and fast tracks her way to the White House. Alison, who runs away from an abusive foster system to a convent where she forms a new religion. Roxy, a British teen who is the daughter of a mobster and takes over his business. And Tunde, a young Nigerian man who is one of the first to record the phenomenon on his phone and quickly becomes a revered journalist, travelling everywhere to document the growth of the power.

I found this eclectic mix of characters very engaging, although at times some were more interesting than others. As the power awoke in more girls and gained momentum we see a very fascinating shift in society, cleverly traced by the author. Some are dramatic but some are subtle changes that overthrow years of social conditioning. Rape on men grew, men’s rights activists begin bombing women’s health centres and when a young man is found dead it is usually assumed a woman is behind it.

I enjoyed how a male news anchor was replaced by a young handsome man, leaving the female to assume the distinguished role. I also found it interesting when girl’s blamed boys for ‘secretly liking’ the zap (a reversal of the ‘asking for it’ culture) and how girls would ridicule others who can’t or won’t use the power, calling them names that suggest weakness.

I had heard a lot of buzz about this novel, before it won the ‘Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction’ ( the kind of prize that is ironically subverted in the book’s message- there are no ‘Men’s prizes’ after all…). But I was worried it would be too scary or violent and I wasn’t wrong. This book contains scenes of graphic rape and killing. However, at that point I was too far invested into the story, so it didn’t feel jarring or unnecessary, just a sense of grim acceptance.

I was hooked on the plot which follows the power as it snows balls into what feels like a final showdown- wars, primal cults, weapons of mass destruction, drugs, new laws… Nothing really out of the ordinary or otherworldly if you think about it. Alderman writes in an article about this book that: ”Nothing happens in this book that hasn’t happened to a woman”, which is true. It’s not a dystopia, but a reversed image of our own reality. It’s only truly disturbing in the way it exposes us, not just through division of gender but race and other forms of inequality.

And yes, I would really love to have the power.

#Passionthepower

Thank you Penguin for my review copy xxx

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One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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Published by Penguin, 1 June 2017, 368 pages, £5.99

4 stars

Penguin cleverly sent around press releases daring me NOT to like this book. They boldly claimed that there was not a single reader who disliked the book. So of course I had to accept the challenge, even though I knew it was a marketing bait. I knew that my weakness for high school murder mysteries (a la Pretty Little Liars) will guarantee a base interest. This novel has a bit of everything, intense sleuthing, teen drama and romance. Its attempts to handle darker elements like death and mental illness might be its one flaw.

This is one of the most exciting YA books I have read so far. Five different characters collide in one detention session, all with secrets. Like those who didn’t grow up in the American school system, I have a fondness for their (damaging) stereotypes: the brain, beauty queen, jock, drop-out and outcast. None of these students know why they had detention and at the end of it, Simon the outcast is dead. The rest of the group become suspects. With each day the police are increasingly determined to bring them down. And get this, Simon’s gossip blog continues to post, the topic being the famous four and their secrets. So who is determined to ruin their lives, some elusive stranger or one of them?

If I do say so myself, I had started to get an inkling of who the culprit was. But I do applaud the many twists and turns the plot leads you down. Despite their different worlds, the characters bond with motivating results. They shed their stereotype shells, help each other’s problems and embrace their real selves. There are transformations, society challenges and an additive unlikely romance. However, the story navigates shakily with the topic of depression. The illness was clumsily explained for the rage and revenge that fueled death. But I think the author means to highlight it as a condition partly caused by the school cliques and separations (ones that we in turn find so appealing) in which the main characters ultimately take apart.

Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy xxx

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

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Published by Mira Ink 2012, 395 pages, £3.49

4.5 stars

It’s been a Katie McGarry week and I never want it to end. Thankfully, there are about five more (plus a novella) in this Pushing the Limits series. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to start it. The drama, passion and fiery energy the author brings to her characters warms me from each page. Unlike the Thunder Road series, there are no biker gangs, but focuses on domestic drama, bereavement and mental illness.

Echo and Noah are from two ends of the social spectrum (McGarry is at her best with opposite attraction). Echo was once popular girl, dance team member and on track for an art scholarship. But after the death of her older brother and a traumatic episode involving her mother, she becomes withdrawn and distant from everyone, hiding her inner and outer scars. She is also repressed by her controlling father and his new wife, who was embarrassingly her childhood babysitter.

Noah is the labeled ‘dodgy’ boy who sits at the back of class and lunch, involved with violence, drugs and hook-ups. After the death of his parents and the painful separation from his younger brothers, he has been through the mill of abusive foster care. He is someone who has given up on trust, especially from authority figures, and fights tooth and nail to get his brothers back. Both Echo and Noah’s days are filled with anger and silence. When a guidance councilor brings them together, their initial impression of each other- impressions created by gossip and stereotyping, gradually sift away to make room for their consuming attraction.

Their romance is so fierce, but the wounds from their problems are so raw, McGarry creates an exiting struggle of wanting and never wanting to be the characters. The plot is driven by the mystery of Echo’s memory, as she fails to remember the detail of her trauma. Echo’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder and she fears that she will also loose control and be accused of ‘craziness’. The story deals with the lack of understanding mental illnesses and how it is dealt with. As Echo’s memory comes back in fearful shards, she tries to loosen her father’s safety grips, while Noah does battle with society to reclaim his brothers. Everybody’s limits are tested as the characters challenge those that restrict them as well as pushing their inner scars to extremes. Long at times, the novel was an addictive whirlwind of fatal build-ups and made me look forward to my train journey after a trying day at work.

xxx

Long Way Home by Katie McGarry (Thunder Road #3) – and Red At Night (novella)

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Published by HQ, Feb 2017, 448 pages, £3.99

4.5 stars

Ever since Walk the EdgeI now seek Katie McGarry for addictive reads and fierce teen romances. This is the third book (hopefully not the last) in her Thunder Road series- think small town America, decaying diners and rival biker gangs. It’s necessary to read the earlier books as many events and characters are continued into this installment.

We follow the journey of Violet and Chevy, integral characters since the first book. They were childhood friends turned sweethearts, turned tense exes. After the death of her father, who was a member of ‘The Terror’ biker gang, Violet has had enough of the club who had been her home and family. Despite their vow to protect her, she wants nothing to do with them, their rules and way of life. The only problem is Chevy, her first love. He is devoted to the club, they mean family to him. A place where he belongs. And to prevent him from choosing between her and The Terror, Violet breaks it off with him, severing both their hearts.

The book opens with a chance meeting on an open road, which quickly turns into chaos when they are kidnapped by rival gang ‘The Riot’ and a plunged into a dangerous war between the two clubs. Mysteries of the past, secrets and betrayal spill out like heavy streams. Violet and Chevy try to navigate between these troubles whilst trying to control the flood of their own feelings for each other, which the author conveys so powerfully.

Violet and Chevy were not initially my favourite characters in the series, but McGarry encouraged my deep attachment to them. Her writing is punchy, honest and to the point. When a couple is confused about each other, it usually becomes tiring. This didn’t happen here. Passion pulsated out of each character’s thoughts and dialogue whether they were arguing or otherwise… Their relationship was continuous building, rather than a back-and-forth game.

This is the most dramatic book of the series, with a measured dose of danger and violence. The book also covers the sexist foundations of the club, which Violet challenges fiercely. Despite the club’s best intentions, Violet opens their eyes to double standards and unequal treatment. It is suggested that with her influence, Razor, Oz and Chevy are encouraged to become the new generation of the club, with a new set of rules. I think more could have been explored in this area as it transformed the book from a simple trouble-rescue plot to one about progression and change.

I need more Thunder Road books xxx

 

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Published by MIRA INK 2014, 83 pages, FREE

5 stars

As a free novella this is an amazing read. It had all the depth of a full length novel. Stella and Jonah are from different worlds. Stella is poor and has no choices in life than to drop out of school and take on a full-time job. Jonah is popular and college bound. He was part of a group of bullies who would torment her since she was young. Sometimes he laughed, sometimes he didn’t- still classified him as a bully. When a sudden accident and loss consumes him, he finds Stella as the only person who can help him. The two are drawn together with consequences and uplifting moments.

This novella is for charity and showcases The Goodie Two Shoes Foundation, which provides under-privileged children their own shoes of choice. It’s an inspiring cause that proves that something most people take for granted makes a huge difference to a child’s life and their future.

The Boy is Back by Meg Cabot

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Published by William Morrow, October 2016, 400 pages, £4.49

3 stars

Meg Cabot is my ultimate hero. She has a gift for creating vibrant characters in insanely hilarious scenarios within the stroke of a few sentences. Her romances are deep-felt and effortless. Her plots are fast-paced and addictive. The Boy is Back incorporates most of these qualities, but unfortunately falls short of being Cabot’s best work.

Cabot takes us to her favourite setting, small town Bloomville Indiana, where there is homely but close-knit chaos. The main characters are the boy who left and the girl who stayed. Reed Stewart is a pro golf star who turned his back on his past, including the parents that pushed him away and the girlfriend he let down. Becky Flowers is a successful business woman who worked hard to take over her father’s moving company. Her life revolves around organisation and control, especially when trying to forget a high school heart-break. When Reed’s parents run into financial trouble and alarming elderly episodes, he is pressured by his siblings to return for support. His reappearance triggers a rupture in the small community, who have already been buzzing about the Stewarts’ problems.

It’s a satisfying ‘confront the past’ story. There is all round fun with the siblings, their kids and citizens causing drama during an emotional period. As Reed tries to reconcile with his parents, old feelings for Becky get unlocked. Despite her control, Becky falls again for the boy who left and secrets are revealed.

This novel is written entirely through social media messages, emails, diary entries and letters. This creates a light read and upbeat pace, with each chapter being an energetic change. However, much of the depth to develop the romance and character growth is lost. The reader only experiences things on the surface and are prevented from being entirely involved. The Boy.. is the ideal read to unwind and amuse yourself, but nothing too deep.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

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Published by Macmillan, 12 Jan 2017, 320 pages, £4.00

4 stars

This was a very sweet story which I will remember for a while. A few months ago I read The Problem With Forever by Jennifer L. Armentrout, which was about a girl who had trouble speaking caused by trauma during an abusive childhood. That was when I realised the explosive power that rested in a story covering the topic of speech and the deep hold it had for me as a reader. As a naturally quiet person, as I am sure many readers are, I engaged with some of the mania and the injustice that shakes a character who is unable to express themselves through speech. Sara Barnard’s heroine, Steffi, is diagnosed as a selective mute with social anxiety. She begins the novel in silent but courageous agony against the mean girls, which was when I knew I was going immerse myself in her world.

The author’s writing flows very easily, her characters blossoming effortlessly that I had trouble switching off the kindle. You know you have a winner when you’re reaching for the book with just 5 empty minutes to fill. In fact, this book stole my attention from another, one that I was anticipating for a few months.

The MCs clicked well. Steffi is introduced to Rhys, a new student who is also deaf. She has been asked to look after him as she had some basic knowledge of sign language. They are immediately drawn to each other. Their romance isn’t as powerful as many of the current YAs out there, and especially if I am comparing it to The Problem with Forever. It was sweet and sensitive.

He thinks you’re sunshine.

Rhys is certainly an appealing, mature and witty love interest. The story focuses on happens after they share their first kiss and how they navigate themselves through a world that is clearly against their condition. When things get tough Steffi finds herself being pulled back into a internal wormhole that she suffers during the darker days of her uncontrollable silence. This book is about her being able to find light to pull herself out and the power of love certainly contributed.

Steffi and Rhys’ relationship wasn’t about finding a cure for Steffi, but more about two young hearts against the world as it would be for any pair strong willed teenagers whether they are deaf, mute or not.

Many thanks to Macmillan for a review copy xxx

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett

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4 stars

This book is fantastic! Its illuminating, delicate and quite haunting. I was impressed by this story about an alienated teenager who hates her small town life with its mean and mediocre inhabitants. Hawthorn Creely, a cleverly memorable name, sees the world differently believing in the extraordinary and the unbelievable. She has such a strong voice with a mix of angst, sorrow and dry humour, it immediately hooked me from the first few sentences. The extreme loneliness she feels, as she tries to reconnect with her former football star brother and battle the high school beauty queens who bully her relentlessly, effectively consumes the reader.

When a former popular girl disappears in the woods, Hawthorn feels contempt for how much it affects the town. Everybody comes to a stop, becomes obsessed and begins to mourn for this beautiful girl who once made Hawthorn feel like dirt. She sees Lizzie Lovett as her complete opposite. Even their names are different, Lizzie’s spells light, carefree, happy and most importantly adored. When the police struggle to find a trace, Hawthorn becomes curious, just as everybody starts to ‘move on’. Through some uncontrollable urge, she takes Lizzie’s old job as a waitress and becomes drawn to Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend. Despite everybody believing him a murderer, they form a connection as outcasts. Hawthorn tries to learn as much as she can about the former queen bee, and becomes fascinated and confused about how unspectacular Lizzie’s life had been before her disappearance.

Out of a jokey whim, Hawthorn wonders if Lizzie had turned into a werewolf. But the idea starts to become less impossible the more she thought about it. She manages to enlist Enzo’s help and they both start looking in the woods for any traces. This idea is so messed up, but slightly wondrous, because Hawthorn truly believes in magic. Even I started to believe. Not so much the actual werewolf, but the possibility of there being more answers in the world.

Enzo, artistic, grief-stricken and broken, was not the usual love interest. He remained elusive and didn’t convince me of his innocence. The dangerous path Hawthorn takes with Enzo and the mystery of Lizzie, which became stronger at each turn, truly enticed me. When we finally find out what happened, Hawthorn’s world turns upside down. Everything she believes in immediately unravels. She may believe in fantasy but she was too focused on her own unhappiness and social isolation that she was blind to the experiences of those around her. The ending is uplifting as she comes to terms with this realisation.

I can see this being a movie.

Many thanks to Sourcebooks for my review copy xx

 

Holding up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Published by Penguin, April 2016, 391 pages, £3.99

3.5 stars

This is another precious story from Jennifer Niven. I was a little apprehensive, because I saw some mixed reviews. If you were an avid worshipper of All the Bright Places (who wouldn’t be), you would also enjoy this, but it isn’t of the same calibre. We can all agree All the Bright Places is an incredibly special and powerful story. Holding up the Universe is just as endearing, but lighter. It will touch you, but won’t knock you out.

Again, Niven hands to us two stellar characters with moving problems. Libby is a girl who used to be ‘America’s Fattest Teen’ and had to be cut out of her house and hospitalized. After years of isolation and recovery, she returns to high school and tries to get her life back on track. When I say ‘recovery’, I don’t mean that she becomes sparkly thin and all is well. She has reached a size where most still call over-weight, but she is comfortable, has climbed over her eating disorder and doesn’t plan on losing anymore. She continued to surprise me. Her rock hard integrity and courage, the way she stands up for herself when the trolls inevitably descend, demands respect. She is a natural friend to the reader and at times I found myself laughing with her. Niven addresses all the dimensions of weight-shaming and bullying with clarity and taste. This is obviously someone who understands that moment when you are confronted with a dark irrational force of hate, or people who are just plain shitty.

Jack is a boy who seems to cruising through high school smoother than most. He’s popular, has the on-off girlfriend others fear, and is friends with the loud guys. He is fairly fetching, as fictional boys go. His fierce determination and confidence switching to tenderness at perfect moments echo Finch, but unfortunately doesn’t outshine him nor exist solidly on its own.

His story begins with trouble for making out with his girlfriend’s cousin. It was dark, he was drunk, he wasn’t ‘technically’ attached and ‘boys will be boys’ right? The problem is, he really could not recognise whether it was his girlfriend or not. Jack has face-blindness, a condition I never knew existed and feel so enlightened that Niven has introduced me to it. Realising what he had when he was younger, Jack has tried to live with it and put up a fake bravado. I wondered why he never wanted to share his problem, but then realised it came from a scarier, deeper rooted issue of mistrust and fear in his society:

Better to be the hunter than hunted.

Soon, Jack’s walls of survival begin to crumble, and a secret of his father’s threatens to shake the bonds even more. It is clear he is entirely alone until he runs into Libby. A cruel joke brings them crashing together, and finally he begins to let down his guard. The two connect in a satisfying way. Their relationship developed very quickly for those who hate frustrating teases, but I wish there was more of a crackling tension. Unfortunately, their romance falls a little flat at the end where the plot was in need of harsher conflict and a swoonier reunion.

But the way Niven writes is amazing – her prose is scattered with pockets of soul-affirming dreams and hopes, but also whirl-pools of endless darkness. This isn’t just a story about weight and cognitive disorder, it’s about alienation, trust and acceptance. We dance with the characters, struggle with them, and strive with them to achieve wholeness and enough strength to hold up a universe.