Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ve recently finished reading ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas, amid all of the hype over this book. And let me just say this: that hype is well deserved. I’m just going to make it clear right now that I adored this novel and am rating it 5/5 stars. It’s funny, heart-breaking, relatable and so, so relevant right now with everything that’s going on in the world. It’s a story that needs to be told and a truly fantastic debut in the YA genre for 2017.

The story follows Starr, a seventeen year old girl ‘from the hood’ A.K.A Garden Heights. Her life is divided into two parts: the Starr she acts like at her preppy, white private school, and her true self. However her two lives are blown apart when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend Khalil by a white police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. With pressures facing her on all sides, Starr must decide between what is right and what is easy. She must use her voice to fight for justice, for Khalil and herself.

I found Starr to be a relatable, down-to-earth protagonist who I could easily feel for and imagine myself in the shoes of. The confusing storm of emotions she feels in the wake of her friend’s murder is very believable and deeply painful to read, especially knowing that although this book is fiction, it’s based on true events. Her close relationship with her family members is also at times hilarious and heart-warming to read. I loved her interactions with her dad in particular, who clearly cares a lot for his family and neighbourhood, despite being an ex-con and an ex-gangster.

Thomas has done an excellent job of developing a large and diverse cast of characters, delving into their backstories and humanising them in ways that allow you to understand their choices, even if they’re bad ones. A lot of the book is centred on examining the stereotypes and assumptions people make about ‘thug life’ and the black community – an idea which is very neatly explained by Tupac’s lyrics ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody’. Too often the media’s portrayal of these communities is one-dimensional, focusing only on the bad without understanding the complex web of reasons behind it. Thomas’ book rightly examines how many of these people, like Khalil, are in fact victims of a system that is already stacked against them and how perpetuating these stereotypes will only continue to worsen the situation.

I also really enjoyed the subtle critique of ‘casual racism’ in this book – how racist terminology has become so ingrained in our culture that we might not even be aware of it. Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend, provides a model example of how not to take white priviledge for granted. His tolerance and sensitivity are a great contrast to Hailey – Starr’s white best friend who keeps making racist jokes and then tries to deny that they’re racist. I thought this was really important, as it shows that racism isn’t just about big flashy news headlines, it’s about the little things too. And as someone who’s been on the receiving end of those kinds of jokes, I felt a sense of validation to know that I did have the right to get upset over it.

Overall, I thought this book was incredibly well-written and authentic. A lot of it is clearly based on personal experience and the author did a fantastic job of bringing Garden Heights and its inhabitants to life. It’s not often I find a YA book that deals with serious issues such as this so well, and I think it really has the potential to make a difference.

Have you read ‘The Hate U Give’? What did you think of it? Leave your comments below!

Book Review: ‘Aggravated Momentum’ by Didi Oviatt

I received a free review copy of ‘Aggravated Momentum’ by Didi Oviatt in return for an honest review. Okay, first things first, I loved this book. It took me on a real rollercoaster of emotions and the two twists caught me by complete surprise. The pacing of the story and the way certain key plot points are revealed to you make for an exhilarating and fast read.

‘Aggravated Momentum’ is an adult thriller, a ‘murder mystery’ type story that reminded me of ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn. It’s written from the POVs of multiple characters, including the killer. Markie, the protagonist, is still grieving the death of her best friend Beth, who was murdered a year ago. However when the killer strikes again, it becomes clear that they won’t stop until they’ve destroyed everyone close to Markie. To protect her family and those she loves, Markie must work together with the police to draw the killer out and figure out what they want before it’s too late. But why is she being targeted? And what other dark secrets does the killer have that will change Markie’s life forever?

Adult thriller isn’t my usual genre. I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and was very pleasantly surprised. Markie, the MC, is sharp, witty and independent. Though still obviously a bit traumatised by what happened to her friend Beth, she’s clearly a very capable and intelligent woman who knows how to stay calm during stressful situations. Though sometimes I found her a little cold and unfairly judgemental of the people around her, I liked that she wasn’t a perfect lovable MC. I think the point of this book is that none of the characters are good people, yet they’re intriguing enough that you want to learn more about them.

Markie’s younger sister Kam also plays a significant part in the story. Unlike Markie, she’s a bit more frivolous and doesn’t think before she speaks, which makes her seem insensitive a lot of the time. The dynamic between the two sisters is very realistic – though they both clearly have some big flaws, they still care about each other deeply, one of their redeeming qualities.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I think in many ways this book breaks down some of the tropes associated with the thriller/crime genre. I really liked the fact that the killer was revealed so soon and we got to read parts of the story from their POV – even though the big reveal happened early on there were still other surprises in store and I liked the dramatic irony. I found it unsettling to hear the killer’s thought processes; it gave me shivers and reminded me a lot of Clockwork Orange. Though I usually find books with multiple POVs confusing and overly complex, the pacing and the narrative structure here worked well since it all fit into one clear plot arc with a satisfyingly shocking conclusion.

If crime and thriller is your thing, I would highly recommend ‘Aggravated Momentum’ as an exciting, sexy and refreshingly original alternative to the usual staples of the genre. #SupportIndie and pick up a copy here

Book review: ‘Panther’ by David Owen (guest post)

Review written by Hannah Froggatt

‘Panther’ by David Owen is a coming of age YA novel focusing on the relationship between the teenage protagonist, Derrick, and his older sister Charlotte. Ever since Charlotte was diagnosed with major depression, her illness has been tearing the family apart. The stress has led Derrick to develop a compulsive eating disorder. However when he hears that a Panther has recently escaped from a local zoo, Derrick thinks that maybe capturing it can be his salvation, that maybe stopping the beast in it’s physical form will be enough to save his sister too.

When you first pick up Panther, you’re struck by its veracity. The characterisation is masterful. Derrick, our protagonist, is a perfect blend of naïvety and worldliness: perceptive enough to see his family is falling apart but ill-equipped to help them. Charlotte’s barbed interactions with Derrick are the best parts of the book, managing to be both sardonic and tender whilst digging right to the heart of Panther’s central theme of understanding — and accepting what we can’t understand. Despite some slightly self-conscious discussion of social media, Owen’s grasp of teenage world-views is sterling.

So is the depiction of mental health disorders. Few writers manage to depict such illnesses this dispassionately, but more impressive is Owen’s understanding of the three-dimensional presence of issues like depression. Derrick’s bewilderment at Charlotte’s behaviour — and his own — is completely genuine, and an excellent standpoint from which to explore how it affects those nearest sufferer and how it disrupts the narratives of our lives.

The only thing that doesn’t work is, unfortunately, the central metaphor. Derrick’s obsession with the escaped panther supposedly roaming his neighbourhood feels jarring and childish for the character’s years. The panther is meant to represent the depression that preys on Derrick’s family, but this clumsy attempt at magical realism clashes horribly with the blunt naturalism that makes the rest of the story so powerful.

Panther aside, it’s still worth a read. The beautiful character-craft and unblinking exploration of mental health make it thoroughly worth your time.

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

‘In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer’ – Albert Camus

In 1939, The Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Thousands of citizens considered to be ‘anti-soviet’ were murdered, sent to prison or deported into slavery in Siberia. Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel ‘Between shades of gray’ is the harrowing story of these deportees, told from the perspective of Lina, a 15 year old girl whose family are taken in the middle of the night by Russian soldiers and sent to a Siberian work camp.

I first heard about this book on goodreads. I usually don’t read historical fiction, but it had such a high rating that I had to see what the hype was about. And believe me, that rating is well deserved. Haunting in its simplicity and brutally honest, this book tells the story of one of WWII’s hidden tragedies. While the horrors the Nazis committed and the holocaust are general knowledge, the invasion of the Baltic states is virtually ignored in history lessons, which is why I think reading this book is so important. It gives a voice to a silenced generation of people, uncovers a trauma narrative that has woven its way to the very heart of the nation.

Sepetys prose is not flowery or elaborate. It’s stark, cold and sometimes detached, reflecting the bleak reality of the protagonists lives. However this doesn’t mean that it’s unemotional; on the contrary emotion seeps into every part of the narrative, from Lina’s flashbacks to the happier times in her past, to her overflowing love for her family. Despite being subjected to hostile conditions, abuse and trauma at the hands of the Russian soldiers, Lina remains strong and determined to escape, to reunite her family and return to her homeland with them.

One of the things I loved about this novel is the characterisation. Lina, her younger brother Jonas, their mother and Andrius (Lina’s love interest) are all unique, three-dimensional characters with their own passions, their own dreams, but also sharing the same dream: to return home. Lina’s observations of the other deportees in their group are morbidly humorous, quirky and insightful. It’s a beautiful depiction of how adversity can bond people together and the strength of the human survival instinct.

I can’t say it was an easy book to read. There were times when I had to take a break and pull myself out of it because it was sending me into a downward spiral of ‘how can people be so cruel? What’s wrong with humanity?’ Saying this though, it was a necessary book to read. Based on true events, this novel is an education as well as a lesson in empathy. It’s heart-breaking and harrowing, but at the same time incredibly inspiring. While it showcases the worst side of humanity, it also showcases the best: how, in Ruta Sepetys’s words, ‘love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.’

Have you read this book, or others by Ruta Sepetys? Let me know your thoughts! 

Book Review: ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a work of modern art. It’s radical, sophisticated and subversive in all the right ways. And, dammit, there’s just something really sexy about reading an intellectual book and learning new things without it feeling like extra work.

I’ve read ‘Half of a yellow sun’ by Adichie in the past, so I went in with high expectations, which were met and exceeded by this book. It follows two star-crossed lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their upbringing in a middle-class neighbourhood in Nigeria. However their relationship is cut short when Ifemelu emigrates to America to continue her education and Obinze, failing to get a visa, starts a new undocumented life as an illegal immigrant in England instead.

In America, Ifemelu deals with success and failure, finds and ends new relationships and eventually gets a fellowship at Princeton. For the first time, she becomes aware of race as a concept, and how differently she is treated because of her skin. She starts to document her observations in the form of a blog about race, which quickly brings her newfound fame. However despite all the luxuries of her new life, something pulls her back home, back to the Nigeria she grew up in. When she returns she meets Obinze again, who is now a wealthy, married man. As the two former lovers reunite, old sparks are rekindled and the two are faced with some tough decisions about their futures.

I once heard someone on goodreads refer to this book as a ‘500 page commentary on race’ (it was meant as an insult, I think of it as a positive thing). It’s true that ‘Americanah’ is not subtle at all about the issues of racism it tackles, and very much focuses on Ifemelu’s experience of being black in America. However it doesn’t read like a text book, or a preachy rant, it reads like a very smart, very intellectual novel written by a world-renowned race academic. As Ifemelu herself says in the book, racism is not a subtle thing, and should not be dealt with in a subtle way. As it does for all African Americans, race is something that affects every aspect of the protagonist’s life, and therefore seeps into every part of her narrative. The point of the novel is to illuminate the pervasive, omnipresent shadow that race is for those living in the Western world, and also how race is not a fixed category as its definition is tied to shifting social values.

‘Americanah’ is not just another ‘book about race’. It’s brutally honest, heartbreaking and also fiercely hopeful. It analyses the very real, very damaging consequences that race can have, from racial stereotyping, to lack of representation, to alienation and loss of identity. It’s a book about overcoming hardship and succeeding in a country that is against you purely on the basis of your appearance. It’s about miscommunication, a lack of understanding, a lack of willingness to learn. It’s a story about love in many different forms and, ultimately, two people finding each other again.

Book review: ‘We were liars’ by E. Lockhart

“The island is ours. Here, in some way, we are young forever.”

I’ve read a lot of books in the last few months. Spending nearly 3 hours a day on a train commuting to work and back has made reading the highlight of my day. But despite all of the classics I’ve read ‘We were liars’ is the book that has stuck with me. I know that many will claim that it’s not in the same league because it’s ‘YA’ and therefore of lesser value somehow. But frankly I feel like there’s not enough space in the world of literature for newness, that literature is very much a closed off category of the past.

‘We were liars’ is a work of the present. Through her depiction of the Sinclair family, Lockhart paints a surprisingly authentic metaphor of modern day American society, touching on relevant issues such as insidious racism and power struggles within the family dynamic. Though the Sinclairs may be beautiful, rich and powerful on the outside, they are riddled with corruption and tragedy underneath.

Cadence Eastman Sinclair is the American golden girl; she’s rich, pretty, loved, however beneath the facade she is struggling with chronic, debilitating migraines, which doctors believe to be a symptom of a post-traumatic brain injury. She believes this was caused by an accident she had swimming in the sea, while holidaying on her family’s island two summers ago. However she’s not really sure, since the accident also caused amnesia.

From there Cadence takes us on a trip down memory lane, back to when she first went to the island with the rest of her family, including her cousins Johnny and Mirren and Johnny’s best friend Gat.

The four of them quickly become close friends, calling themselves the ‘liars’. Cadence falls in love with Gat and they start a summer fling, one that Cadence’s grandfather, the patriarch of the family, disproves of since Gat is ethnically Indian. While the grandfather never says this outright and speaks more in veiled threats than clear statements, the situation becomes tense and Gat mysteriously breaks off the budding romance.

Heartbroken, Cadence tries to move on, however when she finally returns to the island 2 summers later everything has changed and it’s clear that something isn’t right. What really happened on the night of the accident? To discover the truth, Cadence is forced to dig up old memories that are probably better left buried.

Lockhart’s prose flows effortlessly as she describes lazy days on the beach of a paradise island cut off from reality. Everything about this book has a dreamy, semi-lucid quality to it, evoking emotion and imagery with every paragraph. It’s truly a masterpiece to read, and even better when you find out what the twist is at the end. Though I had my suspicions, it still took me by surprise and I thought it was very masterfully constructed. I was satisfied with the ending and, though I was sad it was over, it felt like the story had come to a natural close.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries, suspense, psychological thrillers and general YA. It really is an excellent read and definitely worth the time investment.