The Hate U Give deserves a lot of love

I think I may have just read the Young Adult book of 2017. ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas is arguably essential reading for anyone, but especially if looking for a something that spells out why ‘Black Lives Matter’.

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Starr is 16 and lives in the Ghetto, but also goes to a mainly white ‘good’ school in the suburbs. Her 2 lives are kept mostly seperate until she and lifelong friend Khalil are pulled over by a white police officer who then shoots Khalil.  The book goes on to explore the tensions within Starr’s own identity, her family life, the reaction of the poor and black community where she lives and the affluent white school she attends.

 

On one hand, it’s a tragic but uncomplicated event. Even making excuses for the police officer, the event is simply that an innocent boy is mistakenly shot by a  police officer misreading the boy’s actions.  In reality the impact is incredibly complex, and Thomas’ book captures this wonderfully. The police force covers up for the officer. Media reports the event using coded language, and the local community & wider society react accordingly. Starr is traumatised and caught between her conflicting identities, causing her to confront the good and bad of how she presents herself.

 

Angie Thomas has created a beautiful and authentic voice in Starr Carter. I was on the verge of tears for large parts of the novel. Large parts are intense, hooking you into Starr’s world the way only a good book can. At other times I was laughing freely or swaying from anger to dismay.  This book grabs hold of your emotions early on and gives them a good seeing to.

 

Anyone that pays even a cursory attention to news in America over the last few months can’t help but be aware of the number of cases where black people, including minors or children, have been shot by police officers. None of which appear to have to answer for their actions, or where investigations have happened, have not been found to have acted either illegally or even disproportionaly. Many of these events have led to protests and the growth of the tagline Black Lives Matter.

 

On a personal level, when I read such reports, my reactions are normally shock, sadness, anger and disbelief. When you read the reports, or watch videos, it seems impossible to not at least have sympathy for the victim’s familes, and empathy with the anger of the communities they come from. I fail to understand anyone (or the news outlets) that tries to justify, what are on the face of things, unjustifiable actions.

 

Where THUG works for me, is to personalise why the Black Live Matter movement is important. Empathy will only get you so far. This book gives a great insight into the feelings that are happening. The loss felt, and the helplessness or frustration that follows. There is a scene where Starr’s dad is stopped and humilated by police that must provoke a reaction from every reader.

 

If the reaction you find yourself having after reading this book, is that Khalil deserved what he got, or still along the lines of ‘if black people just did what they police said?’, or ‘why do communities loot neighbourhoods?’ then chances are you’ll never change from that perspective unless personally experiencing it. No doubt there will be plenty of people that just don’t get this book, or the feelings it is trying to portray. They might try attach some meaning that’s not there. Maybe use the references to Tupac and ThugLife to paint an alternative narrative.  I feel sorry for those people.

 

YA often does big issues. When it does it well…eg 13 Reason Why, Asking For it, Nothing Tastes as Good, The Art of Being Normal, it is reason to celebrate and a great excuse to badger every young person (and adult) to get the book and think hard about the message.

 

The Life U Give has already recieved a lot of attention and will no doubt become a movie and hopefully become as big a sensation as other YA works like The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. For those that like to be ahead of the curve, I recommend getting on this one now before it gets huge – because it will.

 

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Are you John Irving in disguise? The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I lost a weekend to John Boyne’s world of Cyril Avery – and I’m still not the better of it. I’m recovering from a book hangover of the best kind.

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The story is simple but complex. It is the life of Cyril Avery, from not long before his birth, to pretty soon before his death. It is the story of being gay in Ireland and the story of social change in Ireland, told from the 1940’s through to 2015. It is an emotional roller coaster.

If you have ever read The World According to Garp, or Prayer to Owen Meany, you will understand my reference in the title of the post. Boyne is channeling Irving in the best possible way. He stands the comparison well. It is up there with the best of his work.

Boyne starts angry. The opening lines will hook you and you won’t want to be let go. Cyril’s mother is denounced from the alter, physically kicked thrown out of the church and  basically run out of town. If in the opening chapter you find yourself defending the clergy or Cyril’s grandparents, then you probably need to stop reading there. If you think gay people are sick and perverted you should probably read on as you might learn something, but you’ll probably stop reading early on.

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After leaving her home town behind, Cyril’s mother heads off to Dublin on the bus where she begins her new life, with a grand plan in place that involves a hunchbacked old nun who will deliver Cyril to his adoptive parents.

What follows is the best part of 600 pages of tears and laughter. I know I swung from anger, to joy, to despair, and back again.  The dialogue is sharp and quirky. Cyril’s upbringing is unconventional, but mostly believable, if occasionally absurd. The near misses between Cyril and his birth mother will probably frustrate you.

I read the book over the last weekend, as the Tuam Baby story was dominating headlines in Ireland. So anger at religious organisations was already in my system. The sad thing for Ireland is that many of the attitudes expressed and described in the book, you feel, are not in anyway over-hyped.There are too many scandals for the reader to not believe any of the more outrageous event or conversations that happen in the book. The strict conservative shadow of the Catholic Church reached into every part of society in Ireland. The sharpest barbs in this book are drafted in the funniest dialogue. Mary Margaret Muffet is a great character and you can easily imagine taking part in the cringe-worthy conversation towards the end with his daughter in law’s parents.

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The object of Boyne’s contempt isn’t limited to the Catholic Church. Politicians and our general attitudes to women are the other principle targets. The occasional historical factual figure pops up, and some, like Charlie Haughey, get a bit of a shoeing.

Not all of the characters are drawn out or have depth to them. The modern segments aren’t maybe as good as the older ones. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s up there.

Overall I loved this book. First proper 5 star of the year. I was lucky in that I was able to just read for most of the weekend, so could get properly lost in Cyril. But in best book hangover traditions, I have no idea what to read next, although I do think I’ll be re-reading A Prayer to Owen Meany this year.

4 books read, 4 reviewed

Since I last wrote I’ve managed to complete 4 books, so I’ll do some brief reviews of  them here before I start number 5.

 

5-riversI started the month with a book I picked up on a weekend away in Liverpool. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain by Barney Norris. Its the story of five separate lives that interconnect briefly around a single incident – a car accident in Salisbury. Judging the book by its cover, it had some decent reviews. Plus I hadn’t heard of it before…(see the paragraph below about Down Station), plus I used to live in Bournemouth so had visited Salisbury a few times back then.

The prologue is a bit of a red herring. It’s a bit of flowery prose about the five rivers that flow onto Salisbury Plain, tracing time from prehistory through to the modern era. It has nothing to do with the story other than (I’m guessing) as an analogy for the 5 people who’s lives flow separately but come together in a single moment that has it’s own story and tributaries.

The interconnectedness of people’s lives isn’t a new idea, but Barney Norris does it very well. He’s also a playwright so I can imagine the story working very well as a play or film. The characters are likeable, or at least interesting. I enjoyed the different stories (some more than others).   This is a fine read. It engages the reader, and should hold your attention right the way through. Recommended.
I moved back in time then to re-read a book I last read (I Think) about 30 years ago – The Diary of A Young Girl – by Anne Frank.  anne-frank
There’s something about how the world is at the moment that motivated me to revisit this well known work. When I read it first I was either a teen or in my early 20’s. Either way, I had forgotten much of the detail. Anne Frank in the early chapters isn’t the most likeable child. She comes across as quite vain, and full of herself. Turns out, in the case of her writing she had every right. I had forgotten how good her writing is. It’s easy for forget that she was 13 when she started and 15 by the end of the diary. I imagine after the war, people may have doubted it was written by someone so young. Her depth of understanding and articulation of her emotions and feelings towards her family are very surprising, and lift it beyond the general description of the claustrophobic life she lived for those years.

Beyond that the unwritten story is of course a vital reminder of the horrors of the time. The family’s eventual arrest and death of all but Anne’s father Otto a few weeks before the camp’s liberation a tragedy.  What strikes is the simple pleasures she lost, her desire to be a normal young person and the bravery of the people that helped the 8 people in the Anne Frank House. I don’t know if this is still essential reading in the school curriculum, but it certainly should be.

DOWN-STATION1.jpgWhether it’s because of the internet and having so much information ready to hand, or because if the shops I tend to browse in, I am increasingly finding I rarely ‘discover’ new books any more. I seem to have heard about or read about the new books I see in the shelves of my local Dubray Bookshop. So when I’m away I like to see if there is something I haven’t seen before. I’m returning to my trip to Liverpool where the local Waterstones 3 for 2 had be checking for something new. To my surprise I found Down Station by Simon Morden.

The story – a couple of groups of people are working in London’s underground network. Some sort of catastrophic event is happening. The world is on fire. The escape through a service door in a disused station and emerge in what turns out to a totally different world. The way back seems to disappear, along with it their way back. They’re not the first to come through into this world, from which there seems to be no return. They have to learn how to survive and who they can or cannot trust.

I enjoy fantasy and this is something a little different. It move along nice and briskly and has all the ingredients for a great series. I am looking forward to number 2, and learning more about the world of Down. If you like fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, but that has an intriguing dusting of magic, then you’ll like this.

orphan-xFinally, a book that’s been in my TBR pile for a while now. I fancied what I hoped would be a straight forward thriller and wasn’t disappointed by Orphan X by Greg Hurwitz. It is what I hoped and is very enjoyable. I flew through it, and enjoyed it all.

Orphan X was literally an orphan taken and trained to be an assassin/spy/tool ah la Jason Bourne I guess. He eventually leaves the world of black ops, and becomes a sort of vigilante, man for hire…like a younger Equalizer. After he has sorted your problem, your payment is to pass on his number to one person that really needs his help. And from there he gets tied up in a conspiracy with all the thrills and spills you might expect.

This is the first in a series apparently, with number 2 (The Nowwhere Man) currently available. I would expect to see a movie to go along with it too.

The Association of Small Bombs

A small bomb, in a busy Indian market. Among its victims are two young boys, among the survivors their friend. From there we look beyond the physical impact of the bomb to the emotional ‘collateral damage’ on the boy’s parents, Mansoor the survivor and Shockie the bomb maker and terrorist and some other supporting cast.

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This book by Karan Marhajan featured in many end of year lists for 2016, so I was really looking forward to reading it. I’m still not entirely sure how much I enjoyed it, or if I was giving it a ranking on Goodreads, what that might be.

Its not a very long novel, but I read it in two large chunks, separated by over a week, due to life impinging on reading time. Whether this impacted on my enjoyment of the book I’m not sure. I enjoyed it. Its wonderfully written. It held my attention. It just lacked a little something I think.

There are big themes. Is there any such thing as a small bomb? Taking one life or 1000 lives? Either is a huge event in the lives of so many people. What are the motivations of terrorists? This gets explored.

My take on it is that the author, even by the title, deliberately diminished the notion of a terrorist act as being something almost mundane (once the threat becomes almost normalised). The bomb is considered a small bomb. The type that gets very little coverage in the modern world. It all takes place in New Delhi, which maybe adds to this notion for western readers to whom bombs in the East don’t create the same social media outpouring of grief or empathy that terrorist attacks in Europe or North America do.

There is a sadness that runs through this book. Or thinking more about it, maybe its a weariness.The sadness of the Khurana’s is obvious. They lost their sons and struggle to come to terms with that, but there are other reasons for their sadness. Mansoor survives, but that has its own guilt and ramifications. Plus he is Muslim, a minority, and for some a possible suspect? Shockie, the bomb maker has his own demons. Throughout the book, it seems nobody is happy, or that happiness is only fleeting.  The ineptitude of the police and judicial forces, or the politicians merely add to the downbeat feeling.

The cultural, social and political context of New Dehli and India adds a layer and subtext to the book. There are I guess, nuances, that might be obvious to some or that I as a western reader have missed.

There are no big answers  to the big questions. Motivations for terrorism are not revealed, or at least not to me. There are individual reasons, fame, glory, ideological, political, revenge.

It seems to me after reading, that there are no small lives,  and therefore no small bombs.

I think this going to get 4 stars. 3 and half might be more accurate. The story is engaging. I  cared about Mansoor, and Ayub, a character in the second half. The parents (I’m guessing deliberately are less likeable).

A lot of care has been taken on the language. It is really well written. Its beautiful sad.

A sad book, doesn’t mean a bad book. The Association of Small Bombs is well worth reading, just don’t expect to feel good about the world afterwords.

Recent reads, bit of football and family strife.

Couple of books read since I last posted both with their share of happy times, but ultimately filled with some regret and wondering about where it all went wrong.

 

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I grew up supporting Leeds Utd. I began supporting them in the 1970’s when they were a bit good, but they have been mostly a team that disappoints more that they have delivered. Still though, after a few years in the old division two, they managed to get promoted, win Division One before it became the Premiership, and even got the the  Champions League Semi Final, before financial disaster saw them plummet to the third rung of the English football ladder.

Promised Land: An Northern Love Story by Anthony Clavane covers all of this and more. From the early 60’s through the glory years, to about 2014, it gives a potted history of the club’s fortunes, linking them the the fortunes of the City itself and it’s Jewish population. Its a social history linking the three together. Its an easy read, very accessible, and recommended for supporters of the football team, or people generally interested in social history.

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The Green Road by Anne Enright on the other hand, is a novel about a disfunctional Irish family whose matriarch decides to sell the family home, prompting all of her children to return home from around the world for Christmas. Familiar resentments aren’t long about coming to the surface as the family get to grips with their mothers machinations.

Its a good read. Touch of melancholy. Familiar enough story for Irish readers. Set in modern years rather than the 50’s thankfully. Its well told, beautifully written and for the most part satisfying. I didn’t love it though. It didn’t grab me or engage me emotionally. I didn’t especially care what happened to the different characters. That was probably the point. Each child had something interesting going on individually. But as a family they just aren’t as interesting or don’t quite get it together.

There is a lot to like in the book. Maybe I was in the wrong headspace reading it. I admired it, and wouldn’t put anyone off it. I can’t quite explain why I didn’t love it, I just didn’t connect emotionally.

Two very different books. Lots of stories within stories, and both tracing highs and lows of individuals within a family or community. Both recommended for different readers, for different reasons.

A book that won’t rub you up the wrong way (That will make sense if you read it)

What to say about Martin John by Anakana Schofield?  It’s odd, it’s dark, it’s kind of funny in a slightly twisted way, it’s written in an unconventional style, and it’s really good.

 

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Martin John Gaffney, is from somewhere in the West of Ireland, but he lives in London, banished there by his mother for an unnamed misdemeanour that made girl’s brothers beat him up. He’s not a nice protagonist, or maybe he is just inadequate and somewhat deserving of our sympathy. This conflict runs through the book. His mother likewise. Deserving of sympathy or contempt – not quite decided a few hours after I have finished the book.

The writing style is unconventional, but it works, for the most part. Anakana Schofield has created a character that makes the reader uncomfortable but intrigued. She writes about a subject matter that probably makes the average reader a bit more uncomfortable than a bit of good old-fashioned honest murder. She manages to make those of us with a slightly perverse sense of humour laugh from time to time (or at least find the humour in some certain situations).

If you hated The Wasp Factory, then avoid this. If you want everything spelt out for you, with a nice tidy ending, then avoid this.  Everyone else, give it a go. Its great. Really. Ok it’s twisted. Its complicated and there is a certain amount left unsaid and you need to draw some conclusions of your own.

If you’re female it might be best you don’t read it on public transport

I don’t know if its wonderful, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m off to find something lighter to read next.

 

 

 

 

Slade House – David Mitchell

A house that only appears once a decade to disappear some people – what’s not to like??

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Its been a while since I read some David Mitchell. Probably Cloud Atlas was the last of his I read. Turns out I should have read The Bone Clocks to fully appreciate Slade House, as it apparently takes place in the same world. Having said that, I don’t think it takes away from the pleasure I got reading the book, as I wasn’t aware of what I was missing (if that makes sense).

Anyway, Slade House is a ghost story. A pair of twins occupy Slade House where they lure unsuspecting victims every 9 years in order to feed on them.  Its really well told and a joy to read. I doubt it will be hailed as one of David Mitchell’s best works, as it’s a bit different from his usual style, insomuch as its really not convoluted at all – just a straight forward clever ghost story.  It’s well told, clever, holds your attention, and I might be mistaken but seems to hint at more to come (although that might just be the ‘Bone Clocks’ connection).

I’d be disaapointed if I don’t read ten better books this year, but certainly enjoyed it.

Just a side note – I don’t normally get hard back books, so its been nice to have this and Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone in hardback format. They look very lovely on my shelf 🙂