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Monday, 14 August 2017

Review: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr is an inhabitant of two worlds. One world is the poor neighbourhood in which she grew up. The other is the private, predominantly white (she is one of only two black students), high school that she attends. For her, the two worlds means acting as two different Starrs, even in front of her close friends and (white) boyfriend, for fear of misunderstanding and ridicule.

After witnessing her friend, Khalil, being shot dead by a police officer in a seemingly unnecessary traffic stop, Starr has to make some tough decisions. Will she give witness? Will she use her voice to speak up against the authorities or stay silent as there's no way Khalil would ever get justice?

Angie Thomas' writing is powerful, authentic, and hard-hitting, from the description of the neighbourhood in which Starr lives, to the murky waters of navigating high school as a person of colour. There are some very tough passages in it which brilliantly encapsulate the struggle people of colour face when trying to get justice.

There are some bright spots, though. Two of my favourite characters are Starr's parents. They are down to earth, warm, funny, and aware of how lucky they are at this point in life. None of their children are directly involved in gangs; Starr's dad owns a store, and Starr's mum has a steady, secure job at the local clinic. Considering Starr's dad spent some time in prison going down for someone else, they are doing okay for themselves. Reading about their family dynamic - the complexity and frustration and their love - is one of the most sincere and compelling parts of this story.

Angie Thomas tells this story incredibly well, but it feels so raw because you can see it on the news, particularly in America. In fact, we pretty much have seen this story on the news, time and time again. It exhorts us to stand up for those who have been oppressed. For those of us who are privileged to check it and to use it for those whose voices are trying to be quashed. It's as much a call for justice as being a damn good story.

Review: Island of Secrets, Patricia Wilson

London-born Angelika, known in the story as Angie, decides to travel to Crete to find her mother's family before she gets married. Her mother has always been unwilling - to the point of terrified - to talk about what happened in her past. Angie tries to coax her grandmother into talking about it. 

She does, but starts the story a lot further back than Angie would like. Instead of just finding out about her mother, she finds out about the Nazi brutalities and massacres in Crete, a little known but hugely impacting event in the Second World War. Angie hears of her grandmother's loss in her son, Petro, and her fight to keep her two other sons alive. 

The story flits between past and present quite regularly, which can be quite a welcome breather for the reader. The more Angie learns about Crete, the more bound she feels there but also guilty about her mother who had not returned to the country since she left as a teenager. 

Bountiful and lush description abound along with great characters and gripping plot twists. The juxtaposition of the picturesque, tourist-trap Cretan idea with the horrors of its past are quite jarring. The more of these stories we find out about, the more we realise that the Nazis left behind more tragic histories than just the concentration and death camps. 

Though this story is a work of fiction it is based on true stories of real life Cretans, which makes Patricia Wilson's story telling even more powerful and spellbinding. 


Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness

Do you ever wonder what happened to the people who aren't the Chosen Ones? Students at Hogwarts, Forks High School, the rest of the districts in the Hunger Games?

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, does exactly that. It's a YA novel with an element of the supernatural, but focuses on the ones who aren't risking their lives to save the world. They're doing everything they can just to live.

Mikey and his friends are those in question. The novel begins with them doing what a typical high school senior is doing - trying to make it to graduation - when the world starts to fall apart around them - again. One of the so-called indie kids runs out of the forest chased by someone who is actually glowing. While curious, Mikey and his friends aren't immediately caught up in it so they go back to their own issues.

And there are a fair few, most particularly Mikey and his sister, Mel. Mel is recovering from a severe eating disorder and Mikey suffers with severe anxiety and OCD, relating to his sister's severe illness. And both of them are fiercely protective of their younger sister, Meredith, particularly against their alcoholic father and politically ambitious mother.

There's the other normal high school stuff, too, like who likes who, what's everyone doing for prom, trying to get through finals, etc, authentically written with warmth and humour.

One of the most interesting things was the structure of the book - each chapter starts with the supernatural story, yet it's very much in the background. We're made aware of its happening but it's definitely not the most important thing to our characters.

If you're a YA fan and wanting both a dose of the ordinary and extraordinary, then this is the book for you. Well-written with almost two stories running concurrently; complex characters; a balance of humour and depth (particularly with the mental health themes); The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a novel that will stay with you long after you've read the last page. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Review: Grandpa's Great Escape, David Walliams

Jack loves his Grandpa more than anyone in the world, and doesn't care that he seems to be losing his memory and becoming more and more stuck in the year 1940. What Jack cares about is his Grandpa's stories and his love, and is genuinely excited about all the things Grandpa tells him. 

Unfortunately, not everyone in the family feels that way.

It all comes to a head when Grandpa is found in the middle of the night atop of the town church's spire, convinced he's back in his spitfire plane, battling against the Luftwaffe. After negotiating with his parents, Jack convinces them to let Grandpa live with them, so they can keep a better eye on him.

This all sounds like a great plan until Grandpa goes missing for a week and they find him asleep in a Spitfire in the Imperial War museum.

Grandpa is taken to (and dumped off at) Twilight Towers, an old people's home. But there is something suspicious about the place and Jack can't let it go...

Grandpa's Great Escape is a brilliant story that, though written for children, adults will surely love as well. It's heartwarming and funny with a genuinely good story that pulls you in and has you shouting 'No, no, no!', when you think all is lost (it's not). I'd say it's most targeted for children between 8-12 but I was laughing as much as this age group would be. David Walliams is on to another winner with this one. 

Review: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness

The final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. It's a long read - one that will necessitate pauses due to vicarious battle fatigue - but a great ending to the series.

The Spackle are coming, in their tens of thousands. The Return (the Spackle who escaped in book 2) has reported the monstrous crime and the Land (the actual name for the Spackle) have come to fight for their very existence.

The new settlers we met in book 2 (Bradley and Simone) are hesitant to get involved. They came to this world for peace, not to fight in new wars. But Viola (much to Mistress Coyle's delight) ends that discussion decisively when she sees Todd in danger. She fires one of the ship's missiles into the Spackle. The Spackle's near certain victory is snatched away from them.

Most of the book is a series of battles, skirmishes, and guerilla warfare. It's interesting to see how Mayor Prentiss' character develops in this one. Todd's mantra is that the Mayor is not redeemable, but we start to think he is. He chooses to do some things that are good - the reason being, according to him, that Todd is making him a better man, but his conduct over the series makes the reader think their is something underhanded going on.

Once the Spackle and the humans realise that they will come either to a stalemate or equal slaughter on both sides, peace talks begin. The Return (whose voice we also read in this volume) is dead against this and wants to ruin it. His conversations with the Sky (the leader of the Land) reveal deep bitterness, hurt, and betrayal built up over many years. He wants nothing more than to kill the Knife (Todd) yet when face to face with another human connected with Todd, he can't do it. Things have become less black and white than he thought.

Just by nature of the plot and the end game of this book, I found it the most intense and tiring of the three, but this is by no means a negative thing. Trilogies sometimes suffer their third book being the weakest and slapped together, but this is certainly not one of those. Beneath the action of the book, there are deep, necessary questions asked like, how do we live together despite our differences? How can differences in politics and ideologies be resolved without going to war? Is anyone ever irredeemable?

It's no wonder this trilogy got so much critical acclaim. From detailed world building and complex characters, to well-developed plot and uncomfortable questions posed, it's a story that will enrich you and open your mind.

Review: The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness

After a long and traumatic journey, Todd and Viola have made it to Haven, the very first settlement on New World. But they have not received the welcome they wanted.

Mayor Prentiss, the clear villain so far, has cleared the town so he can talk to Todd especially. He tries to break Todd early on with a clever mixture of cruelty and kindness, even more piercing with the surprise of the kindness. Mayor Prentiss is on a mission to know everything, it seems. Knowledge is power.

Viola, meanwhile, is elsewhere, healing up in one of the Healing Houses run solely by women. Mistress Coyle, the head of one of the houses, quickly gets a measure of both Viola and the mayor and plans accordingly. Her plan, as it turns out, is to resurrect 'The Answer', a insurgent group (or terrorist, depending on your lens) that helped to defeat the Spackle years ago, in order to defeat the Mayor and rid Haven (now New Prentisstown) of him.

What I enjoyed most about this second installment was all the questions of right and wrong it posed. For example, the Answer's methods are violent, but are they the right means to the end? Is Mistress Coyle the saviour she is purported to be, or just Mayor Prentiss with a different leaning? Is Todd's joining in with the enslavement of the Spackle cowardly or practical, a way of biding his time until he can help them? Carrying on despite finding out that the Mayor killed all the Spackle (but one, who he knows Todd will help escape) and blaming it on the Answer?

Todd and Viola are separate for most of this book so the reader's perimeters get wider. We see both more of New World, and more new characters, including people who have just landed in a scout ship ahead of a new settlement ship.

There is more focussed action in this book, the goal being for Mayor Prentiss to rid the town of the Answer, and for Mistress Coyle to get rid of the Mayor.

But at the end, this all comes to a halt. And what happens now signals the start of a bloody and savage battle for the right to claim New World.  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go...

...contains probably the most fabulous first line of a book I've ever read. "The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say."

Todd is a boy in a town of only men, mere weeks away from his thirteenth birthday - the day he becomes a man, according to the tradition of Prentisstown. We find him exploring a remote part of the land in order to get away from the Noise of the town - the population are on a different planet, and when they arrived, the men caught the Noise 'germ', the consequence of which is that their thoughts are as clearly audible as the words they speak.

Out in the wilderness, though, Todd discovers something strange. A hole in the noise.

When he returns home to his guardians, Ben and Cillian, they give each other one of those looks, and send Todd on his way, instructing him to run as fast and as quickly as possible. They don't tell him why, and they don't tell him why they can't tell him (this all becomes clear later).

On the other side of the swamp, Todd meets someone who he thought didn't exist any more - a girl. It's a while before we find out her name (Viola) or why she's there, but when we do the journey becomes more necessary.

Their destination is Haven, but the distance is not their only obstacle. Hot on their heels is the mayor and the men of Prentisstown, but Todd and Viola are helped by many along the way.

It's a brilliant, explosive (sometimes quite literally) start to the series, and probably my favourite of the three. Of all the characters we meet in this book, Wilf is probably my favourite, so open and guileless and deep. It's a fast-paced read but doesn't sacrifice character or world building (helped a lot by the page count). We slowly find out answers to some of the many questions posed - what happened to the women, the noise, the indigenous species (the Spackle)... but it also opens up a lot more.

A really good read for fans of dystopian fiction and good worldbuilding.