Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

Dear Martin – Nic Stone

“Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong.”

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Blurb: “Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.”

Note: I am aware that as a white reviewer I have privilege and can’t fairly comment on the racial aspects of this book. Any Own Voices reviews are greatly appreciated and I will add them here.

In an attempt to “examine current affairs through the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings”, Nic Stone began writing her debut after seeing the responses to the real-life shooting of unarmed African American teenagers.

Dear Martin follows high school senior Justyce McAllister who starts to question his racial identity after spending three hours in handcuffs for something he didn’t do. Classroom discussions and societal stereotypes come to the forefront of his attention more than they did before. When introduced to a gang, he identifies them as “the ones that make us look bad” and starts to worry more about everything he has to lose.

The book flits around different formats from more script based interactions for the classroom discussions, to prose for present happenings, to the letters. It’s the latter that really stood out to me. Letter writing to someone who won’t read the letters, especially an idol, can be so cathartic and it seems to work for the protagonist. While Justyce feels like he must remain silent in his daily life, especially when topics of equality come up, his letters to Martin Luther King are raw and unfiltered; it’s in these moments that it feels like the reader get the “real” Justyce.

The media fallout following another shooting by a police officer mimics what readers see too often in the real world and the predictability of questions thrown in front of Justyce are predictable and not surprising.

It was interesting to have the white male character, Jared, who starts off as someone who “doesn’t see colour” and truly be lives society is equal start to shift with the events of the book, to the point where he starts to acknowledge his privilege and own up to things he’s said and done in the past. Which is the kind of person I think all of those in a similar positon to him should be trying to do in our own lives.  Alongside this is a white girl called SJ who acknowledges her position from the start but speaks out on important issues and also helps lift up and push Justyce to the front as his voice is more important.

I found it thought-provoking that Dear Martin didn’t just focus on what it means to be a black boy in society, but how that transends into older age: The dad of Justyce’s best friend, Manny, talks about how he has a position of power at his current employment and yet his white colleagues still look down to him or refuse to answer his requests. All of which prompts the further questions in Justyce’s mind of “is this my life now?”

This book can seem almost simple at points. Like I mentioned earlier, certain chapters are just listed dialogue between characters and it feels very reserved in places, but a lot of this is down to it being a lot shorter than I expected. But it still leaves your heart aching at the end. In just over 200 pages, Dear Martin has the reader in the palm of its hand with a protagonist to root for from the very first page, until the very end. My only wish is that it was longer.

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Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

928 Miles From Home – Kim Slater

“Daydreaming is cool because you don’t have to work out a fool proof plan of how you’re going to do stuff or wrestle with the problems that might come up. You can just flash-forward to the good bits.”

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Blurb: “Fourteen year old Calum Brooks has big dreams. One day, he’ll escape this boring life and write movies, proper ones, with massive budgets and A-list stars. For now though, he’s stuck coping alone while his dad works away, writing scripts in his head and trying to stay ‘in’ with his gang of mates at school, who don’t like new kids, especially foreign ones. But when his father invites his new Polish girlfriend and her son, Sergei, to move in, Calum’s life is turned upside down. He’s actually sharing a room with ‘the enemy’! How’s he going to explain that to his mates?”

Calum Brooks loves writing screenplays but he never puts them down on paper. He lives on a tiny estate in Nottingham where nothing interesting every happens so thinks his dreams of becoming a screenwriter for those big blockbuster movies are a waste of time. At school, he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd and while he doesn’t actively take part in the bullying, he still stands back and watches. The common recipient of the taunts from his friends is a polish boy called Sergi. But when Sergi and his mother move into Calum’s home, things are about to take a turn.

Calum is a character I think anyone can relate to at some point in their lives. We’ve all been brought up knowing what is right and wrong, that bullying is unacceptable and what to do if we see if happening. In theory, that seems obvious and easy to do. But in reality, it can be a lot harder to find your voice. Calums friends are the school bullies and, while he claims he doesn’t actively bully anyone, he stands back and watches while the group dish out unwanted attention to unsuspecting students. While he acknowledges that he knows this behaviour isn’t right, he’s afraid of speaking up in case that attention falls on him.

Kim Slater has always made an effort to slip important topics into the narratives of her stories: her previous book A Seven Letter Word features the protagonist’s friend being the victim of islamophobia. 928 Miles From Home takes into account our current political climate which at first I thought might be too heavy for a children’s book but quickly realised it makes perfect sense to include. The popular victim of choice is a boy called Sergi who is polish. He receives all manner of stereotypical hate that can be expected and with experiencing this and listening to stories from his own father, believes that people like Sergi are here sponging off society. It can get very intense to read at times but that’s the point of it: it needs to make an impact.

A character I didn’t expect to see play as much of a role as she did is Amelia who lives on a narrowboat. She and her family move around a lot on her boat and settle in places for a period of time before they are moved on. As Calum starts to build an unwilling friendship with her, his racial biases start to merge when he makes comments about Sergi that are interchangeable with her life and doesn’t understand why she takes some of them to heart as she’s “different to Sergi.”

It is the range of the characters that really are what make this story so amazing to read, mainly because a lot of them exist today and I can even identify some of them in my own life. It highlights the importance of educating yourself, not taking things at face value, and that not saying anything can be just as harmful as being the one doing it.

The narrative flits between prose and short screenplays with the latter being used to showcase hypothetical situations or events in the way Calum believe they took place. This shows hi creativity and adds the undertone of him not believing he’s good enough.

There are so many different elements to this story in addition to the ones I’ve focused on and it just leaves me in awe with every book Kim slater writes.

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Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

“I always said if I saw it happen to somebody I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

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Blurb: “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a 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. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, then I’m sure you’ve heard about The Hate U Give. At the time of writing this post, the book is celebrating its sixth week at the top of the NYT Bestseller list and is still receiving overwhelming positive reviews.

The Hate U Give is a debut novel following Starr Carter who is stuck between two worlds: she goes to a posh predominantly white school during the day but she lives in a rough neighbourhood. One night Starr witnesses her friend, Khalid, being shot by a police officer. Inspired by the black lives matter movement, this is a raw and brutally honest narrative about what it means to be on the other side of a media story; to be mourning the loss of yet another person to police gun violence in America.

Starr is an utterly compelling character, bound to keep the reader hooked through the emotions she feels after Khalid’s death and the events that follow; including the court case at which she has to testify.

Every time the police showed up in the plot I found myself staying still and even holding my breath as if somehow breaking either would have an effect on the story. It shocked me into the reality of the situation. There are groups of people out there who fell threatened by the police and see them as something to avoid, not do anything to provoke, rather than someone they can go to when they need help. And that is truth: there are people out there when The Hate U Give is their everyday lives and that is terrifying and needs to change.

Starr’s friends at her school also need their moment in the spotlight because they added extra layers to this story. Hailey is a textbook High School girl and openly makes racist comments and refuses to apologise for them. She reflects so many people I’ve come across in the past few years as I’ve opened myself up to learning about other cultures and experiences. The other friend, Maya, is Chinese and also suffers a Hailey’s sharp tongue. I feel she represents a lot of people I know personally and I related to her a lot. She’s the type of person that acknowledges bad things but stays quiet. In a world of Maya’s we need to endeavour to be a Starr.

It’s very rare that I find a Young Adult contemporary where the protagonist drives the story. The Hate U Give is the opposite. I was walking along with Starr Carter every step of the way and I will continue to carry her story in my soul.

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Posted in adult fiction, contemporary, review

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

“It just goes to show you: every baby is born beautiful. It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.”

 

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Blurb: “When a newborn baby dies after a routine hospital procedure, there is no doubt about who will be held responsible: the nurse who had been banned from looking after him by his father. What the nurse, her lawyer and the father of the child cannot know is how this death will irrevocably change all of their lives, in ways both expected and not.”

Jodi Picoult is a writer whose work I’m frequently been told to read. However, none of her material every really appealed to me; and that’s no fault of Jodi, it’s just not a genre I often reach for. Although, after being interested in the topic of this one, and after reading a chapter sampler on my kindle, this quickly changed.

Small Great Things follows an African-American nurse named Ruth who works on a birthing ward. She’s worked in this role for twenty years and turns up to work like any normal day and is assigned her patient for the day: a woman who had her baby overnight. Ruth tends to the new-born, performing the necessary examinations only for the angry father to request to see her manager. He doesn’t want “someone who looks like Ruth” touching his baby. Ruth is moved to another patient and when an unfortunate situation results in the death of the baby she’s banned from looking after, the finger is swiftly pointed at her.

The story focuses on a rather serious and relevant situation which sadly many go through on a daily basis. With many readers expressing a need for more diverse books and a more diverse publishing industry, this book (after a discussion with my #FeminisminYA* friends on twitter) has very mixed views. Jodi Picoult is a white woman writing about a character who faces racism; something that she has not personally experienced. The plot is also inspired by a real life event that enraged Picoult so much she simply had to write about it but fictionalised the events and character motivations that led to the court case. There are some readers who feel that white writers should use their position to include POC characters in their works (with writers often shamed for not including them) but there are others who feel that issues of racism and differing cultures should be left to those who experience them and live them every day; regardless of how much “research” is put into it. After speaking to the aforementioned #feminisminya group I rethought why it is that I like this book so much.

The book is told in multiple perspectives: Ruth (the nurse), Turk (father of the baby) and Kennedy (Ruth’s Lawyer). I truly believe this was the best way for the story to be told as it covers very different viewpoints and each one is so well written that I don’t think it could have been shared in any other way. The reader can learn more about Ruth’s backstory and why she wanted to become a nurse and why Turk is so against anyone who isn’t white. But, as a white woman, the only character I can really discuss the accuracy of is Kennedy.

Kennedy is a character who really means well. She has a husband, a daughter, a thriving career, and she really does believe that everyone should be treated well regardless of their skin colour. However, she is prone to slip ups and saying things that she believes are helping when really they are doing the opposite. Through reading her chapters, I noticed similarities between her and myself, including some phrases and points she’d expressed.  Her chapters were so important in showcasing things that are so engrained into white society and it made me sit back and think so many times.

And that is why I loved this book: because it got me thinking.

I feel like I have gained more of an understanding through my process of reading this book though it saddens me that cases such as these appear too often in the media. I urge you to read this book but I also urge you to listen to the people who are screaming at the top of their lungs yet to some of us, it’s merely a whisper.

*#Feminisminya is a weekly twitter chat discussing various themes within YA books. It takes place Tuesdays 7:30pm on Twitter under this hashtag and everyone is free to join in*

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