‘On the Come Up’ – Angie Thomas

Firstly, thank you Angie Thomas for introducing us to another wonderful character in Bri. Secondly, thank you for not writing another THUG. Some crossover issues, but there’s never a moment when you feel this has already been done. Thirdly, thank you for writing about something I don’t have any experience of (rapping) and making me actually care about it.

Focusing on sixteen year old Bri, daughter of a much-loved rapper shot by gang members, On the Come Up places music at its very heart. Showing us the power of words and the way music can, literally, save us also means Thomas has to confront some of the less appealing elements associated with this genre.

At the outset Bri is rather brash, quick to rile and say what she thinks. This means she’s labelled as ‘aggressive’ and people expect trouble. Immediately confronting attitudes to race when Bri is thrown to the floor by school security there’s a lot happening here.

Alongside the school issues/general social exploration, there’s a real focus on the family and how our relationships affect us. Bri’s mum and brother leave her out of things – perhaps out of a desire to protect her – but this leaves a Bri open to suggestions she may not have considered in a misguided attempt to help ease her family’s experiences.

Friendships are tested as Bri sets out to get her ‘come up’ – her chance to change things. She battles with words, she is set-up to play a role but ultimately she has to figure out who she is and whether she’s important enough to look to do things her way.

Again, I’m sure all too soon we’ll see this adapted into a movie. Vibrant, thought-provoking and powerful.

‘The Vanishing Stair’ – Maureen Johnson

So, last time round Stevie was investigating the Ellingham mysteries and getting herself into places/situations she ought not to have. In the interim we are led to believe her parents have pulled her from school, worried because one of the students has died and another has gone missing (fair point, I think).

Initially I felt the book was (sorry) a little slow to get going. Starting with Stevie moping round her home town pointing out all the things she missed about school and generally not doing much was too reminiscent of that awful scene with Bella in the chair, doing nothing as the seasons change around her.

Thankfully the mood becomes less maudlin before it gets too much to take. David’s dad steps in and, effectively, bribes her to return to school and keep an eye on his son. Stevie settles back into school but – as you’d hope – she cannot forget the elusive Ellingham case and continues her investigations.

The last thing you want is to know any of the details of this. Suffice to say, Stevie gets closer to unravelling some of these mysteries but also – as in many of the best mysteries – there are new strands woven in.

Towards the end I was really quite frantic with trying to work out what was going to happen. Johnson is toying with readers by leaving it where she does. I have so many questions…

‘Internment’ – Samira Ahmed

One to introduce important ideas to younger readers, and it explores timeless concepts, though its blunt approach feels unnecessarily heavy-handed.

Set in a not-too-distant future America we are put in the situation where we watch Layla and her parents taken to a camp specially set up to house Muslims. There they are subject to appalling racism and inhumane treatment simply because of their religion.

We read open-mouthed as people are separated by skin colour, beaten for refusing to follow camp rules and ‘disappeared’ for daring to challenge the Director. We hear of external disagreement with what’s happening, but nobody seems keen to challenge orders from up high.

Layla is a rather immature teen at the start. She becomes a rather more interesting character as she’s forced to confront her new reality and consider the extent to which she’ll challenge it. She decides to (risking) place her trust in one of the guards and there’s hints of romance that get subsumed by the need to advance the plot.

I’d love to say the Director was a caricature; that nobody would believe someone so blatantly racist, sexist and generally unpleasant would ever exist. Sadly, that’s not the case.

And it is the parallels we might draw between contemporary events and those of the book that show just why this is a necessary thing. Personally I’d have liked a more nuanced read, with some focus on the build-up to these events and the reactions of those on the outside. However, for what it is the story is paced well and delivers its message with force.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to read in exchange for my review.

‘The Secret History’ – Donna Tartt

For what feels like years I’ve been told I should read this modern classic. The rave comments on the cover were enough to make me reluctant to read it…and now I can say I have, indeed, read it though I can also safely say it won’t go down as one of my favourite reads.

I like the fact that, from the beginning, we know that a key character ends up murdered. This lends a creeping tension to the pages showing the build-up to this event and yet I couldn’t help but feel slightly non-plussed once I’d finished.

Our narrator is Richard, a young man on scholarship who ends up studying in a rather out-of-the-way college. He becomes infatuated by a rather eclectic group of students. They keep themselves to themselves, studying under a rather odd professor of Classics. In this group they read and converse in Greek, examine little-known texts and seem to bask in their own sense of superiority.

None of the group are likeable. Henry is a bully; Charles and Camilla (yes, really) are twins who also have an incestuous relationship; Francis is a closet homosexual, determined not to let his family know the truth about him, and Bunny (the man who ends up dead) is a boorish character who spends everyone else’s money and finds himself a lot more appealing than he is. I can’t understand why Richard is so keen to ingratiate himself with this group or why, on the numerous occasions he has to walk away from them, he remains entangled in their mess.

My overwhelming sense with this was of a writer trying very hard to be clever, writing about people who like to show their superiority at any opportunity and then crumble once they realise they have to live with the consequences of their actions.

Once we’ve learned why the murder comes about, we then focus on the decline and fall of this once great group. It takes a long time. We know it’s coming, but have to watch every slow and painful moment. As the fall-out becomes more brutal I couldn’t help but think we’d have been spared a lot if they’d been a little less selfish in the beginning.

I know my comments may seem harsh. There was a lot about it that I liked, but just not enough to offset the things that irritated me. Now I just have to ‘fess up to those friends who rave about this and have been encouraging me to read it…

‘Pretty in Punxsutawney’ – Laurie Boyle Crompton

Thank you NetGalley for giving me a good old-fashioned belly-laugh.
Before I give my thoughts on this, I have to confess to disliking Groundhog Day with a passion. I’m also fairly ambivalent about John Hughes’ movies…though I know them well enough to get the references here.

When Andie’s parents move her to Punxsutawney she spends the summer hanging out at the local movie theatre. Convinced she will find a boyfriend in one of the staff there (whose name has escaped me as he’s not particularly memorable, other than for being totally the wrong person for her) she is understandably nervous about her first day at a new school.

Her first day is a humdinger of awfulness. What’s worse is that she wakes the next day…and she’s back on her first day. This cycle is destined to repeat over and over.

Andie slowly starts to use her rather unusual situation to find out more about the students around her. She acquires new skills and plays some blinders worthy of their own place in an 80s teen movie.

Eventually, the cycle breaks and unless you’re VERY hard-hearted, you’ll applaud Andie all the way.

‘Ghost Boys’ – Jewell Parker Rhodes

Our narrator, twelve year old Jerome, is another voice to add to the list of young black boys killed because of their race.

Bullied in school, Jerome is a good kid who tries to do the right thing. He befriends new boy Carlos, even though it looks like it will bring him problems. He could never predict just how serious these will get.

When the school bullies start picking on Carlos one lunchtime he pulls out a gun. It’s a toy, but realistic enough to scare them off. Wanting to give his new friend thanks for the support, Carlos offers Jerome the toy to play with. Jerome’s decision to take it, and go out on the street to play with it, costs him his life.
The killing of Jerome at the hands of a white police officer happens early on. We’re spared the worst details, but the subsequent preliminary hearings tell us enough to know this was an unjustified action, probably an act brought about by prejudice and totally avoidable.

Jerome’s story is told in two timeframes. The flashbacks to record the last moments of his life and what led to that point, and the present now he is dead.
He can be seen by the daughter of the man who shot him. This allows the author to examine attitudes to race and to raise some of the pertinent issues linked to cases such as this throughout history. Rhodes introduces her readers to names that will, sadly, be all too familiar to many.

A quick read that should resonate with readers, though the sense of injustice and anger you’re likely to feel as you read the book – and the knowledge that it’s not likely to change – is infuriating. Nobody should live their life like this. Nobody should have to experience this horror. Nobody should let such attitudes continue unchallenged.

Given to me by our school librarian this is a great book for younger readers who are, perhaps, not quite ready for the more developed political stance of books such as The Hate You Give.

‘Two Can Keep a Secret’ – Karen McManus

When their mother needs to be hospitalised to treat her mental health, twins Ellery and Ezra are forced to go and live with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, a small town near the Canadian border. They don’t know her, and their mother never talked about her time there. All the twins know is their aunt was killed and that some years later a young girl was murdered.

On their arrival their journey home is stopped when they discover the body of a teacher, victim of a hit and run. Strange messages then start to appear around Echo Ridge, suggesting someone is preparing another murder. Apart from the obvious questions about why anyone in their right mind would stay in a place like this, events unfold in front of us and we’re given plenty of twists to try and throw us off the scent. Suspects galore, disappearing prom queens, affairs and so on…

Reminiscent of Twin Peaks for me in that lots of people in this book have secrets. There’s so many people hiding things, but with a bit of luck and perseverance the truth comes out. Some of the red herrings were a little obvious, but that’s a minor gripe. You know you’re being manipulated but, for the most part, you don’t mind. I felt the closing moments were rather sprung on us a little quickly, but Ellery’s final revelation of the secret she’ll probably take with her to the grave was chilling. And the Mean Girls reference when Ezra first meets three of our cast – ‘something tells me on Wednesday they wear pink’ – will be one I remember fondly.

‘A Danger to Herself and Others’ – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Only when she’s locked away does the truth begin to escape…

Hannah Gold is a top student, precocious and destined for great things. She insists on telling us this throughout the time we are with her. What Hannah doesn’t tell us is why she’s in an institute, meeting regularly with a doctor who makes notes on a sheet that states Hannah could be a danger to herself and others.

We learn that during her time at summer school, Hannah’s room-mate was hospitalised after falling from a window. Hannah is blamed for the accident, but is sent to the institute for a psychiatric evaluation.

As is the wont with unreliable narrators, we believe what Hannah tells us but slowly start to pick up on clues that perhaps all is not as she says.

During the course of the novel we learn that Hannah’s reality is not quite what she thinks. The friends she recalls don’t exist. Hannah is coming to terms with a previously undiagnosed mental illness, and it takes time for her to accept the fact she’ll need treatment for the rest of her life.

Hannah was not – at times – a likeable character. There’s more than one or two clear suggestions that she was, indeed, responsible for what happened to her room-mate. But to what extent can we hold her responsible for what happened when we understand that her reality is quite different to many?

I felt irritated by the parents of Hannah. Absent for much of the novel – with hints that this a theme of her life – their horror at learning their daughter was not ‘normal’ was palpable, and their answer seemed to be to throw money at the situation. While the situation would be a shock to them, I couldn’t help but think about all those people in this kind of situation who don’t get the help offered to Hannah, or who don’t get the treatment they need because they can’t afford it.

This is definitely a read to recommend and I’m grateful to NetGalley for providing me with access in exchange for my thoughts.

‘A Very Large Expanse of Sea’ – Tahereh Mafi

It’s 2002, a year after 9/11, and Shirin has just started at yet another new high school. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped. Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments – even the physical violence she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day.

Shirin drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother. But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know her. It terrifies her -they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds – and Shirin has had her guard up against the world for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.

A book that makes you laugh, cry, rail against prejudice and many other emotions besides.

Shirin is used to moving around. She does her best not to be noticed, but as a Muslim teenager who wears the hijab she’s used to being seen and judged. Given that this novel is set not long after the 09/11 attacks, it’s inevitable that we’ll be forced to confront some pretty unpleasant behaviour and attitudes.

While the novel focuses on Shirin’s religion and how people treat her because of their assumptions about her, it is predominantly a love story.

Accustomed to being ignored or asked insulting questions, Shirin is bemused when her lab partner Ocean takes an interest in her. The pair of them together were awkward at times, but I was rooting for them from the off. Even more so when Shirin realises the one boy she gets a crush on is the high school basketball golden boy, and their relationship will bring all sorts of issues.

I think it’s safe to say this is a book I would highly recommend, and would be surprised if someone didn’t end up captivated by it. I’m particularly keen to see how those who enjoyed ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas find it.

‘People Kill People’ – Ellen Hopkins

Whatever your views on gun ownership, the refrain ‘guns don’t kill people. People kill people’ won’t have passed you by. Of course, logically, we know that people are the ones who carry out the act, but it’s hard to dispute the idea that guns make it easier for someone to do something they might think twice about otherwise.

This contemporary read allows us insight into the lives of a lot of characters, each of whom has reason to be angry/to want to hurt people/to feel like they need the protection of a gun. We have a family grieving after a shooting; a young family finding their feet; White Supremacist supporters; a young man determined to take revenge on his old Scout Master and a young boy who’s made homeless after the death of his father, amongst others. These characters are connected, and all have things to fear/things they want to change.

Told partly in verse form, this will not appeal to everyone. There’s a deliberate attempt to personify the gun and lend it an element of seduction. With violence as the narrator, this book attempts to challenge the belief many Americans have that they should have the right to bear arms.

As someone who doesn’t share this belief, and who is appalled by the steady stream of horror we see after yet another shooting, I felt the way this was presented will certainly get people thinking. Ultimately, though, little changed and I don’t feel the key incident towards the end of the book will be enough to drastically change many views. Towards the end things felt rushed, and I felt certain stories were left too vague for my liking.

A simple message, but not one that really feels like it’s given with total conviction here.