What I Read – April 2017

The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2017)

(translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Silence – Shusaku Endo

The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman


Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.

What I Read – April 2016

*I’ve added a new page on the blog that lists all the book reviews. Currently, it is alphabetical by author’s last name. Let me know if you have thoughts on better/additional ways to organize that. Feel free to check out some of the older reviews, including some books I’d forgotten I’d ever reviewed! Did you know that I read and reviewed J. K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? Or that I’ve reviewed two books by John Green? Can you find the only sci fi book reviews I’ve ever done?

And now, here’s what I read this month:

A Separate Peace – John Knowles (Bantam Books, 1998)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker (illustrated by Jon Klassen) (Balzer + Bray, 2016)

The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1981)

“Go on,” Helen said, “justify yourself.”

“It would take too long,” he said. “One would have to begin with the arguments for God.”

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist – Sunil Yapa (Lee Boudreau Books, 2016)

The Secret History – Donna Tartt (Vintage Contemporaries, 1992)

His Whole Life – Elizabeth Hay (Emblem Editions, 2015)

He didn’t know how to put it all together, death and life and things looming up. Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming.

But You Did Not Come Back – Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Penguin, 2016) (translated by Sandra Smith)

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

…That a clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room. That the people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened. That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak. That you don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to. That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway – John Shepard


Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker (Reading with Pearl)

Pax - Sara Pennypacker (Balzer + Bray, 2016)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker (Balzer + Bray, 2016)

I was really excited about this book when I first heard about it. A modern day animal story, an adventure and a journey to reunite between a boy and his fox. I expected something like The Incredible Journey or The Trumpet of the Swan. I hadn’t read Sara Pennypacker before but I love Jon Klassen’s illustrations. With such high expectations, I turned out to be disappointed.

Overall, I wanted more from Pax. I wanted more of Klassen’s illustrations (there really aren’t that many and they aren’t integrated much into the story). I wanted more drama and adventure. I wanted more to be explained.

The book begins with twelve-year-old Peter and his pet fox, Pax, who he has raised from a small kit. When Peter’s father enlists to fight in the war, Peter is sent to live with his grandfather and his father forces him to release Pax into the wild. Peter quickly feels guilty about betraying Pax in this way. Knowing Pax has never lived in the wild and lacks the necessary survival skills, Peter sets out to find him.

Vola studied Peter as if she were seeing him for the first time. “So which is it? You going back for your home or for your pet?”

“They’re the same thing,” Peter said, the answer sudden and sure, although a surprise to him.

So far, so good, but when Peter breaks his ankle both his journey and the plot are waylaid. Unable to travel, Peter stumbles across a woman living alone in the woods. Vola is hiding out from society but humanity bursts in on her in the form of Peter. There’s lot of potential here and Vola is an interesting character but this section really drags on too long. The drama of the novel is Peter’s journey to find Pax but a large chunk of it stagnates while he hangs out with Vola and learns life lessons.

The chapters from Peter’s perspective are balanced by chapters from Pax’s perspective. Left alone in the wild for the first time, Pax struggles to survive. He meets some other foxes, some who accept him and some who don’t. Pennypacker does well in her depictions of the foxes and their interactions. They’re animals and she doesn’t attempt to overly anthropomorphize them (at least not more so than a book about their adventures already does). The dialogue between then is brief and animalistic and their actions seem to make sense from a fox perspective. The writing here is strong and visceral and Pennypacker chooses her words well. Her descriptions are mostly succinct but she evokes the wild in all its fear and beauty well.I probably could have read a story that was just about Pax’s adventures in the wild.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the novel for me was that I had no idea when or where we were supposed to be. A war taking place and getting ever closer to Peter and Pax is at the centre of this novel. At the beginning, I assumed this was World War II and that the novel was set in England. As the story progressed, it seemed like the setting was more modern – Peter and the people around him seem to be living in the present day. So what war is this? I’m left to assume this is some imaginary war that could take place in the future in North America but I’m not sure what the point of making up a war is. There are plenty of real wars in the world, both now and in the past. There’s nothing in the story itself that needs to be set in the 21st century. Or if Pennypacker did desire a modern day setting, again, there are plenty of current wars to choose from.

The topic of war is actually one of the most problematic aspects of the novel. Turns out, this isn’t a story about a boy and his animal and the adventure they have while making their way back to each other. No, this is a story about how terrible war is. And while that could be a worthwhile topic, Pennypacker is extremely heavy-handed in her message. There’s no subtlety, there’s no discussion of why people might view war as necessary. There’s one small reference to water being at the centre of this war and, seeing as that is something I could imagine people fighting over in the future, there’s a missed opportunity to offer any sort of balance. War is bad and that message is beaten over our heads for most of the book.

While reading Pax, I was also reading A Separate Peace, a young adult novel set during the Second World War. The message about war in A Separate Peace was much more subtle (and therefore more powerful, I found) and offered a sharp contrast to Pennypacker’s clumsy effort.