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.

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Book Review: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

The Blue Castle - L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

This was a re-read for me but when I began sorting through boxes of my childhood books and came across my Lucy Maud Montgomery collection I felt nostalgic and delved into The Blue Castle once more.

L.M. Montgomery is, of course, the author of Anne of Green Gables but she also wrote many other books featuring young ladies having adventures and falling in love. The Blue Castle is a stand alone story about Valancy Jane Stirling. We meet Valancy on her twenty-ninth birthday, unhappy and unmarried. The term “old maid” isn’t one we hear much in our society these days but it was a powerful label at one time. First published in 1926, The Blue Castle is very much a product of its time. Valancy’s sorrows and, later, her scandals are hard to relate to from a modern point of view. That said, I enjoyed this book when I was a pre-teen and I enjoyed reading it again. Montgomery writes sweet, romantic tales and you know you’re going to get a happy ending. The characters are engaging, although the peripheral characters tend to be rather one-dimensional, and there’s some good humour that, I think, works even today.

The Blue Castle is unusual for Montgomery in that its set in the Muskoka region of Ontario, rather than Prince Edward Island like so many of her other books. Place is just as important here though and the book is full of descriptions of the forests and lake. (Apparently my pre-teen self loved those descriptions and underlined a lot of them. Now I found some of them beautiful and some of them overdone.)

I hope that in a few years Pearl may enjoy reading some of Montgomery’s stories for the first time. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy a simple re-read of these sweet tales.

Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns - John Green (Penguin Books, 2015)

Paper Towns – John Green (Penguin Books, 2015)

I’ve read three books by John Green before this one (see my reviews of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska) so it’s safe to say that I enjoy his writing. Green captures teens well, finding that balance between realism and fiction to keep the story interesting.

Our main character here is Quentin, known as Q, living in Florida, weeks away from graduating high school. Q lives next door to and has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (who he, rather annoyingly, mostly refers to by her complete name) for the majority of his life. They run in very different social circles and so Q’s love burns from afar, flames fanned by the epic tales of Margo’s adventures that circulate the school. And then, one night, Margo shows up at his window and invites Q into an adventure.

Q thinks this is the moment that will change their relationship and his life but, instead, the next morning Margo has vanished. Following a series of clues, Q becomes obsessed with finding Margo and draws his friends – and some of Margo’s – into his search.

This is really a story about how well you can know another person, how much you can expect from another person, and what might happen when you build a regular human being up into something superhuman. It’s about what forms us as people (or at least as teenagers) and how much we can form ourselves.

A long line of cars trailed behind me, and I felt anxious about holding them up; I marvelled at how I could still have room to worry about such petty, ridiculous crap as whether the guy in the SUV behind me thought I was an excessively cautious driver. I wanted Margo’s disappearance to change me; but it hadn’t, not really.

It’s all an interesting idea and the book is an easy, relatively quick read. It’s not as strong as Green’s other novels, however, and some of the sections drag on too long. For a while, Q believes that Margo is hiding somewhere in an unfinished Florida subdivision and for what feels like a large part of the book, he wanders through these “pseudovisions”. While this is initially interesting and makes for a great, visual setting, it’s not something that gets more interesting upon repetition and Green keeps it going for too long. In the same vein, Q and some of his friends take a road trip toward the end of the novel that probably doesn’t need to be tracked hour by hour and yet it is.

The final conclusion to Margo’s mystery is rather clever, with an interesting tidbit of information. It’s an odd combination of tidy wrap-up and unhappy ending that mostly works.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book that’s more because John Green has other and better novels than because Paper Towns is a bad book. For a Green fan, it’s an interesting read in combination with Looking for Alaska (see: Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their repercussions) but if you’re reading Green for the first time or only want to read one book by him, stick with The Fault in Our Stars.

Book Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace - John Knowles (Bantam Books, 1988)

A Separate Peace – John Knowles (Bantam Books, 1988)

A Separate Peace is one of the more unusual books about World War II that I’ve ever read. Set in 1942, it begins in the summer term at Devon, an upscale boys’ prep school in New England. Our narrator is Gene Forrester. Quiet, smart, a little awkward. Summer term at Devon is a lull in their normal lives; with only a few staff and students present, things happen that wouldn’t normally occur. Some rules are a little looser. Partially, this is due to the presence of Gene’s best friend, Phineas. Phineas – or Finny – is charming, charismatic, with a loose confidence that seems to make everything in his life fall perfectly into place. Until one, terrible thing doesn’t and both Gene and Phineas are changed forever.

The terrible event – alluded to early on by our narrator, an adult Gene – is easy to see coming. Gene’s role in it, however, feels both surprising and inevitable. The whole novel has that sort of momentum. I was surprised when things happened and yet it seemed that the book had been leading in that direction in such a way that nothing else could possibly happen.

It is the setting in time of this story that makes it unique and gives it it’s particular poignancy. Halfway through the war, Gene and his classmates know that they are moving forward into battle. Sixteen and seventeen, enlistment or the draft are all their future holds for certain. Even their education has morphed to prepare them for their role in the war. Yet, for now, they have a reprieve. They can pretend for a little longer that the war doesn’t exist. They are safe for a little longer. Until, as the novel progresses, the war creeps closer and these young men begin to catch darker and darker glimpses of what may be to come.

Book Review: The Talent Thief by Alex Williams (Reading with Pearl)

The Talent Thief, MacMillan Children's Books, 2007

The Talent Thief, MacMillan Children’s Books, 2007

Reading books for children and youth as an adult means you start to see the same things over and over again. There are tropes common to many books intended for children. So when you read a kids’ book with some fresh ideas, you really notice.

Adam and Cressida Bloom are brother and sister and, like all good storybook heroes, are orphans. Cressida is a fantastically talented singer while Adam is just her ordinary younger brother. When Cressida is invited to a Festival of Youthful Genius, Adam finds a way to tag along to escape from their unkind uncle and guardian.

Adam is the odd man out at the festival, where every other child has some extraordinary talent. Cressida is annoyed by his presence and the man who has brought these children together, Fortescue, lets Adam know how unwelcome he is. However, it very quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t right and the talented children begin to lose their talents. There’s a strange creature lurking about and when Cressida loses her singing talent, Adam is determined to figure out what’s going on and to get her ability back. With the help of a racing car driver whose lost her talent and a shepherd whose lost his tracking abilities, Adam and Cressida chase Fortescue as he and the creature escape in a tin shed attached to a hot air balloon.

The idea of a mysterious creature who extracts talents as spheres from other living creatures is a unique one and the creature itself has some good nuance. The descriptions of it are definitely creepy and put this story in a range for older children. (I think ages 10-12 would be perfect.) The story is set in a vaguely European imaginary land that has a lot of charm and while most of the peripheral characters that our heroes meet are not much more than caricatures, they’re at least interesting caricatures. There’s some mystery as to the creature’s history and motivation which is good because Fortescue is a pretty one-dimensional villain of the evil simply for the sake of being evil type.

Adam is a likeable character and easy to identify with for those of us with modest talents. And since he turns out to be the true hero of this story, he could definitely be encouraging for young readers. On the other hand, I found Cressida to be profoundly unlikeable. She spends most of the book being annoyed at her brother who is actively risking his life to save her talent.

The story dragged on a little long for me and my major issue with it was that I found a lot of the sentence structure to be awkward and unnatural. This may have been more noticeable because I was reading it aloud to Pearl but there were many spots where the dialogue didn’t ring true and words were repeated. (I mean, how many times can different characters look bemused?) I wasn’t super engaged all the way through but I think a young reader certainly could be.

Book Review: Death Benefits by Sarah N. Harvey

Death Benefits, Orca Book Publishers 2010

Death Benefits, Orca Book Publishers 2010

Royce is sixteen and has just moved with his mother across the country, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island. He’s bored, lonely, and biding his time until he can escape back east to his former life. In the meantime, his mother convinces him to take on the job of caring for her 95-year-old father. Arthur is a classically cantankerous old man, a once upon a time famous musician. He loves coffee and CNN, he’s rude to his daughters and flirtatious with every other woman. Royce hates him but the money’s good.

In many ways this young adult novel is exactly what you’d expect. Unlikely relationship blossoms between grandson and grandfather. Grandson learns things about his grandfather’s life that he never knew. All’s well that end’s well. There are definitely some aspects of that but fortunately Harvey does push further. Arthur isn’t likeable and he never becomes likeable. While Royce grows to have a sort of begrudging respect for his grandfather, there isn’t a whole lot that redeems their relationship. There just isn’t enough time and that’s exactly how life works. If you’re 95-years-old, chances are the end is not far off. And if someone’s spent most of those ninety-five years being charming with strangers but distant from his own family, that isn’t something that will change in a few weeks. The story offers a great glimpse at what it’s like to care for an ailing family member and all the mixed emotions that come with it.

In this way, the characterization of the novel is quite good. Arthur has some depth to him and Harvey leaves a lot of the right things unexplained. There are a fair number of unknowns in his grandfather’s life for Royce, just as most of us probably have when it comes to our grandparents. The flip side of this is that Royce’s character doesn’t have a lot of depth. It’s difficult to say what he’s all about. He likes girls and classic cars, he misses his old town and friends and then gradually misses them less. Those are all pretty normal things but the book doesn’t take us much further. Royce could really be anybody. There’s not a lot that makes him unique or shows me who he is. He isn’t forced to make many choices or stand up for anything or do much. Most of what happens in the novel, happens to him, and mostly because of Arthur. In that respect, even Royce’s mother felt like a more fully-rounded character than our protagonist.

Fortunately, the story has enough momentum to bring the reader through easily and I suspect anyone who has spent time with an aging relative, for better or worse, will feel sympathy.

Book Review: The Curse of the Viking Grave – Farley Mowat

The Curse of the Viking Grave, McClelland & Stewart, 1966

The Curse of the Viking Grave, McClelland & Stewart, 1966

I’ve had this book – a copy that my dad apparently received as a Christmas gift in 1966 – on my shelf for years and never read it or realized that it’s a sequel to Lost in the Barrens. Fortunately, you don’t need to have read that more famous novel to follow the plot in this one.

Farley Mowat is in a league of his own when it comes to Canadian literature. And in most other things. He famously held himself apart from popular Canadian authors and never seemed too concerned with being accepted by either them or the population in general. I’m not sure if he would have been a pleasant person to spend time with or not (he had a lot of strong opinions, to put it mildly) but he definitely would have been fascinating to talk to and I do know that when a friend of mine wrote Mowat a letter a couple of years ago, Farley Mowat wrote a kind and personal letter back.

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The Curse of the Viking Grave follows the adventures of Jamie, Awasin, and Peetyuk, as well as Awasin’s sister, Angeline, as they journey even further north of Hudson Bay to collect a Viking treasure they found previously. (I believe this discovery occurs in Lost in the Barrens.)  They need money desperately to help their guardian and Jamie’s uncle, Angus, who has fallen ill away from home. They are also evading capture by the Mounties. The reader follows their summer journey, first by dog sled, and then by canoe down the Big River. We watch the Inuit tribe hunt caribou and learn about the trap lines the boys keep. There’s lots of neat information folded into the story in a readable manner.

This is a quick and easy-to-read adventure story. Like other books by Mowat, there’s a lot of information packed in. We learn about nature, a little of history, some local mythology, and about the ways of First Nations Peoples living north of Hudson Bay. Although some of the language Mowat uses is dated (referring to Peetyuk’s people as Eskimos, for example), it’s understandable giving the era in which the book was written and Mowat is undeniably respectful of the people he wrote about. We are given lots of reasons to admire their methods and ways of life and he doesn’t infantilize them or disparage them. If any of the characters come off poorly or needing help, it’s Jamie. (The way Peetyuk’s speech is written did drive me crazy though.)

Where the story lacks is in tension. Since the Viking treasure was found previously to the action of this novel, they’re really just going to pick it up and take it to another place. I never doubted that they would do so successfully so, when you think about it, it’s the story of one long errand. Mowat’s writing, however, remains engaging and fascinating and I think would still grab a young and maybe reluctant reader who might be interested in adventures and wilderness. The setting is done well and is really the highlight of this story.

Next Week’s Review: What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey

Book Review – Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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I’m rather inclined to think of Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Dial Press, 2013) as a young adult novel. That’s certainly not a bad thing, I just think teenagers would benefit from reading this one.

June is 14-years-old and her favourite person in the world has just died. Her uncle Finn, a talented artist, her best friend, the only person who she thinks will ever understand her. Before he died, Finn painted one last work of art – a portrait of June and her sister Greta. This painting comes to mean a lot to the characters – a final message from Finn, a way to be part of his legacy, a means of communication as relationships fall apart.

To complicate matters, Finn’s death was caused by AIDS and the year is 1987. While most of the novel could take place in current time, I think Brunt was wise to place it in 1987 when it comes to the issue of AIDS. While AIDS still carries huge stigmas, peoples’ understanding of the disease has grown. I can remember, as a kid, how controversial it was when Princess Diana visited with AIDS patients. Tell the Wolves I’m Home takes place several years before that even, in New York City and its surrounding suburbs and the misinformation and fear is strong. Towards the beginning of the novel there is a telling scene where June, who adores Finn, is fearful when he kisses the top of her head. Can you catch AIDS through your hair? she wonders.

With Finn gone and feeling farther from her once-close sister than ever, June is adrift, anxious to grow up, and spending much of her free time in a fantasy land of the past. She hangs out in the woods, pretending to be a girl in the Middle Age. It’s weird and it’s endearing and it perfectly captures that awkward age between childhood and adulthood.

Then June is contacted by a stranger who knew Finn and begins to discover that there was a lot more to her uncle than she ever knew.

Brunt does a tremendous job creating characters. They are nuanced and, mostly, realistic. She gives them depth without giving us all the answers. Greta is a great example of this – we learn of some of the struggles that June’s older sister faces but, since the story, isn’t about her, there’s a lot left unanswered. This rang true to me; in real life we don’t know every detail about someone else’s life – even our own sisters. Greta has her own struggles off-screen, just as June’s mother has her own history with Finn. Sometimes these side stories colour June’s story but much of it is left untold. Because Brunt has created such well-rounded characters, I was okay with that.

I did have to suspend a fair amount of disbelief when it came to June’s interactions with this friend of her uncle’s, a man named Toby. June is fourteen and Toby is described as around thirty. While I bought that June might chase after this relationship as a connection to Finn, I question the judgement of a grown man who hangs out with a teenage girl behind her parents’ back. Toby is a likeable figure but why doesn’t he do things out in the open? As an adult, he’s the one who should know that this will blow up in his face? Why isn’t he as eager for a connection to Finn’s sister as to Finn’s niece?

Overall though, I was captivated. This fictional world is well-developed, fascinating, and fun to read about. I recommend getting to know June Elbus.

A note about the title: This is a fancy title that ends up not meaning anything and so I’m labelling it pretentious. It didn’t have to be – I kept waiting for some kind of excellent explanation from the author. I gave her the benefit of the doubt right up until the end because she wrote a good book. Without any sort of greater meaning added to it, this title seems like something that sounded cool to the author and got forced into her book.

Book Review – I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

Having previously read The Book Thief, I should have suspected that Markus Zusak is not a straightforward novel writer. Yet the conclusion of I Am The Messenger (Knopf, 2005) still came as a surprise to me.

Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabdriver. He’s from the rough side of town and he’s on the right track to go nowhere in life. He plays cards with his friends Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey (who he’s in love with) and he hangs out with his smelly dog, The Doorman. He’s about to be another nobody in a town full of nobodies.

The novel begins in the middle of a bank robbery which Ed, almost inadvertently, foils. He has a brief stint of local fame, testifies in court, and goes back to his mediocre life.

Except, someone’s taken notice of Ed now. A playing card, an ace, arrives at Ed’s door; a cryptic message that sets Ed on a mission. He doesn’t know who wants him to deliver these messages or why, only that he has to. And that being the messenger is quickly changing his life.

I loved the creativity of this novel. Ed’s missions are each unique. Some are funny, some are horrifying, some are lovely, and some are frustrating. Almost all are reminders that the smallest action might change a life.

The language of the novel is great, particularly the dialogue between Ed and his friends. Their voices evoke the low income backgrounds they come from and seem to be trapped in. It’s a unique dialect that grounds the novel in reality

The mystery of what the next message will be and who is behind them pushes the action forward well and Zusak does a terrific job of maintaining that tension throughout.

There is, however, a particular style he uses through the novel that started to drive me crazy. Short sentences, lots of paragraph breaks, lots of repetition. Since the story is told from Ed’s point of view, perhaps it was an attempt to show his thought process.

To get inside his head.

Show how a guy like Ed thinks.

See how this works?

Doesn’t it get annoying?

It reminds me of sensationalist magazine articles and it felt overly dramatic and like a space-filler in a book that is really not that long. Zusak is a better writer than that.

And the ending. At first, I was only surprised and, truth be told, a little impressed at the statement Zusak makes with his conclusion. But the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew and the more it felt like a cop-out. (“It was all a dream!” That kind of cop-out, although that is obviously not the ending.) The more I wanted the novel to end before Ed returns to his house that final time. I wanted the novel to finish on its own terms, true to its own world and that’s not the ending Zusak gives.

Nevertheless, it does offer plenty to think about and that’s a good thing in any story.

Book Review – Looking for Alaska by John Green

As a former teenage girl, I think what I appreciate most about John Green’s writing is his characters. Looking for Alaska (Dutton Juvenile, 2005) was Green’s first novel. While not as breathtakingly awesome as his more recent The Fault in Our Stars, it’s definitely still a solid young adult read.

Looking for Alaska begins with our main character and narrator, Miles Halter, and his move to boarding school in Alabama. Miles leaves behind a somewhat friendless high school existence in Florida to search for his own “great perhaps” and some adventure. Within hours of his arrival at Culver Creek Preparatory, he’s made fast friends with his roommate – know as The Colonel – and been given a nickname of his own. Pudge. (It’s ironic.) The speed at which Pudge makes friends at Culver Creek throws into question his difficulty with friendships in Florida.

Through The Colonel, Pudge also befriends Takumi and, most importantly, Alaska Young. Alaska is beautiful, impetuous, vulnerable, and a little off the rails. Seeing her through Pudge’s eyes, we are continually reminded of how beautiful Alaska is. But she isn’t that simple. And while she’s fun and daring and introduces Pudge to a world of things he’s never experienced, she turns on a dime and is constantly unpredictable. It’s alternatively endearing and frustrating, which is pretty much how Pudge feels.

This is one of the great things about John Green’s writing. Alaska has a lot of depth, she’s multi-faceted, to the point that there are many questions left unanswered about here. That’s a good thing. That’s what real people are like.

In fact, one of my major problems with the novel was that Green relies on the prop of each characters having a “thing”. Pudge memorizes famous people’s last words. The Colonel memorizes capital cities. Takumi raps. This isn’t how real people work and when these “things’ are brought up, it reduces them to caricatures. Green is a better writer than that.

At the same time, Alaska is a classic girl-in-a-novel, in that many of her quirks are seen as endearing when, in reality, they’d make her too difficult to have any sort of relationship with. She’s unstable as can be. And yet, she doesn’t seem to deal with insecurities the way that the male characters do. Alaska has big questions but never worries about the little things like her shoes and whether her arms are fat. While we’re supposed to see her as vulnerable, she actually comes across as impossible to crack open or get close to. Perhaps this is due to Pudge’s narration and perspective. Insecure himself, he can’t possibly imagine Alaska doubting herself.

In fact, toward the end of the novel, Pudge is called on almost exactly that. He has an idealized version of Alaska and that isn’t who she really is. We never get to learn who she really is and maybe that’s deliberate because neither does Pudge.

The novel is split into two sections – “Before” and “After”. What splits those two areas came as a complete surprise and changes the novel completely from what I expected. Kudos to John Green from not shying away from real things. He creates characters with real thoughts, real desires, and real fears, and they’re a pleasure to spend time with.