I feel a little bit ashamed to admit that it took me two tries to get through this very, very good novel, and only returned to it because one of my students is having to write on it for an exam. (In my defense, the first time round I had about 45 other books on my bedside table!) This is an insightful kiwi novel about a Maori teenager who goes by the nickname Bugs. It almost spoils it to reveal that Bugs is a girl – I was surprised to realise this about 30 pages in – but it’s going to be hard to write this without giving it away! At any rate, Bugs was born to a solo mum in her teens, who has gone on to carve a good career and income for herself and Bugs. She raised Bugs with the support of her wider family, and as a result, Bugs is pretty grounded and is able to stay on the right path in life, feeling loved and supported, even when she makes bad choices. Her two best friends, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky, and the book serves as an illustration of how money really can’t buy you happiness.
Spoiler alert: the title does not lie, they really do both die at the end. It’s definitely worth reiterating this point, because the book is so lovely and the characters so compelling, you really do spend the entire novel hoping the prediction is wrong. Sadly, ‘Death-cast’, a mystical service that predicts who will die each day, is never wrong. At midnight phones begin ringing all over the world as “deckers” are notified they will die sometime in this 24 hour period. They don’t find out how or exactly when, but they know that their time is definitely up, giving them a chance to say their goodbyes and squeeze in a few bucket list experiences. There is also an app that’s been designed to allow people to make a ‘last friend’, someone to spend the final hours of their life with if they don’t have anyone else. It’s this app that bring the two main characters of the book together, Rufus and Mateo. Rufus is an orphan whose family were recently killed in a car crash. He’s been up to not much good lately as he’s pretty mad at the world, and finds himself alone on his last day because he has to escape the police. Mateo is alone because his father is in a coma and he lost his mother the day he was born. He also suffers from severe anxiety which essentially stops him leaving his house, and he doesn’t want to burden his only friend, Lidia, with the news of his imminent death. Rufus helps Mateo leave his apartment and go to the hospital to say goodbye to his father, but what then follows is a beautifully delicate, emotionally charged connection between the two boys. It’s so glorious to read a story about two young men who are complex and rounded, representing both the tough and angry and the fragile and sweet side to teenage boys (and acknowledging that all boys are all these things rolled into one delicate package). I really loved this book and hope I might be able to convince some of the boys at school to give it a go, too.
I’m feeling a bit blergh about my boy book quest, partially because so many of the recommended books are dystopian fiction and it’s not my favourite genre. I did quite enjoy this one though, and for the most part its fast paced and really well thought out. The writing is beautiful and the character’s are well-drawn. It centres on a kid called Nailer, who works in the dark hollows of abandoned ships to pick out precious metals and other materials, for resale to the new version of these boats, ‘clippers’. After a “city killer” storm, a clipper washes ashore and onboard Nailer and his best friend Pima find a young woman who is barely clinging to life. They choose to save her instead of chopping off her fingers for the gold she’s wearing, and things take a scary turn from there. Nailer’s own father is a drug addict and alcoholic, who has no hesitation in taking his own son prisoner if he has to, to claim the money that comes from the find. The story follows Nailer’s escape with the girl, Nita, into a scary and unknown world, on the slim hope that she might be able to find her people and they can both be saved. I suspect some of the boys I teach might be quite into it, so this is definitely a book I’m going to field test before I write it off!
Angie Thomas is such a treasure and I have a feeling quite a few of my new students will love this book. It really comes from the heart and there are so many issues young people can relate to. The downside? I did think – like The Hate U Give – it was longer that it needed to be, and took ages to kinda get to its point. It’s apparently a semi-autobiographical story, in which the main character, Bri, seeks fame and fortune as a rapper. She lives in the same general neighbourhood as Starr from THUG, Garden Heights, and there are a lot of references to Khalil’s murder within the story. But Bri has been grieving the loss of her own father to gun violence, and trying to recover from temporarily losing her mother to drug addiction in the years that followed. While mum is now home, the family are still desperately poor and always struggle to make ends meet. Bri thinks becoming a rapper like her father might be the solution to the family’s problems. The question she has to ask herself, though, is at what cost?
This is a super intense book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really good, but it’s full on and it took me a week or two to get through. It starts off with a young Haitian woman, Fabiola, trying to illegally move to America. She was born in the US when her mother was living and working there illegally, so when they arrive Fabiola is allowed through (she has a green card because she was born there) but her mum is immediately arrested and taken away, as they know she’s likely to overstay again. Fabiola is set adrift in America with only her three unruly cousins to guide her, along with a sick auntie whose money seems to come from seriously dodgy means. The story follows Fabiola as she tries to make sense of the unhappiness she sees all around her, while doing desperate things to try and get her mother out of jail. Oh, and there’s a pretty sweet love interest thrown in for good measure. The tale weaves lots of voodoo and spiritualism into the mix, giving it an otherworldly feel. A lovely and thought provoking read.
I did not plan on reading Dear Martin this weekend. It arrived on Friday and I opened the box while waiting for the pasta to cook for my kids’ dinner. I thought I’d just have a quick look during the seven minute wait, but before I knew it, I was half way through; I had finished it by 10am Saturday morning. This is a seriously gripping book and such a quick, easy read. The premise is not that different to The Hate You Give (THUG), but here the main character is a young man and it feels like more of a private, intimate journey of learning. In the first scene he is trying to rescue his drunk, half-white ex girlfriend and the cops arrest him because he basically looks dodgy in his hoodie. Events just spiral from there – and there are a lot of events in this book! It seriously packs them in and there’s a pretty high kill off rate, but almost every act of violence and death took me by surprise.
I think these YA books on racism and police violence in the US are incredibly powerful and this one might be my favourite so far. Definitely an awesome companion piece for those who loved THUG, and I think the themes will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt in the minority as a result of their race, religion, gender or economic background. I couldn’t help comparing the treatment of innocent young black men to the victim blaming rape survivors receive. It’s a similar trotting out of every thing you’ve ever said or done wrong, in order to make you seem unworthy of any kind justice.
One of my students asked me to please find more books about “brown girls with real world problems”. This is the best example I’ve found to date. Starr Carter is a girl from the ghetto whose parents want a better life for her. They send her and her brothers to private school in another district, but she still has friends in her own neighbourhood. One weekend she attends a party and bumps into her childhood friend and former crush, Khalil. The two escape gunshots at the party and jump into his car. Unfortunately they are then pulled over by a cop for no reason, and Khalil is shot dead. This all happens in the first chapter and the rest of the book follows Starr’s journey from terrified teen to pissed off activist. I thought it was an awesome read. When I got to the end I finally watched Straight Outta Compton and the Netflix documentary 13th, which is about the history of racism in America. This is a great, thought provoking read, perfectly pitched for a teenage audience (especially if they’re a brown girl!).