The Hate U Give

Hello everyone!

It has been quite awhile since my last post, and lots of exciting things have happened, the most obvious being that I am officially done with high school! Summer break has been pretty great so far, needless to say, what with providing truly delicious amounts of free time for reading, sleeping, and finally getting the chance to watch The Get Down. (Don’t even talk to me about Netflix canceling it. I could write an essay on what a messed up decision that is.) And for working on blog posts! And the book I have been meaning to review ever since I stayed up until 2 am finishing it a couple months or so ago is The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas.

The Hate U Give is one of the few books that I specifically asked for as a birthday present, but I probably would have done anything to get my hands on it anyway (well, anything within reason). It’s a completely captivating and searing story of an all-too-familiar narrative–that of a young, black, and unarmed boy shot by a white police officer, only to have his character put on trial rather than the cop’s, his name replaced with “drug dealer,” and his humanity assaulted in a way we all know a white boy’s never would have been. But The Hate U Give also tells a story that isn’t always as prominent: That of the one witness who was with this boy, Khalil, when he was shot–16 year old Starr Carter. She is the only one, other than the cop himself, who can tell what happened that night. But she is also afraid, not only for her own safety but for that of her family, as well.

Starr is no stranger to how an individual’s race and background affect how they are treated and how the world expects them to behave. As one of the few black students at a predominantly-white and wealthy private school, Starr is automatically cool because she is black, but is also appalled to hear her white classmates (such as one of her close friends) refer to Khalil simply as a “drug dealer” who was up to no good. At home in Garden Heights, however, she is “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store,” one who feels comfortable using slang and doesn’t feel the pressure to make sure she never comes off as the “angry black girl.” But she’s also set apart from her peers–it’s hard to keep Garden Heights Starr and Williamson Starr completely separate.

It’s even harder to keep her two selves apart after Starr becomes the principal witness to Khalil’s death. All of a sudden she is a key player in a narrative so terribly similar to those she has read about on the internet and reblogged on her Tumblr. And the way Thomas tells Starr’s story is not only near-impossible to put down, but also a constant reminder of the systemic racism that still runs rampant in the U.S. today.

It doesn’t take very long to realize why The Hate U Give is one of the best books of the year. I was instantly drawn in by Starr’s first person narrative. Her voice is candid and so very much her own, masterfully expressing her conflicts, her fears, and how hard it is for her to be two different versions of herself depending on where she is. And then, after Khalil’s death, how hard it is for her to not only grieve one of her best friends, but to face the prospect of having to defend his humanity.

Starr’s character was without a doubt one of my favorite parts of the book. She is smart, clever, and honest, and it comes through on every single page. She is desperate to do something to get justice for Khalil, but at the same time is terrified of the consequences. She knows what race relations in America are like, and while she isn’t afraid to point them out to the reader, she struggles to make her non-black friends understand. Watching Starr’s growth throughout the book–as she copes with levels of grief and fear that no 16 year old should have to face, as she overcomes her trepidation and takes control of her own anger–is one of the most powerful aspects of reading The Hate U Give, and made me never want to put the book down.

But there are many other characters that I loved besides Starr, most of all her family. Her parents, her little brother, her step-brother Seven–all would go to the ends of the earth for Starr, and all are lovable in their own ways. Her dad is a former gang member who wants to help make Garden Heights better, while her mom wants desperately to make sure her kids are safe. Seven may sometimes play the role of the protective older brother too much for Starr’s taste, but his everlasting support for her made me love him. And her little brother, well, he’s the only one who doesn’t treat Starr a little differently after the shooting, and she loves him for it.

Another part of The Hate U Give that made me never want to put it down again was, of course, Angie Thomas’s writing itself. It is lively, cutting, and perfectly on-point, never feeling stiff or clunky. It seamlessly communicates everything Starr is feeling–her pain, her confusion, even her love for Fresh Prince, and it only makes the book more absorbing. And while the focus of the novel largely consists of police brutality, it touches on a myriad of other issues, too–cultural appropriation, microaggressions, supposedly “harmless” jokes that are really anything but. The writing and the language is a large part of what makes The Hate U Give feel so real and immediate, just as it should be, and it captures the urgency of the book’s story masterfully.

It is hard to describe how one feels after finishing The Hate U Give. It is not a fluffy, happy, uplifting read. It is not sending the message that progress will be easy, that the deaths of black people at the hands of police are isolated incidents, that things will change if we just root out the “few bad apples.” It sure has hell doesn’t coddle.

But it does end with the sense that progress is necessary. It is not a question of whether one is brave enough, or whether an unarmed black boy was a drug dealer or not. It is a question of when a hoodie will qualify as a piece of clothing rather than a reason to shoot, a toy gun as just that–a toy–rather than a reason to take the life of a 12 year old kid. No one knows when that time will be. Starr certainly doesn’t, as she points out at the end of the book. But as Starr learns to speak her truth throughout the novel, it becomes a call for others to speak their truths, as well, and for allies to amplify those voices as best they can. The Hate U Give can certainly make things feel hopeless at times. But it does not send the message that the situation itself is hopeless. Rather, it sends the message that the situation will improve, but only through extremely hard work and struggle. Through listening and allyship. Through making people’s voices heard.

And that, that right there, is part of what makes The Hate U Give so important.

Take care of yourselves, and enjoy the rest of the weekend. Hopefully I’ll be back with another post soon.

Nora

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Another Brooklyn

  • Hello everyone! Senior year of high school is officially well underway (oh my goodness), and with it has come homework, thermos after thermos of tea, and lots of college talk (so much college talk). However, I am still trying to find time to read when I can, and one of my favorite recent reads by far has been Another Brooklyn, National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years.

Another Brooklyn is told from the point of view of August, a young anthropologist who is swept into memories of her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn after an encounter with an old friend on the subway following her father’s funeral. However, it is not only the story of August’s childhood but also those of Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the girls she becomes so close with that they are almost like sisters, holding hands and linking arms as they confront the heartbreak and pain in each of their private lives. And it is all told in Woodson’s beautiful, twining prose, heartbreaking in its own evocative way.

One of the things that most caught my attention about the book is the way in which Woodson tells her characters’ stories–they are not straightforward, but winding, taking leaps from memory to memory with new details coming into the picture at any given time. She does not so much tell the story as reveal it, filling in the gaps of the girls’ lives little by little, making the plot turn and twist in a way that is not only extremely well done, but incredibly engrossing at the same time. It is one of the many things that made me want to never put the book down.

However, one of the other things that makes the book easy to get lost in is the characters. Woodson paints each of the girls with a vibrant, talented brush, making each one unique and flawed in her own right. They may be sisters, but each is also her own person, with her own life and troubles outside of August’s sphere. Woodson vividly brings to life the challenges and confusion that come with growing up in a world that seems increasingly complicated and dangerous, and the heartbreak that it so often brings.

But finally, my favorite thing about Another Brooklyn, and the reason I fell so deeply in love with it, was the writing. Woodson’s prose flows so smoothly and seamlessly, without ever being flowery or decorative, that it feels as if it isn’t prose at all, but poetry. It paints the lives of August and her girls in sharp clarity, putting things in such a way that it is beautiful to read but also true. Each word feels carefully chosen, never wasted, and they are put together in a way that makes each page and line bear its own emotional weight. It made me want to go on reading the book forever, if only for the sake of reading more of that fantastic writing.

Throughout the book, August’s most common refrain is “This is memory,” speaking to the lives and the childhoods whose stories Woodson tells. She captures days, months, and years in these pages, touching on pain, love, friendship, and the ways in which these can change over time. Another Brooklyn is captivating and heartbreaking, but arguably the most notable thing about it is the humanity it captures in just 170 pages. And that is one of the most wonderful things a book can do.

Hope you all have a great rest of the weekend, and that you get to read some amazing books like this one 🙂 I’m off to work on a little more homework and then to indulge in a brownie.

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, and I came together like a jazz improv–half notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing and the music felt like it had always been playing–we didn’t have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.” —Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson

Skim

Hey everyone! Hope you all have had a lovely weekend, full of tea and sunshine and binge-watching clips of The Late Show (or is that just me?). Today’s book is Skim, by the amazing due of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and a wonderful graphic novel at that.

“Skim” is actually Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a young high schooler who goes to an all-girls school in Canada and is a lover of Wicca, tarot cards, and astrology. Skim’s school is all of a sudden thrown into turmoil as news spreads of the suicide of Katie Matthews’s ex-boyfriend, leading to the creation of a “Girls Celebrate Life” club, as Skim herself is falling into a deep depression as she contemplates questions of friendship, love, and sexuality.

As readers, we’re sort of dropped into the middle of Skim’s life–we get to watch as she grows and changes and begins to delve into deeper questions about herself, until the book ends and we step out of that little glimpse. But that glimpse itself is extremely well done–Mariko Tamaki writes from the point of view of Skim writing in her diary, allowing us to see many of her private thoughts, but also leaving many things unsaid. Skim’s voice sounds authentic, and, while not always stating things directly, still conveys what she’s feeling very well, especially as she deals with trying to figure out what love is and how to know when you’re in it. It’s amazing how we can still feel the turmoil and pain going on inside her mind, both the confusion of love and the deepness of depression, and it’s one of the things I most enjoyed while reading.

The other characters–Skim’s friends, her classmates, and even her parents–are portrayed with similar clarity. While we of course don’t get as close a look at their inner thoughts as we do at Skim’s, we still get a sense of how they’re feeling about what’s going on around them, especially through their expressions and body language. It makes them feel more real and human, and only makes it harder to put the book down and leave their world.

Which brings me to one of the things that I most loved about this book–the seamless way in which the words and illustrations work together to tell this small part of Skim’s story. Jillian Tamaki’s drawings are beautiful and striking, black and white and intricately detailed in a way that I kept marveling at as I read. There were so many moments when I just wanted to sit back and look at the pictures, because they’re so well done and they flow with the words in a way that’s almost magical. The placement of the prose and the way the words sit on the page often gives them added weight, pausing at all the right places to give the reader a chance to consider what Skim is saying. It only brought me deeper into Skim’s life, and made me feel as if I could really see her surroundings and what her world was like. It’s one of the things that most made me never want to put the book back down.

Skim only provides us with a small look into one girl’s life, but it’s one that I so enjoyed falling into. Skim, her school, and her world feel so authentic and real that I closed the pages feeling as though they must actually exist, and that somewhere out there Skim was continuing to go about her day, figuring out who she is and reading book after book about Wicca. It’s a great read, and perfect for a rainy afternoon to boot 🙂

Hope you all have a lovely Monday, and stay cool!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “I feel like I have wings but my bones are bricks. Because…because…because…” —Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Get in Trouble

Oh my goodness gracious, it’s a blog post! After quite the unofficial hiatus! But now that Get in TroubleAP exams are done, sleep is more than just a figment of my imagination, and I am somehow a rising senior in high school (how did that happen again??), it’s high time that hiatus came to an end. And what better way to start than with Get in Trouble, Kelly Link’s amazing latest short story collection?

The onslaught of work and exams and the subsequent retreat into a cave of sleep and general vegetation meant that it took me far longer than it should have to finish this book–but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it immensely. Picked up while browsing a bookstore and flipped open to a random story, I eventually found myself crouched next to a bookshelf, already starting to wonder how I was going to pull myself out of it. But, alas, it was too late.

(Please note: This is most definitely a very adult book, and does include instances of self-harm and attempted suicide.)

Link’s stories are incredibly hard to sum up neatly, largely because each of them is different, encompassing everything from superheroes to ghosts to abandoned theme parks based on The Wizard of Oz. There’s “I Can See Right Through You,” about an aging movie star and Ouija boards, or “The New Boyfriend,” about teenage friendship with possibly-possessed boyfriend dolls thrown in. There are tales of parallel universes, pocket universes, strange and inexplicable happenings that send shivers up your spine while also keeping you helplessly engrossed. The weirdness abounds, and the result is utterly fantastic.

This weirdness is exactly one of the reasons that I adored this collection so much. I’m loathe to tell anyone too much about the specific stories, not only because I’m not at all sure that I could do them justice, but also because figuring out what on earth is going on is a good part of the fun. I found myself constantly marveling at Link’s ability to take the mundane and everyday and make them anything but, incorporating the magical and supernatural in a way that felt not only incredibly enticing but also seamless. The stories blend the normal and the abnormal wonderfully, creating a sort of magical realism that doesn’t feel real at all. Rather, it feels like a bit of a dream world, almost there but not quite, a fantasy but also not. And almost every story left me wanting more, wanting to know what happened next, or just to see more of the worlds Link created. And the magic makes it seem not too unbelievable that the book may be literally calling your name.

However, despite all these differences, a constant throughout each and every story was Link’s writing, which only made it harder to put the book down. Her words have a certain cadence and voice that lasts throughout the collection, not giving away too much at a time, but rather drawing the reader in through a gradual reveal of the worlds she’s created. She paints her characters, not necessarily concretely, but in a way that gives the reader insight into their inner thoughts and only makes them want to know more. Her characters are just as complex and varied as the stories themselves, and watching them interact with each other, love and hate and friendship and all, only made the book more enjoyable.

Another thing that completely captivated me while reading was the atmosphere Link created for her stories, especially through the settings. The way she describes the worlds of her characters, whether they be in the Keys or a New York City hotel or a wild countryside in the summer, only make the stories more real, painting their surroundings in vivid color. I especially loved the descriptions in “The Summer People,” which made the gardens of roses and beds of laurel of the characters’ home feel so real it was almost as if I could touch them.

Much of the book feels like a heady mixture of the strange and fantastic and eerie, a rabbit hole to fall into right from the first page. Link makes the normal abnormal and vice versa, and her writing perfectly conveys the otherworldly-ness of the stories, drawing the reader in until they can’t escape. While some of the stories did take things to a darker or more disturbing level than I expected, it is nevertheless the kind of book that makes you want to stay up late reading under the covers for hours, until the very last page is turned. Down into the rabbit hole we go.

And on that note, I shall take my leave. >bows< I hope to return soon though! Hope you all have had a great May, and have a great Memorial Day weekend!

–Nora

Bookish Quote of the Day: “They’re making each other realer the longer they look at each other, and isn’t that what love should be? Isn’t that what love should do?” —Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

My Favorite Books of 2015

Oh my god, it’s winter break. So much sleep. So much reading. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, it seems only right to tally up some of the best books I read this year and decide which ones were my absolute favorites, and oh my goodness were there some really amazing ones. To make it a little bit easier, I’ve split them up by genre this time around.

Fantasy

I really gravitated towards contemporaries this year, meaning that I also really stepped back from fantasy for awhile, which is a little strange considering fantasy books are a large part of what made me fall in love with reading and start this blog in the first place. (Hence the first review being about The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.) But that does not at all mean that I don’t still adore great fantasy books, and oh my god were there some fantastic ones.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa TahirAn Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes was the first fantasy I read after a looong stretch of mostly reading contemporaries, and it was the best re-introduction into the genre I could have asked for. This story of two very different characters living under the rule of the brutal Martial Empire–Laia, a slave girl, and Elias, an extremely accomplished soldier–is absolutely captivating, filled with complex characters and a plot that makes you feel like you’re constantly holding your breath as you turn the pages. There’s magic, an amazing setting, and some of the highest stakes I’ve ever read about, and it is fantastic. This is the kind of book I want to throw into people’s faces just so they’ll read it and can freak out about it with me. Especially Helene, because oh my god Helene. (I also went to a book event featuring Ms. Tahir at Politics and Prose in D.C., and she is absolutely lovely, not to mention hilarious.) (Full review here.)

The Wrath and the DawnThe Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is another fantasy that grabbed me, pulled me in, and refused to let go. Renée Ahdieh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights is so full of talent and skill that it still makes my head spin, and its story of Shahrzad and Khalid swept me up and made it near-impossible to put the book down for even a second. Shahrzad and Khalid are both so amazing and complex, not to mention all the other characters, and I fell in love with them so completely that I think I’m still recovering. Ahdieh’s writing is downright gorgeous, and she paints the world of Khorasan so masterfully that it only absorbed me even more. I loved so many things about this book–the plot, the characters, and especially the friendship between Shahrzad and her handmaiden Despina, because yes to awesome female friendship in books. Not to mention the romance, which made me fall in love so completely that it’s arguably the best ship I read about all year. This book made me forget lunch, guys. It’s so good. (Full review here.)

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching 2

White is for Witching is the most recent fantasy I read, and it’s also one of the most interesting things I picked up all year, nightmares and fairy tales mixed with the very real dangers of the world into a captivating cocktail. Helen Oyeyemi’s tale about Miranda Silver, and the lives of the Silver women who came before her, is something like labyrinth, weaving together what is real and what is not, what is light and what is dark, and and what the reader can and cannot trust. She writes in a way that draws the reader in and then doesn’t let them go, and uses the magic and darkness of her story to also touch on the very real issues of our world. Miranda and the other characters are drawn in a way that makes them feel real and human, despite the supernatural voices that haunt their lives, and the narration is done in such an interesting way that I was caught almost from the beginning. It’s the kind of story that you just can’t look away from, and I loved being swept up in it. (Full review here.)

Contemporary

This year led to me realizing that contemporary is one of my favorite genres in pretty much ever–I love reading about characters in high school, going to work, carrying out their lives in the very same times we live in. While there likely isn’t going to be any pixie dust or dragons, contemporaries can have some amazing stories, and falling headlong into some of them this year led to a lot of great discoveries.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

If I had to name one book I read this year that was closest to my favorite, it would be The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I’d been meaning to read this book for ages, and when I received it as a present at the start of the summer, it wasn’t long before I finally tried it. Junot Díaz writes in a way that I fell in love with, and I adored learning about Oscar’s life and those of the people around him, especially the unnamed narrator that we finally meet more than halfway through the book. He narrates in a voice that draws the reader in and makes it incredibly hard to escape, and the characters are all so human and flawed that by the end I felt as if I really knew them. The plot covers generations of Oscar’s family, taking the reader from his home in New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back again, and it’s filled with conflict, romance, and tons and tons of stories. I loved it so much that I bought the short story collections Drown and This Is How You Lose Her right afterward, which were just as amazing, and my only regret is that I sped through them so quickly that now I don’t have anything else new from Díaz to read. Let the rereading commence.

Purple Hibiscus 2Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is another contemporary I read this year that I became completely absorbed in and absolutely loved. I’d never read anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and her first novel was more than enough to convince me to read anything else by her that I can get my hands on. Purple Hibiscus focuses on the lives of Kambili and Jaja, two children living in the household of their fanatically religious father, and Adichie tells the story of their growth and education (particularly while visiting their aunt’s family in Nsukka) in a way that makes it all seem so real and vibrant that I was totally drawn in. She paints the picture of Kambili’s family’s lives in a way that makes the reader feel as if they actually know them, and each of the characters is incredibly real, with their own complex emotions and desires. I loved getting to read about all their conflicts, both internal and external, and part of me wishes that the book had gone on much longer just so I could have read more.

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the many great books of 2014 that I missed out on, but I absolutely adored falling into it this past spring. The story of Lara Jean Song and her hidden (and then not-so-hidden) love letters totally drew me in, full of cookie-baking, fake dating, and sisterly love. I loved getting to know these characters, especially Lara Jean and Peter K, and it was so much fun to see the way they bounced off each other and interacted. Han’s writing and Lara Jean’s narration was as addicting as the cookies Lara Jean bakes, and I loved reading about her family’s interactions and her friendship with her sisters. This is the kind of book that I started reading and just couldn’t stop, and when everything was mixed together–the characters, the details, the romance–it made my little reader heart so very happy 🙂 Not to mention more than a little hungry.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih AlameddineAn Unnecssary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman follows a plot that is just about as far away from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as possible, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it just as much. Rabih Alameddine’s story of a 72-year-old woman working as a translator in her book-filled apartment in modern Beirut was incredibly hard to put down, especially because of the amazing narration of Aaliya, the main character. Aaliya’s voice is one that I fell completely in love with, telling her own stories and those of other characters in a way that made her almost irresistible. She has the best way of putting things, full of wry and cutting remarks, and describes them in a way that made my weakness for amazing descriptions all the more apparent. She paints a picture of Beirut that made it seem so real I could almost reach out and touch it, a city wracked by the Lebanese Civil War and home to everything she loves. I loved seeing everything through Aaliya’s eyes, and the other characters were just as much fun to read about, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and always interesting. What made it even better was Aaliya’s deep and abiding love of books, written in a way that made it seem as if it was almost a living thing, radiating from the pages. It’s yet another one of my weaknesses, and for that I adored the book all the more.

Historical Fiction

When I came to this category, I realized that I read very little historical fiction this year, which is a definite lamentable fact. Historical fiction can be so extremely well done (see: Ann Rinaldi), and I’m not entirely sure how I ended up reading so little of it these past 12 months. Hopefully I’ll get to some really amazing reads in 2016, but for now, there is one book that totally bowled me over in a way that only the best books can.

The Valley of AmazementThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I finished The Valley of Amazement about two days ago, and I think a part of me is still reeling. It’s the first Amy Tan book I’ve ever read (I know I’m disappointed too), and after finishing it late at night it took me forever to finally fall asleep, because oh my god feelings everywhere. Tan tells the story of Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai during the early 20th century. But when a web of lies ends with Violet being forced to become a virgin courtesan, it sends her on an entirely different track in life, one that Tan captures with so much mastery it left me wondering what to do with myself after I was finished. Tan’s writing is amazing, and the story of Violet’s life, interspersed with those of the myriad of other characters, made it near-impossible to put the book down. Each of the characters is original and flawed, and by the end I felt as if they had actually existed, wondering what happened to them after the pages were closed. The writing itself only drew me in more, capturing the expansiveness of the story and switching capably between different points of view. It tackles feelings of love, hate, and abandonment, and I loved it so much that my only problem now is moving on from it and picking which of Tan’s books to read next.

Nonfiction

Like historical fiction, nonfiction is not a genre that I focused on very much this year, despite my newfound love of historical musicals about Alexander Hamilton (seriously, don’t get me started because I could ramble on about Hamilton for literally hours without pausing) (>resists the urge to start singing<). But of course, there is one book that stands out as one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, and also ever.

March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate March--Book TwoPowell

I adored the first book in Congressman John Lewis’s March series for many reasons–the illustrations, how vibrantly it tells the story of his childhood, the look it gives into the Civil Rights Movement. And I was just as captivated by March: Book Two, if not more so. It’s true that it’s very different from the first book–it’s more violent, more mature, and it gives a much deeper look into the people of the movement and the challenges they faced. Lewis writes unapologetically about these challenges, describing in detail the vicious brutality with which the protests were met, as well as the conflict within the movement itself. Powell’s illustrations only make the book more absorbing and striking, stark black-and-white images accompanying each of Lewis’s words. It brings the racism and brutal history of our country–one built on the genocide and exploitation of black people–to terrifying life, in a way that made me more furious than any other book this year. It’s the kind of book that I want everyone to read, especially in times when the racism of the United States is still alive and well and affecting people in a million ways. It tells a story that’s wholly human and that needs to be told, and if there’s one book people read from this list, I hope it’s this one. (Full review here.)

And that’s about it for my favorite books of 2015. I’m hoping I’ll find myself reading many more in the next year, and hopefully (>crosses fingers<) writing about them as much as I can. It’s true that I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but many of the books I did get to were absolutely fantastic, and I can’t recommend them enough. And now I’m going to go make Christmas cookies, because it doesn’t need to be the actual holiday to use copious amounts of decorative sugar.

Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season, and Happy New Year!

–Nora

P.S. I feel like it says something that the little blurbs I write for books are now just about as long as the first reviews on the blog. A master of brevity I am not.

White is for Witching

Hello again! I’m alive! I’m still reading! I haven’t totally fallen off the face of the earth!White is for Witching

Quick general update: Things have been fairly busy/stressful around here since school started. I’m in my junior year of high school now, and while many of my classes are interesting, I’ve gotten pretty caught up in managing the workload, along with still trying to do fun things outside of school (and I need to really start focusing on thinking about college because WOW THAT’S A THING). Unfortunately, the blog kind of fell by the wayside in the midst of all of that, but I’ve still been reading and trying to work on various posts. I’m hoping that now that I’ve gotten fully immersed in junior year and have a better feel for things that I can manage an at-least-semi-regular posting schedule, and I’m really going to try to get a better handle on everything that’s going on. And what better way to start that than with a brand new book review?

(Please note: Trigger warning for eating disorders.)

White is for Witching is the third novel by author Helen Oyeyemi (her most recent is Boy, Snow, Bird), and is the second of hers that I’ve read. The book revolves around one Miranda Silver, a girl living with her parents and twin brother in Dover, England, in the childhood home of her mother. Miranda’s life is inextricably intertwined with those of the Silver women who came before her–her mother, Lily, the grandmother she never knew, Jennifer, and her great-grandmother, Anna Silver. After Miranda’s mother dies, she begins hearing voices. She has an appetite for chalk and plastic. She can’t sleep, she can’t eat, not even the delicious concoctions her father cooks up for her. And after she leaves to attend university at Cambridge and returns with a friend, things only get eerier.

White is for Witching is without a doubt one of the most fascinating and original books I’ve ever read. It’s a maze–winding path after winding path of subplots and language and unreliable narrators. It’s incredibly hard to wrap your mind around, even after the pages are closed, and once you’re done it seems like the only thing to do is to pick it up and reread it to see if you understand it more the second time. It’s so hard to get a handle on, and yet still so amazing to read. It’s also the kind of book that makes me a little scared to tell anyone too much about it, for fear of ruining the mystery for them.

One of the things that makes White is for Witching so fascinating and absorbing is the narration. The story of Miranda and the people she knows is told from various points of view, allowing the reader to become intimately acquainted with Eliot (her brother), their family, a friend she meets at college, and more. The narration is constantly twisting and changing, making it sometimes hard to know who is saying what, and whether you can even believe what is being said. But despite this confusion, it makes the story more complete, adding hidden layers that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I loved that I got to know so many of the characters, in ways that added a whole new depth to the story overall.

Another thing that makes the book so captivating is how Oyeyemi uses the supernatural elements of her story to touch on things in the real world. She addresses xenophobia, describing the sometimes violent reactions to Kosovan refugees who fled to the UK during the Kosovar War, something still all-too-relevant today. The book also touches on racism and prejudice, and when Miranda’s friend Ore comes to visit her in Dover, these things become physically manifested within the family home. Oyeyemi addresses these subjects so capably and in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen, not shying away from them at all, and it’s part of what makes me want to experience the book all over again. She mixes the supernatural terrors of her stories with the very real issues of our time, and the result is a fascinating use of language that I kind of (and very nerdily) want to analyze in my English class.

And then, there is the plot–the plot that made me feel like my head was spinning and so confused I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. The plot is the complete opposite of a straight line. It twists and curves and runs in circles. It follows Miranda’s story and the changes in her psyche, while also weaving in the stories of the other Silver women and how they all interact. It felt like Oyeyemi had thrown me into some whirling, twisted dream, where from page to page you can’t help but wonder what’s real and what’s not. What are the voices in Miranda’s head, the person who responds when she writes questions on a piece of paper? What truly inhabits the house in Dover? It’s all so incredibly tangled, but in a way that made the book only more absorbing and hard to put down.

White is for Witching is without a doubt one of the most captivating books I’ve read all year. It resembles a fairy tale, but not at all the ones that are found in Disney movies–it’s twisted and eerie and dark, and sometimes so disturbing I had to take a break from reading to absorb what had happened. Oyeyemi doesn’t shy away from the gruesome or the frightening. She infuses her story with the stuff of monsters and nightmares and things that go bump in the night, drawing the reader in with her prose and characters. It’s strange and peculiar, and, most definitely, not for children.

That’s all for today. Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it, and that you’re enjoying the last couple days of November!

–Nora

Bookish Quote of the Day: “Miranda Silver is in Dover, in the ground beneath her mother’s house.” —White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

P.S. White is for Witching leans more towards adult on the spectrum of book genres, and lately I’ve been exploring more adult books when I choose what to read. I’m definitely still very much in love with YA, but just a heads up that some upcoming reviews will feature books that are more likely to be found in the adult section of the library. But of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be perfect for teens as well 🙂

An Ember in the Ashes

Hi everyone! Summer is finally upon us, which means a number of things–no homework! More ice cream! Trying not to melt in the all-consuming inferno that is summer heat! And more time for reading/blogging! Which is good, because I have a lot of reviewing to catch up on. And number one is An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir.

The book centers on Laia and Elias, who at first glance couldn’t be more different. Laia is a Scholar living with her grandparents and older brother, somehow managing to survive day-to-day under the brutal rule of the Martial Empire. Elias is the most accomplished student of Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire’s most deadly soldiers are trained. But despite his high status, Elias wants nothing more than to just escape.

When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, she serves as a spy for the Scholar Resistance, going undercover at Blackcliff in exchange for their help in freeing Darin. It is here that she and Elias meet for the first time. But there’s trouble brewing at Blackcliff, and both Laia and Elias are confronted with much more danger than either of them imagined. This is especially true once the Trials to choose a new Emperor begin.

An Ember in the Ashes is one of those books that left me feeling totally bowled over and like I need to lay down for a while and simply absorb everything about it. (Seriously. On the outside I’m calm, but on the inside there is FLAILING.) So, without further ado, I’m going to try to break down everything in some sort of logical fashion:

The World

An Ember in the Ashes is the first fantasy I’ve read in quite a while. But oh my god, what a fantasy.

The book is set in a fantasy world in which the Scholars have been conquered by the Martial Empire, led by Emperor Taius. The Scholars are brutally oppressed by the Empire, subjected to raids, murder, and slavery. It’s terrifying and violent, and Laia becomes part of fighting that when she agrees to help the Scholar Resistance. Of course, then she’s heading into the belly of the beast.

What struck me about the world of the book was how rich and detailed it was. I loved falling into it, learning more about the people’s lives and how everything worked. The Empire is perhaps the most brutal fantasy regime I’ve ever read about, but Tahir pulls it off in such a brilliant way, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Laia and Elias’s world. Everything is painted in such an interesting and detailed light that it just made it harder to put the book down. The courtyard of Blackcliff, the marketplace of Serra, the dunes that surround the school and the desert where the Tribes live. The magic and the setting are all so unique, not to mention non-Eurocentric, and it’s a place I can’t wait to read more about. I felt like these places were almost real, almost close enough to touch, and I loved it.

The Characters

>deep breath< Okay, I am calm, I am calm.

The setting of the book isn’t the only thing that is filled with talent and detail–the characters get a fair share of it themselves. Tahir’s characters are almost living and breathing–they range from the brutal to the cryptic to the oh-my-god-let-me-hug-you variety, but each of them is so well-drawn and unique.

I loved reading about both Laia and Elias. The book is narrated in their alternating POVs, so we get to hear from them both. Laia is so scared at the start of the story, and understandably so–she’s terrified of what she has to do, and she has no idea how she’s ever going to pull this whole spying thing off. But she grows so much throughout the book, and watching that was such a great experience. Elias is also a well-done character, and I really liked that I got to see what it’s like to be a part of Blackcliff through the eyes of someone who’s a part of it, despite how much he wishes he wasn’t. Both of their voices are original and well-written, and I can’t wait to see more of them.

The side characters are also some of the best parts of the book. The Commandant of Blackcliff Academy is terrible–and I mean terrible. She’s brutal and cruel, but also still a character with depth and a story. I was fascinated by Cook, one of the slaves Laia meets at the school, and I also liked Keenan, one of the members of the Resistance that Laia works with. (But don’t mention Mazen to me because I have FEELINGS about Mazen.) (Also Marcus. Never ever mention Marcus. I could stab Markus in the EYE.)

And oh, Helene. I could write for ages about Helene. I could write essays on Helene. Helene is quite possibly the most complex character in the whole book. Unlike Elias, she believes wholeheartedly in the Empire and what it teaches them, but there’s also so much more to her than meets the eye. She’s his best friend, and the only female soldier at the Academy, but she is also full of emotions and skill (I only wish I could wield a sword as capably as Helene). She’s a mix of light and dark and she gives me so many feelings and I need to read more.

The Plot

This plot. This plot blew my mind.

The thing about this book is that the stakes are higher than five Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of the other. Both Laia and Elias, as well as many of the other characters, are surrounded by danger–danger from the Martials, from their own friends, from other things that I don’t want to mention because SPOILERS. It is insane, and it makes it so hard to stop reading. The danger is one of the many things that made this book nearly impossible to put down.

But the mysteries were another thing I loved about the plot. This book is full of twists and turns, and there are secrets around every corner. I was dying to find out what everything meant, who Laia and Elias could trust, if they would ever actually kiss, if they would actually survive. I had to know what would happen next, and I could barely turn the pages fast enough. (There was also an angry yell at one point. I believe it was around page 389.)

I loved the action and the mystery, but I also loved the more subdued scenes and parts of the plot. The section where Laia attends the Scholar-held Moon Festival is definitely one of my favorites, and I loved the looks Tahir gives into the backstories of the characters and their relationships. She finds a wonderful balance between the dangerous, holy-crap-what-is-going-on scenes and the ones that occur in the spaces between those, where we get to see a little more of the characters, and hopefully catch our breath (right before getting it stolen again because THIS PLOT). I can’t remember ever being bored while reading this book. In short, the plot is A+++.

The Writing

(You might think that there is a limit to how many things I can love about this book, but you’d be wrong.)

Tahir’s writing is another one of the great things about An Ember in the Ashes. She writes about the characters and the amazing fantasy world they live in without ever just dumping info on the reader or making it feel stilted. While I did feel a little disoriented in the fantasy setting for the first couple chapters, the confusion was quickly cleared up and after that there was no turning back. She draws the reader in and keeps them turning the pages, and the alternating POVs worked very well (and only made me feel more invested). I adored the plot and characters, but the writing just makes the story even better.

In short, there is talent just radiating from the pages of this book. It’s one of those books that I finished in a fog one afternoon, when I couldn’t put it down and I had had had to keep going. And then afterward I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed the book to go on, because as badly as I wanted to know what happened next, I never wanted it to end. It’s the kind of book that you can fall into and stay there for hours. I absolutely loved Ember, and I want to shove it into the hands of pretty much everyone I meet. It’s that good. And if you want to learn more before taking the plunge into Laia and Elias’s world, there’s also this amazing website with a book trailer, character trailers, information about the world, and more.

Until next time, hope you’re all enjoying your summers! Eat some ice cream for me.

–Nora

P.S. An important note: This book does deal quite a lot with violence, and there is also a lot of mention of sexual assault and/or rape, as well as an actual instance of assault. This could be triggering.

P.P.S. Also, this book is downright GORGEOUS. The cover is all glow-y and there are two different maps on the endpapers and just look:

An Ember in the Ashes CollageHave a great day everybody!