YA Review: A Change is Gonna Come by various authors

a change is gonna come.pngThe Premise: an anthology of short stories and poems by BAME authors, all focused on the idea of change.

Thoughts: if there’s one thing in life I am almost guaranteed to enjoy, it’s a collection of short stories by a range of authors, all writing on a loosely linked topic. This one was no exception. There are some truly brilliant stories here; inevitably, not all of them will resonate with every reader, and there were a couple which didn’t grab me, but on the whole this is an excellent collection.

Catherine Johnson’s fictionalised account of William Darby, a 19th century circus performer better known as Young Darby, Negro Rope Dancer and Equestrian, is the kind of story of which I’d happily read a few more hundred pages; it’s a beautifully realised piece of historical fiction. Tanya Byrne’s Hackney Moon is just as beautiful, with a hauntingly detached narrator seemingly able to intervene in the life of Esther, a gay, black teenage girl leaving behind old relationships for better ones.

I’m already a fan of Nikesh Shukla, having followed his work in putting together The Good Immigrant, and I’ve read one of his novels too (Coconut Unlimited – it’s excellent, by the way); knowing he had a story in this collection was one of the reasons I was so keen to read it, and We Who? is a superb account of a friendship coming under pressure from prejudice and one teen’s internalising of his father’s anti-immigration views. The stories here may be short, but their impact is long-lasting, and Shukla’s is an excellent example of a narrative which stays in the reader’s mind long after reading.

Patrice Lawrence takes a dystopian view in The Clean Sweep, in which young offenders are transported to a secure location for the public to vote on their fates, reality TV-style. It’s a shift in tone from the previous stories, and one which invigorates and adds variety of genre. Magical realism also features in Phoebe Roy’s Iridescent Adolescent: the story of a girl who begins sprouting feathers. It’s a quite gorgeous addition to the anthology.

I also loved Mary Bello’s Dear Asha, about a teenage girl travelling to Nigeria to bury her mother. The depiction of Nigeria is so vibrant that the reader is swept away just like Asha, and it’s a really effective portrayal of cultural difference as well as human similarity.

In Conclusion: there’s so much to enjoy and admire in A Change Is Gonna Come. The book introduces new BAME talent as well as offering short stories by more established novelists, with Ayisha Malik and Irfan Master both featuring in addition to those I’ve mentioned. This is an excellent collection of topical, emotive, eye-opening fiction; it’s educational without being didactic, and it’s exactly the kind of writing that will help to create a better and more more open-minded world.

The Monthly Round-Up: July

A really great idea I had was to write my monthly round-ups as I go along, so I’m not faced with the task of summing up 30+ books all in one go on the 30th. Sadly, this month I forgot my own brilliant idea, so was faced with the task of summing up 30+ books all in one go on the 30th. The Goodreads challenge total currently sits at 229/200.

 

  1. Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy
    I really liked this collection. I especially enjoyed reading it while sitting on the floor of the school library getting weird looks from students.
  2. Noah Can’t Even by Simon James Green
    This amused me a lot. Although I’m not entirely sure all the representation is entirely PC, it’s got a lot of Adrian Mole about it and that’s obviously a good thing.
  3. We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy
    Interesting novel about two connected families who both have homes on a secluded, private island.
  4. A Change is Gonna Come by various authors
    There are some really good stories in here, especially Phoebe Roy’s and Patrice Lawrence’s. Overall, it’s an excellent collection.
  5. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
    I am usually far too snooty to read anything that has sold this many copies, but one of my students is writing about it for her coursework so I had to. It annoyed me a lot, then the last few chapters nearly gave me a breakdown.
  6. Restless Continent by Michael Wesley
    Don’t tell me you too don’t sit around reading books about the geopolitics of Asia.
  7. Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
    LOVED this. Life-affirming, witty, real feminism for teenagers, filtered through a prism of Riot Grrrl and zine culture. It is all the things.
  8. Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
    Wild, crazy speculative sci-fi from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy. It’s brilliant. Review here.
  9. Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index by Julie Israel
    This was a disappointment and I will now be avoiding all YA books in what I am referring to as the Dead Sibling genre.
  10. The Establishment (and How They Get Away With It) by Owen Jones
    As a champagne socialist myself, much of this was essential reading. Some of it was slightly ranty, obviously.
  11. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
    Verse novel about basketball-playing twin brothers. I liked it.
  12. Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence
    From the author of Orangeboy, a novel about a girl in care who witnessed the murder of her mother by her father as a small child. Overall it’s less bleak than that makes it sound.
  13. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
    Another brilliant July read; I am basically always here for dysfunctional families and this delivered that in spades.
  14. Negroland by Margo Jefferson
    I really liked the style of this autobiographical reflection on being black and middle-class. Jefferson’s perspective is very interesting.
  15. Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody
    More YA circus fun. Loads of craziness. I enjoyed it a lot.
  16. How Much the Heart Can Hold by various authors
    Pretentious-sounding but pretty good collection of stories, each inspired by a different kind of love, with fancy Greek terms.
  17. The Ones That Disappeared by Zana Fraillon
    Initially intriguing but ultimately messy take on modern slavery and people trafficking. Review here.
  18. Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror by Helen Epstein
    Fascinating study of Ugandan politics and US involvement in the region. Quite shocking, very well-explained.
  19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
    Possibly the millionth time I’ve read this book, and doesn’t diminish with each reading.
  20. The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith
    Odd little YA about a girl who runs away from her hoarder mother and finds a motley crew of 20-somethings who take her in. It’s good, but peculiar.
  21. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    I finally read it! I’ve been saving this for my holiday and it was worth it. A brilliant book, as expected. She’s a genius.
  22. Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
    Fascinating and well-executed historical YA about Suffragettes.
  23. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine
    Excellent memoir from the Slits’ guitarist, with great punk anecdotes.
  24. The Ascendance of Harley Quinn, ed. by Shelley Barba
    Excellent collection of academic essays about my favourite comic book character.
  25. Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
    Slightly underwhelming story of a boy from Zanzibar and his family saga.
  26. How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza
    Incredibly weird book about a woman who gets romantically obsessed with a fox.
  27. The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
    Really compelling vision of a future without bees. An excellent surprise.
  28. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
    Maybe the most disturbing book I’ve read this year; warped father/daughter relationship, abuse, strange survival skills. It’s excellent, but kind of horrifying.
  29. Because You Love to Hate Me, ed. by Ameriie
    Good short stories based on villains, with unnecessary commentary from BookTubers.
  30. Kompromat by Stanley Johnson
    Reasonably silly satire of 2016’s crazy political events. Dizzying array of characters, amusing caricatures.
  31. The Book of Etta by Meg Elison
    Sequel to The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, continuing the scary post-apocalyptic scenario in which most women have died or will because of a childbirth-related illness.
  32. The Glow of Fallen Stars by Kate Ling
    Sequel to The Loneliness of Distant Beings, which I loved. This one’s good too, following Seren and Dom as they try to start a new life on a strange planet.
  33. The Village by Nikita Lalwani
    Really disappointing in spite of an intriguing premise (an open prison in India inhabited by murderers and their families, which becomes the subject of a BBC documentary). An annoying book to end the month!

 

Review: Kompromat by Stanley Johnson

kompromatThe Premise: a satirical reimagining of the politics of 2016, Kompromat puts together the Brexit referendum, US presidential election and a Russian plot to destabilise the West to create something that’s part thriller, part farce. Stanley Johnson, as a former politician and father of a certain foreign secretary, is well-placed to make these things up.

Thoughts: there’s something quite delightfully silly about Kompromat, despite (or perhaps because of) its serious subject matter. Alongside topical depictions of some of the most significant events of the past year in politics, there are accidental buttock-shootings and in-depth investigations into some ‘Let’s Make American Great Again’ boxer shorts. This pretty much sums up the tone of the novel, with Johnson simultaneously offering a clearly fictionalised but worryingly believable version of real-life events, while juxtaposing these moments with slapstick humour. It makes Kompromat a fun read. It’s also entertaining to ‘celeb-spot’ while reading, with Johnson utilising very thinly-disguised caricatures of some of the movers and shakers of 2016’s dramatic events; Mabel Killick, for example, features as the leopard-print shoe-wearing Home Secretary at the outset, while the presidential candidate Ronald Craig, with his brash pronouncements and lack of political nous has an equally obvious real-life inspiration. Again, it’s entertaining, rather than particularly hard-hitting, but with the news becoming increasingly more worrying, it’s refreshing to see these machinations dealt with in a more light-hearted way. Laughter is the best cure, right?

I was borderline terrified when Kompromat began with a 5 page list of characters; in a possibly never to be repeated comparison between these two tomes, this is what’s always put me off reading War and Peace. But, when reading, it’s not that hard to keep track of who’s who, largely because of the obvious caricaturing; more difficult is keeping track of what’s fact and what’s fiction. Which is somewhat scary in itself.

In Conclusion: an easy and fun read with serious subject matter, Stanley Johnson offers an insight into the pettiness and power plays of politics, with some of the humorous inventions coming a little too close to the truth. Recommended for politicos, news hounds and fans of satire.

YA Review: The Ones That Got Away by Zana Fraillon

ones that disappearedThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Kept by a ruthless gang, three children manage to escape from slavery. Together, they will create a man out of mud. A man who will come to life, and lead them through a dark labyrinth of tunnels, until they finally have the courage the step above ground. Come and find the ones that disappeared…

Thoughts: I am a big fan of Fraillon’s previous book, The Bone Sparrow, and the delicate but hard-hitting way in which it dealt with big issues like the refugee crisis and detention of children. The Ones That Disappeared takes on another challenging and topical subject in modern slavery and the terrible risks taken by people in search of a better life.
The early chapters show Esra, Miran and Isa trapped in a basement, forced to pay off the debt of their journey by looking after marijuana plants for Orlando, their terrifying ‘owner’. There’s a palpable sense of claustrophobia and fear, culminating in an accident and the children’s escape.
Obviously I was very pleased the children escaped (I hope it’s obvious, anyway). I did, however, feel like the story came part a bit once the trio escaped captivity. Miran is arrested and hospitalised, while Esra and Isa find shelter in a cave and befriend a local misfit. The narrative became a bit confusing here, with multiple PoVs, and it didn’t seem like much was really happening. I was expecting a more sustained use of the hard-hitting style of the novel’s opening, but the children’s arcs became a bit meandering once they escaped.
In Conclusion: a YA book that tackles such difficult issues is clearly something that should be read, and in that respect, The Ones That Disappeared is a vital read. There is a definite and quite odd shift in the tone and action early on which didn’t work for me, but this shouldn’t deter anyone else from reading it.