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The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

I cannot remember the last time I fell so hard for fictional characters. I just wanted to hatescoop Starr Carter and her family up and hug them forever. Starr’s the sixteen-year-old narrator of Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give, and her story might have been ripped from recent headlines. It feels especially timely now, given what is happening in the U.S.A and around the world. I would like to think Canada is immune to racism, but I know it’s not true.

Starr lives with her parents, Lisa, a nurse, and Maverick, an ex-con who now owns and runs the neighbourhood grocery store in Garden Heights, an inner-city neighbourhood prone to violence and crime. Starr straddles two worlds; she lives in Garden Heights, but she and her older brother, Seven, and younger brother Sekani attend a “bougie private school” across town. Starr realizes at a young age that “Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and I have to keep them separate.”

Driving home from a spring break party, Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, are pulled over by the police and Khalil is shot and killed by the cop. (Not a spoiler – honest!) It is a horrifying moment in the book, and for Starr the beginning of personal journey which changes her life and the lives of those around her.

Let’s just establish some context for me as a reader. I live on the East Coast of Canada, in a small blue collar town of about 75,000 people. I can count on one hand the number of black kids who attended my high school back in the 70’s. I knew them; I was friendly with them; I don’t recall them being treated any differently, but how would I know? Fast forward almost 40 years and now I teach high school – same city, different school. There is certainly more racial diversity at my school of about 900 kids, but it is still predominantly white. My city has had an influx of Syrian refugees in the last couple years, but still, mostly white. I would like to think that I am not racist, but honestly, sometimes I say things that are probably not PC and my kids – who are 20 and 18 –  say “Mom, you can’t say that.”  I have never been the minority, but as a woman I have encountered – I am sure – instances of discrimination or harassment that I have likely joked about or glossed over.

Starr agrees to testify in front of the grand jury to determine whether or not the officer who shot her friend should be indicted for the crime, but she has already come to understand how the world works. She sees it first hand every day – on her own streets where gangs and drug lords run the show and the potential for violence is simmering on the surface. She’s seen it her private school  where

Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.”  Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

Starr tries to keep her two lives separate and she doesn’t tell her school friends that she’s the witness in the shooting death of her friend. There’s a lot of pressure on her from all sides – to maintain the status quo and to stand up for what’s right. Finally, Starr decides to choose differently in all aspects of her life, telling her Chinese friend, Maya, “We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

How can that not resonate with people? How long will we let the  Donald Trumps of the world trash talk  – well – just about everyone? Because if The Hate U Give taught me one thing (and trust me, it taught me way more than one thing) it’s that we need to stand up and call people out when they are speaking derogatorily about others.

The Hate U Give ripped back the curtain and exposed a world I knew nothing about and as a reader and an educator, that’s a good thing. I often say that books are a great way for young readers to see themselves reflected back at them, but I think it’s equally important for them to see into the lives that are not like theirs. How else will they ever understand someone else’s point of view if they are never exposed to it? There is beauty to be found in our differences, people.

I loved every second spent with Starr and her amazing family. The Hate U Give is hopeful, heart-breaking,  beautiful and important and highly recommended. Read it and then get everyone you know to read it, too.

 

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing – Jen Waite

a-beautiful-terrible-thingEven though my marriage ended seven plus years ago – well, it actually ended way before that, although not formally – I am still drawn to books about broken marriages and I just finished Jen Waite’s memoir  A Beautiful, Terrible Thing. It was an impulse buy and I read it in three sittings.

Waite is a struggling New York actress when she starts training as a waitress at a trendy new restaurant and meets Marco, the head bartender, who is “tall and Latin with black, slicked-back hair and mocha skin [and] a quick, easy smile.” Despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home in Maine, she is smitten and before you can say Argentina (which is where Marco is from), she is head-over-heels in love. It’s easy to see why, too. Marco is self-deprecating, sensitive and Waite believes that he really sees her for who she is. Throw in the chemistry and it’s an intoxicating and irresistible combination.

But, of course, it’s all fake. Five years into the relationship, shortly after Waite gives birth to their daughter, Louisa, she discovers a suspicious e-mail. It’s like a house of cards: the email is one card and when Waite removes it, the whole structure of her life starts to crumble.

Marriages break down, everyone knows this. It’s a devastating thing that happens to many couples. But there is an extra layer of horror in the dissolution of Waite’s marriage to Marco because he goes from being suave and loving to a blank stranger almost overnight. When Marco tells her that “For around a year now, I haven’t been happy. I lost all my feelings….Like right now, I’m looking at you, and I feel nothing. I feel numb,”  Waite’s reaction is one of disbelief. She thinks “There is something very, very wrong  with my husband. He is sitting across from me, it is his body, but he is not my husband.”

Waite tries to explain away Marco’s admission: they’ve just had a baby, he’s over-worked, tired.  But no amount of rationalizing explains Marco’s increasingly disconcerting behavior. Although Marco adamantly denies having an affair, and even though her parents are inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth, Waite finds it almost impossible to stop obsessing over Marco’s email and social media accounts. When she finally leaves him, he begins a campaign of emotional abuse towards her, employing every trick up his sociopathic sleeve.

Because – as it turns out – that’s exactly what Marco is.

Waite hits Google and starts researching.

I did the same thing. I wasn’t exactly blind-sided when my husband of 17 years told me in a parked car, in the pouring rain, that he didn’t love me. Things had been rocky for a while, although I’d kept telling myself that we’d weather the storm, that it was just a rough period, that despite the problems we were having he still loved me.  But from that moment on, the guy I’d known for 25 plus years, the father of my two children, became a complete stranger. I knew exactly what Waite was talking about.

Her research is a desperate attempt to explain behavior that makes no sense to her. Reading about pathological lying leads her to an article about sociopaths and suddenly the alarm bells start to go off in her head.

My eyes quickly scan to find the criteria, or red flags, of a sociopath. As I read each trait, my hear beats faster, and the hair on my arms rises. Charming. Check. Impulsive. Check. No remorse, guilt, or shame. Check. Invents lies. Speaks poetically. Incapable of apologizing. Check. Check. Check.

I remember my brother calling me and saying, “I am going to read you these qualities of a sociopath and you tell me which of these apply to M.” It was both horrifying and hilarious to discover that I could ‘checkcheckcheck’ my way through the list. Before I even knew what a narcissist was, I’d been describing M. as a vampire. He had taken everything he could from me and then discarded me; overnight the person I had built a life with became a complete stranger.  As all sociopaths are narcissists it’s no wonder – upon reflection – that so much of what I was reading at the time was ticking all the boxes. All of them.

One piece of information that Waite discovers was particularly interesting: narcissistic supply.

If a target is providing a constant stream of supply, they may be overvalued and idealized by the sociopath for many years. However, when their supply eventually decreases, they will quickly be devalued and discarded.

Things started to go south – really south – when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her illness was brief – diagnosed in July, gone in November – but during that time, M. was carrying on an affair (probably one of many.) I remember when I found out, instead of an apology he said “You weren’t paying any attention to me.” And I remember thinking “My mother was fucking dying!” Then three short years later, I lost my dad and then M. was gone.

I did everything humanly possible to facilitate an amicable relationship for the sake of our kids (who were 13 and 11 at the time). I took a class in co-parenting. I tried to encourage a regular schedule for him to see his children, but the horrible truth of the matter is – he really wasn’t all that interested. Once he cut me out of his life, he began the process of detaching himself from his kids.  He always had an excuse as to why he couldn’t see them and when he did see them, the visits often ended abruptly with the kids calling me and telling me to come get them. Neither of them have had any contact with him in several years.

I struggled for a long time – a torturous time for which I give my dearest friends and immediate family lots of credit for not throttling me – to come to terms with what had happened to my marriage and to the person I thought I knew. Eventually, I began to suspect that I had been conned, but even still it hurt. And it hurt my kids. We live in a small city and it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about or seeing M. live his new life. A life which was bizarrely hipster and one we would have laughed at ten years prior. But of course, he was simply creating a new reality for himself, something he found exceedingly easy to do because like Marco he “lack[ed] empathy and  an inner moral compass.”

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing must have been a difficult story for Waite to tell.  I  always say now that M. leaving was the best thing that could have ever happened to me and my kids. He did us a favour. Truly. I have no doubt Waite will be feeling that way at some point, if she isn’t already.

 

 

The Quiet Child – John Burley

20170423-QUIET-CHILD-cover-rev-11-18-16John Burley’s novel The Quiet Child asks some compelling questions: ‘How far would you go to protect the people you love?’ chief among them.

It’s 1954 in Cottonwood, California and high school Science teacher Michael McCray and his wife Kate had it all. Had being the operative word. Things have been different for them for a while now, ever since their younger son Danny was born six years ago. That’s when Kate started to get sick; now she is practically bedridden. The people of their small town started to pull away from the McCrays because it seemed that coming into close contact with them meant that you, too, would become ill and maybe even die. Danny is an odd child, mostly because he is silent. He doesn’t say a word. Sean, 10, is protective of his younger brother and that’s part of the reason both boys are kidnapped outside of a convenience store on the night their dad takes them for ice cream.

The man in the tan jacket crossing the street, heading in the direction of the parking lot. Danny in the back seat of the car, gazing out the window as he waited for them to return. The engine starting. The spin of tires on gravel. And Sean, standing there less than a minute ago. But now…

After the boys go missing, readers follow local Sherriff Jim Kent and two detectives from Shasta County as they try to piece together what happened and where the boys might be. Don’t forget – it’s the early 50s and sussing out what happened is a lot more time consuming and difficult without the aid of technology.

Kate insists that Michael do “whatever it takes” to bring back  her sons and so Michael sets off on his own. It takes a little bit before the police figure out that the kidnapper has made contact with Michael, but soon they are hot on the trail.

The Quiet Child is certainly a page-turner; I read it in a couple of sittings. Burley provides just the right amount of backstory about the key players so that we care about them and minor characters are fleshed out so that their fate is also important to us.

The interesting thing about this book is that it works on a bunch of different levels. Partly it’s a thriller: will Michael find his sons? Will they be alive? Will everyone survive? Partly it’s sort of supernatural, but I don’t think that’s even the right word. Why is Kate sick? Why is Michael starting to experience tremors in his arm? Are people right to be suspicious of Danny? Is he really able to make people ill? And then, the book is strangely philosophical. Do we really have the right to make decisions that affect the lives of others if they benefit the greater good?

Even if you think you know where The Quiet Child is heading, I suspect you’ll be surprised and I guarantee you’ll be thinking about this book for a while after you’ve read the last page.

Dark Saturday – Nicci French

Dark Saturday is the sixth book in Nicci French’s mystery series featuring London- darksatbased psychotherapist Frieda Klein. Although I was at a (slight) disadvantage having not read any of the previous novels in this series, I have read (and enjoyed) several other novels by French (actually the husband/wife writing team of Sean French and Nicci Gerrard) so I knew what I was in for.

There will always be a slight disconnect when reading a single  book from a series, but I didn’t find it particularly problematic. It was clear that I was missing some back story, but there were enough salient details to aid my understanding and allow me to get on with the business at hand – which is the case of Hannah Docherty.

Hannah was just eighteen when she was arrested for brutally murdering her mother, stepfather and thirteen-year-old brother, Rory. Since then she’s been incarcerated at Chelsworth Hospital which was “not a prison [but an institution where] its inmates were patients and the doctors’ job was to treat them and make them better.” However, when Frieda goes to visit Hannah for the first time “it felt like all the other high-security prisons she’d been to over the course of her career.”

Hannah has been incarcerated for 13 years and it’s immediately clear to Frieda that there has been no attempt to help her during that time. And why is Frieda visiting Hannah? She’s been asked by the police (who have clearly had five books’ worth of dealings with her) to look into Hannah’s case to see if, perhaps, there’s the possibility that she is innocent. The lead investigator on the case has recently had another conviction overturned and the police department simply want to cross their T’s and dot their I’s. They aren’t really expecting Frieda to find anything because Hannah is clearly crazy and the evidence against her is compelling.

I suspect that readers who have been reading along with Frieda over the series will already know what I quickly discovered: Frieda is tenacious. She isn’t satisfied with one meeting with Hannah. She asks for the case files and pores through documents and photographs in an effort to better understand Hannah’s story. If Hannah didn’t kill her family, who did and why?

That’s pretty much the main story in Dark Saturday. As a straight-up mystery, there’s plenty to keep readers turning the pages. For someone who isn’t familiar with all the back-story, I found some of it to be a distraction. Was I really interested in sitting in on her therapy sessions with a middle-aged woman who is suffering from panic attacks? Um. No. Did I especially care about a colleague’s cancer diagnosis? Not really because I haven’t had the chance to really know him or understand his relationship with Frieda.

I don’t know how this novel stacks up to the others in the series. Frieda isn’t the most compelling sleuth I’ve ever encountered, but I will chalk that up to having missed out getting to know her in previous novels. She’s smart and careful…although I often wondered how safe it was for her to be walking around London alone in the middle of the night.  Still, I enjoyed watching her attempt to create a new narrative for Hannah. Whether the re-written story is ultimately satisfying will likely depend on how it compares to Frieda’s previous cases. I wasn’t wholly satisfied, but I suspect that fans of this series will be anxiously awaiting the next book.

Visit Harper Collins for more info about this and other excellent titles.

The Leaving – Tara Altebrando

leavingTara Altebrando’s YA novel, The Leaving, will give readers lots to chew on. It’s the story of six kindergarten-aged kids who disappear from their small Florida town only to turn up – minus one – eleven years later.  The kids are dropped off at a playground with maps tucked into their pockets to help them find their way home. They have no memory of where they were and their arrival back home sends ripples through their lives, the lives of their families and the community.

The narrative is shared between two of the returned, Lucas and Scarlett, and Avery, the younger sister of Max, the one child who doesn’t come back.  Avery was just four when her brother disappeared and her memories are vague. When her mother gets the call that the children have returned, Avery ” certainly hadn’t pictured it happening this way.”

It’s actually hard to imagine how any of these characters might have envisioned this moment – to have their sons and daughters returned to them without any memory of where they’ve been or what’s happened to them. And for Avery, she could already anticipate “the endless news coverage, the weird-sad looks she’d get from neighbors and everyone at school…she’d be famous, but not in the right way.”

As for Lucas and Scarlett, they feel a pull towards each other that seems more than survivor’s guilt. They discover they can do things they don’t remember being taught: Scarlett can drive a car; Lucas can load a gun. They also have strange elliptical flashes of memory: a carousel, a man carrying wrapping paper, hot air balloons. They are determined to solve the mystery of the missing eleven years and that makes for pretty compelling reading.

But the part of the book that was especially intriguing to me was this notion of memory and how our memories shape who we are and how, without them, we would certainly feel unmoored. Also worth consideration – and something I certainly thought about as I read Altebrando’s book – was what it would mean if we could actually cherry pick our memories. Lucas considers this notion, wondering:

“Why not forget?

Why not just black out something awful?

Like a shooting.

Or war.

Childhood, even.

Sure!

Oh.

Forgetting meant not knowing, meant ignorance, meant making the same mistakes again and again.”

The Leaving offers lots of food for thought, but even if young readers aren’t ready to consider the value of holding tight to the memories which animate their lives, there’s lots to keep them turning the pages. For my money, the last few lines of the book are worth the bits I didn’t quite buy.

Forget Me – K.A. Harrington

forgetMorgan lives in River’s End, a small town in central Massachusetts. While once prosperous, “the town’s only major employer, Stell Pharmaceutical’s, went under [and] several other businesses that relied on Stell soon followed.” That meant that both of Morgan’s parents (and almost everyone else in town) lost their jobs as biochemists and River’s End is a bit of a ghost town.

When K.A. Harrington’s YA mystery Forget Me opens, Morgan is on her way to a party when she happens upon her boyfriend, Flynn, standing on the side of the road. He hadn’t been able to go to the party because of plans with his parents, so Morgan is surprised to see him.  It’s clear that Flynn is a bit of a mystery man; Morgan admits she is “the only one he ever voluntarily talked to.” Still, Flynn’s behavior is particularly jittery and when Morgan  presses Flynn for an explanation, he breaks up with her. She watches him walk away and then – shockingly – Flynn’s hit by a car.

Flash forward three months and Morgan is still trying to come to terms with Flynn’s death when she agrees to her best friend Toni’s suggestion to create an on-line memorial for Flynn. When she uploads a picture of Flynn onto her FriendShare (like Facebook, I guess), the program wants to tag the picture as someone else, a guy named Evan Murphy. When she does a little investigation, it appears as though Evan Murphy and Flynn are one and the same and Flynn appears to be very much alive.

Forget Me is a terrific little YA mystery that will keep readers guessing. Morgan is smart and tenacious and readers will be rooting for her to get to the bottom of Flynn’s death (?). There is the potential for the machinations to get clunky or convoluted, but Harrington avoids both. The plot clicks along, clues are revealed in a timely fashion and readers should be wholly satisfied with the outcome.

 

Watching Edie – Camilla Way

Camilla Way is a new-to-me author,  but after reading Watching Edie I would definitely watchingediebe amenable to reading more. Told by two characters Heather (who narrates ‘Before’) and Edie (who narrates ‘After’), Watching Edie is about the adolescent friendship between the two girls, their subsequent estrangement and what happens when Heather re-enters Edie’s life many years later.

Edie, 33, is living in London when the literal knock on her door comes.

I’m entirely unprepared for what’s waiting for me beyond the heavy, wide front door and when I open it the world seems to tilt and I have to grip the doorframe to stop myself from falling. Because there she is, standing on my doorstep, staring back at me. There, after all this time, is Heather.

It’s clear that whatever happened between the two girls has taken its emotional toll; however,  Edie invites Heather in for tea and they make polite conversation. Nevertheless, Edie is suspicious of Heather’s re-appearance in her life even though she has “imagined this, dreamed of this, dreaded this, so many hundreds of  times for so many years.”

Heather’s narrative fills in the back story of how the two girls met at the end of Year 11. (In England, students would be sixteen at this point, destined to move on to A-levels or employment.) Heather is a bit of a loner at school, so while she is outside with her peers, she’s not joining in on the fun. That’s when she first sees Edie.

As I watch, her facing appearing and then disappearing  behind others in the crowd, she stops, her eyes squinting up at the building before darting around herself again and then finally landing upon me. I hold my breath. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so pretty before, not in real life.

The girls, despite their differences, bond over their shared fraught parental relationships and their hatred of their hometown, Fremton, which Heather describes as “horrible.”  And then, Edie meets Connor. Heather doesn’t like him on sight, although he’s “very handsome.” She doesn’t understand “this strange heat that’s there in the crackling, held-breath space between them; I only know that it has no place for me.”

Heather makes another present-day appearance in Edie’s life after the first reunion. And this time, Edie is grateful. She’s just given birth to her daughter, Maya, product of a one-night-stand with a co-worker and she’s sunk into a horrible post-partum depression. Heather arrives – one can only imagine she’s been nearby, watching – and takes over, looking after the baby, letting Edie sleep for hours at a time, but also cutting Edie off from her Uncle Geoff, her closest relation. When Edie befriends a new neighbor and starts to come out of her funk, she sends Heather away again.

It’s clear that something traumatic has happened between the two girls, but Way doesn’t give up the secret easily. Heather is actually, especially in her sixteen-year-old incarnation, a very sympathetic character. Edie has many redeeming qualities, but her life is seriously derailed when she meets Connor. The girls’ story is both heartbreaking and horrific and it makes for riveting reading.