KN Reads

KN Reads: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 out of 5

Goodreads Rating: 4.65 out of 5

Published: February 28th 2017

It’s easy to forget the human element of current events when the media (among others) do such a good job of obscuring it. Angie Thomas brings the reality of tragedy to light to an uncomfortable degree in this emotionally rich story of a girl whose friend gets shot by cops in front of her.

The best part about this story is by far the main character. Starr Carter splits her life between her poor neighbourhood and a predominantly white private school. Her constant conflict between which Starr to be in which situation leads her to keep her two lives completely separate, even when they’re beginning to collide after what happens.

Khalil and Starr are driving home from a party when they’re pulled over by cops. Unarmed and unthreatening, Khalil starts to open the door to check on Starr and the cop shoots him. His death sparks a series of protests and Starr is forced to adjust to this new role as witness even as she deals with the trauma of what she saw.

This is not a simple story. It is, as good stories should be, multifaceted. Khalil made some decisions in his life that were necessary, even if they weren’t idea. Starr struggles with her fear of the police versus her love for her uncle, who is also a cop. She feels a lot of guilt for what happened and for how she reacted to it, so she doesn’t know whether to be involved in the countermovement. At one point, she even objects to the protests on principle, knowing that her schoolmates are only joining in to skip a day of school.

As you may guess, this book is based on Black Lives Matter and the terrible shootings that have happened in recent (and not so recent) times against young black people, especially men. Angie Thomas does not back down from her message, but nor should she; we may be horrified by what happens, but how often do we think of the impact on those close to the person? Trayvon Martin may be a symbol, a face of a tragedy, but what about the human life behind it?

It always stuns me how bright and bold Young Adult books can be. Angie Thomas does a fantastic job of writing an interesting story with engaging, complex characters while still carrying a message through loud and clear.

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KN Reads: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard.jpgGoodreads rating: 4.10

Something you’ve probably noticed about me: I have a soft spot for stories where teenagers try to work out where they belong in the world. In Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard we follow the difficult transitional period from child to adult of Pen, a masculine girl who struggles with her gender identity and romantic interests. Despite what might seem like a complex subject, the story is a simple coming-of-age tale that resonates across its genre.

Pen wears her brother’s clothes and spends her days hanging out with a group of guys who pretty much forget that she’s a girl. This, in times past, would probably signal a romantic comedy where one of the guys realises that Pen is a girl when she takes off her glasses/goes to prom/etc and they live happily ever after, but that tired old trope is flipped on its head here. As Pen begins falling for another girl she fights to find her place among her friends, and even deciding if they were her friends after all.

I can’t imagine a book being published like this ten years ago. Maybe not even five years ago, honestly. As our attitude toward gender opens up as much in the mainstream as it has in LGBTQ groups, stories like this come out and give a wider range of kids the chance to see themselves reflected in fiction.

One day I’ll write about why that’s so important.

For now, we’ll stick to the book itself. Pen is a lovable character, brittle and sullen a she is (after all, she is a teenager). The supporting cast feel realistic and layered rather than standing as a backdrop for Pen’s adventures, and that gives the story richness. It is a quick, easy read, but there’s a lot of emotion packed into those pages.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard was one of my favourite reads in 2016. If you’re a fan of queer YA books or a generally good story, keep an eye out for the striking cover at your bookstore.

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KN Reads: The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van PraagOn Goodreads (rating 3.81).

There is a house that calls to women who have lost all hope in their lives and gives them the space and the time (99 days) to rediscover themselves. This house is in Cambridge, and is currently home to three troubled women and their landlady. The House at the End of Hope Street gives little away on its blurb, but the magic held within is worth a read.

I mean that literally, by the way. The magic realism is the most appealing thing about the book beside the cast of bizarre characters. The house gives its occupants handy quotes and life advice, and sometimes sewing machines. It does its best to guide the women to what they need rather than what they want, all under the watchful gazes of hundreds of women who have stayed there over the years who speak to them right from their frames like something out of Harry Potter. What I wouldn’t give to have a little chat with Agatha Christie.

The story starts when Alba turns up after the worst day of her life. As the youngest PhD student ever, she has had a lot of pressure, and now she discovers she made a huge mistake that has taken away her dreams. She moves into the house and starts a reluctant search for a new path built on dignity and honesty instead of the lie she had been living before.

Alba is a great character. She develops across the course of the novel away from the wet blanket she is at the beginning, and her growth is worth the time. Her housemates, a singer and a failed actress, are interesting in their own rights but it was Alba that drew me in.

The reason I justify so much that this book is worth the time and energy to read it is that the writing quality is not great. It’s not unreadable, but the sentences can be stilted, and it’s in need of a good editor. The ending didn’t thrill me (there are at least two giant plot holes, one of which destroys the integrity of an entire long-running side plot) but it was not unsatisfying. There are a few twists and turns that I predicted, but many that I did not.

The House at the End of Hope Street is not a perfect book. It is flawed, just like the inhabitants of the magical house. Yet I’m glad I read it; it’s a light read, easy to swallow in a couple of sittings, and I loved Alba enough to make her a good enough reason to enjoy it.

KN Reads

KN Reads: The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

KN Reads - The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter
The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

If a novel starts with the main character leaving a mental hospital at the age of eighteen, you’re going to encounter something either cliche or wonderful. Thankfully, The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter takes you right into the latter.

Cassie spent two and a half years detained against her will thanks to her mother’s insistence that she is crazy and potentially dangerous. At eighteen, Cassie can finally leave and begin to scratch out a place for herself in a world she hasn’t been allowed to experience until now.

The thing is, as anyone with a complicated relationship with their parents will know, it’s not always easy to avoid their poison. Though Cassie does her best to study and do well at school, her mother begins to worm her way back into her life. Along the way Cassie discovers things about her family she didn’t know and spends a lot of the book carefully questioning the source of the trouble. Is it Cassie? Or is it her mother?

There are few people as well-placed as parents to manipulate and twist the truth of their children, and when those children grow up it’s not always clear which way they will go. This story deals with that struggle; is Cassie able to find her strength apart from her mother, or will she be under her dangerous thrall forever?

The First Time She Drowned is not an easy, quiet read. It’s full of beautiful language that sweeps you away and drags you under until you’re as part of the story as Cassie herself. The only warning I will give is that if you have your own parental issues, you might want to avoid this book unless you’re in need of some good catharsis. Other than that, I highly recommend it to you, readers.

Find The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter on Goodreads, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or Amazon.co.uk.

Or see more reviews from KN Reads.

Books · Craft · KN Reads

What are you reading?

This year I set myself a goal to read 75 books. Last year my goal was 50 and I ended at 61, so I figured 75 was reachable. It’s easy to track through Goodreads, so I signed up.

(My challenge is here. I’m not 100% sure that link will take you to it, but let’s hope. If not, search for Polo Lonergan and add me. I’ll steal all your books. I mean… take your recommendations…)

Why did I do it? It’s crazy, right? I should read as much as I want to feel like I’m reading enough. It shouldn’t be a chore. Thing is, even with a challenge like this, nothing about it feels forced. It is a way to remind myself how many good books are out there and how much time I have in between things where I can pick up a good book and enjoy it.

I get a bus to work and home again in the evening. That’s 45 minutes right there altogether. I have an hour’s worth of breaks at work, though I can’t always spend it reading. Sometimes I can, and this challenge makes me want to do so.

It also gives me an excuse to run a hot bubble bath once a week or so and enjoy without guilt, which is something that stops me doing a lot of relaxing, pointless activities. I’m not very good at stopping without worrying about what I should be doing, but reading with a point makes me feel justified. It’s the same reason I knit so much to relax. I can be productive and unproductive all at once.

On top of all of those excellent reasons to do this challenge, I also find I actively seek out new books far more than I was doing before. I would wait for books to fall into my lap. I wouldn’t ask people what they were reading unless it came up naturally in conversation. Now I’m aggressive about it. TELL ME YOUR BOOKS, STRANGER. I NEED NEW ONES.

As it stands I am on my 54th book of the year. That’s 2 ahead of schedule (thank you Goodreads). So I’m going to get aggressive with you guys.

What books are you reading? Why should I read it too? Do you have a challenge you like to follow like this one?

Books · Craft · KN Reads

KN Reads: Style by Chelsea M. Cameron

Someone on Twitter mentioned this book in passing in a conversation that was nothing to do with me, but it looked intriguing enough for me to buy for my kindle right away. Since I was in the market for a sweet, fluffy queer romance anyway, I figured Style by Chelsea M. Cameron would do the trick.

A summary: Kyle (a young woman) and Stella (also a young woman) have been at school together for a while without noticing one another much. They’re paired together in a school project despite being apparent opposites: Stella is an ice-cold snow queen, while Kyle is your average awkward friendly nerd. Unsurprisingly – since this is a romance and all – they end up together despite their better judgment.

Now, Chelsea M. Cameron has written a lot of books. A lot of them. I haven’t read any except this one, but I gather she has some loyal fans in the romance world. She is also (as per her Twitter) super adorable and friendly so I can see why.

This book came at the right time for me. Like its author, Style is adorable. It’s fluffy and almost irredeemably sweet. In the aftermath of a horrifying month for queer people, is it any surprise that I felt the need to dive into something so light? It was a great balm for the darkness.

That said: while I recommend this book to anyone looking for something insubstantial and distracting, don’t go in it looking for some in-depth character development or complex plots. Nothing much goes wrong for these two (which was perfect for my mood), and at times I struggled to remember which character was which since they are remarkably similar to one another.

Despite that, the book flows nicely and it’s an easy read. Sometimes you need style over substance, and this time it’s all in the title.

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KN Reads: Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

Imagine a child born with vines in her hair. From that first imagery I was hooked, and Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor did not let me down. It’s an imaginative, bright, and addictive story. I read it in one sitting, eyes wide, and I recommend you do the same. (Usually I leave the recommendation to the end, but it’s too important today.)

Cover.jpgZahrah is born into the Ooni Kingdom in a community that fears difference and, as a result, eyes her unusual hair with suspicion. With the vines in her hair (called dadalocks) and difference marking her apart, Zahrah still fears the unknown as much as any of those around her, so walking into the Forbidden Greeny Forest to save her best friend Dari is almost beyond her.

Yet she does. She gathers up her nerves and ignores her own terror for the sake of her friend, and in doing so she discovers much about herself.

This coming-of-age story is satisfying and emotionally rewarding. Zahrah is not a simple character, but neither does she allow events to shape her. She shapes herself in the face of adversity and learns how much power a Windseeker can have as she abandons her preconceptions. She is loyal, fierce, and smart. A protagonist I look for in every book I read, but rarely find in a believable guise.

If the fascinating plot and compelling characters aren’t enough for you, well, how about those computers grown from seeds? The wise and dangerous creatures in the market who tell your fate? The buildings that are planted instead of constructed?

In 2016 I’m making an active effort to read more books written by and featuring people of colour, especially in my favourite genres of sci-fi and fantasy. Zahrah the Windseeker came to me through my hunt for more diverse fiction, and I’m glad it did since I will now be reading everything Nnedi Okorafor has ever written. It’s a quick read but it’s one that’s stuck with me and out of the twenty-two books I’ve read so far this year, this one is by far my favourite.

So yes, I recommend you read it.

My rating: 5/5

Goodreads average rating: 4.09

See it on Goodreads, or buy it on Amazon (UK, Canada, USA).

KN Reads

KN Reads: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

Riley Cavanaugh challenges the reader with a question each of us ask ourselves when we encounter anyone new. It’s subconscious but persistent; even if you’re the type of person who would rather not, even our language is based on knowing the answer as soon as possible. In Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin Riley’s answer depends on the day and even the hour; they are genderfluid, meaning their gender identity shifts from masculine to feminine and never settles.

(A note on pronoun use: Riley never expresses a preference for a certain pronoun in the book, so I will use ‘they’ which is the most common and my personal favourite. If this bugs your grammar judge, read this.)

As the child of a famous congressman, Riley transfers schools just before an election to join the public school system. It’s an election ploy, yes, but it’s also the result of Riley’s problems with mental health. Without the uniform to tie them into one expression of gender, Riley is free to linger around androgynous which, while not perfect, is better to manage their dysphoria. After their first day is a disaster they realise nothing is going to be easier, but at least she has her anonymous blog to vent and help other trans* and genderqueer folk.

Things get bad, then they get worse, yet at its core this story sticks close to Riley instead of spiralling out into a diatribe on gender politics and identity. Riley is smart, capable, and struggling. They are not out to anyone yet simultaneously a famous name (under a pseudonym) online.

I have a soft spot for young adult fiction; the stories are so character driven and focused on growth that they are satisfying reads, and Symptoms of Being Human the development is realistic and just as painful as real life. Riley suffers but through that they grow, and even when they go through moments of self-centered drama (okay, more than just moments) that’s a symptom of being a teenager, genderfluid or not.

This book is not perfect but it is important: I have never read a book that so accurately represents what it is to be genderfluid. There are many people, teenagers and adults alike, who need this kind of book to feel grounded. We all like to see ourselves represented in fiction, or at least parts of ourselves, and for a growing chunk of the population this is difficult.

If you are interested in gender identity or merely want a well-crafted book to gobble up in a day or two, Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin was released February 2nd.

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KN Reads: Best Books of 2015

Last year I did a challenge on Goodreads to read 52 books: one a week for the entire year. I ended up reading 61. The thought of having a timeline to read a book made me hurry on and sparked the biggest year of binge-reading I’ve had since university.

I read some great books and some truly terrible ones, but here’s my list of the best books I read in 2015. These are in no particular order since I couldn’t do a countdown – I love them all for very different reasons.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

by Jenny Lawson

People have been telling me to read The Bloggess’s books for a long time so I popped one on my Amazon wishlist and out it came on Christmas eve. I read it within a couple of days, laughing out loud every few pages. Jenny Lawson is funny and clever, unique in the way she writes and illuminates the various bizarre moments in her life.

Even better, she portrays her struggle with mental illness in a way I haven’t seen before: compassionate and understanding, yet still starkly funny. Having a mental illness isn’t fun but there are moments that, with the right retelling, can be amusing. Jenny Lawson does this without mocking anything for a moment.

Moloka’i

by Alan Brennert

The tale of a young girl sent to what was then known as a leper colony in Hawai’i, Moloka’i is a quiet sort of epic. It follows the girl through her lonely childhood and her strange, confusing teenage years. It takes us right up to her old age, all the while introducing a cast of sparkling characters whose tales are just as important.

See my full review here.

Welcome to Night Vale

by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

If you haven’t listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, well, you’re missing out. I don’t know how many more times I can say it. WTNV is smart, funny, and completely surreal. My favourite!

The book is different to the podcast; it doesn’t follow Cecil’s life or the town’s bizarre circumstances. Instead it follows two other characters through a small but touching tale that unfolds into some excellent backstory for the podcast. It’s dark and weird.

See my full review here.

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Oh, this book. How to find the words for something written so beautifully you can forget you’re following the apocalypse? Station Eleven is on a whole range of best-of lists this year and so it should be. The only problem is explaining what the story is about without misrepresenting it.

When I’ve mentioned it to others they’ve said “oh, that’s the book about the travelling musicians after the apocalypse, isn’t it?” which, yes, it is. Sort of. It’s also about the virus that wipes out humanity and how people survived it (or didn’t). It’s about how so many lives can tangle in the most unusual ways until they converge around an unlikely thing: a spoiler, but it’s related to the title of the book. It’s full of beauty and quiet horror, and I’m already tempted to re-read it just from writing this.

See my full review here.

Paladin

by Sally Slater

One of the earlier books I read this year, but it still sticks in my mind. Paladin follows Sam of Haywood who dresses up in masculine clothing to achieve her ambitions of becoming a Paladin. Not a new plot, no, but it is executed in a fun and touching way.

Though it’s not the deepest read you’ll find on this list, it definitely earned its place on the top ten books last year. I can’t wait for the sequel.

See my full review here.

Dead Wake

by Erik Larson

I’ve recommended this book to everyone who stands still long enough. The only non-fiction on this list, it’s about the Lusitania, a ship that was sunk by German submarines during the First World War. Sounds boring? You’d be surprised. Dead Wake takes an old tragedy and turns it into an excellent snapshot of the world of the time, while still keeping it personal as you see the lives of those involved.

Unsurprisingly this book has been popping up on best-of lists all over the place. It’s sharp and fascinating, and not nearly as dry as many books focusing on the Great War. You don’t need to care about military history to read this book: all you need is compassion for those involved.

The Book of Speculation

by Erika Swyler

Simon Watson, a librarion, finds a fascinating old book documenting the life and times of a circus troop. As his life begins to unravel he finds a link to his past between the books and hunts it down to save the life of his sister: he believes a curse will cause her to drown on her next birthday, as many generations of women in his family have done before.

A complicated, beautiful story, The Book of Speculation is especially apt for someone (like me) who grew up with the sea spray battering their windows. The touch of magic just makes it even better.

See my full review here.

Americanah

by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Whenever I try to explain what I love about Adichie’s writing I never know where to start. She creates fully-realised, three-dimensional characters who walk through the world as clear as you or I, then forces you to watch as they struggle to find their sense of self in a mixed up world. Alongside her tendency for cutting lines that stick with you for a long time, Adichie is a talented storyteller.

Americanah is a long book, and it is dense. It took me a long time to read it. Yet at no point did I want to stop, even as I read other books between chapters to lighten the load. Following Ifemelu as she struggles to fit in both in her native Nigeria and her adopted homeland of America, you never want her story to end, even when the harsh light shone on race relations make you flinch.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Not much happens in this book. At least, no grand disasters hit, no end-of-the-world, no meteorites or magic. Yet the scope of this coming of age tale is enormous. Ari and Dante meet at a pool as teenage boys, both uncertain and growing too fast. They become best friends and share the strange adolescent time together, trying to find their places in the world.

Soon it becomes clear that their place is together, but that’s not an easy realisation for any couple, let alone two young men. The way their lives combine is touching and sometimes sad, and I’ve already re-read parts of this book for the beauty of the prose.

The Mirror Empire/Empire Ascendant

by Kameron Hurley

Okay, okay, I cheated! This is two books. Yet they share a spot on the list because I read them both this year and they’re the same series so it totally counts. Plus they are amazing, important books and I get a little twist of excitement every time I think of them.

Kameron Hurley crafts a world where the powerful magic is dependent on which star sits in the sky. When things begin to go wrong, people begin talking of the most dangerous star, Oma, which hasn’t been seen for thousands of years. As it rises it draws the worlds too close together and people begin to pass between them, bringing war and chaos in their wake.

Trying to narrow down why these books are so impressive is difficult, but the way Hurley dismantles and rebuilds our understanding of gender and sexuality so effortlessly is a big part of it. Instead of sticking to our narrow social perception of gender she creates a world with endless and sometimes uncomfortable variety, and at no point is that the focus of the plot. There’s something special about that.

See my full review of Empire Ascendant here.

*

There! Ten (okay, eleven) books that meant a lot to me this year. I’m not including any re-reads, otherwise there would be at least five Harry Potter books on the list (and at least one Discworld).

Have you read any of the books on the list? What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Seriously, tell me. I’m trying to read 75 books in 2016 so I’m going to need the inspiration.

Craft · KN Reads · Reading

KN Reads: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Molokai.jpg

When white settlers came to Hawai’i they brought leprosy. Now named Hansen’s Disease, at the time of Moloka’i a person found to be suffering from it was shipped out to a separate colony and pronounced legally dead. Rachel Kalama, a bright young girl with a dream of visiting far off lands, finds a little mark on her foot that tears her world apart.

From that summary you might think Moloka’i is a sad book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though Rachel faces struggles beyond her young years she sees everything in her life with a brightness that never dulls. She is smart, adventurous, and loyal. Though her body took her away from the dreams she once had she never once loses the hope that pushes her along.

At the turn of the last century the world was in turmoil. The old ways were dying, replaced by industrialisation and the first twitches of globalisation. World-changing events happened over and again, each sending the status-quo into a tailspin. Rachel watches all of it happen from the colony on Moloka’i and as the waves of those events lap at the shore, she finds comfort and safety in the friends she makes around her.

Though there is tragedy in Rachel’s life, and though each even scars her in its own way, she never gives up. She fights with the conception that people with her disease are untouchable; she believes that she will never find love because of it. As the disease takes her friends but spares her year after year she carries the weight of their lost lives on her shoulders but doesn’t let it hold her back. There are few books that had me admiring the strength of a character without finding them obnoxious, but Rachel Kalama has quickly found her place on my ‘favourites’ shelf.

That said, this is a book to share. Like a meal rich with treasures and tastes, Moloka’i needs company to be truly finished. The moment I closed the book I passed it to another friend and I do not regret it. The book was a beautiful read, full of lushious imagery contrasted against tragedy and hope, and the best thing I could think of to honour Rachel was to offer a little happiness to someone else.