Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Justyce is top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. He is eventually released without charges (or an apology), but the incident has left Justyce contemplative and on edge. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood, he can’t seem to escape the scorn of his former peers or the attitude of his prep school classmates. The only exception: Sarah Jane, Justyce’s gorgeous—and white—debate partner he wishes he didn’t have a thing for.

Struggling to cope with it all, Justyce starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but do Dr. King’s teachings hold up in the modern world? Justyce isn’t so sure.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up (way up), much to the fury of the white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. And Justyce and Manny get caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

Dear Martin has quickly been labeled a must read book for 2017 and overall I agree with that conclusion. Let’s get something out of the way though: the biggest disadvantage this book faces is that it was published in the same year as The Hate U Give (THUG). The authors are friends and the books deal with similar subject matter, so comparisons are inevitable. Readers of THUG will notice several points of overlap: Black protagonists who attend private schools, are in interracial relationships, live/grew up in a high crime area, witness a police involved shooting, have a prejudiced parent, have a “friend” who doesn’t understand the complexities of White privilege, etc.

To be clear, addressing issues of racism and police brutality in fiction is incredibly important and the more novels which deal with the subject, the better.

Dear Martin is designed to meet a need for modern readers, giving an insightful and in depth look at what it’s like to be a Black man in America in 2017, and it doesn’t hold back. The book packs a powerful emotional impact. My heart raced, I cried, and, above all, I got angry. Invoking such emotions in a reader is no small feat.

For me, the parts of the book which provoked the most intense reactions were the depictions of Justyce in the media after he is shot by the off-duty cop. It’s heartbreaking to see the ways in which he has to navigate life after news reports insinuate he is a criminal rather than a victim. Stone’s commentary on how media narratives contribute to racism and influence our perceptions of victims resonates in part because it is easy to recognize the real world stories which inspired her writing. It’s timely, relevant material for young readers who may be struggling to understand why stories about police shootings and media depictions matter.

While the book portrays the struggles of Black Americans, it does so by contrasting their lives with the White Americans with whom they interact. For readers who have never considered how racism continues to impact the Black community this can serve as an introduction to those realities. However, I felt some characters were there to check boxes; Blake, the unrepentant and clueless racist; Jared, the White dude whose racial views drastically evolve throughout the book; Melo, the on-again/off-again girlfriend whose actions lead to Justyce’s first police encounter. Nevertheless, they serve the purposes of the narrative well and I never felt like they were out of place (except Melo, who basically disappears from the book at some point, and I did not miss her).

The book also touches on the ways that limited exposure and negative interactions between people can create stereotypes and prejudices as many of the characters have no experience with the Black community beyond their encounters with Justyce, Manny, and the few other Black students at Braselton Prep. They deal in stereotypes or use their classmates as “evidence” that systemic racism does not exist. Stone’s work extends this discussion of discrimination as she touches on anti-Semitism through the character of Sarah Jane. At multiple times in the book when she is referred to as White it’s followed by a reminder that she is Jewish. While this does not mean she experiences the same disadvantages as Justyce, it is a friendly reminder to readers that prejudice takes many forms. Unfortunately, this is actually a way in which the book fails for me. Obviously Justyce’s story and life extend beyond his mistreatment by the police, but a significant portion of the book focuses on the fact that Justyce’s mother doesn’t want him dating White girls. Unfamiliar readers can project onto this, and it could feed into a narrative of “reverse racism” (which doesn’t exist, by the way).

Additionally, Stone’s premise of having Justyce engage with the work of Martin Luther King Jr. was intriguing to me. Quite often in narratives surrounding modern protest, dissenting voices like to argue that “this is not what Dr. King would do,” and Stone’s work is directly engaging with that flawed argument (flawed because those critiques ignore the true experience of MLK in the 1960s and turn him into a convenience). Justyce’s attempts reflect this complexity as well as the problem of applying philosophical frameworks in an effective way. His struggle, and at times abandonment, of being “like Martin” helps demonstrate that communities and movements cannot be distilled into one voice. I was a bit confused though because from the promotional materials, summaries, and title, I assumed that much of the book would center around Justyce’s journal addressed to King, but the book is not epistolary and the letters are so few and brief that they are largely extraneous to the plot, which is a shame because they are beautiful. We see Justyce develop and grapple with societal questions clearly in those moments because they are written in first, rather than third, person.

As a side note to that, I had two main critiques of the work itself. I wasn’t always happy with Stone’s use of point of view which was predominantly third person limited. At times it read as stage directions or a script, which worked well for the conversations but made larger scenes and time jumps seem stilted. I also did not like the opening of the book. It’s a move I’ve seen more and more (including in THUG) but opening with an incredibly dramatic scene (Jus’s unlawful detention) does not work for me. I objectively understand: my empathy for victims of injustice should not require an emotional connection to the person, but I find it jarring. It took me until around Chapter 5-6 to finally connect with the characters and engage with them as rounded figures. Those early chapters felt like reading a play built out of stock characters and part of that was down to the recoil I felt from the opening.

There are other things I could discuss in this review. The depictions of successful Black men (Manny’s father (a businessman) and Doc (a teacher)), the humanization of gang members and the incarcerated, and on and on. For a short book, it manages to contain a multitude. However, I think the main thing to take away from this book is that it adds to the conversation by giving readers an opportunity to learn, reflect, and engage with a narrative that many have seen played out on TV but haven’t really thought about or considered from the perspective of those living these experiences. While it isn’t perfect, for me this was a four bard tale, without question.

Book Review: Solo by Kwame Alexander

Blade never asked for a life of the rich and famous. In fact, he’d give anything not to be the son of Rutherford Morrison, a washed-up rock star and drug addict with delusions of a comeback. Or to no longer be part of a family known most for lost potential, failure, and tragedy. The one true light is his girlfriend, Chapel, but her parents have forbidden their relationship, assuming-like many-that Blade will become just like his father.             

In reality, the only thing Blade has in common with Rutherford is the music that lives inside them. But not even the songs that flow through Blade’s soul are enough when he’s faced with two unimaginable realities: the threat of losing Chapel forever, and the revelation of a long-held family secret, one that leaves him questioning everything he thought was true. All that remains is a letter and a ticket to Ghana-both of which could bring Blade the freedom and love he’s been searching for, or leave him feeling even more adrift.

Told through bestselling author Kwame Alexander’s and Mary Rand Hess’s expressive and engaging style, Solo is a melodic exploration of friendship, love, heartache, reconciliation, and what it means to finally come home.

I’m a big fan of Kwame Alexander’s verse novel The Crossover, a Newbery award winning book which deals with elements of family and coming of age. Compared to Solo, The Crossover is short but powerful and intimate. I brought that with me as I was reading Solo and I wish I hadn’t. In comparison, Solo is a sprawling story that dips its metaphoric toes into too many waters.

The story is divided into two parts Part One: Hollywood and Part Two: West Africa.

Part One: Hollywood

When we meet Blade Morrison we learn the basics of his life: his mother (Sunny) died suddenly about ten 10 years ago, his father (Rutherford) is a famous musician struggling with addiction, his sister (Storm) is trying to find her way as an adult, his girlfriend (Chapel) has parents who have forbidden their relationship, and Blade is currently struggling with, as one of his friends so succinctly puts it, first world problems. Some of these include his relationship troubles with his girlfriend, his father crashing his graduation, and his inability to navigate his sister’s social scene.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there struggling with the things Blade has as conflicts in the opening parts of the book, what I am saying is that it was superficial to me. I felt no connection to Blade, had little sympathy for him as a character, and considered abandoning the book. Initially I thought Alexander and Hess were going to clearly pursue more of the continuing grief the family is experiencing after the death of Sunny or the complexities of addiction. Blade’s memories of Sunny’s death and the impact her death has had on the family were by far the strongest part especially when compared with Blade’s angst over his relationship with Chapel. However, as the text seemed to digress further into angst with no other major plot evolution I couldn’t help but think there were too many plot elements occurring at the same time. This is perhaps best illustrated in the incident that catalyzes the second half of the book.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

In the middle of Storm’s big party, she’s insulted by one of the guests, prompting Blade to throw everyone out. As everyone is leaving, with Storm clearly upset, Rutherford arrives home having left his rehab facility before completing treatment. Disappointed in the life choices of both his father and sister, a fight breaks out between them which leads to Storm angrily telling Blade he’s adopted and not a real Morrison.

Like much of the plot surrounding Rutherford, this scene is helter skelter. It’s supposed to show how “Rock and Roll” they are since Blade’s life is just a series of increasingly erratic moments as Rutherford battles addiction. Instead, it just gives the opening section a scattered and unfinished feeling.

For me as a reader, when that scene unfolded, I empathized with Blade, but I also assumed that Storm was joking or attempting to hurt Blade by lying. It was so abrupt that after it’s confirmed that Blade is adopted I had to reread the fight to realign my reaction to the moment. The revelation sends Blade spiraling and I hoped that the novel was finally getting on track with Blade beginning a search for his birth mother, but Blade still dithers in Hollywood. With his relationship with Chapel now floundering (having been caught by her parents twice), Blade opts for a dramatic gesture before setting out on his journey. He gets a tattoo of her name and arrives to show her, just in time to catch her cheating on him. The tattoo and cheating on top of the forbidden love was too much for me. It also finalized my second major reaction to Part One: Chapel felt unnecessary to me as a character, she was vapid and shallow, a caricature, and the relationship was fraught with cliches that only weighed down other elements of the plot.

As Part One closes, our protagonist receives life changing knowledge, gets a regrettable tattoo, and sets out on his quest. In Blade’s case, this quest leads him to Ghana.

Part Two: West Africa

On the whole, I enjoyed Part Two infinitely more than Part One. Taking Blade out of his comfortable Hollywood setting and having him confront major world issues in Africa gave him the opportunity to grow more as a character. In Ghana he encounters poverty, communities impacted by natural disasters and disease, and some harsh realities about charity (there’s a wonderful exchange where Blade’s new friend Joy tells him that everyone who comes to the village tells them what they need instead of asking what they need). However, while I enjoyed this part of the novel more, I still felt that the plot was spread too thin and there was an overtly didactic tone. While focusing on the realities of life in Ghana the book also introduces the impact of malaria on the people, but it does it in a way that feels heavy handed: death. It was inevitable. I could tell it was coming from the many mentions of the disease, but it, again, felt like another example of too many plot points for one story.

That being said, there were some interesting moments of character development as it becomes clear that, barring issues with the death of Sunny and learning of his adoption, Blade has NO IDEA how to treat women. His strange relationship with his ex in Hollywood seemed like a teenage fluke in Part One; in Part Two when he tries to kiss Joy after they have been hanging out she says, “Blade, you can’t just come kiss a girl because you miss a girl.” It was an incredible moment that really brought out that to this character there are only two roles for women: mother figures and potential girlfriends. He truly struggles with this and Joy makes it clear that, even if she does have feelings for him, he has to learn to be her friend first.

It’s also in Ghana that Blade continues his attempts to repair his relationship with Rutherford, who arrives in Ghana with a luxury bus and a sober coach. Paired with his physical search for his birth mother, the novel finally finds a clear purpose. Blade becomes a more compassionate and empathetic character who finally seems more at home in his own skin as he confronts his problems, although the cliche of needing nature and exoticisim to do so comes to mind.

Finally, as Blade reaches the culmination of his journey, meeting his birth mother, the verse legitimately brought me to tears. It was beautiful in a way that I had not experienced while reading any other point of the novel and reminded me of the powerful emotions depicted in The Crossover.

Alexander and Hess mention that this book is a love letter to Rock and Roll and considering the inserted track titles, dogs named Mick and Jagger, and Blade’s guitars, it succeeds in that. However, my final reaction was that the book had too many plot lines for a novel told entirely in verse, relied too much on tropes, and failed to capitalize on its premise. It was a fairly quick read though and I came to like characters such as Joy, so for me Solo was a solid three bard tale, worth reading but not a masterpiece.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

Whenever I start hearing some buzz about a new YA novel I tend to be intrigued but skeptical. In the case of The Hate U Give this was emphasized by the fact that every review I saw trickle in seemed to open with “Believe the hype!” But I started listening to the audio version because the book’s premise seemed timely and I was hoping beyond hope that the book could live up to the talk surrounding it. So…

Believe the hype.

I could not stop listening to this book. I ended up listening to all 11 hours and 40 minutes in roughly 5 days and am already planning to buy copies as gifts and lender copies. It’s that incredible.

While the main plot of the book is the shooting of Khalil, this book manages to be about so much more than police shootings and the protests which many of us are now accustomed to seeing and reading about. It’s hard to think of a way to describe this book other than as a celebration of blackness wrapped up in the all too familiar narrative of a police shooting. It balances depictions of the black community, exposing the realities of life in a low-income neighborhood but embracing the negative and the positive, thereby avoiding stereotypes and creating a narrative which embraces multiple levels of experience. The book also acknowledges and emphasizes a number of black leaders in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. such as Malcolm X and Huey Newton. By including other major figures, the author again shows the diversity of the black community and their actions rather than labeling them as one collective united behind Dr. King.

The main character, Starr, is also used to highlight the disparity between communities. At her predominantly white school, it’s expected that she’ll date the only other black student in her grade. She’s a talented basketball player and has a clear group of friends, but she also has rules. She considers herself an entirely different person at school and to prevent herself from being seen as “ghetto” or as the “Angry Black Woman” doesn’t use slang or create confrontations. The character’s inner conflict as her worlds begin to collide is palpable as she has to make decisions about whether her fellow students are truly her friends or if they are even the “good” people they claim to be. This also plays out in her neighborhood as more people begin to question her motives when she doesn’t speak openly, despite being the only witness. YA is often about finding your identity and Starr’s journey takes her along that familiar path but in the midst of extensive external and internal conflict.

There are so many other amazing things I could talk about: the role of Tupac in the book (he inspired the title), the depictions of a strong family, navigating friendships, nuances of gang life, drug dealers, and drug users. The Hate U Give manages to encompass an incredible number of stories and characters but at no point does this sprawling world feel anything but Real.

That being said, there are a couple of things that I thought could have been improved.

We don’t, as a reader, have a lot of time with Khalil in the present. His death happens early in the book and most of the time we encounter him in the memories of the characters. While the pain and memories are well rendered, if Khalil had been alive for a few more chapters, I think the reader could have formed a better emotional connection to him. I also think that’s sort of the point: we shouldn’t have to have an emotional connection to someone to believe their death is unjustified and horrific.

I’m also not a big fan of Chris, Starr’s boyfriend. He’s not a full blown manic pixie dream boy, which is refreshing, but I found him slightly annoying. Again, that’s fine, I’m not Starr, I don’t have to date him. However, as a character, he plays a major role in the text as a stand in for members of the white community who are willing to learn and become allies, because of this he serves as a direct foil for Hailey (the text’s token white feminist).

Like many other YA books that make a major splash (such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), this book will probably be critiqued for its use of profanity and depictions of sexual encounters (although, for the record, the only sex which occurs in the book is between the adult characters). But Starr’s encounters with Chris and questions about whether she’s ready to have sex also bring a valid voice into the world of YA. She doesn’t romanticize these encounters but, because of her own family’s history with teen pregnancy, is rational and hesitant to embark into situations she may regret. She’s strong and doesn’t allow herself to bow to expectations. And her voice, profanity and all, remains believable.

It’s rare to read a book where even the points which I think fall a bit short also serve such clear narrative purpose.

I haven’t been purposefully vague about any elements of the plot, but the strength of this book is in its reflections of reality, so… the ending won’t surprise you. However, one of the most powerful moments comes in the closing. I played it over and over again:

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending. It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about way more than that though. It’s about Seven, Sekani, Kenya, DeVante. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first. Emmett. The messed up part? There are so many more.”

It’s a call to action and remembrance, solidifying the work as, in its own way, a piece of protest and a call for reform.

I cannot recommend this book enough: Five Bards

 

 

Thanks so much to Midsummer contributor Valerie for submitting this review.

 

 

Book Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Darkness never dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

When it comes to sequels, the resounding cry is usually “the first one was better.” (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone? Anyone?) Given that I wasn’t bowled over by Shadow & Bone, I had reservations when I began Siege and Storm.

I struggled through the first chapters (I’ll elaborate more on that later), before the plot suddenly took an unexpected turn and proved… that the sequel was in fact better than the first. While still imperfect, Bardugo’s second effort expands the world and continues to play on complex issues in the life of a flawed, human hero, Alina Starkov.

Bardugo’s depictions of Alina’s struggle to cope with her growing power brings into question the corrupting nature of power itself. As Alina attempts to step into the role she believes herself to be destined for, her decisions repeatedly cause conflict and confrontations with those around her, forcing Alina to question her own motives. Complicating the issue is the fact that Alina was born with power that was later suppressed. Having found her true capabilities, and embraced them, Alina is reluctant to let go of what has become a foundational part of her identity. In a way, Bardugo’s text both addresses and subverts the idea of power as corrupter, as Alina does struggle to maintain her identity but must also accept and embrace her natural powers and what she believes to be her destiny.

As Alina undergoes her struggle with power and identity, it begins to complicate her love life with Mal unsure of his role and relationship with Alina. Mal and Alina’s struggle is, in itself, not inherently Bad. In fact, that Mal questions his traditional masculine role is every bit as interesting as Alina’s own struggles with power as a woman, but Bardugo then inserts the most overused trope in existence: the love triangle. By making use of such a tired device, Bardugo undermines the strength of Alina’s journey. In fairness, it makes sense for Alina to question her “young love” with Mal, but I’m a bit over the concept of the love triangle in general.

My major issue with the book was the plot line of the opening chapters. While the book ended strong (I did enjoy it more than the first after all), the early chapters specifically force the reader to relive the same story arc presented in the first book. It’s not a summary, it’s a continuation, but it goes over the same emotional ground presented in book one without advancing the story. Alina faces the Darkling and searches for another amplifier for her powers – it’s literally what happened in the first book and did nothing for me as a reader.

Overall, with its complex assessment of relationships and power, I have to give Siege and Storm a solid four and a half bards.

four.fivebards

 

 

 

This review was submitted to A Midsummer Night’s Read by Valerie. 

 

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