We Are Okay - Nina LaCour

RATING: ★★★★★

In case you don't know, I'll repeat it here: I love Nina LaCour! Everything Leads to You is one of my favourite YA novels and I am always at awe with how flawless writing seems when it's written by Nina LaCour.

So I was beyond excited when I bought her new novel We Are Okay. And as usual, this novel went beyond any high expectations I had.

The Goodreads summary of the novel is: 

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

While this is an interesting premise, I was worried the story would be cliché in either the way Marin's sadness is portrayed or how easy it can be fixed. 

However, Nina LaCour doesn't shy away at all from the difficulties Marin faces and how deeply rooted they are. You find out early on, this isn't really a spoiler, that Marin's grandfather died and that she grew up with him before that event. The way this book slowly uncovers the complex layers that made up the bond Marin had with her grandfather is amazing and really just a sign of amazing writing. Something starts out so simple and becomes more complex than I ever could have imagined.

Both Marin and Mabel are so easy to relate to. Marin's pain feels very real and the hopelessness Mabel feels is easy to imagine - how do you help someone grieve? How are you there for someone when they have pushed you away? How far can you push someone to let you in? These are all issues Mabel struggles with and I loved seeing her journey throughout the novel.

Overall, We Are Okay is not afraid to face difficult issues head on. Nina LaCour's amazing writing makes it easy for the reader to be guided through a journey that can sometimes be too close for comfort. However, We Are Okay also has a constant theme of love and friendship in it - how important we are to other people and how incredibly helpful we can be. This combination of sadness and happiness means this is a book I won't forget any time soon.

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

RATING: ★★★★★

thehandmaidstale.jpg

The Handmaid's Tale has been high on my TBR for years. Ever since my gender studies class, I've seemed to be surrounded by people, online and in person, who have read and adored the novel. A staple of feminist literature, I always felt slightly embarrassed that I hadn't read it yet. With the release of the Hulu series this week, I literally had no excuse left: I HAD to make time to read this classic. And even though there has been years of build up, I was not ready for how amazing it was.

I purposely tried to start this novel without too many preconceptions of the story; no summaries read and I didn't even watch the series trailer. I can highly recommend going into the novel like this so my summary will be short and extremely spoiler-free, for your reading pleasure.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred, who lives in the Republic of Gilead. This is a dystopian society where the roles of women have tremendously changed. Offred is part of the first generation of women to go through this change and the novel chronics her experience with the new world versus her memories of her old life. Offred's role is to reproduce, to have a child with a man she is assigned to. This man is always married and his wife will play a role in the process too.

If you think that's too vague, that's the point. Margaret Atwood is such a talented writer and is really able to take her reader on a surprising journey. At so many points, I thought I knew what would happen in the story, or what was insinuated by a certain character, and I was always absolutely wrong.

The Handmaid's Tale strength lies in the fact that the whole plot seems so incredibly batshit crazy, yet also like it could happen to us tomorrow. Literally, in the current world with the current leaders, tomorrow. We could wake up and suddenly become Offred and part of that first generation of women that experiences a whole new world.

Which is why the book is so heart breaking. Atwood wrote this in the 1980s and today it rings as true as ever. Where is our progress? Why can't we just laugh at this insane view of a future world? Why is the book so painful in so many ways? The book never made me cry because I was hurting for one of the characters; the book made me cry because it made me hurt for our own world. This is extremely powerful and unlike any book I've ever read.

I have to give this book five stars, but honestly, a rating doesn't do it justice. This beautifully composed story with amazing characters on its own would be five stars. Reading it in the current climate and seeing how well Atwood has analysed and portrayed the human mentality is beyond any rating I could give it. All I can say is: don't be like me. Don't wait years to read this novel. Read it today.

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

RATING: ★★★★★

One of the most expected and hyped releases this year in the YA world finally came out in the UK last week. In honour of its release, my review of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, who lives in a poor American neighbourhood, but goes to a rich kids school. One night, Starr's friend Khalil gets shot by the police while Starr is in the car with him. The shooting resolves in a police investigation, riots, protests, but also causes Starr to feel torn between the two worlds she has been navigating.

The Hate U Give has been given a lot of publicity due to the incorporation of the Black Lives Matter theme. When Khalil gets shot, for no apparent reason, the media immediately jumps to the police officer's defence by stating that Khalil was a drug dealer and a thug (the title of the book comes from a 2Pac song where he states that thug stand for The Hate U Give). Somehow, they use this to justify the shooting. While reading this from Starr's point of view, it seems borderline insane. She was there, the reader was there, we know Khalil didn't do anything. But much too often, if not always, this is the narrative that is used in police brutality cases.

This novel is not without controversy. I'm white and when I told my friends, who are also mostly white, a lot of them got defensive off the bat. Some common claims:

"Oh, so this author is going to claim all cops are bad?"

"I wonder if she gets her facts straight or if she's part of the media that says that cops are always to blame."

"Why isn't there a book that is about violence against cops?"

1. These claims are all ridiculous.

2. I can't refute them as well as Angie Thomas does in her book. The Hate U Give is a nuanced novel, with realistic characters who can be morally ambiguous. While we have the cop who shot Khalil for no reason, Starr's uncle, Carlos, is also a police officer. He also believes Khalil's murder was wrong and stands up for his niece and her friend. Angie Thomas never argues that all cops are bad - she argues that institutionally there are issues that need to be fixed, because they are costing lives. She's arguing that many people have a prejudice against African Americans, which makes it easier to justify police violence with irrelevant reasons such as "he was a dealer", "he was a thug anyway".

This novel reminded me so incredibly much of Louise O'neill's Asking For It. So many novels about serious society issue portray perfect characters who something awful happens to. These two novels don't- Khalil wasn't perfect, just like the main character from Asking For It was a bitch. However, and this is so important for people to understand, this does not justify what happens to them. They do not deserve it. They are still humans and deserve the same respect as everyone else. Khalil was a drug dealer who was trying to help his family get by and by no means does that ever justify him being murdered. 

I love that Angie Thomas didn't shy away from this topic and was able to present readers with such a nuanced view. As a white European, the Black Lives Matter movement often feels far away and it is a rare privilege to be allowed this insight into the movement and the reasoning behind it. It is a privilege to discover the dynamics between Starr and her family; Starr and her neighbourhood; Starr and her white friends. It is a world I am usually unable to enter and I am extremely happy that I could learn and grow from this book.

This isn't an easy read - it will break your heart and make you angry and feel hopeless and confused at time. But it is so incredibly important. In the end, Starr finds her voice and I hope this novel inspires so many people to find theirs too and to find the strength to stand up for what is right - no matter what the cost is.

 

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist: Stay With Me - Ayobami Adebayo

RATING: ★★★★★

In a few days the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist will be announced, and in honour of that, I am kicking off my review section of the long list.

When this list was announced in early March, I knew I'd never be able to read all 16 books in a month, however I did read The Power by Naomi Alderman, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride  and the book I'm reviewing in this post - Stay With Me. Hopefully by June 7th, the day the winner is announced, I will have read the full long list, have discussed the shortlist in more detail over on my booktube page, and will be try to predict the winner!

I am starting off with Stay With Me because I finished this book today and it is impossible not to want to write about this novel.

The story follows Yejide and her marriage to Akin in 1980s Nigeria. They have been married for four years and their inability to conceive a child is blamed on Yejide. She tries everything, spiritually and medically, to get pregnant, but none of the solutions work. This puts a strain on their marriage and eventually her in-laws decide to introduce Yejide to Akin's second wife, Funmi, who he already secretly married. The second wife is traditionally believed to help the first wife get pregnant - one pregnant womb in the house should encourage another. However, Yejide is not traditional and does not accept this as part of her marriage.

Yejide's drive to look for solutions in a non-traditional way is exactly why I loved her so much. My knowledge of 1980s Nigeria is extremely limited, but the novel, due to amazing description by Ayobami Adebayo, easily sets the scene of the political struggle in the country. This struggle is also seen in the traditional gender roles that are slowly breaking down. While Akin is a respectful husband who encourages Yejide to get an education and haver her own career, his family is focused on her having a son. That's all she is reduced to - a good wife has children, if you don't have children, you're immediately a bad wife.

However, Yejide does not accept this. She keeps trying to conceive a child because she wants to, not because of pressure from the outside. And without spoiling the novel for anyone, Yejide goes through some awful events - events that were even too much for me at times and I usually love dark and twisted tales - and she handles herself with grace and strength. Whatever is thrown her way, Yejide knows how to respond and protect herself, and when needed also Akin. She is not a perfect character and she makes some bad decisions along the way, but I always understood and respected her thinking. There's not a person who can read this book and not root for Yejide and her journey.

Like I mentioned earlier, the writing in this book is phenomenal. Ayobami Adebayo seamlessly weaves together a tale of political unrest, familial drama and the struggles of a marriage. It never seems forced, all the characters are well rounded and every time I opened the book, I immediately saw the whole scene in front of me.

This is one of those books I dreaded finishing. Yejide and Akin felt so very real to me - they are both complex people, who have done some amazing and some awful things - and I just wanted to continue on the journey they were making. The ending was satisfactory, but I can never not want more when a book is so well written.