Hate List

The scene in the Garvin High School cafetaria, known as the Commons, is being described as “grim” by investigators who are working to identify the victims of a shooting spree that erupted Friday morning. 

This was much more intense than I expected from a YA book.  Of course, a high school shooting isn’t a happy subject, but the way this was handled, severely impressed me. Not just the characterizations, but also because there was absolutely no sugar-coating or cover ups.

The high school shooter is Valerie’s boyfriend. Several people are killed before she can intervene, only to watch him kill himself. And no-one saw it coming. But then a hate list is found, full of names, and people wonder if Valerie was in on it, if she’s a danger as well, if she’s the reason he did all this.

No-one trusts her, no-one can look at her, and Valerie is seriously doubting everything. Jennifer Brown brings all of it almost brutally close, no easy cop outs or pleasing solutions. Besides being about how horrible and destructive shootings are, it’s especially about people.

Hate List, Jennifer Brown, Little Brown and Company 2010

Kraken

An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum.

A second chance for this author, by me. I read something by him before, but felt like he was better at creating worlds, than keeping a plot together. But as I am a huge fan of a good case of world-building, I couldn’t resist giving it another try. This author has loads of awards and fans, maybe it was for a reason.

Again, China Miéville creates a flabbergasting, mind-blowing world. He starts off with a speed that you can keep up with, but further into the book there are more and more details stacked on, making you page back to pick up the plot again, instead of enjoying the story. This isn’t necessarily bad, just demands a bit more attention from the reader.

Main character Billy works in a museum. From the museum is a dead giant squid stolen. Besides him being the unlikely hero of different religions living in London, there are also a few apocalypses coming up and some gruesome bad guys that work hard to trigger and/or prevent those from happening.

It’s an epic, and demands time and attention. It’s up to you to chose to give it.

 

Kraken, China Miéville, Pan Books 2010

The Stalin Epigram

Since that white night our lifelines first coiled themselves around each other, fifteen years ago come May Day, in Kiev, in a seedy bohemian cabaret called the Junk Shop, I must have heard Mandelstam give public readings scores of times, still the pure pleasure I take from the poetry of his poems is undiminished.

It’s pretty well-known that life wasn’t a dream or even a party during the reign of Stalin. The Stalin Epigram shows the complete randomness that comes with absolute power and no-one to keep it under control. There’s no such thing as a fair trail and even those that serve in the best possible way, risk being put away when paranoia strikes once again.

The book has several main characters, all held together by their connection to poet Osip Mandelstam. For a while he can live an almost ordinary life because there’s no protest to the system and well – he’s just a poet, but things change for the worse when Mandelstam writes an epigram, a destructive one about Stalin and the system. Of course he is caught and a “trial” and punishment follow.

Even if this is a romanticized biography, it’s hard to believe that all of it is based on a reality from not all that long ago. The paranoia and delusions and the people just having to accept every idiotic idea is something that could come from a satiric story. Read The Stalin Epigram for a very unflattering look at the Soviet Union.

The Stalin Epigram, Robert Littel, Simon & Schustre 2009

The Boy Next Door

Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight.

A love story between black and white against the back drop of the rise and fall of Zimbabwe. Four hundred pages and a few decades to show that wishes and dreams aren’t enough to uphold reality.

Zimbabwe was the African country that was going to be a great success. They had the resources, they had a sane government, and in comparison to neighbor South Africa, changes went pretty swimmingly. Until they didn’t.

That Zimbabwe went from great to a corrupted, dangerous mess isn’t news (or so I hope). In how many ways it went wrong might be. The Boy Next Door shows the very human story of being judged by your history, your skin color and your gender. And even when you do share those treats with your family, loved ones or neighbors, it doesn’t mean that your life will be easier for it. That – even when outsiders (in this case a lot of French people) – try to help, it doesn’t necessarily has to give good, or even any, results.

It’s easy to forget that the majority of people in such countries are the ordinary ones that just want to live their lives with an education, a job, a family of their own. This book shows it without shoving it into your face.

The Boy Next Door, Irene Sabatini, Sceptre 2010

Rash

Gramps, who was born in 1990, once told me that when he was my age the only way to wind up in prison in the USSA (back when it had only one S) was to steal something, kill somebody, or use illegal drugs.

So this is – at least partly – a YA version of Twenty-Thirty. Sadly the world building drops off for a hurried teen version of Prison Break mixed with a sport (football) story.

Main character Bo (short for Bono), is the odd one out. In a super safe, barely criminal, society, he’s the one with half of the family in jail and a grandfather that keeps bringing up illegal things. Bo has an anger problem and that puts him into trouble: an one way trip a correctional facility.

Life there is brutal and monotonous, but of course he manages to become part of an elite team pretty soon. And this team does illegal things: play something called football, without any protection. This looks like the right place for some Life Lessons, but Pete Hautman seems to be to enthralled by explaining several football maneuvers.

The second half and ending seems to be a bit rushed, which really breaks the initial fun down. Not bad, not very good either.

Rash, Pete Hautman, Simon & Schuster 2006

The Opposite Bastard

My restart interview seemed to be going swimmingly.

Even though there is plenty of proof in the world that disabled people are people as well, it’s still easy to forget that they experience the same self-doubts, thoughts and emotions as the able ones. The Opposite Bastard gives a dry comical look behind the eyes of a young adult, paralyzed from the neck down.

It all evolves around a play at Oxford, Hamlet. The stereotypical theater kid wants Michael as his Hamlet. The other players, Michael’s caretaker ((ex-)actor), friend and his mother each have their own chapters to share their point of view on happenings. When a sensation-craved documentary maker discovers what’s going on, connections get tighter and smiles more grim.

The biggest point The Opposite Bastard drives home is that everyone is human, no matter what and that no-one can know what they’d do in a life-changing situation until they live through it. Michael isn’t always a lovable pet, his mother’s delusion and clinging to religion doesn’t make her a bad person, Anna isn’t an angel for the sole reason that she dares to be around him.

With a dry humor and accessible language this could well be put down as a summer read.

 The Opposite Bastard, Simon Packham, Macmillan New Writing 2008

Wonder

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.

August goes to school for the first time when he’s ten years old. Before that he’s been home-schooled, sheltered from the world. Because August looks very different. His face especially isn’t like that of other children. He’d rather walk around with an astronaut’s helmet than show his face, but his parents think it’s time for school. So he goes.

Wonder lets August and different people around him share how the world looks when you are/have something looking different in it. In the beginning there are stares, names and discomfort, but later on the stories show that it’s more about the unusual and how everyone reacts to it, then it is about August, and who he is. He can’t help this, he is just another kid in an original body.

Things have to happen (of course) before August and his parents and his older sister all realize that school is school, no matter who attends it. Bad things happen, good things happen and it’s you and the people around you that make a difference. R.J. Palacio manages to drive the point home without adding Life Lessons and deep morals. Wonder is an easy read with characters that learn and develop themselves.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio, Random House Children’s Books 2012