Mini Monday – a YA double bill

I requested and received advance copies of both books free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

This month I’ve read two YA books, both by authors whose debuts I read and loved last year, so I was very lucky and very excited to get early copies of both of these.

Both of these books not only take on some serious and relevant issues, but also give a voice to what have traditionally been (and continue to be, although it may be improving) under-represented members of society: a British-Pakistani teen and a young black American girl.

Up first:

Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan. Illustrated by Amrit Bird. Cover design by Rachel Vale.

I thought Khan’s debut I Am Thunder last year was brilliant – well-written, ground-breaking in the way it looked at radicalisation and with huge contemporary YA appeal – so I was eagerly anticipating this one too.

Fifteen-year-old Ilyas is under pressure from everyone: GCSE’s are looming, his dad wants him to join the family business while he dreams of designing comic books, and he’s becoming increasingly unsure of the direction his group of mates is taking.

Serving detention one day, Ilyas finds a kindred spirit in Kelly, but when Kelly is caught up in his gang’s toxic bet, Ilyas must decide where his loyalties lie.

While I didn’t feel this broke the mould in the same way I Am Thunder did, it nevertheless tackles some difficult and important subjects – racism, revenge porn, gangs, bullying and peer-pressure not to mention culture, family and friendship – and it does so with sensitivity, awareness and realism.

Similarly, when I first started reading the book, it felt like there were a lot of stereotypes at play. However, as I read on, they felt necessary, believable and, perhaps most importantly, familiar.

There’s a lot in this book teens will recognise and all of it feels well-described, with voices that sound natural and real, not forced or too ‘adult’. There is a lot of slang used in the dialogue and this feels carefully considered, well-researched and integral to the characters and the story which just would not have the same effect without the characters speaking as they really would.

Immensely relatable, my heart went out to Ilyas as he struggled with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, but it also cheered as he found the courage to stand up for what he believed in and grew in confidence.

This is a book which really understands how hard it can be to find yourself trapped in a bad situation and how it can be even harder to get out of it again. The increasing desperation came across powerfully and will be so familiar to so many. It shows how confusing and difficult teenage years can be as you try to find your way, your goals, your ‘people’ and of course yourself.

A story of hope, change and self-belief: I really enjoyed this and it deserves to be a big hit with contemporary YA fans.

And next…

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas. Cover design by Tim Marrs.

Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But when her first song goes viral for all the wrong reasons, Bri finds herself at the centre of controversy and portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. And with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it – she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.

The Hate U Give was one of my favourite books of last year – powerful, hard-hitting and brutally honest, it was truly something else.

On The Come Up returns to ‘The Garden’ (Garden Heights) where THUG was set and – while it isn’t a sequel and reads perfectly well as a stand-alone book – there is much overlap, with events from THUG seeing their consequences reaching into On The Come Up.

As with ‘Kick the Moon’, this didn’t feel quite so ground-breaking as THUG, but still tackles some very important issues – racism, poverty, class, misrepresentation, drugs and gang affiliation – in a compassionate but unsentimental way which very much holds a mirror up to certain aspects of society and the media.

Angie Thomas is an incredible writer – her characters feel real and complex, their relationships and lives the same. Bri’s mum in particular struck a chord with me, while the changing dynamics of Bri and her best friends’ relationships will no doubt hit home for many readers.

Bri herself is incredibly likeable – and if you’ve read THUG and liked Starr, you’ll love Bri just as much if not more: fiercely determined, stretching her wings and aiming for the sky, she is a character with big dreams, plenty of hope and just as much fire…which, whether rightly or wrongly, can lead to trouble.

It was near impossible for me to like this as much as I did THUG, but it was still brilliant and readers from all backgrounds will find both things they relate to and other things which open their eyes or make them pause for thought. It is a book brimming with friendship, love, hip hop and hope!

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White Rabbit, Red Wolf

9781406378177

I received an ARC of this AAAGGGES ago from Walker Books (thank you/sorry it’s taken me forever to read!) and it’s been one of those that has, unfairly, kept finding its way to the bottom of my TBR pile ever since. Partly because despite the fact that my ‘resolution’ to read more YA books this year HAS happened, they’re still very rarely the books at the top of the pile and are quite often the ones I put off in favour of others, and partly because I read thrillers even less often (ie almost never). “Why on earth ask for an ARC of this YA thriller then?” I hear you cry – well, curiosity and mental illness mainly…it intrigued me:

A taut thriller about murder, maths and the mind.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Blankman suffers from severe panic attacks. Afraid of everything, he finds solace in the orderly and logical world of mathematics and in the love of his family: his scientist mum and his tough twin sister Bel, as well as Ingrid, his only friend.

However, when his mother is found stabbed before an award ceremony and his sister is nowhere to be found, Pete is dragged into a world of espionage and violence where state and family secrets intertwine. Armed only with his extraordinary analytical skills, Peter may just discover that his biggest weakness is his greatest strength.

 

So, “murder, maths and the mind” then. Let’s start with the mind:

Books, especially YA books, with mental health themes seem to be having something of ‘a moment’. This is no bad thing. But how well mental health issues are represented in them is very much a mixed bag (as much down to personal experience, taste and circumstance as it is down to the writing itself) so I still approach them with as much caution as interest.

Luckily, this one – for me – got it just right. While it touches on several issues, OCD and anxiety are the main culprits here and the book opens in the midst of one of several severe panic attacks mentioned in the book. Pollock is unflinching in his descriptions of both the actions, feelings and thoughts whirling through these, without them feeling gratuitous, over the top or unrealistic. The post-attack moments in particular felt very well-written and familiar, and it was refreshing to see Peter struggling BUT MANAGING to overcome his anxiety in order to do things, which is far more often the case than the other way round. It’s one of those silent/invisible illnesses for a reason: most of the battles with it go on simultaneously with everyday life; it’s happening while you carry on doing the things that cause it, and this book shows that so well.

The way Peter’s anxiety/paranoia plays into the plot is truly brilliant and, again – for me, is what lifts this book out of the hundreds of YA-books-about-mental-health and into the few YA-books-with-great-plots-that-involve-a-character-with-mental-health-issues (catchy, right?) Because first and foremost, this is a fast-paced thriller with more twists and turns than a drunken game of twister.

Which leads us to the murder:

And on this, I will say very little! It comes out of the blue and just as Peter is left shocked and second-guessing what’s happened, so are we. Peter doubts everything he is being told,¬†using maths to analyse, rationalise and ‘logic’ his way through it all, and I quickly joined him (not on the maths front!) in not knowing what to believe, who could be trusted or what was truth and what was lies. It’s brilliantly unpredictable: leading you one way, convinced you’ve got it this time…only to throw up a dead end, a fork in the road or a u-turn again when you least expect it.

The characters are as complex as the plot (there’s nothing clear cut about this book!) which is a welcome change from some of the stereotypes and rather 2D personalities often encountered. They all have clear back-stories and a real sense of depth, and benefit from being a relatively small cast with few bit players.

And, as it suggests in the ‘blurb’, there is also a fairly large dollop of maths in the book. I am most emphatically not mathematically minded, but personally I didn’t find this an issue. Yes, there were references that went a bit over my head. Yes, there were times when I had to re-read to follow a particular mathematical train of thought. And, yes, there were mentions of mathematical figures and theories that I’d never heard of. Did it matter? No. Or yes, but only in a good way. They were worth the effort when it was needed, making me stop and think, and could be taken at face value as an added detail or interesting detail when not essential to the plot.

This has clearly been a very thoroughly researched book, which shows great attention to detail and a sensitive but honest approach to mental health, while remaining at it’s heart an entirely original, cleverly constructed, quick-moving thriller.

I’ve even passed it on to my other half, who has never read YA, as I’m convinced he’ll love it too – I’ll edit this post with the verdict once it’s in!