Book Review: I Am Thunder (Muhammad Khan)

* I have been given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review *

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books

Pages: 320

Release Date: January 25th 2018

Summary (from Goodreads):

Fifteen-year-old Muzna Saleem, who dreams of being a writer, struggles with controlling parents who only care about her studying to be a doctor. Forced to move to a new school in South London after her best friend is shamed in a scandal, Muzna realizes that the bullies will follow her wherever she goes. But deciding to stand and face them instead of fighting her instinct to disappear is harder than it looks when there’s prejudice everywhere you turn. Until the gorgeous and confident Arif shows an interest in her, encouraging Muzna to explore her freedom.

But Arif is hiding his own secrets and, along with his brother Jameel, he begins to influence Muzna with their extreme view of the world. As her new freedom starts to disappear, Muzna is forced to question everything around her and make a terrible choice – keep quiet and betray herself, or speak out and betray her heart?

Review:

Muzna is a British Muslim who struggles with her controlling parents and their conflicting ideas on what it is to be Muslim, to be Pakistani, to be a good daughter. It’s hard to be herself when that’s not who they want her to be. So when the best looking boy in school takes an interest in her and encourages to express herself in new ways, she’s only too happy to oblige, until it seems she’s swapped one set of extreme views for another.

This is a really fascinating read, especially given the current climate. I liked the forward from the author, where he pondered on the real-life story of western girls being radicalised and wondered what made them drop their lives here to join the IS. This book explores the ways that extremists can radicalise impressionable and vulnerable teens.

I loved the point the book made about differentiating between culture and religion, as people so often confuse the two. Similarly, it really hammered home the point that Muslims aren’t terrorists and highlighted the way we’re led to believe this by the media etc. IS may claim to do things in the name of Islam, but Islam is a religion of peace and love, not terrorism, and those few are the ones we should be blaming, not a whole religion.

Muzna goes on a real journey throughout the book, from a quiet teenager who is constantly pushed around by classmates and family, to someone who is brave enough to stand up for what she knows is right, even when it’s so difficult to do.

The radicalisation plot line was great for its subtleties. It showed how someone like targets those who are impressionable and more likely to be swayed by stronger personalities and views. It’s done by playing on their religious views and ideals, twisting them and using propaganda to persuade them to another way of thinking. It’s easy to see how Muzna was initially swayed.

I wasn’t really into the way the teenagers spoke, but I’ll put that down to age (as I know this isn’t aimed at someone my age) and regional differences (I think this is probably how London teenagers speak, not the West Midlands ones I know!) I do worry that while slang can appeal to teenager readers now, it might alienate future ones as slang ages so fast. And this is a book that should be around for a long time as it has a very important message.

This a thought-provoking, intense read that can really educate people on the differences between religion, culture, and radicalisation – adults as well as teenagers! Definitely one to watch out for this year.

Book Review: The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)

* I have been given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review *

Publisher: Walker Books

Pages: 438

Release Date: April 6th 2017

Summary (from Goodreads):

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.

Review:

This is probably one of the highest profile YA releases of the year and after reading it, it’s easy to see why. I don’t feel like there’s a lot I can say about this that hasn’t already been said but it’s so good it needs a review anyway.

Starr is the only witness to the shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Through her grieving, Starr has choices to make about whether she stays quiet or speaks out. She’s used to living a double life between her poor neighbourhood and her fancy suburb high school, but this event brings the two together and makes her choose between the two different versions of herself.

This book is so relevant at the moment with the amount of high profile unarmed shootings that we hear about on the news, and all the ones we hear less about too. I liked that it didn’t present Khalil as a saint: yes he sold drugs, he may have been in a gang – but does that mean he deserved to be shot for doing nothing wrong? The answer to me is obviously not, but the way it’s presented on the news makes people think otherwise.

I thought the way Starr had two different versions of herself was really quite sad. It’s horrid to think that you can’t be yourself around people who are supposed to be your friends because you’re worried about what they’ll think, that she had to make herself stay calm to avoid being seen as an ‘Angry Black Girl’ stereotype.

The characters in this book were all brilliantly written. I loved the different relationships between Starr and her family. The way her parents were written showed them as real, present parents rather than the absent or stereotype ones you often get in YA. They were strict sometimes, often funny and clearly loved all their kids very much. Similarly, the way Starr interacted with her brothers showed real sibling relationships: loving but with plenty of annoyance and teasing.

I know this book is in a setting that’s far from what I’m used to: I’m a white, British woman from a middle-class family so I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be Starr or anyone else in her situation. But it’s so good to read something that’s not about people like me. It’s been said a lot lately but it can always be said more: we need diverse books. We need representation in books for all kinds of people, because everyone deserves to read about people like them.

Starr was taught things in her life that I never had to learn. Her parents gave her a talk to tell her what to do if the police ever pull her over. Keep your hands visible, no sudden movements etc. When I was younger, I was told to find a police officer if I was in trouble but it’s different for Starr. They’re not necessarily going to help her, just because of the colour of her skin. I think we can all get a bit of a funny feeling around police officers – I know I feel guilty around then even when I’ve done nothing wrong – but Starr is terrified around them and that’s not how anyone should have to feel around someone with that power.

I don’t want to write spoilers about how things turn out but I felt it was true to life rather than putting a fairy tale end on things. It did all the things it was supposed to: it made me sad, angry, annoyed that this is a book but that this is actually what happens in real life. We all need to speak out like Starr if we can, add our support to the voices that need to be heard and never stop working to make things better for everyone.

This book deserves all the praise and the hype it’s getting and I really recommend you pick it up. Aside from the important message inside the book, it lets the publishing world know that we want Own Voices stories, we want to read books about a diverse group of people, and by a diverse group of people too.

Copy of an art exhibit

Book Review: The Hypnotist (Laurence Anholt)

* I have been given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review *

Publisher: Corgi Childrens

Pages: 352

Release Date: October 6th 2016

Summary (from Goodreads):

Jack has left his native Ireland and is making a new life as Professor of Neurology at a university in the American South. He has certain skills, honed over his lifetime, that he mostly keeps hidden. Skills in hypnotism and mind control . . .

Thirteen-year-old Pip is plucked out of an orphanage by a farmer, hired as a farm-hand, and as carer for the farmer’s wife. But Pip is black. The farmer and his wife are white. And this is 1960s America, where race defines you and overshadows everything.

As racial tensions reach boiling point with a danger closer to home and more terrifying than either thought possible, Jack and Pip’s lives become inextricably linked. And Jack’s hypnotic skills are called on as never before . . .

Review:

I had no idea what this was really about going into it, and I struggled at first because I just didn’t know where it was going. About 100 or so pages in things started kicking off and I was suddenly really invested in the characters and their story.

The story is told in dual narrative, from Pip, a young black boy working for a white couple and their racist, radical son, and Jack, an Irish professor and hypnotist. There’s also songs sprinkled throughout by Hannah, a selective mute Native American girl who also works for the family.

I have to admit this isn’t a period I know much about, aside from some historical facts. We weren’t really taught it at school and I haven’t read many books set in this era so it was something new for me, and I found it really interesting. I think the thing that sucked me in was the scene where the KKK was introduced: it was genuinely scary and I felt Pip’s fear. There’s also a seemingly nice and rational character who professes his support for the group and tries to normalise their actions and describes them as a ‘family group’, making it sound more like a country club than a violent, racist organisation.

While reading there was part of me thinking, ‘phew, thank goodness we don’t live in a world like this any more.’ And part of me despaired at the parallels I could see between then and now. No, we don’t have segregation anymore and yes, race relations are better. But they’re not perfect and there’s still a myriad of issues. There’s still people who think like this. When reading some of the racists rants, it sounded too much like things you still hear today, especially in post-Brexit Britain. The story served as a warning to me, as it shows the awful consequences of when these dangerous views go unchallenged.

All that aside, this was a really interesting story, with a great set of characters that you can’t help but root for. I loved Pip and wanted him to get his ‘great expectations’. He was just too sweet and adorable, and I loved his simple love for Lilybelle and Hannah. I struggled to get into Jack’s narrative at times: I found his colloquial address to the audience a bit awkward but I loved his skills and his reactions to the racism. It was really interesting seeing it from an outsider’s point of view, as it wasn’t something he was used to in Ireland. I also really enjoyed Hannah’s songs – Anholt is quite a poet.

With the world in the state it is, I feel this is a really important read, as well as being endearing and even funny at times. A great YA debut, and one everyone should pick up this year.

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