It’s proved to be difficult quieting my thoughts to write this review. Kunzru’s satirical novel about two young, starkly Caucasian music aficionados with a fetish for rare records turned out to be more affecting than I anticipated.
Seth and Carter embody a friendship of expediency reminiscent of the Gatsby Gatsby. The latter has the means to satisfy his every whim, and the former gets to mooch off him it in exchange for his minor talents and his unquestioning loyalty.
Carter is the beleaguered soul who yearns for intensity which he insists can only be found in Black music. His wealthy family- who are strangers to the pain and suffering he touristically seeks- warily fund his expensive appetite for rare pre-war blues records, and the inevitable tirade in glamourous surroundings when he loses out on a rare find.
Kunzru has no patience with the trust-funder’s empty quest for authenticity – a full-time occupation of the hipster generation-and to the reader’s relief lands him in a coma following an incident involving a failed attempt at another acquisition.
Seth attributes Carters tragic misfortune to a curious chain of events stemming from a surreptitious recording of a vagrant singing a mysterious blues tune, which Carter sets to a guitar riff, adds effects and attempts to pass off online as a recently discovered lost recording by a made up ‘Charlie Shaw’.
Prior to the incident the recording draws the attention of an elderly collector who meets with Seth and warns of its sinister power. Unconvinced by Seth’s insistence that Charlie Shaw was a fiction concocted by his friend, the collector attributes his own friend Chester’s demise to the the record’s ominous power.
Now spooked by Carter’s fate, Seth embarks on a road trip to trace the provenance of the record and rid himself of any lingering malevolence. His journey switches between that of Chester’s in 1959 as they both head deep into the south drawn by something to do with Charlie.
The object of fascination throughout the book has been black music, and up until this point it has been offered, withheld, traded and consumed by talentless white men who function as the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool.
The readers discover’s how Chester brutally snatches the sole recording from Charlie’s sister’s home in 1959, manically insisting it was an “act of preservation”- the foundational belief for almost every museum collection in the west. This perennial white privilege is in full effect when Carter withholds “our music” from a musician, having done nothing more than amass a secret stash of hyper rarities from the 70’s, to equate ownership in his mind.
This entitlement is emblematic of the tone deaf nature of gentrification where incidents of disruption to black culture e.g. complains of “noise” by new white homeowners made against old time resident musicians or block parties, have increasingly plagued the original inhabitants.
The claim to non-white culture, disrespect, and indifferent to the conditions of its creation and ultimately the fate of the artist, is what finally awakens the wrath of Charlie Shaw, who bedevils Carter, Chester and finally Seth like a Djinn.
Although we hear of Carter and Chester’s fate, with Seth we witness the relentless torment which leads to his ultimate demise. How Charlie, knowing no bounds, weaves through time and space in hot pursuit of Seth, and how Seth after a number of outer body experiences learns what it means to have ‘skin’ in the game. Seth’s eventual release from this torment comes when he ends his own complicity through a violent and earth-shattering act.
Kunzru’s White Tears is a tour de force. Suspenseful, harrowing and bristling with anger. Some went so far as to call it a revenge fantasy, I, however, could reconcile myself with the horror in the way I would a fairy tale. I was deeply affected by the historic crimes against a community and the undercurrent of racism that fuels the powerful compounding and even institutionalisation of cruelty, but when just deserts are eventually served it helped restore my equilibrium. That I should derive so much joy from this book should give a whole lot of white people pause for thought.
Bored of fantasy series and craving some excellent realistic fiction this summer? Then Osama has the perfect recommendations for you with The Last Word’s top five YA picks for June!
Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven
Age Range 14-17
Holding Up the Universe is about seeing and being seen and taps into the universal need to understood, loved and wanted. Libby Strout experiences fat shaming and struggles to find her place in high school where people are unable to look past her weight. Jack Masselin is a typical high school jock; popular and too cool for school and has a newly acquired secret that keeps him from getting too close to anyone. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game – which lands them in group counseling and community service, they discover that sometimes when you meet someone, the whole universe just comes into focus.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder – Sara Barnard
Age Range 12-15
A Quiet Kind of Thunder is a moving story of a girl, a boy, and voices unheard. Steffi is selectively mute, but she has so much to say. Rhys is deaf, but he understands her perfectly. Their experiences transcend language. It presents Steffi’s journey through her first year of sixth form as she navigates her disability, adolescence and family dynamics, and her budding relationship with Rhys to find her voice and place. With a protagonist who has selective mutism and a love interest that is deaf, the story narrates the difficulty in coping from anxiety and losses people with impairment face and the little victories they achieve in a world where worst-case scenarios are on an endless loop in one’s head.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
Age Range 14-17
The New York Times bestselling novel The Hate U Give is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and involves the police shooting of an unarmed black teen. 16 year old Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil and has to testify in front of the grand jury. What follows is the chaos that closely resonates with the hysteria, insecurity and violence people of color feel in their engagement with the law. As Starr negotiates the dichotomy between her predominately white upper middle class school and the stereotyping of her neighborhood as a ‘ghetto’h, er experiences with gang fighting and racial discrimination taps fully into the shock, pain and outrage black teens experience in the US today and highlights their role in combating and exposing the deeply entrenched prejudice.
The Bombs That Brought Us Together – Brian Conaghan
Age range 12-16
14 year old Charlie finds himself situated in a conflict between Old Country and his home the Little Town. Citizens of the Little Town aren’t expected to befriend sworn enemies from Old Country, but when Pavel, a refugee from Old Country relocates to Charlie’s neighborhood, a relationship of mutual respect and dignity develops, challenging notions of identities and differences. ‘The Bombs That Brought Us Together’ offers a remarkable insight inside the lives of individuals impacted by war. Conflict silences individual stories and voices. Names become numbers. And in that context, Brian Conaghan narrates a dark, powerful tale of survival, morality and loyalty involving two teenagers who are able to look past labels and identity markers imposed by an ‘accident of birth’ that places them on opposite sides of an arbitrarily decided international border.
A Tragic Kind of Wonderful – Eric Lindstrom
Age Range 14 -18
A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is a story about internal fears and insecurities that confine individuals to their shells. Mel Hannigan struggles to keep several things under wraps: Her bipolar disorder, death of her brother and distance with her best friends. But when she comes across someone new, she learns to find comfort in her own skin and challenge fears that inhibit her from exposing her true self. A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is a beautiful, captivating story about living with mental illness, and loving – even with a broken heart.
The cover attracted me as soon as we unpacked it, bright red with a hand-drawn black hand and silver vein-like tendrils tracing its outline. It seemed to embody Margaret Atwood’s declaration of “Electrifying!” and “Shocking!”
Shortlisted for the Bailey-Gifford Prize, the title refers to teenage girls suddenly finding themselves imbued with a strange electrical power they are unable to control that electrocutes those around them. The girls can awaken this power in older women, establishing the first hint of global sisterhood that other characters will eventually espouse. As each woman tests her limits they begin banding together, inciting mass rebellions in Riyadh and Delhi, breaking free from human trafficking and, in some cases, becoming rulers of entire countries, each woman fending for herself at times in extremely violent ways. The story follows four central characters: Allie, an abused foster child in America who reinvents herself as a religious figure named Mother Eve; Roxy, a powerful daughter of a London crime family; Margot, an ambitious American politician; and Tunde, a Nigerian journalist who was one of the first people to observe the power and made a name for himself as being one of the few men involved in these women-centric upheavals.
The world occupied by these characters is one that is incredibly similar to ours, the girls’ electrocution powers are at first the only difference present. However, as women worldwide begin to hone their skills, men become increasingly irate about the changing status quo, forming their own guerrilla groups aimed at protecting men from the tyranny of women (employing rhetoric not unlike the Men’s Rights Activists one finds on the internet today). A porn industry evolves around the use of the power while drugs are developed to enhance it. Men are advised not to wander alone at night or without a female guardian- a sentiment which evoked much schadenfreude as I read. To see real-life limitations on women turned on their head and applied to men underscores the ridiculous emphasis placed on what one must do to protect oneself from members of the opposite sex. As the book progresses men are deemed too emotional for their own good and unable to take care of themselves, and women begin to assert themselves as the ones to deal with directly.
A clever framing device in the novel shows the ‘present’ as an actual post-apocalyptic future where female superiority is unquestioned. A male author writing the story of Allie and company breaks the fourth wall to seek guidance from ‘Naomi Alderman’, his friend and celebrated author. Naomi guides him on how to make his book more palatable for what will be his predominantly female readership, supplying him with friendly advice that is again reminiscent of what women today hear.
Alderman’s work comprises of women from all walks of life, without coming across contrived. This is no small feat as the book subverts every conceivable gender norm, rewrites history, and reinvents the world as we know it in one of the most effortless ways I have seen in a while. The novel thus becomes historically and geographically global as the characters, fictional and real travel to countries, which are enchantingly depicted.
The Power is a roller coaster of a book. Some parts had me punching the air in triumph while at others my chest constricted so much that I was ready to yell at anyone who interrupted my reading. The last time this happened, I was eleven and Lyra was about to be severed from Pan in The Golden Compass.
This book bears the mark of all excellent speculative fiction by making you question everything about the world you live in, irrespective of your gender. Asking fundamental questions of what it means when a marginalized group is suddenly endowed with a mysterious power and what one would do in that situation, The Power is a book I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone looking for an excellent dystopia novel that shatters everything you think you know.
Forget everything you think you know about gun violence and pick up Another Day in the Death of America. Whilst we are regularly assaulted with mass shootings emanating out of the United States we are rarely pushed to discover the origins of the violence. The second amendment is the explanation we most readily reach for, but to rely on that solely is to avoid the cruel truths underpinning society in the United States.
My entry into Lahore came in the wake of a brutal shooting in the house I now live in and if you wrack your brain, you or someone you know would have been affected by gun violence too. To some degree we have a separate set of conditions underpinning our reality, but it’s still a phenomenon that deserves a lot more attention.
So what is the true cost to society if guns become an accepted reality? Gary Younge’s meticulously researched Another Day in the Death of America takes us through the deaths of ten children and young teens during one calendar day. He combs through public records, newspaper reports and social media to build a profile of the victim which come to life through interviews with those they leave behind. Each chapter bears the name of the victim, and where they live. As you read on you realise the location has as much to do with their death as the firearm itself. Some communities are in shock after the violent death; some respond with grief stricken resignation, some are torn apart, whilst others move on under a heaving cloud of denial and trauma. In almost all cases, the reactions relate directly to the likelihood of such an event in that place.
Racism, poverty, lack of jobs and infrastructure, mental health, parenting, and teenage recklessness each end up in the dock compounding the risks of preserving the 2nd Amendment. The incidence of gun deaths involving poor kids from the black community are the most harrowing as Younge establishes their relationship to racist policy, governmental neglect and an entire populations apathy. A relationship, he reveals, as evident to policy makers for decades now.
Reading how residents learned to tune out the sound of gun fire to go about their daily lives brings tears to your eyes. By the end of the book I found it almost unfathomable that American exceptionalism can exist alongside such inhumanity; that parents were forcing their kids to internalise ordinary teenage behaviour for fear of deadly consequences; and that an entire nation was hostage to the NRA who won’t allow enforcement of a minimum of protections for those most vulnerable to gun violence.
I had seen the prose version of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred on our shelves for quite a while now and it had slowly turned into one of the “I’ll get to it later” books (you can imagine just about how many books I have on that list). Well in the time it took me to not read the prose version, Damian Duffy and John Jennings came out with the graphic novel adaptation which I devoured over two afternoons.
The story follows Dana, an intelligent and brave black woman, and her husband Kevin (who is white). Dana and Kevin live in 1976 and are just moving into their new apartment when Dana is struck by a sudden and intense bout of dizziness. When the feeling subsides, she finds herself rescuing a little red-haired boy named Rufus from drowning. It is the early 1800s and Rufus is the white son of the slave owner Tom Weylin. Later Dana will be called every time Rufus finds himself in life threatening danger (which is quite often). What translates as several months or even years in the past ranges from a few minutes to a few weeks in 1976, adding to Dana’s increasingly paranoid state as she does not know when she will vanish. Dana finds out that Rufus Weylin is an ancestor of hers who had children with a slave named Alice, also one of Dana’s ancestors. As such, Dana is determined to make sure that no permanent harm comes to Rufus and that her existence in the past does not jeopardize her family tree. As Rufus grows older, Dana must contend with the fact that he is a slave owner’s son and that no matter how hard she tries; there are some things she just can’t change about history.
The duo behind this graphic novel is Damian Duffy, the adaptor, and John Jennings, the artist. Both Duffy and Jennings have long worked to promote the work of black artists and as Duffy explains in the blog posts on his website, Kindred is a project that has excited both of them for several years (he’s done an entire set of blog posts on the entire project and they make for a fascinating read at http://damianduffy.net/blog/).
Jennings’s art is rough and kinetic, each panel and figure reflecting the danger and uncertainty of the time while making the emotions of each character almost palpable in their depiction and simultaneously making sure they don’t lose their humanity. I imagine paragraphs in the prose version that may be spent developing Rufus’s character and his moral ambiguity are represented here in uncertain facial expressions and dialogues that convey Rufus and Dana’s hesitance around each other as they both are drawn to being friends while also being kept separate by the inescapable circumstances of pre-Civil War Maryland. Duffy and Jennings’s respect for their source material is evident as Kindred feels like a commendable standalone work, it does not require any prior knowledge of the novel making it justifiably a New York Times bestseller.
Butler’s original novel has had quite an impact on fans of science fiction, people of colour, and those who identify as both, as evidenced by Nnedi Okorafor’s introduction which helps us place the original text in terms of its importance. It gave black people a voice in a genre where they were unused to seeing themselves or their stories and allowed others to dream that they too could write like this while also highlighting a dark period in American history. That the story is sad and the ending inevitable goes without saying, it is impossible to imagine Dana escaping the past unscathed. However, this invitation to revisit the horrors of slavery and the terrible acts humans inflicted on each other is unfortunately as pertinent an issue today in Pakistan as it is in America and this graphic novel thus becomes one we must all pay attention to, regardless of where we find ourselves placed in the world.
A Court Of Thorn and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses #1)- Sarah J. Maas:
“I was not a pet, not a doll, not an animal.
I was a survivor, and I was strong.
I would not be weak, or helpless again
I would not, could not be broken. Tamed.”
This series breathes new life into the YA genre thanks to the introduction of Feyre. While some YA heroines seem doomed to a fate of ‘being fixed’ (read: controlled) by unnaturally good looking males, only feeling liberated when they levitate some knives or do some magic, Feyre subverts these notions. She is not a character that is strong from the beginning; instead she goes through an amazing arc and emerges a strong, empowered woman. The story winds up fast, in typical Maas fashion, and flies through twists and turns. The characters and their dynamic are fantastic and as a reader you will find yourself roaring with laughter at their antics.
An Ember in The Ashes (An Ember in The Ashes#1)-Sabaa Tahir
“The field of battle is my temple.
The swordpoint is my priest.
The dance of death is my prayer.
The killing blow is my release.”
Freedom will come at a heavy cost. Laia is a slave and spy and Elias is a soldier and neither is operating on their own free will. When the brutal world causes the two to meet, their stories unwind and join together, tighter and tighter. Love and loss shatter them and make them question the very different beliefs that they have grown up with. No one can be trusted- no one should be trusted. Key players in this story do not reveal themselves until the shocking end.
A love story that doesn’t overpower the plot or make you gag, earnest and sincere characters, hard choices and dumb decisions- this book is guaranteed to resonate with you. When I first read it, I was on vacation, and to the chagrin of my mother I could not put it down. Irresistible is the word for this brilliant story.
Six of Crows (Six of Crows #1)-Leigh Bardugo
“I’m a business man,” he’d told her. “No more, no less.”
“You’re a thief, Kaz.”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
A testament to the brilliance of this book is that I spent a good 15 minutes choosing between quotes- there are just so many brilliant ones. This book is a YA Ocean’s Eleven, only more brilliant, more magical and with more females. It features a richly imagined story and a DELICIOUS plot (yes, edible adjective level good) – but the true triumph of this story is its characters. It contains a diverse, hilarious and unconventional team comprised of “a convict with a thirst for revenge, a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager, a runaway with a privileged past, a spy known as the Wraith, a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums, and a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.” At times, it had me gasping, laughing and my heart racing. It was phenomenal.
Before this review begins I have a small confession to make: upon the first reading, I didn’t really enjoy How to Talk to Girls at Parties. I found the art distracting, the girls a bit wonky looking and the story too simple to do anything other than just to breeze through. I quickly finished it and sat back thinking ‘Well, that was sweet, but it lacks Gaiman’s usual richness’ (this was me being immensely snobby and pretending to be a fine connoisseur of graphic novels, in case you were wondering).
I logged on to Gaiman’s website and found the original short story that the graphic novel was based on. Here I found the lyricism and rhythm I associate with Gaiman’s work. The way he writes often makes the reader want to read aloud the story and share it with those around them and if you’ve heard enough recordings of Gaiman reading his own work you understand how he would read it out, where he would pause and speed up, with the effect that I often hear his voice in my head when I read his prose. There is a distinction here though; I have never heard Neil Gaiman’s voice when reading his comics (The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch being a notable exception-probably because this seems to me to be one of his most personal graphic novels written).
How to Talk to Girls at Parties won the Locus Award for Best Short Story and one can understand why. It’s adaptation as a graphic novel makes sense as these days it seems all things Gaiman are being put out in various forms whether they’re radio adaptations, digital versions of his more obscure work in the form of the Humble Bundle, or graphic novels (speaking of which, I’m sure that soon we’ll be hearing about a graphic adaption of “I, Cthulhu”, also on his website, soon).
The story’s premise itself is simple enough: two young boys accidentally end up at the wrong party, meet odd girls and escape before they end up being irrevocably changed.
After enjoying the short story (also known as actually reading the words, something I may have skimmed when I first picked up the graphic novel), I revisited Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s version of it and found it much more enjoyable the second time round. Their use of watercolours adds a tint to each page that is both somber and soft; there is a hint of menace and immense possibility in the wishy-washy sky as Enn and Vic walk to the party. Each set of pages has an overall colour tinting it, from light green to pale yellow to reds and purples that warm the pages, suffusing them with a form of nostalgia that is hard to pin down to any one element on the page. The colour permeates the story’s words as well, infusing each of Enn’s encounters with the strange girls at the party, drawing us into the seemingly present moment in which those conversations are taking place while at the same time reminding us that Enn is recounting all this from the future, from his actual present.
The characters are each imperfect and confused about their presence, whether it’s at the party like Enn, or on a wider scale of cosmic misplacement as in the case of the girls. Like all good sci-fi, this short story forces us to consider our position as finite beings on this planet and highlights the lack of communication that bars proper understanding between the sexes, even if it takes this breakdown of communication into a new direction. Enn is the embodiment of anyone who has felt awkward around the opposite sex, worrying about the seemingly innocuous task of simply talking to a girl in order to ‘get’ anywhere with her while Vic is the stereotypically good-looking and confident best friend who tries in his own way to assuage his friend’s fears over talking to girls. Enn’s gripe over how when as children we start in the same way and then the girls suddenly become “in a very real sense, young adults” while the boys get left behind, was a moment that made me chuckle- having sometimes felt older than some of the boys I’ve met in my life myself.
The girls themselves are transient in this story, each obviously odd and yet dropping profound observations about humans that are all too relatable even though they tend to go over Enn’s head. One of my favourite lines is from the second girl Enn meets at the party who despairs over being “embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium”. Who hasn’t had that sort of an existential crisis before (although it may not have been so eloquently stated)? The ending of the graphic novel is a bright crescendo of swirls and rays, of nostalgia and the fantastical future, allowing for the reader to be taken on a cosmic journey along with Enn from the now questionable safety of a human kitchen on Earth.
Though I initially questioned the presentation of this graphic novel I later found myself appreciating Bá and Moon’s illustrations and the subtle clues they had put in about the girls’ otherworldliness in their surroundings. I understood the story’s implications better, suddenly more was at stake upon my second reading and there were more ideas to ponder about including the fragility of human relations, the yearning to be understood, and of course the power of poetry because “you cannot hear a poem without it changing you”. The graphic novel is still an easy read, even the second time round, but it’s a valuable one and I would recommend it to any fan of Neil Gaiman.
The Girls by Emma Cline deviously bases itself on a set of murders that have defined the genre of true crime. The Manson family have occupied us with morbid fascination for up to five decades; every macabre detail has been combed over and repackaged for our ready consumption. But The Girls is not a story about the gore- although it does intersperse the novel out of necessity- it’s a story about the dichotomies that shook America through the murders. The pure evil that found space to blossom during the summer of love, the pretty young things capable of gruesome executions, the untouchable celebrities decimated at the hands of the ordinary, the young innocent minds willing to do the unthinkable.
The Girls is told from the perspective of young, neglected Evie whose angst ridden relationships with her divorced parents accompanied by a sense of adolescent isolation predisposes her to the young women in the novel’s Manson-esque cult.
Attracted to their sexual confidence, fifteen years old Evie strikes up a bond with Suzanna, and slowly begins to mimic her mannerism and dress. Eager for love, escape, and adventure Evie unquestioningly inhales, snorts and drinks her way to acceptance, willingly oblivious to the impending evil.
The Girls is ultimately a tender story of girlhood, how fragile yet clumsy attempts at adulthood are frustrated by boys, parents and men who fear or wish to possess a girl’s burgeoning sexuality. Evie battles the ennui of a middleclass existence through petty crimes committed against her neighbours, and other small infractions lead by Suzanna. Imbued with a sense of exceptionalism by cult leader Russell, Evie begins to overlook the violations to her being, attributing it to an education and the promise of a higher state.
In recognising the subtle manipulations of Evie and her crippling adolescent insecurity, it’s difficult for the reader to question her choices. Rather you find yourself empathising with her as you’re flooded with memories of your own adolescence. My heart ached as the child’s innocence was cruelly stripped away leaving a deeply troubled adult, incapable of believing in herself. Cline’s greatest achievement is how intricately she captured the human condition, leaving- as the blurbs suggest- many celebrated authors enthralled by her talent.
This is a beautiful, poignant novel that will not just transport you to California during the summer of love, but it will place you very firmly in the shoes of Evie for an exhilarating and intense experience you never thought you would understand.